Smartbuilding #4: New York Mets | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

Earlier this spring, Hardball Times published a told-you-so / gotcha-genre article with one of Doug Melvin‘s worst public quotes in his tenure as General Manager. The quote is so bad, of course, because of the author’s lead-in and editorializing, but also because it’s so uncharacteristic of a GM that uses both scouting and analytics to make roster and strategical decisions. One of the best responses I saw noted that the quote is best described as Melvin defending his guys, which is ultimately a laudable trait for a GM (until it leads to poor personnel decisions or terrible quotes in the press). The specific issue of Melvin’s affinity for his organizational guys manifests in several different forms, which can be complex. There’s the hire of Bruce Seid (RIP) as scouting director, an internal promotion of a worthy candidate (over other potential front office prospects from other organizations), but there’s also the Ray Montgomery hire (a praiseworthy external candidate who also previously served time with Melvin’s front office). Scooter Gennett and Khris Davis stormed the league in limited playing time a couple years back, ultimately forcing their GM to stick with them to compete. The so-called lack of pitching development has nevertheless led to pitching rotations dominated by Brewers draft-and-develop guys (most notably for 2013, and for 2015). For all the guts Melvin exhibits in making these decisions to trade away other players (like organizational guy Yovani Gallardo) to make way for new talent, sometimes the talent doesn’t measure up.

This is not a criticism of Melvin, but a necessary point of contrast for the latest installment of my “Smartbuilding” series. To update the introduction from the first installment: Since a number of National League clubs reformed their rosters aggressively before 2015, I want to investigate the idea of “smartbuilding:” debate on the “6-4: Now what?” thread, as well as the Lucroy & Gomez trade discussion,  helped me understand the sense of “rebuilding” among our core readers. One commenter effectively argued that “rebuilding” is different from a “firesale;” across the board, including the most recent podcast, the idea among Brewers fans is that President & GM Doug Melvin should make the best trades possible regardless of the “rebuilding” or “competing” moniker. So, “smartbuilding” is something like this: the Brewers are (a) in a position where trades are arguably necessary due to their bad start, which means (b) the club has a great opportunity to shed inefficiencies or contracts, in order to (c) quickly retool the outlook of the club. Some have expressed dismay at the idea of a Houston Astros-esque teardown, and I’d like to second Ryan Topp’s argument that the Brewers are in a better position than the Astros at the time of their necessary teardown. The New York Mets are an interesting example of a club that completely contrasted the aggressive 2014-2015 MLB offseason with the final piece in their four-year “slow build”: the Mets signed free agent Michael Cuddyer, so their rebuilding project must analyzed for a viable alternative to the “roster teardown.” Instead, the Mets successfully used a front-office rebuild to install a process that they could trust over several years.

Smartbuilding #1: Atlanta Braves
Smartbuilding #2: Contending & Prospect Windows
Smartbuilding #3: Trading Lucroy & Gomez

Front Office
Unlike the Braves installment, a description of the Mets’ offseason and building strategies will not focus on transactions. In fact, counting back to the 2012-2013 offseason, I counted approximately 12 “moderate-to-major” transactions produced by the Mets front office (compare that to at least 18 notable transactions by the Braves last offseason alone). GM Sandy Alderson traded knuckleballer R.A. Dickey to Toronto in a move that netted a couple of key players for the 2015 Mets core (and beyond). Aside from that ace move, the Mets office is much more clandestine, which means that investigating the front office personnel is even more important. How did the Mets (so quietly) build such a competitive organization?

First and foremost, after an abrupt fall from their 2006 National League Championship Series loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, which included a couple of disappointing competitive seasons before a total decline, the Mets fired Omar Minaya and hired Sandy Alderson. Alderson was previously an MLB executive with experience in the commissioner’s office, as well as serving as a top executive officer for the San Diego Padres (not to mention his role with the Oakland Athletics). From this set of experience, Alderson obviously saw the game from many angles, which undoubtedly helped him focus on building talent in the Dominican Republic, as well as producing a solid front office, farm system, and drafting approach. Alderson has attributed some of the Mets’ draft approach to circumstances rather than intention, but one way or the other, the Mets focused on high-ceiling prospects, while refusing to sign free agents that forced them to surrender draft picks (until the 2014-2015 offseason).

(As an aside, thinking of the Brewers’ potential executive structure post-Melvin, one wonders whether Alderson’s diverse experience throughout multiple executive roles is instructive for the Brewers. In this case, where debate rang over recent GM-candidate Kim Ng‘s scouting pedigree, her acumen as an MLB executive in other areas is undeniable. A radical front office shift to a Chief Baseball Operator / President / Baseball Operations structure could allow the Brewers to (a) keep Ray Montgomery’s talents for scouting, (b) while also promoting him to a full executive role in the organization (a promotion from Vice President), and (c) adding some of the best executive talent in the game to work with the team’s overall vision and day-to-day transactions. Here, executives ranging from John Mozeliak (who has made some open-ended statements about his executive desires / future plans), or even Dan Duquette, might be candidates for an “executive promotion.” Obviously, there are specific ways these tasks can be divided up, but one should not exclude a potential scenario in which the Brewers maintain Montgomery and other elements of the scouting department while also externally improving their front office. More simply, the options shouldn’t simply be “destroy the whole front office” or “keep everything as it is.” There are many shades of gray the Brewers can paint with to design their best possible organizational plan).

