It’s easy to forget that the New York Yankees are world champions today in large part because they didn’t make the playoffs last season.
The Yankees finished third in the AL East in 2008, behind the upstart Tampa Bay Rays and their arch-rival Boston Red Sox. They weren’t a bad team – 89 wins in a division featuring the league champions and the wild card winner is nothing to be ashamed of. The 2008 team simply wasn’t good enough by the franchise’s lofty standards.
It was the first time since the doomed 1994 season that the Yankees stayed home in October – and they didn’t take it lightly.
The Yankees went out and bought the two best pitchers on the market – CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett – and paid them a combined $30.5 million to pitch for them in 2009. Sabathia is an ace in every sense of the world; durable, effective and he can pitch on three days’ rest without crawling into the fetal position in fright. Burnett is more inconsistent, but has an electric fastball/breaking ball combination that can dominate any lineup in baseball when his stuff is working.
Not content with shoring up their starting rotation, the Yankees also went out and bought the best position player on the market – first baseman Mark Teixeira. They also traded spare parts for outfielder Nick Swisher, who fell out of favor with the White Sox after a .219/.332/.410 line two seasons into a five-year, $26.75 million deal. Swisher was hurt by an absurdly low .249 BABIP, which suggested he was due to rebound in 2009. That’s exactly what happened; Swisher put up an .249/.371/.498 line with 29 home runs and has proven to be a good fit on the field and in the clubhouse.
Sabathia, Teixeira and Swisher all have something in common besides their hefty price tag – they are all under the age of 30, which suggests that each player in still the prime of his career. Burnett is 32 and a veteran of 11 major league seasons; he was the grand old man of the Yankees' free agent class. Only Swisher could be considered a “risk” coming off a bad season – the other three were stars in 2008 and there was no reason to believe they would regress any time soon.
This very long lead-in has a specific purpose – to compare how the Yankees responded to missing the playoffs in 2008 with the road the Mets chose to go down instead. The Yankees used their natural financial advantages to fill all of their holes and to create a championship-caliber ballclub. The Mets, on the other hand, superficially patched some of their holes and blatantly ignored others, choosing to rely on hopes and dreams instead of reality.
The starting rotation in 2008 remained unchanged, except for the addition of Livan Hernandez in the fifth spot. Hernandez was actually better than expected; he was merely medicore instead of being outright dreadful. Oliver Perez was re-signed to a three-year deal above the market rate and promptly tanked. Mike Pelfrey was penciled in for a breakout campaign over 2009, even though there was no clear reason to explain why he pitched more effectively in the second half of 2008. John Maine was brought back and it was assumed he would resemble the 2007 model more than the 2008 model. Both Pelfrey and Maine failed to live up to expectations.
The starting lineup remained virtually unchanged as well. The only difference was that Daniel Murphy was handed the left fielder’s job despite having played in only one game above Double-A to that point and having been an infielder for his entire minor-league career.
The graveyards of baseball history are littered with the bones of hot-shot young rookies who make a name for themselves on 200 at-bats only to fade into obscurity afterwards. The Mets chose to believe that Murphy would buck that trend, and passed on the opportunity to give players like Adam Dunn and Bobby Abreu below-market deals so that Murphy could be a starter. Murphy ended the season as the Mets' starting first baseman, putting up Darin Erstad-like numbers at a position where one expects to have a competent hitter.
No, when the time came to build the 2009 Mets, Omar Minaya went the myopic route and declared that the bullpen was the only need to be addressed. The first step was signing Francisco Rodriguez to a multi-year deal to be their closer. This was the Mets' big free agent splash, despite several years of declining peripherals that suggested that K-Rod's best years may be behind him.
He responded in kind, putting up the highest ERA, WHIP and walk rate in his eight-year career. That wasn't all - Rodriguez also had the lowest K/9 rate he's ever had since making the major leagues. On top of it all, he is signed for another two years, with an easily-obtainable option based on games finished that would balloon his salary to $17.5 million in 2012. The idea of paying any closer not named Mariano Rivera that much money to finish games is absurd to the point of hysteria.
Minaya then traded two relievers, a utility outfielder and four minor-leaguers to bring back … two relievers and a utility outfielder. Sean Green and Joe Smith cancelled each other out, just as Jeremy Reed and Endy Chavez did. The deal, then, was essentially Aaron Heilman and four-minor leaguers for JJ Putz, a former closer coming off an arm injury and ineffectiveness the season before.
The temptation to compare the Putz deal to the Swisher deal is obvious, until you realize that the Yankees had a clear reason to expect Swisher to rebound – an unsustainable BABIP that would improve Swisher’s numbers if he simply regressed to the norm. The Mets had no objective reason to believe that Putz’s injuries and ineffectiveness in 2009 would simply cease to be a factor and that he would return to his previously dominant form.
As we know now, Putz was a $5 million bust, contributing just 29.3 innings with a 5.22 ERA and a 1.636 WHIP. He has an $8.6 million option for 2010; the Mets would have to be clinically insane to pick that option up. Meanwhile, here's a look at the minor leaguers they traded:
Mike Carp (23): a .315/.415/.463 line in a cup of coffee with the Seattle Mariners; a .271/.372/.446 line and 15 home runs with Triple-A Tacoma
Ezequiel Carrera (22): a .337/.441/.416 line and 27 stolen bases with Double-A West Tennessee
Jason Vargas (26): a 3-6 record with a 4.91 ERA and a 1.331 WHIP for the Mariners; a 4-3 record with a 3.14 ERA and a 1.219 WHIP for Triple-A Tacoma
Makiel Cleto (20): an 0-4 record with a 5.54 ERA and a 1.923 WHIP in the low minors
The pitchers haven't done much (although Cleto is young enough to bounce back), but the Mets certainly could use bats like Carp and Carrera in a minor-league system that is painfully thin at the upper levels.
The Yankees are world champions today because they didn’t make the playoffs in 2008 and reacted decisively. The Mets are also-rans because they didn’t make the playoffs in 2008 and refused to react decisively. Instead, the Mets acted as though they were merely a few tweaks away from being world champions.
On a day where it’s tough enough just to be a Mets fan, knowing that the difference between the two organizational philosophies led to such disparate results makes it that much more difficult to root for them.