My wife and I have two cats. One of them, Regan, is older, dignified, with a regal bearing and a sense of entitlement. The other, Mattie, is smaller, scrappier, a bit slow on the uptake and prone to embarrassing gaffes.
Mattie clearly looks at Regan's life as a series of moments from which to learn, which has good and bad aspects. For instance, Mattie has learned how to sit on people without slight noises sending him, claws out, in three directions at once.
Unfortunately, there are other lessons that he has not fully absorbed, like how to hang around the dinner table meowing just insistently enough to get some chicken from his sappy human roommates -- he jumps on the table, and my wife banishes him from the kitchen -- or learned too well, like the fact that a neatly laid out sweater to be worn is the ideal place for a nap.
The Mets can learn much, and should, from my cats.
After world championship No. 27, if you hadn't heard, the Yankees are once again a paragon to which the Mets aspire. And there are aspects of the 2009 Yankees team that the Mets must emulate if they are to reach the top of the baseball world. But just as critically, they must avoid the mistakes that lead to a baseball team getting locked out of the kitchen during dinner.
The first thing about the 2009 Yankees to emulate is making certain the roster is stocked with alternative plans at every turn. The Yankees had exceptional luck with injuries, but were not completely able to avoid them. No team is. So when starting right fielder Xavier Nady went down, they had a tremendous alternative in Nick Swisher. When Damaso Marte struggled with injuries, they had Phil Coke. Chien-Ming Wang gets hurt? Up comes Phil Hughes. Only an injury to Alex Rodriguez left them without a viable alternative -- and no team can truly guard against injuries to all top players. But that Plan B is critical for all your B-level starters.
Notice also that Marte is an example of how the Yankees spent a little for someone who ended up helping a lot. Consider how different the World Series might have been if Marte weren't on the roster. Now he cost three years, $12 million. It's the type of insurance spending that the Yankees routinely make, and that the Mets routinely skip out on. And considering how the Mets fell just a game short of the postseason in both 2007 and 2008, and a game short of the World Series in 2006, going that extra mile sure could have helped.
This can also be absorbed in the evolving lesson of Joba Chamberlain, who -- and this is beyond irritating to Mets fans -- was a 41st pick in the 2006 draft. In other words, someone drafted low and paid above slot. The Mets simply must spend some extra money doing this. It is an investment in the baseball team's future. Think of it like a Minor League stimulus plan.
As for the players the Yankees used to win a championship, note that sprinkled in with the stars were young players from the system who developed at the Major League level -- Melky Cabrera, Brett Gardner, Hughes, Alfredo Aceves, Coke and Chamberlain. None of those players were stars this year, though Hughes and Chamberlain stand a good chance of being stars as soon as next year. They were, however, low-cost, productive players -- ones that allowed the Yankees to spend their payroll advantage far more intelligently, rather than needing to plug every hold with a $5 million investment here or there.
The Mets have a similar opportunity in 2010 with Josh Thole, Ike Davis, Fernando Martinez, Jonathon Niese and Bobby Parnell. (You could throw recently acquired Chris Carter in there as well.) The first two need an especially long look -- all they've done at every level since the 2009 season began is hit like crazy and get promoted. And considering the meager alternatives at catcher and first base, both in-house and on the free agent market, there isn't even much of a short-term cost to be paid, and there is a tremendous long-term benefit.
However, the Mets must not make a pair of potentially costly errors, should they take the 2009 Yankees as a rule to live by. One is the idea that aging players are the new market inefficiency. Yes, the Yankees had six players 35 and older, and they put up OPS+ numbers of 130, 129, 128 and 123, ERA+ of 253 and 107. But this is largely unprecedented in baseball history, and all indications are that even the Yankees don't plan to repeat this template in 2010.
That lesson needs to also be absorbed, specifically. Hideki Matsui must not be a New York Met in 2010. It is tempting to sign the reigning World Series MVP, but consider: the Yankees did not think Matsui's knees could hold up under the strain of three World Series games in the field when the teams traveled to Philadelphia. Can you imagine how much the Mets could expect out of Matsui in a league (thankfully) without a designated hitter?
The Yankees can actually be the template here. After 2007, with Boston riding high from a second championship in four years, the 2007 World Series MVP, Mike Lowell, was on the market. The Yankees refused to overpay for him, and Boston re-signed him to a three-year, $37.5 million deal. Lowell promptly went from a 124 OPS+ in 2007 to a 103 OPS+ in 2008, and slowed by a hip injury, his defense dropped off the table in 2009.
Instead of spending lavish free agent money on B-level talents (Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright) they must spend on A-level talents (CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira). In a free agent market without such A-level talent, the Mets should be restrained.
So it must be with both my cats and the New York baseball teams this winter. And indeed, with proper training, it can even be that the older learns from the younger. Last winter, when my baseball withdrawal was most acute, I trained Mattie to properly play the carom of cat toys off of our front door like a right fielder. Mattie took to it like a Roberto Clemente with paws, while Regan had more of a Bobby Bonilla approach.
Should the Mets absorb the Yankees lessons the right way, they can still claw their way to glory, and leave the Yankees behind to show fans the Bronx.