Secondly, once Alderson was in place in New York, he made a set of hires that formed a one of the game’s underrated superstar front offices (which is ironic, given the Mets’ position in the largest media market). While many baseball fans focused on the trio of talent that formed the Chicago Cubs’ front office rebuild, Alderson snagged (over a couple of years) Paul DePodesta and Tommy Tanous. Ironically, Tanous has ties to the Brewers organization, as a bona fide member of the “Jack Zduriencik Tree,” which he discussed in 2013:

Yeah, there’s quite a few scouting directors now who worked under Jack.

Yeah, it’s quite a tree. Jack had myself, he had Bruce Seid (Brewers scouting director), he had Bobby Heck (former Astros scouting director), Tommy Allison (former Diamondbacks scouting director), Ric Wilson (Angels scouting director). Ray Montgomery (Diamondbacks scouting director) came after I left, but Tom McNamara (Mariners scouting director) and I worked together. It was kind of a scouting director mini school, I guess.

DePodesta, on the other hand, has a higher “superstar” profile due to his appearance in Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, but aside from the hype he’s quite an executive in his own right (he could arguably serve as the Mets’ GM!). Both DePodesta and Alderson shared time in San Diego, and the Mets GM hired DePodesta as Vice President, Player Development & Amateur Scouting.

Together, this front office trio shows one of the most underrated aspects of a rebuilding process: hiring the right people, and allowing them to assemble an effective staff, is an excellent way to build a steady, improving ballclub. While the Mets lack extreme transactions that make great headlines, their front office quietly assembled one of the best farm systems in the MLB. By focusing on every possible angle for talent, and allowing that talent to take its course, the Mets suddenly have a chance to contend in 2015 while calling up a number of talented (and highly ranked) prospects. While Brewers clamor for a rebuild, it is justifiable in some sense to demand a new set of eyes to design the front office; this makes the Ray Montgomery hire arguably more important than, say, the Yovani Gallardo trade, in terms of roster rebuilding. In fact, one could argue that the Brewers rebuild is already well on its way with the Montgomery hire and his first draft performance; of course, it’s more difficult to look at front office process-building and pinpoint key changes than it is to look at big trades and size up the prospects returned.

Core Development / Transactions
One of the most difficult areas of analyzing the Mets’ roster is their rather consistent core over the last few years. I saw that this is a difficult area of analysis because one cannot simply point to several major call-ups or transactions that suddenly shift the club from “rebuilding” to “contender.” During the Alderson campaign, the Mets have made a nearly unending series of minor league transactions or organization depth moves, but this entire list seemingly exhausts their “major transactions” through the beginning of the 2015 season:

Transactions Surrender Receive Note
Free Agent n/a Mike Nickeas
Trade Brandon Hicks
Trade Kyle Lobstein cash
Trade J. Thole / M. Nickeas / R.A. Dickey J. Bucks / N. Syndergaard / T. d’Arnaud / W. Becerra Syndergaard 2015 BA #11 / d’Arnaud four years Top 40
Minor Free Agent n/a Marlon Byrd
Trade C. Cowgill J. Marte
Trade M. Byrd D. Herrera / V. Black Herrera reached 2015 BA #46
Trade Seth Rosin cash
Waivers n/a Ryan Reid
Free Agent n/a Shaun Marcum
Free Agent n/a Michael Cuddyer
Trade Gonzalez Germen Cash

Alderson and his front office exemplify the fact that a range of trades can produce value. From Marlon Byrd, the Mets organization landed a prospect in Dilson Herrera that surged in development and streaked into the BaseballAmerica Top 100. The R.A. Dickey trade is almost unbelievable when one writes it out: the Mets traded a knuckleball veteran turning 37-years old that required less than $9 million in compensation for a couple of phenomenal seasons, and they received a set of prospects that garnered almost universal praise atop minor league ranks. They accomplished all of this with nothing more than a 2013 option as leverage. The Dickey trade must be one of MLB’s all-time “sell-high” deals, and Brewers fans should remember the trade when they feel reluctant about the idea of any particular Brewers player being traded away during the coming rebuild. One must analyze a player’s performance, value, and the potential return, in order to make a decision about a trade; for a club that could have simply picked up Dickey’s 2013 option, the Mets made about as precise a trade assessment as they could have.

This is perhaps why the Mets were not widely regarded as a contender enter 2015, or why so many in the national media are expressing surprise at the Mets’ competitive start to the year. Even some of their recognizable trades, such as the Ike Davis, simply gave the club the chance to settle a “depth” issue and shift internal players around, rather than add an entirely new 1B to the organization.

