Beltran, Martinez make New York's other team relevant
Posted: Monday January 10, 2005 3:02PM; Updated: Monday January 10, 2005 3:02PM
Remember when Bobby Bonilla was the answer to all the Mets' problems?
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The Mets matter. Yes, they overpaid (again) for an outfielder with a lower career OPS than Richard Hidalgo who really preferred to play elsewhere. Yes, there is a worst-case scenario about Carlos Beltran that should frighten a Mets fan quicker than you can say Bobby Bonilla. But today and through this season, the New York Mets will matter because they have Beltran and Pedro Martinez. And nothing is more important for an entertainment corporation that is entering the television programming business by launching a regional sports cable network in 2006.
Give credit to Mets GM Omar Minaya. He's been bold and he's brought a needed fresh perspective to the ballclub, as evidenced by his cold willingness to boot squatters Al Leiter and John Franco. But don't kid yourself. Minaya came on board one season before the Mets launch their own network. If the Mets had stuck to the same corporate philosophy -- they didn't need Alex Rodriguez or Vladimir Guerrero, for instance -- that brought them 86, 95 and 91 losses the past three seasons nobody would give a whit whether their local cable system carried the team's answer to the YES Network. (Mike DeJean, only on MESS!) Minaya arrived at a time when the Mets had to spend money to make money. The Mets needed buzz, and Martinez and Beltran bring it. They will make the team them interesting and they will make it better.
Make what you will, too, of Minaya's ability to connect with Latin American stars. Minaya himself promised that signing Martinez would spawn a generation of young Latin pitchers who will become Mets, though Martinez spent seven years in Boston and no one has yet shown me all the young Latin pitchers who have been pouring through the Red Sox's pipeline.
Let's be honest, folks. The language Minaya speaks best when it comes to free agents is money. He overbid significantly to sign Martinez, whose preference was to re-sign with Boston, and Beltran, who was begging to play for the Yankees. Throw in Kris Benson, whose $22.5 million, three-year deal blew up the market for middling pitchers, and you can easily make the argument that the three most gross overpayments of the offseason were made by the Mets, the Mets and the Mets. But then, how else do you expect the Mets to attract free agents?
We've lost more games over the past three years than every National League team except Milwaukee and we play in the worst facility in baseball. The dysfunction in our upper management is the stuff of sitcoms. Our decision-making process is influenced by our obsessions with the Yankees and talk radio. Our fans booed Tom Glavine in his first game in a Mets uniform. It's a great place to play!
Is Beltran a $17 million player? No. He does not rank among the top 50 active players in OPS. In addition to Hidalgo, Beltran trails Moises Alou, Ryan Klesko, Rusty Greer and Trot Nixon, to name just a few lesser lights. He has made exactly one All-Star team, finished in the top 10 of MVP voting once, has never led the league in any offensive category and has a career batting average (.284) only slightly better than the park-adjusted league average (.278). Put another way, Beltran's no Lance Berkman:
Then there is the question of whether he is a franchise player or a complementary one. That's the Bonilla mistake. Bonilla chased the money and the Mets were wrong to think he could handle being the center of the team's lineup and universe. Beware the player who takes the New York spotlight without fully craving it. Beltran reportedly wanted to take $19 million less to blend into the Yankees' star system. Now that the Yankees did not make an offer to the best available free agent at a time when they need a center fielder, can we officially declare the labor agreement a success? The Yankees are spreading their tax and TV money all over baseball and the 40 percent tax they face this year kept them on the sideline for Beltran. It did take a $198 million payroll to push them to their limit, but at least we found a limit.
You spend more than $100 million on a player and you should buy yourself certainty. Alas, that has not been in the case. Of the nine previous players signed to nine-figure contracts, five of them have been traded or been qualified busts: Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Mike Hampton, Kevin Brown and Ken Griffey. Only four of them have remained productive for the team that signed them: Derek Jeter, Todd Helton, Albert Pujols and Manny Ramirez -- though the Red Sox tried to give away Ramirez for nothing.
All that understood, Beltran is a smart risk for the Mets and I understand why he was worth $17 million a year to them at this moment. With his body type, age (27) and athleticism, you have to think you're buying the best extended years of his career. While he may not be the gravitational center of the clubhouse, he reminds me of Bernie Williams with his quiet dignity, strength and focus on family and faith. And last time I checked, the Yankees won a few games in October with Williams hitting cleanup and keeping to himself with his guitar in his corner locker.
While Beltran's statistics may not be overwhelming, they will get better -- even at pitcher-friendly Shea Stadium -- as he continues to grow into his power. He is also extraordinarily gifted. He may not be a top 50 OPS guy, but he is among the five best overall players in baseball. (You can also throw Rodriguez, Adrian Beltre, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds in there for starters and commence arguing.) Beltran separates himself from the pack, apart from OPS, because he plays a premium position with above-average skills and may be the game's best baserunner.
The Mets should be excited to know they have Jose Reyes, 21, David Wright, 22, and Beltran -- three players who can be perennial All-Stars and impact players -- together for at least the next five years. That's great, but the impetus for the spending was not the future. It was 2005. The Mets needed to make themselves relevant again to sell their network. They've done that.
Shea Stadium will be rocking with multi-national enthusiasm, especially on those special summer nights when Martinez gets the ball for the Mets. The Mets will be an exciting offensive team with three switch-hitters and fleet baserunners at the top of the lineup: Reyes, Kaz Matsui and Beltran. I don't know if it's championship baseball -- not when the NL East has three other teams worthy of the 90-win neighborhood. But it sounds like must-see TV.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Tom Verducci covers baseball for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.