COMMENTARY | About 66 million years ago, dinosaurs roamed the Earth. These magnificent creatures came in all different shapes and sizes, were mostly carnivores or herbivores, and as suggested by the film "Jurassic Park" would probably not have meshed well with modern-day humans. But due to a dramatic shift in their environmental surroundings, these native animals went extinct.
In 2013, the world potentially faces its next significant phase of extinction: the New York Mets fan. After achieving a franchise-best attendance record of 4,042,045 during the 2008 season, attendance has dramatically fallen over 29 percent since 2009 (when the team broke ground at Citi Field). And while the front office has promised to field a competitive, farm-built team in the near future, it's conceivable that if the rebuilding efforts in 2013 and 2014 prove to be unsuccessful by 2015, the Mets could enter an "Ice Age" of new fandom.
But the Mets have been bad before. In fact, they've been far worse. Besides the inaugural 1960s, from 1977 to 1980, the Mets lost 382 ballgames -- and if not for the strike in 1981, the team might have averaged 90+ losses through 1983. From a pure loss-column perspective, it was arguably the team's bleakest years.
This depressed period in Mets history is due in part to the team's decision to trade homegrown ace Tom Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds on June 15, 1977. Then-chairman and minority owner M. Donald Grant had poor foresight about the future of free agency, which was still in its infancy. Grant's inability to understand the value of players -- especially one like Seaver -- resulted in the Mets parting with not only a beloved player but also a quite valuable one, too.
As infuriatingly conservative and thick as the Mets' front office and ownership was, their ineptitude was at least earnest. As Whitey Herzog once stated, "[M. Donald Grant] didn't know beans about baseball but thought he did."
The current Wilpon regime, however, is a horse of a different color.
"Most fans don't believe in the Wilpons' repeated public assertions that the Madoff mess isn't impacting the team's operations," said Greg Hanlon, a writer and beat reporter for Capital New York. "The common perception is that ownership is struggling to stay solvent, and that fielding a winning team is a distant secondary priority."
The Wilpons' insistence on being financially sound, despite their involvement with the biggest Ponzi scheme in United States history is perplexing and unanimously dishonest.
Like the Seaver trade, the current Mets organization witnessed Jose Reyes, a player of similar fan and production appeal, slip away. Supposedly concerned about Reyes' injury history, the Mets stood idle while one of their cornerstone players signed a six-year, $106 million deal with the division rival Miami Marlins.
This "non-prohibitive dollar amount," as Hanlon put it, left a bad taste in most fans' mouths. Without a suitable Plan B at shortstop in Ruben Tejada, the Mets had a difficult time selling fringe fans on a Reyes-less product. And their first Reyes-less season, marred by 88 losses, was a bad one. As Jeffrey Paternostro, a writer for SB Nation's Amazin' Avenue, astutely said: "The only worse sin in New York City than losing is losing cheap."
Perhaps the most bewildering decision wasn't necessarily not re-signing Reyes, but rather not acquiring prime young talent in exchange for him -- like the team did with Carlos Beltran and R.A. Dickey. If the Mets knew they couldn't afford Reyes after the season -- or just didn't want him -- why hold on to such a valuable trade commodity and belittle fans into thinking there would be an extension on the table? And even if Kevin Plawecki, whom the Mets selected with their Reyes draft compensation, pans out, fans would be right to wonder if Alderson could have acquired another Zack Wheeler-type, pulling St. Louis Cardinals top outfield prospect Oscar Taveras, for instance. Unfortunately, fans will never know.
As a result of the Wilpons' dwindling finances, the Mets brand has suffered tremendously. "You will always have the diehards but the casual fan won't come and you won't attract the next generation," said radio personality Mike Silva.
Simply put, a continuously losing team doesn't attract the bandwagon fans needed to keep the stadium packed. Fingering the country's bad economy might be a weak argument, too, thinks Howard Megdal, author of "Wilpon's Folly" and writer for Capital New York. "The Mets have been giving tickets away, and still not drawing right now," Megdal said. "The Phillies have been selling out right into the teeth of the Great Recession. [The poor attendance] isn't a product of the economy."
The Mets' status as a perennially losing franchise is only a recent stigma. As agonizing as the infamous Carlos Beltran-looking strikeout in 2006 as well as the late-season demises in 2007 and 2008 were, the team isn't that far removed from being a competitive franchise. Other organizations like the Toronto Blue Jays, Kansas City Royals, Pittsburgh Pirates, and -- until last season -- Baltimore Orioles, haven't made the playoffs in decades. Some of those franchises have gone long stretches without even winning seasons.
But as close as the Mets were to becoming a consistent playoff contender, they fell short -- and into a rut.
"Stars left the team and nobody replaced them," said Greg Prince, author of the book and blog "Faith and Fear in Flushing." "The Mets brought their fans to the precipice in 2006 […], 2007 and 2008 […] but there isn't quite that link [now] to the less-invested New Yorker."
The Mets are no longer just one or two players away from competing like they might have been five seasons ago, but their inability to spend money could be seen as a blessing in disguise. Considering even the better Mets teams from 2006 to 2008 were mostly built from free agency, their current "small market" approach has forced the organization to build from within -- a strategy that is universally successful, and yet has been absent from Flushing since the 1980s.
But fans can sometimes have selective memories, opines Matthew Meyers, a senior editor at ESPN.
"Fans seem to be angry because the Madoff mess is preventing the Wilpons from spending money on free agents like they used to. However, they conveniently forget that spending on free agents has never been the Mets' problem," Meyers said. "Rather, it was the inability to produce even average major leaguers [from within] to support the core of Wright, Reyes and Carlos Beltran that led to disappointing [years]."
