The New York Mets were only in contention for much of this season owing to the weakness of their…
Foundation? Not Anymore
In numerous articles and on-air chats with sports talk show shots around Gotham, I've defended the drafting record of Gary LaRocque, the patience of Jim Duquette, and the vision of Jeff Wilpon. Jose Reyes, David Wright, Scott Kazmir, Matt Peterson, and Justin Huber were eventually going to major parts of the foundation of a Mets team that would be competitive for years to come. Just be patient they said, we have a plan. Wilpon and Duquette's efforts, spending days at each level of the minor league cities, detailing the abilities and deficiencies of each prospect, and all the time, preaching the "plan". "Next year is a key for these kids," Wilpon told me last summer at KeySpan Park, a day after the St. Lucie Mets, led by Wright, Kazmir, and Peterson won the Florida State League championship. "That's when we'll find out whose for real." So far, so good. July Though Reyes misses most of the first half of the season battling injuries, is brilliant when healthy. Despite an ill-advised move to second base to accommodate the defensively impaired (but progressing offensively) Japanese import Kaz Matsui at shortstop, the kid from the Dominican Republic with the dazzling smile is a joy to watch. Wright, after hitting over .300 at AA and AAA this season, is struggling in his first stint at the major league level, but so's the whole lineup. His defense is slick, and has an All-Star quality that's easy to discern. Huber, just recently promoted to AAA-Norfolk, hit .271 in 70 games with the B-Mets, slamming 11 homers, 33 RBI's, 44 runs scored, and 16 doubles. One of the top catching prospects in the minor leagues is getting closer. Then there's the pitchers, the gems of the once-barren farm system. During spring training, keeping the "core" together is the plan, especially Kazmir and Peterson, whose talent is obvious and whose success as a two-headed top of the Mets' future rotation isn't far off. Double-A Binghamton skipper Ken Oberkfell, agrees. "They're both so mature." Oberkfell said. "I've had them both before, and I'm excited to have them again this season. They know exactly how to go about their business on the mound." Lowering the payroll, not going after high-priced players, the Mets are going to build around youth. Then "the plan" is to add talent as the core matures. The whispers start early, only noticed by the most ardent of Mets fans, many of which were overjoyed at the new direction the club is taking. "Questionable makeup" says one tabloid scribe of Kazmir, who suffered an abdominal injury taking fly balls early in the spring. "Mets are down on him." "Peterson off to a slow start in his first season of AA," says another. Savvy of those writers, determining a prospect's worth _ or lack thereof_ without watching a single inning of the youngsters' starts to support their statements. Still, carefully placed little leaks start showing up in the media as the big club is playing .500 ball in a weak NL East. Then the rumors start to churn, despite the spring comments of majority owner Fred Wilpon. Reyes for Alfonso Soriano? "No Way, Jose" says Fred Wilpon. What about Kazmir? "(Scott's) not going anywhere," says Fred Wilpon. Unbeknownst to Mets' fans, the braintrust, according to sources close to the situation, spends the first few months of the season determining just how to dismantle its blooming system for a "run" at the division title. Apparently spearheaded by "superscout" Al Goldis, other team's front offices start to learn that perhaps the crown jewels can be had. Meantime, back in June, the Mets put together a multi-million dollar buyout of the team's TV package with Cablevision. Apparently, Fred Wilpon's desire for a TV network of his takes precedent over the possible signing of All-Star and AL MVP candidate Vladimir Guererro, who is offered an incentive-laden contract that doesn't even receive a counteroffer from the slugger. "Obviously, the type of player he is with just his baseball ability, he's a fit in our plan," Duquette said. "It was just a matter of what we were willing to guarantee." His words, or Fred Wilpon's? Steve Phillips said A-Rod was a 24-1 player, no thanks he's not worth it. Vlad's back is risky, not worth it, says the Duke. Same theme, different mouthpiece. Still, no problem, many Mets' fan say, we've got a future, let's get'em up here. Ty Wigginton has a nice little run, Mike Cameron, after a terrible start, is hitting the ball, and Mets are staying in the NL East race despite an overworked, misused bullpen squanders numerous solid outings by Tom Glavine, Al Leiter and Steve Trachsel. A nice little season to build on for next year, Amazin' fans say. Some pitchers will be available in free agency, like Carl Pavano and Kris Benson, as well as outfielders like Magglio Ordonez. The kids are progressing well, and though the Atlanta Braves are starting to pull away in the race, it's okay, Mets will be a better team in 2005. Then, for some inexplicable reason, on July 30th, the New York Mets all but gut the core, ripping the heart out of its minor league system. First, sending Huber to Kansas City for a prospect, which was used along with Wigginton and Peterson for Kris Benson, while Kazmir and Jose Diaz _ he of the 98-mph heater _ were shipped to the D'Rays for Victor Zambrano. Kazmir, New York's first round pick in 2002, paraded at Shea Stadium in a Mets uniform shortly after signing his first pro contract later that summer., will wear a different uniform when he makes his MLB debut. "I think we're getting one of the fine left-handed pitching prospects in baseball. I won't be surprised if he's not here come September," Tampa Bay general manager Chuck LaMar told the Associated Press. Peterson, a second-round pick in 2000, whose progress from promising pitcher to highly-touted right-hander, may get to the majors when rosters expand as well. Touted as Mike Piazza's eventual replacement, Huber will head to the Olympics in a few weeks, and should find his way to the majors next season. The eternal optimist, Duquette says these deals will be worth the price. "We're getting younger and transforming our roster that a year ago or two years ago was one of the oldest in baseball," Duquette said. "Both of these pitchers are 29 years old, they still have a lot of mileage ahead of them, pitching-wise." Nine games out after Sunday's 6-5 defeat to the Braves, it's highly unlikely that this deal will have any impact on this season. It also all but removes the possibilty of 2001 first round pick Aaron Heilman getting a chance to break in the rotation after a strong second half. One thing is for certain, the "daring" trade will either be one of the smartest (Ed Hearn for David Cone, Calvin Schraldi and John Christenson for Bobby Ojeda), or the dumbest (too many to recount) moves this franchise has ever made. Bsed on Fred Wilpon's track record, the latter is more probable than the former, and sadly for Mets fans, another setback in hopes of building a strong foundation form years to come.
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