Is there a draft in here?
If, while walking across Shea Bridge, you asked the average fan why the Mets are in their current predicament, there’s a good chance the response would include an expletive and the words “Wilpon” and “Madoff.”
More than anything else, the club’s financial constraints, caused by ownership's involvement in the ill-fated Ponzi scheme, are seen as the reasons why the Mets are in midst of what seems like an endless rebuilding cycle.
Problem is, that theory doesn’t hold water. In fact, there is a very simple explanation for why the Mets, for lack of a better word, stink: the amateur draft -- this year's version of which begins Thursday night.
For some reason, fans seem to think that you can build a winning team via free agency. Once upon a time, that may have been true, and the 2009 Yankees, who won the World Series after signing CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira
and A.J. Burnett
, are the last good example.
However, MLB clubs -- both big- and small-market -- are much smarter about locking up their top talent before it hits the market, which means having lots of moolah to spend in the offseason doesn’t really mean that much anymore. Exhibit A is the 2012 Marlins, Exhibit B is the 2012 and 2013 Angels. Both of those teams “won” the offseason with major free-agent signings and have nothing to show for it. In fact, both organizations are in much worse shape today than they were on the final day of the 2011 season.
Since most guys are already past their prime by the time they reach free agency, the only way to acquire elite players is by drafting them, signing them as international free agents or trading for them. (But you need players from the first two groups to do much trading.)
As David Schoenfield noted recently, the last time the Mets drafted a player who appeared in an All-Star Game was Scott Kazmir
, back in 2002. Of course, he didn’t appear in the ASG until after being traded to Tampa Bay for basically nothing. The last player the Mets drafted who appeared in the Midsummer Classic in orange and blue is David Wright
, a supplemental first-rounder in 2001.
Wright’s success is a perfect demonstration of the misunderstanding of the Mets’ woes. See, spending money has never been the Mets’ problem. For years and years the pre-Madoff Mets threw money at free agents, just the wrong ones. In fact, some of the best moves the Mets made in recent years were free agent signings they didn’t make.
The club dodged a bullet when the Giants outbid them for Barry Zito
, and an even larger one when Mike Hampto
n chose Colorado’s dollars over theirs. As a bonus, the Mets received a supplemental draft pick when Hampton signed with the Rockies, which they used to draft Wright, only the most accomplished position player in franchise history.
After Wright, it wasn’t until getting Matt Harvey
in the 2010 that Mets drafted another player who looks like a real cornerstone, while whiffing on first-round picks time and again. (Remember Nathan Vineyard, the Mets’ supplemental first-rounder in 2007? Problaby not, as he only pitched in two games above rookie ball.)
Meanwhile, they wasted dollars on all sorts of free agents who failed to live up to their contracts -- K-Rod, Wagner, Castillo, Alou, Bay, Perez etc
-- while their competitors built from within.
Look at the best teams in the National League -- their foundation came via the draft. The Reds with Votto, Bruce, Bailey and Frazier
. The Cardinals with Molina, Miller, Craig and Jay
. The Braves with Freeman, McCann, Heyward, Simmons, Medlen, Kimbrel and Minor
Yes, these teams have spent money on free agents (or traded prospects for veterans to supplement their rosters), but only did that once they had a foundation built from within. Players' salaries are controlled for the first six years of their career, so if you can develop your own players you have the flexibility to spend when you need to fill a hole or two. And you also have the leverage to sign the best players to below-market long-term deals well in advance of free agency, which the Reds did with Votto and Cards did with Molina.
Look at how the Mets operated for most of the past decade -- they spent a lot more on free agents than any other NL team and have nothing to show for it but one division title and a lot of disappointment. Want to know why they are unwatchable right now? It’s because they went seven years without drafting anyone who resembles an All-Star.
There once was a time when big-market clubs could count on top young players hitting the market in their late 20s, but when you see the Reds and Rays locking up Joey Votto and Evan Longoria, respectively, you know that is no longer the case. To win, you have to build from within, which means drafting well.
So why have the Mets been so bad in the draft over the past decade? It boils down to three reasons.
