Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
September 1, 2009
BASEBALL: The Book of Fred
The Lord sat upon His throne, watching - of course - the World Series. Satan came into His presence. And the Lord spoke.
"See My faithful servant, Fred Wilpon? I have allowed you to test him as you said. In 2005, his team fell short of the postseason. In 2006, you took his ace pitcher, sent his heavily favored team into the NLCS with a shoestring pitching rotation, and even after they got agonizingly close, snatched away the World Series at the last possible moment. In 2007, you gave them the most dramatic September collapse in the game's history. This year, you let his hopes get up and then repeated the trick - and for good measure, their hated divisional rivals are about to win the World Series."
"Yet he has remained My good and faithful servant. He spends money to maintain a big-market payroll. He has nearly completed a beautiful new ballpark. As we speak, he is planning yet again to sign a significant free agent to fix his team's largest weakness. Truly, his faith in his team cannot be shaken."
"You're getting cocky again," replied Satan. (The Lord smirked knowingly - He had heard this routine before - but let him continue). "I have more up my sleeve for this season. This time, I will make him lose faith once and for all."
"First, I will take his money. I have faithful servants too, you know. My man Bernie has him set up perfectly."
"Then, I will cast a shadow over his new ballpark. Already, the economy has soured and he won't be able to sell tickets the way a new park should; now, Congressmen will write angry letters; rumors will fly. Oh, I won't have the sponsorship pulled, but he will wonder, and worry, how long that source of money will last."
"Then, the injuries will start..."
Mets fans can perhaps be forgiven for wondering if this season really is a replay of the Book of Job, with owner Fred Wilpon or perhaps the whole of Mets fandom being put to the test by a plague of misfortunes of Biblical proportions. It is difficult to think of a team in the game's history - a history rich with snakebit seasons - that has had quite so dramatic a run of injuries to nearly every one of its front-line stars.
The ill omens, as mentioned, began with money: it was revealed before the season that Wilpon had lost a significant sum of money in the Bernard Madoff fraud (Wilpon won't say how much but has denied reports that it was $700 million), and just when his personal finances were called into question, the $20 million-a-year naming-rights deal for Citi Field came under scrutiny from Congresspersons wondering where the bailout money given to Citigroup was being spent, and paying little mind to the fact that the point of the sponsorship deal was - as is generally the case when banks sponsor ballparks - precisely to advertise Citi's financial stability and status as an unshakeable pillar of the community. In the end, the naming-rights flap seems to have passed, but it contributed to the souring of what should have been a grand opening for Citi Field.
That storm passed, but the portents grew worse as the season approached. Oliver Perez, signed in the offseason to what looked like a bargain 3-year, $36 million contract, was never right from the time he arrived for spring training; his velocity was off early, and that led to more tentative pitching and more struggles with his always-shaky control. Still, heartbreak requires hope, and Mets fans were given plenty of hope this spring. The team's main weakness, the bullpen, had been fortified by the addition of a prime closer, 27-year-old Francisco Rodriguez, coming off a Major League record 62-save season, and a second prime closer, JJ Putz, to act as K-Rod's setup man. Yes, K-Rod's K rate had been dropping for a few years and Putz had had injury problems, and former ace closer Billy Wagner wasn't expected to join them until September at the earliest, but there was every reason to believe that the pen would be vastly improved. Second baseman Luis Castillo, another weak link, came to camp in his best shape in years. The team looked like it would have enough holes plugged around its core of stars - K-Rod, Johan Santana, David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado - that it could make a serious run at the Phillies. And despite a rough April, the Mets got off to a decent start; as late as May 29, they were in first place and on pace to win 93 games.
But the drip of injuries had already set in; they came early and often to the Mets' battery of stars, and have never let up:
-Carlos Delgado, batting .298/.393/.521 and erasing memories of 2008's terrible start, last played on May 10, down with a hip injury.
-Jose Reyes was injured May 15 in the midst of a 12-for-27 tear reminiscent of his annual late-spring hot streak, and has not played since May 20, having torn a hamstring in the minors rehabbing the calf injury that originally sidelined him. The mishandling of Reyes, along with last year's botched management of Ryan Church's concussions, is one of the prime reasons why the Mets' medical staff has become the laughingstock of the game.
-JJ Putz has been out of service since June 4 with a bum elbow; Putz had been ailing for weeks, with a 1.29 ERA through April 18, 6.45 after that as his arm unraveled.
-John Maine, whose shoulder has proven unable to handle the workload of a starting pitcher, hasn't pitched since June 6, and last threw 100 pitches on May 19.
-Carlos Beltran, batting .336/.425/.527 and carrying the team along with David Wright, went down on June 21 with a knee injury.
