The Credibility of Winning
Today, as I do almost every day, I was on Twitter, talking to fellow baseball fans. It's October, and the New York Mets have long since closed up shop for the season. This is nothing new, unfortunately. 2013 marks the seventh consecutive season that postseason baseball has moved on without us.
Yesterday, Jose Dariel Abreu, one-time possible Mets free agent target, signed with the Chicago White Sox. He had been scouted heavily by, presumably, all 30 MLB teams. Curiously, the four reported finalists for the Cuban slugger's services were all American League teams. Connecting dots, it could mean he's destined for a life as a designated hitter. Good work if you can get it.
Of course, that didn't stop many from lamenting that the Mets had "missed out" on him. That, somehow, if he becomes a star hitter, the Mets would regret not handing him a contract in the neighborhood of $70 million. This perspective, while not always accurate, unfortunately has become commonplace in the last decade or so of Wilponian Mets rule.
No matter who is running the baseball operations in the front office, or managing the players on the field, the dread of unkept Wilponian promises hangs over this organization like a black cloud. While there's a lot of nuance to the non-signing of Abreu, it always seems to boil down to the same thing: how can Mets fans trust anything this ownership tells us about wanting to compete and put a winning product on the field when they seem to barely have two dimes to rub together?
Let's rewind to the offseason of 2011-12, when a multiple-time All-Star, one of the best at his position, a guy who'd played his entire career with the team that developed him, walked away from that organization, taking a big money contract elsewhere, seemingly for "greener" pastures, leaving his former team with nothing but compensation draft picks.
That's his right, after all. A player who tests the free agent market is well within his rights to eschew loyalty to his former team for the promises of extreme riches with a new team he perceives to be a legitimate World Series contender. It's not his fault that his new team completely tanks. And it's not his former team's fault that they weren't willing to match a contract that they believed was excessive, a contract in years and dollars that only one MLB team out of 30 seemingly was willing to offer.
Those last two paragraphs? Those could easily be describing Albert Pujols, the former Cardinals star who signed a mega-deal with the Angels. Everything surrounding the Mets' "failure" to sign Jose Reyes, who took the money and ran to Miami, is very similar to Pujols' cash-grab with the Angels. There's nothing wrong with Pujols' or Reyes' decision to leave, just as there's nothing wrong with the Cardinals' or Mets' decision to not match those deals.
Unfortunately, the realities of what came next were wildly different.
The Cardinals organization is as healthy an organization as there is in baseball, thanks to stable ownership, continuity with their baseball operations, and an organizational emphasis on player development that's been a staple of their franchise spanning multiple general managers and field managers.
That, quite frankly, is why the Cardinals were able to survive the loss of Pujols, one of the greatest players of his era (or any era) seemingly without missing a beat. They retooled and reloaded with homegrown drafted and developed guys, and they've been in the NLCS back-to-back years without the guy who led them to two championships.
The Mets, on the other hand, only seemed to emphasize player development when the money ran out, and they absolutely HAD to. No longer able to buy expensive band-aids to try to patch up leaks, the Mets' were left barren, with a bottom-10 farm system and very little assets by the time Sandy Alderson took over the baseball operations.
Many Mets fans don't trust Alderson, because at the end of the day, no matter how much he wants to build a winner here in New York, he's still operating with an ever-changing budget, for an ownership that's hard to trust in the Wilpons. The same Wilpons who have let us down year after year after year. How can fans trust the baseball ops when ownership has continually compromised, undermined and sabotaged them?
What hurts is that I don't have the answer to that. Frankly, no one does. We all have the same fear, whether we know it or not, that the Wilpon-ian dysfunction hovering over this organization may be rooted too deep to escape from until there is an ownership change.
The top compensation pick the Cardinals got from losing Pujols turned into Michael Wacha, the 19th pick of the 2012 draft. Wacha, like a typical Cardinal, has already made a major impact in the big leagues, less than 18 months after being selected.
The top compensation pick the Mets got from losing Reyes turned into Kevin Plawecki, the 35th pick of that draft. A legitimate prospect, mind you, who nevertheless won't make an impact at the MLB level until Reyes is likely halfway through his contract, at least.
It's a painful reminder that talk is talk, and even the most well-meaning, smartest baseball men cannot fix a sinking ship with questionable leadership. Alderson is far from the Mets' biggest problem, but he'll likely be just another casualty when it's all said and done.
At the end of the day, there is no substitute for winning. Winning builds credibility. Winning heals the pain of a fan base scorned. The Cardinals win because their organization is healthy and thriving.
Until the Mets get out from under the dark cloud hovering over them, can they get healthy? Can they thrive? These are questions with no immediate answers.
Me? I'm forever the optimist. I really do believe the meticulous process of building from within, developing talent like the Cardinals do, it can work here with the Mets. But it's New York. We're New Yorkers. We're impatient. We want results. We want to win. Not next year, now.
But I think we'll get there, eventually. Patience is a virtue, as frustrating as it is. The farm system has gone from bottom-10 to top-10 under Alderson's watch. Multiple farm teams made their postseasons. One of them won a championship. Eventually, those seeds will grow into strong, productive pieces we can build upon.
We've seen some of those seeds start to sprout already. No matter how high the odds are stacked against us, I think the Mets can overcome even the handicap of this ownership. It won't be easy, but nothing in baseball is.
There's a very real possibility that Alderson will have moved on by the time the fruits of his labor have bloomed. Maybe those who criticize him now will be able to give him his due by then. But no matter what I think about the current state of the Mets, the fact remains: the only thing that's going to build credibility is winning. Period.