1. Punting draft picks
The rules regarding free agency and draft picks have changed a bit over the years, but you have always run the risk of forfeiting a draft pick when you sign elite free agents. (Under the new CBA these are players who received a qualifying offer.)
For years the Mets gave away first-round picks to sign free agents, many of whom simply were not worth it. They gave up a first-round pick in 2006 to sign Billy Wagner
, in 2007 for Moises Alou and in 2009 for Francisco Rodriguez.
If you’re giving up top picks you have a much lower chance of adding elite, cost-controlled talent to your organization. It’s one thing if you are adding a perennial All-Star in his prime, but in those instances the Mets gave up top picks for two relievers and a 40-year-old outfielder who played in a total of 102 games over the life of his two-year deal. That’s just bad business.
Fortunately, the Mets seemed to have wised up in this regard. If you recall, they refused to sign Michael Bourn
over the winter because they would have had to sacrifice the No. 11 overall pick to do it. As nice as a player as Bourn is, he would not have made this team a contender, and the player the Mets get at that spot on Thursday is probably going to be much more valuable to the future of the club than Bourn would have been.
2. Going cheap
Oddly, even though the Mets were willing to pay through the nose for free agents such as Wagner, K-Rod
and Jason Bay
, they were among a group of teams that included the White Sox, Padres and Astros that were notorious for their unwillingness to spend big on the draft. For whatever reason -- most assumed it was the Wilpon’s cozy relationship with Bud Selig -- the club frequently refused to significantly exceed MLB’s bonus recommendations.
This often meant missing out on blue-chip talent at the top of the draft as well as players who may have slid due to bonus demands. A perfect example is 2004, when the Mets had the No. 3 overall pick. That year, Jered Weaver
and Stephen Drew
were both seen as two of the top talents in the draft, but both were advised by Scott Boras
and were demanding big bonuses. Many clubs were scared off by their demands -- this is how the Padres ended up taking Matt Bush at No. 1 overall -- and the Mets were no different.
Weaver fell to the Angels at No. 12 and Drew to the Diamondbacks at No. 15 and held out for almost a year before signing just ahead of the 2005 draft for $4 million each. Philip Humber
, whom the Mets took at No. 3, signed for $3 million. That’s a difference of $1 million, or roughly 1/16 of what the Mets are paying Jason Bay not to play for them this year.
Per wins above replacement, Weaver and Drew are the second- and third-most valuable players in that class, trailing only Justin Verlander
, the No. 2 overall pick.
Funny thing is, the Mets did have some success when they went above slot in later rounds, most notably signing Jonathon Niese, a seventh-rounder in 2005, for fourth- or fifth-round money. Of course, his bonus was $175,000, not the kind of dollars that will cause too big of a stir in the commissioner’s office.
The spending issue is somewhat moot under the new CBA, as teams have a spending cap and will incur harsh penalties if they exceed it, but the Mets were one of the only teams willing to play by the old rules, and it cost them.
3. Bad luck
To be fair to previous Mets management, there were a few top picks that didn’t pan out that were probably just bad luck. While Weaver and Drew were considered better prospects, Philip Humber
was far from a reach at No. 3 that year. The same can be said of Lastings Milledge
(No. 12, 2003) and Mike Pelfrey
(No. 9, 2005).
Humber was part of the Johan Santana
trade, Milledge was considered a top prospect until he got to the majors while Pelfrey was a serviceable starter for a couple of years. Of course, when you pick in the top 12 for three straight seasons and have nothing to show for it, that’ll sting. (Santana’s no-hitter was nice, but there’s a strong argument to be made the Mets would be better off now had they not made that trade. They’d have Carlos Gomez, a lot more payroll flexibility and just as many playoff appearances.)
The good news for the Mets is that the draft has been kinder in recent years (Matt Harvey, FTW), and the Sandy Alderson
regime seems focused on building from within. A cynic could say, “what choice does he have,” but the fact of the matter is that teams don’t build World Series winners through free agency anymore. So pay attention to the draft, starting tonight, because the club’s future depends on it.