When I observe this year's Winter Meetings, a paraphrase of Robert Kennedy comes to mind. Some people see contracts being signed and say, "Why not the Mets?" I see contracts not being signed by the Mets and say, "Thank God."
I know there's a fair amount of frustration among the fan base, and I understand it. It seems counter-intuitive, after suffering through the collapses of 2007 and 2008, the injury-marred 2009, and the decidedly mediocre 2010, to have a new regime come in and promptly-preach patience.
But let's just leave aside the payroll limitations Sandy Alderson and company are working with in 2011, and pretend the Mets had plenty of money to spend. Which free agent seems like a great fit for the Mets?
Let's start at the top. The opening bid --not the one that will win him --for Cliff Lee was reportedly five years, $120 million. So had the Mets been willing to sign Lee for that money, they'd owe $24 million for a pitcher's age 32-36 seasons. Sure, Lee isn't just any pitcher. But the overwhelming likelihood is they'd be paying peak ace-level money for Lee's decline phase. Incidentally, since that was merely the opening bid, and multiple other teams are involved, bet there's at least a sixth year tacked on when Lee finally signs.
Or perhaps getting Jayson Werth to patrol right field at Citi Field is more your speed -- for the next seven years, at 18 million dollars per season. For that money, the Mets would have received a player who topped 140 games twice in his career, turns 32 early in the 2011 season, has seen his defense deteriorate already -- and would still be making $18 million by his age-38 season. As far as I can tell, all the Nationals did was create a counterweight to the expected low-cost, high-production seasons they soon expect from Bryce Harper.
The final member of the elite trio of free agents is Carl Crawford, who has yet to sign, but is expected to receive comparable years and money to Werth. Crawford is two years younger, which is good, but trails Werth in OPS+ over the past four seasons, 131-115, which isn't good. In other words, Werth could quickly decline to Crawford levels-but Crawford, entering his age-30 seasons, is likely to begin his decline phase as well. Add in the amount of Crawford's value tied up in speed/defense-two skills that don't tend to age well-and a Werth-like deal doesn't seem like a good fit, either.
So if the elite players on the market aren't elite-merely getting paid like it-what of the second-tier guys?
Would you have paid $12.5 million for the age 32-35 seasons of Victor Martinez? His defense is already inferior to incumbent Josh Thole, who will make virtually nothing next year, and the decline from a 121 career OPS+ is likely to look remarkably similar to the steps forward Thole takes from his career 101 OPS+ through age 24.
What about Adam Dunn? He's been a tremendous hitter, and the Mets missed out on a bargain when they neglected to sign him to the two-year, $20 million contract that just ended with Washington. But for four years, $56 million, the Mets would have a lumbering first baseman's age 31-34 seasons. Again, decline phase from 141 OPS+ with awful defense is going to look similar, if not inferior, to Ike Davis' steps forward from a 116 OPS+ with great defense over the next four years-his age 24-27 seasons.
So seriously, where's that money going to help the Mets, not merely for 2011, but without hamstringing them for years to come? Jorge De La Rosa and his three-year, $32 million contract? He's pitched more than 130 innings once in his career-with an ERA+ that season of 108-and is turning 30 in April. You want to give similar money and years to Carl Pavano and his 4.8 per nine strikeout rate? Or perhaps two years and $22 million for the age 34-35 seasons of decidedly ordinary Aubrey Huff are more your speed.
Well, they aren't mine. So seeing the Mets miss out on all these Hanukkah presents is just fine by me, knowing as we do that they all probably have lead in them.
I think it is worth realizing, however, that next offseason won't necessarily be much different. Alderson has spoken about his unease over signing second-generation long-term deals-in other words, signing the guy someone else developed for six years at age 30, rather than the guy your team developed for six years at age 24. So if the Mets are merely average in 2011 -- and the likelihood is that's what they'll be -- the hue and cry to make a big splash will be overwhelming next offseason, with the increased pressure of an extra year of relative failure and many of the crippling contracts off the books.
The problem is, with so many teams in baseball signing their developed stars early (see Tulowitzki, Troy for the latest example), the free agent gift box could again be filled with misfit toys. Just remember: when Alderson stays away again next year, he's not compromising the team's ability to compete. He's making sustainable success possible.