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Building a winner

Minaya's bargain-basement gems fuel powerful Mets

Posted: Wednesday May 30, 2007 11:50AM; Updated: Wednesday May 30, 2007 12:25PM
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Omar Minaya
Mets GM Omar Minaya celebrated an NL East title last September and is well on his way toward repeating the feat in 2007.
Mike Ehrmann/WireImage.com
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Mets general manager Omar Minaya may be the one man in baseball batting 1.000. Minaya is going so good that you start to think every sentence contains a pearl, every game will go his team's way and every acquisition has come to Queens to be a star.

Minaya recently phoned his beleaguered Yankees counterpart, Brian Cashman, to support his friend. Minaya advised Cashman: Stick to what you believe in.

The Mets' GM has his own set of beliefs, and competing GMs would be wise to take notice. He interviewed for at least eight GM jobs before landing one, but once he got the one he wanted, with the Mets -- a matter of miles from where he grew up in Corona, Queens -- he has barely made a misstep. The Mets, 33-17 and suddenly up five games on the rival Braves, look so solid now that they have established themselves as the prohibitive favorite in the National League the year after barely missing out on the World Series (thanks to one errant changeup to light-hitting Yadier Molina).

A lot of the new GMs are Ivy League educated. But Minaya, who has a high school diploma but chose a baseball career over college, is smart enough to knows what he doesn't know. So he leaves the number crunching to a team of anonymous young folks in the front office. Minaya also probably knows talent better than any of the new GMs. He knows talent in scouts, and he knows it in players.

Minaya has made a trio of big-ticket purchases, signing free agents Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran and trading for Carlos Delgado, and all have proved worthwhile. (While Martinez has been out a year, he gave the Mets a great year and a half and brought them needed credibility.) However, Minaya has proved his real worth with the acquisitions that came without notice, players who were second names in trades, minor-league spring invites or small-potato free-agent signings. He has made so many bargain-basement finds that it is obvious who is the greatest Mets bargain. Why of course, it's Minaya, at about $750,000 a year. (He is in the third year of a five-year deal.)

Yet Minaya doesn't grab credit as easily as he imports productive players.

"You're only as good as your scouts," said Minaya, who once was a scout himself.

"Was [a scout] ... and still am," corrected Minaya.

Folks have been saying since last winter that the Mets need another top-flight starter. But their pitching today is better than 28 of 29 other teams (their 3.40 ERA is topped only by San Diego's 3.00). The Mets' makeshift rotation has been among the best in baseball, and the clamoring for new arms is down to a whisper.

Said Minaya, "I'm always look for pitching ... Not a day goes by ..."

Some big names could be available come trade-deadline time, names such as Dontrelle Willis, Carlos Zambrano and Freddy Garcia, three pitchers who've been linked to the Mets via rumor. But there's no guarantee that Minaya will get any of them, no guarantee he'll need any of them.

This winter Minaya's Mets virtually passed on Barry Zito, who'll pitch against them on Wednesday night, and missed on numerous other big-name targets. Yet they still have about the best pitching in baseball, and what's more, they have four pitchers who've been out awhile and should make them even better. Orlando Hernandez has come back. Guillermo Mota is about to return. And Duaner Sanchez and Martinez may also return.

"If everything goes well with Pedro, we're hoping he'll be our trade-deadline acquisition," Minaya said of the greatest pitcher of this generation.

He won't comment on Willis, Zambrano, Willis or Garcia, and it's quite possible he'll find someone else out there, someone who isn't on anyone else's radar. "I like young guys," said Minaya, providing a clue (though he also has more over-40 players on his team than anyone else). "They give you more energy."

Oliver Perez and John Maine are two young guys who ranged from second pieces to afterthoughts when they were acquired. Now they are two of the most vital ingredients on one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. Minaya has a knack all right. He was right in the middle of it when Texas signed Sammy Sosa, Juan Gonzalez, Rich Aurilia and many other stars.

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