Hot Stove Report: You can't blame the Mets for being cautious

Publish date:

The Mets, their money sweating in vaults, have managed not to do much of anything this winter. They have made some noise about Jason Bay, but so far their biggest play came this weekend, when they followed on the signings of an impressive number of third-string catchers and an obscure Japanese pitcher by luringKelvim Escobar to Flushing. The man has pitched five innings in the last two years. He is the quintessential Met.

Is this proof of the incompetence of widely mocked general manager Omar Minaya, whom one pictures weeping in his office with an open fifth of rotgut on the desk? Hardly. The truth is that if a team that has cash isn't spending, it's likely for sound reasons. One of those reasons would be that there are no really spectacular players on the market other than Matt Holliday, whom Minaya has at least talked about pursuing. Another would be that Holliday, who reportedly received a five-year, $82.5 million offer from the Red Sox and an even bigger one from the Cardinals, seems to want more money than he's worth.

For all the frenzy attending the winter player market, no one can buy what's not for sale. Any club with money to spend would want great players at a tolerable cost. If there are none to be had, so be it. Think of the market as a greasy street at the ash end of Las Vegas at a quarter to five in the morning, and Minaya and his rivals as the sad lot slumping along the sidewalk. Should they really listen to the sharps and touts sidling up to them, making offers? One supposes that they could catch some luck. They could catch something else just as easily. You can't blame anyone for being cautious.

There is a direct correlation between how much time a person has spent in the home clubhouse at Wrigley Field and how obvious they thought it was that the Cubs had to be rid of Milton Bradley at any price. (Considering the feelings of the man on the street on the matter, this is saying something.) I don't claim that having spent time there necessarily gives one special insight into the inner mysteries of, say, how Kosuke Fukudome's game was affected by the irritating and oft-injured Bradley. But it does give you a bit of insight into just why Bradley had to go.

Wrigley Field's home clubhouse is terribly small, so much so that Derrek Lee couldn't lay lengthwise across the floor without having to put either his head or his feet in someone else's locker. The idea of Bradley being confined in this space for several hours a day, near a 66-year-old manager with anger management issues of his own and a demonstrated willingness to chase Bradley from the dugout while cussing at him, is ridiculous. Add in a lot of reporters eager to spend six months asking Bradley and his teammates just what he meant by claiming that there are racists in America's most segregated city, and the idea gets all the more absurd.

One can argue that Lou Piniella should have done a better job protecting his player, or that reporters shouldn't form a gaper's block in front of the catastrophe that is Milton Bradley's public relations strategy. One can argue that Vladimir Nabokov's son shouldn't have published his cringe-inducing final novel. One can argue many things. None of them would have much to do with the reality that bringing Bradley back to Wrigley Field next year would have been locking 24 Cubs in a coffin with a cherry bomb, and that he isn't nearly good enough a player to justify it. Bradley's act is tough enough to deal with anywhere; in a workplace where you catch an elbow in the eye anytime someone answers their cell phone, it's nigh intolerable.

From Seattle's perspective, however, the deal that brought them Bradley in exchange for Carlos Silva and a bit of cash could turn out to be fantastic. Silva is horrid, owner of the worst ERA and lowest strikeout rate in baseball over the past four years. Bradley is, theoretically, the on-base threat that the Mariners badly needed, and they're risking nothing for him. At worst they traded a pile of Enron stock certificates and some cash for a position in Motors Liquidation Company, and for all anyone knows, rain, good beer and a less gristly town will make Bradley a new man.

I had lots of good things to say about last week's trade that brought Javier Vazquez to the Yankees and sent center fielder Melky Cabrera, prospects and, crucially, salary relief to the Braves. (You should also read Tom Tango's pithy explanation of why this was a fair deal.) As a straight baseball move, it was interesting for good reasons. In a broader sense, it was interesting for bad ones. Yankees excess is getting excessive.

As Yankees fans and executives will rightly remind you, when the team adds expensive players like Vazquez, they're not just playing fairly, they're doing so within rules designed to constrain them. Nearly all of the penalties that baseball collects from teams whose payrolls exceed the luxury tax threshold, for example, comes from the Yankees. That doesn't change the fact that they and the Mets have an inherent and unfair advantage over even other teams in huge, rich cities.

According to the measure used by the Office of Management and Budget, the New York metropolitan region numbers about 19 million people. In other words, New York has one MLB team for every 9.5 million people. Chicago, by this measure, has one for every five million people, just as Miami and Atlanta do. Los Angeles has one for every 6.5 million people, as do Dallas and Philadelphia. (This doesn't even take into account New York's vast, inherent wealth.)

As we learned a decade ago, baseball at large is quite willing to jury-rig a silly tax system that only works against the Yankees, because everyone else benefits, be it poor teams getting handouts or rich teams who see the Yankees ever so slightly chastened in their spending. With the collective bargaining agreement coming up for renegotiation, a bad economy and a Yankees team that looks like it will be ferociously good over the next few years even if the likes of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera begin their inevitable decline, it's quite likely that their continued high spending will provoke some new set of ineffectual regulations meant to reign them in a bit.

The better solution would be to place a third team in New York. That would bring the town's population:team ratio down to the level of Los Angeles or Philadelphia, and with the same number of people and dollars chasing more baseball, would quite likely bring Yankee spending down a hair without doing anything punitive or unfair. The main holdup is baseball's archaic territorial rights system, which has also trapped the A's in Oakland when they should really be in San Jose. Anyone who cried foul last week on hearing that the Yankees had snared yet another great player would be far better served writing a letter to the commissioner about how stupid that rights system is than they would be to grouse about it over a beer. The address is: Commissioner Bud Selig, 245 Park Ave., New York, NY 10167.

• The most puzzling move of the week had to be the Angels' signing of reliever Fernando Rodney to a two-year contract. I have a lot of respect for what the Angels have accomplished during the Mike Scioscia era, but Rodney is not a good pitcher. He can throw the ball through the backstop, he's a hulking brute, etc. All granted. What counts is that over the last three years he has thrown 166 2/3 innings with a 4.48 ERA, while the average American League reliever had a 4.21 ERA over that span. If you've ever wondered what theorists mean by "a replacement level player," one who could be replaced by any number of journeymen or Quadruple-A players making the league minimum salary, here's your man. Guaranteeing him $11 million is just bizarre.

• Less puzzling, but still odd, was Oakland's signing of Coco Crisp to a one-year, $5 million deal. I've touted Crisp in this space as a player who, if he plays at his career averages and is healthy -- neither a safe bet -- has a fair shot at being as valuable as Jason Bay this year. The A's, though, have several similar players who are cheaper and younger, and aren't really in position to contend in 2010. For a team such as the White Sox or Mets, who are playing to win now and have gaping holes in the outfield, Crisp would have been a smart play on a contract rich in incentive clauses. For the A's, he seems like fresh coat of paint on a broken-down car.

• The best minor moves of the week came in Washington, which signed average starter Jason Marquis and mediocre reliever Matt Capps for more or less what they're worth: Two years and $15 million for Marquis, one year and $3.5 million for Capps. Maybe this makes for new tires on a rusty old Schwinn fished out of the bottom of your grandfather's trout lake, but the Nationals lost 205 games over the last two seasons and looked for a while as if they were going to make a serious run at the single-season loss record in '09. So long as they're not signing players like this to long-term deals, they need any kind of talent they can lay their hands on. I'll admit to not quite understanding why the Mets wouldn't go after the reliably tolerable Marquis, a New York boy, but as noted, when it comes to this kind of player, you can't blame anyone for being cautious.