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Mets are in a sorry state of affairs

Leave aside the image of a shirtless executive challenging minor leaguers to fist fights, or a general manager accusing a good reporter of being out for a job running the farm system, or rumors that the team's owners will soon be seen on what's left of the Bowery shaking tin cups. What matters about the New York Mets is that, Sunday's sound 4-1 (RECAP | BOX) beating dealt to Chicago Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano notwithstanding, right now they're the kind of bad that drives people to drink. If they were a band, they'd be Creed; if they were a food, they'd be tripe soup; if they were a gesture, they'd be a lazy, lazy slouch. Few have seen their like.

On their annual visit to Chicago this weekend, for example, the Mets lineup counted one player good enough to start for a championship team. That player, Luis Castillo, hits for so little power and plays such shoddy defense -- on Sunday he managed to reprise the season's most infamous play by botching two pop flies in shallow right field -- that he's barely useful even when getting on base more than 40 percent of the time. Smart fans wanted him released last winter. He's now the team anchor.

This is horrifying in its way, but of course the Mets' disabled list is currently populated by players earning salaries of about $87 million this year, comparable to the payroll of the St. Louis Cardinals and greater than those San Francisco Giants, Colorado Rockies and Texas Rangers. The Mets' four best hitters, their three best starting pitchers, their top reliever, and their top hitting and pitching prospects are all injured, and even if this is in part because of bad management and bad medical care, you can still forgive them a bad lineup, or even three.

What was really appalling was that Castillo was joined not by limited but useful players forced into roles beyond their talent, but by one of the stranger collections of broken toys you'll ever see on a major league field. The number three and four spots in the lineup were taken by Daniel Murphy and Jeff Francoeur --pinch-hitters who can't hit. The five spot was taken by Jeremy Reed, a defensive specialist who isn't an especially good fielder, and Cory Sullivan, a bad defensive outfielder who hits like Castillo without the on-base skills. And all three games in the Cubs series were started by middle relievers. You really wonder how this team would do against the Sacramento River Cats.

The problem isn't that these players shouldn't be playing -- someone has to take the field, and this is who the Mets have. The problem is that they were on the team to begin with. Except for Bobby Parnell, who pitched on Saturday and, for a third straight game, showed that as a starting prospect he makes a very good relief prospect, none of these players are of any conceivable use. And yet aside from Francoeur and Friday starter Pat Misch, all began the year with the Mets. It's almost as if general manager Omar Minaya has no idea at all what he's doing.

What might (or might not) soothe the nerves of Mets fans, though, is that this team was probably fated never to do anything at all, even if it hadn't lost four MVP-type players and a Cy Young candidate. Teams structured like the Mets -- the reigning world champion Philadelphia Phillies, for one -- have done well in the past and will do well in the future. But they rarely do quite as well as they should. The injury plague, with the attendant spectacle of Francoeur batting cleanup, is a MacGuffin.

The Mets are a stars-and-scrubs team. Like the late 1950s Milwaukee Braves (who had Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn), the late 1990s Seattle Mariners (Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson and Edgar Martinez) or even the Minnesota Twins of a few years ago (Johan Santana, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan), this team is built on the premise that its best players are so transcendently good that it essentially doesn't matter who plays with them and backs them up. A team like this will typically have a strong minor star like Joe Adcock or Jay Buhner or Carlos Delgado, a strong-willed manager and truly terrible players in key roles.

Why any team would ever be built like this is an interesting question -- after all, there is a lot of advantage to be had in making sure that your lesser players aren't actively bad, and no general manager is so dumb or inept that he doesn't realize this. The obvious reason is that star players suck up a lot of cash, leaving less money to fill out the rest of the roster. Another reason is that it can actually be useful to have a lot of C-grade talent around; if someone like Reed or Sullivan gets hot, you ride him, and if he doesn't, it's no big deal.

Structurally, though, this puts immense pressure on management already under stress because they have a team with lots of great players and are expected to win a championship. And this is a key reason why organizations set up like this tend to bleed talent. (Think of the Mets giving away players like Brian Bannister, Heath Bell and Jeff Keppinger, or the Mariners losing Jason Varitek, Derek Lowe and Mike Hampton.) Another is that the kind of headstrong manager you need to manage a lot of star players with big egos is the kind liable to run useful players off because he doesn't like the cut of their jib.

Put together a team that's built around iffy secondary talent and a structure that's -- if anything -- not built to accommodate it and you get messes like the Lou Piniella Mariners or the Mets of the last few years. In this reading, the Mets' problems, grotesque as they've become because of injuries, are inherent and built deeply into their structure. To change and succeed they'd have to build an entirely different kind of team, one with less concentration of cash and talent. Perhaps they'd have to trade David Wright or Jose Reyes. They'd certainly have to be something other than what they are.

That, though, doesn't seem likely at all. For decades now the Mets have operated on a boom-and-bust cycle under management with sketchy lines of authority. This has gone on under enough different regimes that one suspects it has less to do with Minaya and field manager Jerry Manuel or any of their predecessors than with the one constant over this time: the same Wilpon family that everyone expects to see wheeling hot dog carts down the street in exchange for hard currency any day now. They're the ones who brought Mets fans Frank Tanana and Anthony Young, Jeff Duncan and Jason Phillips, Cory Sullivan and Jeremy Reed, and they're probably the ones who will have to go if this team is to put on something other than a hideous parody of winning baseball. For now, Murphy will continue to hit third.