The hope is that, once the Mets can afford a good free agent, they'll actually spend their money wisely. The list of poor free agent signings is comically long, and the last thing the organization and its fans needs is another Jason Bay or Oliver Perez fiasco.
Yet not all fans are gung-ho about rebuilding. Even though Forbes contributor Tom Watson feels the fan base "has seen too many 'big ticket' arms [like Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson] fail in New York [before]," to Sandy Alderson's credit, the organization has retooled its farm with high shelf-pitching talent like Zack Wheeler, Noah Syndergaard, Rafael Montero, and Michael Fulmer in a very short period of time.
It's conceivable that by mid-2014, the Mets could sport a completely homegrown -- and low-cost -- rotation of Matt Harvey, Jonathon Niese, Wheeler, Syndergaard, and Montero. The Mets' young pitcher depth is typified by how Fulmer could eventually make Niese, who will earn a combined $16 million from 2015 to 2016, expendable by 2015.
As exciting as the above rotation could be, the Mets obviously aren't the only major-league franchise building a farm system.
"The one thing which can get easily forgotten in the Mets' plan for long-term success is other teams have their own plans as well," said Michael Baron, a contributor to MetsBlog.
"The Mets' farm system has made large improvements under Alderson, but most of the names you hear are still prospects," said Paternostro. "[The Nationals] have [already] turned their prospects into above-average major leaguers. They have a young core comparable to the mid-'90s [New York] Yankees."
To Paternostro's point, the Nationals' boast homegrown starters like Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, and Drew Storen -- all of which have excelled at the major-league level. The Nats' knack for quickly developing top-tier players has also enabled them to fill holes with quality veterans, like Gio Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano, Jayson Werth, Denard Span, Dan Haren, and Adam LaRoche. The Mets' major-league roster pales in comparison.
Pitching depth aside, the biggest issue with the Mets' farm system is offense. Alderson has begun to address this void, most notably by acquiring Travis d'Arnaud, who will likely be the team's catcher by midseason -- but the rest of the team's hitting prospects are too young or raw to genuinely be penciled in for the future. With first-round picks Brandon Nimmo, Gavin Cecchini, and, most recently, Dominic Smith all years away from making a difference, the Mets will have to hope Lucas Duda, Ike Davis, Ruben Tejada, and even Wilmer Flores can at least be league-average producers in the interim.
Regardless, if you're a patient Mets fan, it's hard to argue with the front office's pitching-heavy focus.
Ted Berg, a sportswriter for USA Today, agrees.
"I think the Mets' plan is to stockpile enough young talent that they're prepared for some guys to disappoint," Berg said.
Considering major league teams spent over $750 million collectively this past offseason on free-agent pitchers, perhaps the Mets' plan is a prudent one.
With their pitching depth, the Mets could look to adopt the 2010 World Series champion San Francisco Giants' winning formula of leveraging top-tier pitching to compensate for league-average hitting. In 2010, Giants hitters ranked 17th in OPS (.729), 17th in runs (697), and 10th in home runs (162) -- but, luckily, the pitchers dominated.
Behind dynamite performances from Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Jonathan Sanchez, Madison Bumgarner, Brian Wilson, and Sergio Romo -- all homegrown talent -- Giants pitchers combined for a 3.36 ERA (1st), 1331 strikeouts (1st), a .236 batting-average against (1st), and a 1.27 WHIP (tied for 4th). The 2012 World Series champion Giants, too, while not built as extreme in its disparities, depended on consistently above average pitching. Apparently, pitching does win.
Even if the likes of Duda, Davis, Tejada, and Flores contribute, the Mets still cannot continue to place the sole run production duties on the shoulders of David Wright. Especially as Wright creeps into his early-30s, he'll need some outside-the-organization help. But some writers have faith.
"[One has to think that] at some point, the financials should allow [the Mets] to supplement with free agents," said Eno Sarris, a writer for FanGraphs.
Sarris' conviction actually received a little support from Sandy Alderson himself in a recent interview with New York Post columnist Joel Sherman. Alderson claimed that, with all the contracts coming off the books at season's end, the Mets could have between $35-45 million to spend in the offseason.
To-be free agent Shin-Soo Choo, who will likely command between $15-18 million per season, would instantly kill two birds with one stone, as the slugger is also a bona fide outfielder to boot. The 30-year-old Choo plays all three outfield positions competently, with the corners being his defensive strength.
Signing Choo is a necessity for the Mets. In addition to him becoming a second offensive weapon to Wright, Choo would also provide a new-found sense of momentum for fans -- perhaps the same kind the Mets gained by acquiring Gary Carter prior to the 1985 season.
"The thing [Gary] Carter brought was momentum," said Prince. "The Mets had improved in 1984 and Carter's acquisition told New York that it wasn't a fluke, that ownership was serious."
Granted, the 1984 Mets did win 90 games -- but with the recent, increasing trend of teams extending their top players, the Mets' fate might rest in the hands of a single, big-name acquisition. Adding Choo or trading for another player of similar caliber doesn't guarantee the Mets will be a winning ballclub in 2014, but at the very least it might help win back some of the disenchanted fans that the Wilpons alienated along the way.
"Fans want to see a winning team," said die-hard Mets fan Matt Kaufman. "Or at least a team they think can win."
Ben Berkon is a freelance sports, humor, and tech writer/blogger from New York City. Berkon's work has been featured on The Huffington Post, The Onion, Contently, Medium, and Rising Apple, and he also manages The Beanball and Blah Blah Berkon, his personal stat-heavy baseball and humor blogs, respectively. He's [unfortunately] been a Mets follower his entire life.
Follow him at @BenBerkon.
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