-Wright, batting .349/.435/.504 when Beltran went out, proved less able to carry the whole load alone, hitting .287/.384/.414 until he was beaned on August 15, suffering a concussion of his own.
-Johan Santana called it a season on August 20, opting for surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow.
-Oliver Perez' season ended to knee surgery on August 23 (Perez was off the roster between May 3 and July 18, due to ineffectiveness and injuries, and has been useless since spring training).
All had been expected to be key contributors; all but Wright, whose return is imminent, are either out for the season or at best highly questionable to return in addition to having their performance degraded by injuries.
Even the replacements brought in couldn't stay healthy:
-Scrap-heap find Fernando Nieve was a revelation as a substitute starter, posting a 2.95 ERA; Nieve tore a quadricep running the bases on July 19 and hasn't pitched since.
-Top pitching prospect Jon Niese was called up to stay on July 25; three starts into his introduction to the rotation, he tore a hamstring covering first base on August 5 and was done for the season.
-Top hitting prospect Fernando Martinez, already struggling at a .176/.242/.275 clip after being pressed into service when Beltran and Ryan Church hit the DL in May, was sent to the DL July 9 with a knee injury and has not returned.
-Utility infielders Alex Cora and Ramon Martinez both appear to be done for the season. Cora, who was holding his own with an OBP above .350 as late as July 2, was never supposed to be an everyday player for this team; he went down for the year with a torn thumb ligament on August 12. Martinez played his 12th and final game of the season June 2 before hitting the 60-day DL with a fractured pinkie.
There have been other injuries as well, with Castillo spraining an ankle tripping on the dugout steps and Gary Sheffield missing time with hamstring troubles, plus Church, plus starting catcher Brian Schneider was sidelined from April 15 to May 30 and has contributed nothing since his return, batting .189/.272/.318 on the season. Jeff Francouer, acquired from the Braves for Church and hitting better than he has in years, tore his thumb but is playing through it. (Wagner and Angel Pagan had also opened the season out of service, but those were expected.)
There have also been a few disappointments not directly related to injuries. Daniel Murphy, a third base prospect who batted an encouraging .313/.397/.473 in a 49-game trial last year, was a defensive disaster in left field and, since being moved to first to replace Delgado, has been one of the worst everyday bats in the game. Even a recent hot streak - Murphy has batted .297/.329/.464 since July 25 - has been all singles and doubles, not really a sign that he's developing the skills you'd need to make a living as an everyday corner outfielder or first baseman. Hard-throwing reliever Bobby Parnell struggled after a promising start, and has been shelled after being pressed into service as a starter. Mike Pelfrey, who pitched wonderfully last season, has seen his walk rate regress from 2.4 in his last 24 starts last season to 3.4 this year, his ERA balloon to 4.80; while a good deal of that is the deterioration of the infield defense without Reyes (to which the groundball-dependent Pelfrey is unusually vulnerable), it also reflects his narrow margin for error when not throwing first-pitch strikes. Pelfrey went seven innings in 12 of his last 24 starts last year, averaging 6.27 IP/start - this year, he's gone seven innings just 8 times in 25 starts and averaged 5.85 IP/start, adding to the strain on the bullpen.
When this team wasn't losing players, of course, it has lost games in agonizing fashion. Two endings stand out. On June 12, against the Hated Yankees, K-Rod induced what should have been a game-ending popup from Alex Rodriguez, only to see Castillo drop it; the Mets lost 9-8 (the game is also emblematic of the Yankees' season, as despite relatively subpar performance by A-Rod, the team has gone 64-32 in games he started after struggling in his absence). On August 23, against the bitter rival Phillies, Francouer managed to line into only the second game-ending unassisted triple play in Major League history with the tying runs on base; another loss, 9-7.
Time will tell how the franchise rebounds from this staggering run of ill luck. The Mets rebounded from a disastrous 1972 to steal a pennant, and they won 100 games in 1988 after losing their top 7 starting pitchers in a dispiriting run in 1987. But the 1988 team was absurdly deep in talent. This team probably needs to jettison Delgado (on the heels of cutting Wagner and Livan Hernandez loose) and get younger, and it has many holes to fill even if all the walking wounded return; the starting rotation is now full of question marks, and there are few causes for confidence in the lineup besides Wright, Beltran and Reyes (assuming Reyes returns from what may be offseason hamstring surgery).
As for Wilpon, he's insisting now that he intends to keep the team regardless of his Madoff losses, because he's emotionally invested and wants to leave the team to his son. That's a plausible explanation, and surely the team is still profitable enough to maintain as a stand-alone business, but then if Wilpon really does need to sell, he has every reason not to reveal any financial straits he might be in.
Job, after being put to the test, is finally rewarded for his faith with a new family and new sources of wealth and joy. Mets fans can only hope for the same reward in 2010 and beyond.