Position 2012 2013 2014 2015
C J. Thole J. Buck T. d’Arnaud K. Plawecki
1B I. Davis I. Davis L. Duda L. Duda
2B D. Murphy D. Murphy D. Murphy D. Murphy (DL)
3B D. Wright D. Wright D. Wright E. Campbell
SS R. Tejada O. Quintanilla R. Tejada W. Flores
LF J. Bay E. Young Jr E. Young Kr. M. Cuddyer
CF A. Torres J. Lagares J. Lagares J. Lagares
RF L. Duda M. Byrd C. Granderson C. Granderson
Bench S. Hairston (OF) L. Duda (UT) C. Young (OF) R. Tejada (IF)
Bench K. Nieuwenhuis (OF) R. Tejada (SS) W. Flores (IF) K. Nieuwenhuis (OF)
Bench M. Baxter (RF) J. Satin (1B) E. Campbell (UT) J. Mayberry Jr. (UT)
Bench J. Valdespin (UT) J. Turner (IF) A. Recker (C) A. Recker (C)
Bench R. Cedeno (MI) A. Brown (OF) M. den Dekker (OF) D. Wright (DL)
Bench J. Turner (IF) M. Baxter (OF) B. Abreu (RF) D. Herrera (IF)
Bench A. Recker (C) T. d’Arnaud
SP R.A. Dickey M. Harvey J. deGrom M. Harvey
SP J. Niese D. Gee J. Niese J. Niese
SP J. Santana Z. Wheeler Z. Wheeler J. deGrom
SP C. Young J. Niese B. Colon B. Colon
SP D. Gee J. Hefner D. Gee N. Syndergaard
SP J. Hefner S. Marcum D. Matsuzaka D. Gee
SP M. Harvey C. Torres
Closer F. Francisco B. Parnell J. Mejia J. Familia
RP B. Parnell L. Hawkins C. Torres C. Torres
RP R. Ramirez S. Rice J. Familia A. Torres
RP J. Rauch E. Goeddel

The Mets also have maintained a consistent rotation core, so much so that 3/5 of their major 2015 starters were a part of the rotation as early as 2012. Matt Harvey returning to the rotation after Tommy John surgery is the equivalent of a major transaction for the club (they gain back an impact starting pitcher), and the club also opted to promote highly regarded prospect Noah Syndergaard instead of signing a veteran. If this does not seem that radical a move for a competitive club, consider what fellow middle-of-the-road NL club San Diego did during the offseason; imagine that instead of signing James Shields, the Padres simply designed a promotion plan for Matt Wisler or Max Fried (both now in Atlanta) or Joe Ross (now in Washington).

The Padres overhauled their front office and aggressively rebuilt the roster, which may have simply been the result of a new team of eyes overlooking the system. Whatever the case may be, the Mets’ plan should be viewed as radical because they slowly cooked a contender and stuck with their own guys to amplify the final steps of that plan (such as moving from “middle of the pack” to “contender” in 2015). That the club has had growing pains in 2015 should not be viewed as an argument against their plan, for the same issues can be raised with the Padres, or even a more obvious contender like the Washington Nationals. It is difficult to know the details of the Mets’ plan without access to their front office, but if one were a fly on the wall, one might suspect that the Mets developed a new process with their star front office and trusted in that plan.

Doug Melvin’s mistake was not necessarily having too much faith in his own guys, or even his organization’s own process, but perhaps not building the “right” process to produce star players (a rough series of drafts can really hurt a system, and it is undeniable that the Brewers suffered this fate in recent years). However, one can point to the Montgomery hire, the 2014 draft “theory,” and even the 2015 draft (already) as signs that the process may be turned around and a redevelopment of the front office could be internal, rather than external. Now that the Brewers have improved the ranks of the farm system, fans must ask, “What would a full, external front office rebuild accomplish?” Which prospects would be traded away? As much as it is always easy for fans to clamor for the obvious rebuilding forum of public trades and the recognizable results those trades allow for analysis, fans also must think about the baseball process within their organization, and how that process plays out from the front office to the farm to the field.

Thus, let the Mets rebuild be a model of front office stability, determination, and even star power: by hiring the right executives, and allowing that core team to develop their plan, the Mets are in phenomenal position: their team on the field is getting better, even contending, while their farm system remains highly regarded (BaseballAmerica ranked it #4), and they still have a massive set of serviceable roster pieces and prospects to eventually make the decision about a series of win-now trades. Instead of expending their resources to get to the point of contention, the Mets are contending and now have the privilege of making decisions about who to trade (and who to keep). This is a luxury that clearly results from their ability to trust the process from 2012-present, and stay the course through a couple of rough seasons to receive the payoff. From this process, no one will be criticizing Alderson and company for keeping “their guys” in the organization, which us a lesson the Brewers must incorporate into their organizational strategy.

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