The last three years haven’t been very kind to Mets’ owner Fred Wilpon, so what’s one more bad day?
In a recent profile in The New Yorker, Wilpon’s rise and (at least temporary) fall as a self-made millionaire were chronicled in impressive detail by staff writer Jeffrey Toobin. However, what gained most notoriety were a handful of unflattering remarks that Wilpon made about his own team and several of its players. Although it is a shame that the enlightening profile was overshadowed by a few off-the-cuff remarks, the reality is, if not for his position as owner of the Mets, there likely would not have been a profile in the first place.
In addition to lamenting the overall poor play of his team, Wilpon also had pointed criticisms about several star players. “He won’t get it,” was Wilpon’s assessment of Jose Reyes’ chances at signing a Carl Crawford-like contract, while David Wright was described as “a really good kid; a very good player; not a superstar”. Not exactly the high praise you’d expect from an organization about its homegrown talent.
Perhaps the greatest criticism, however, was reserved for Carlos Beltran, who also happens to be most Mets’ fans favorite whipping boy. After miming Beltran’s flinching strikeout that ended the 2006 NLCS in response to a question about the Mets being cursed, Wilpon went on to call himself a “schmuck” for signing the centerfielder “based on that one series” (a reference to Beltran’s playoff performance in 2004).
The resultant firestorm stemming from the comments was predictable, if not ironic. Anyone who listens to sports talk or reads the tabloids in New York has likely heard all of Wilpon’s statements repeated countless times. Of course, the people spouting them aren’t the owners of the team.
Instead of debating whether Wilpon should have been so forthright, or even whether his assessments were correct (I happen to think he was wrong on all three: Reyes will get Crawford money; Wright is a superstar; and the Beltran signing wasn’t a bad one), I am more intrigued by the suggestion that the Mets are cursed, particularly as it pertains to free agents. After all, Wilpon’s sentiments seem to be shared by the entire fan base, which frequently laments the team’s perceived misfortune in free agency.
So, just how poorly have the Mets done in free agency? In order to address that question, let’s first take a look at the Mets major signings since the advent of free agency in 1976. With a few noted exceptions, this list only contains prominent players who signed as a domestic free agent and had previously spent a year or less with the team. In other words, players re-signing after a longer tenure (e.g., Oliver Perez) or before filing for free agency (e.g., Mike Piazza and John Franco) are excluded.
Prominent Mets’ Free Agent Signings, 1976-2010
*Based on pro-rated figures.
Note: George Foster was acquired via a trade, but his approval was contingent upon signing a new contract. Kazuo Matsui was an international free agent who gained notoriety playing in Japan.
Until 1990, the Mets were pretty much dormant with regard to free agency, and even since then, the organization has been relatively inactive in the market. At first, the team’s reticence to make big money signings was because the start of the new economic system happened to coincide with the death of owner Joan Whitney Payson. As the Payson estate tried to find a buyer for the team, very little emphasis was placed on spending money to improve it. As a result, the only notable signing over the first five years of free agency was Elliott Maddox, who in 1974 had one MVP caliber season playing at Shea Stadium for the Yankees.
When Nelson Doubleday purchased controlling interest of the Mets from the Payson estate in 1980, he vowed to spend money to improve the ballclub, but his initial attempts fell flat. In his first offseason as owner, the Mets signed an aging Rusty Staub after losing out on Dave Winfield, who signed with the rival Yankees. Then, before the 1982 season, the Mets worked out a trade with the Reds for George Foster and promptly signed him to a five-year, $10 million contract, an average salary surpassed only by Winfield.
Both the Staub and Foster signings turned out to be busts, so perhaps that’s why the Mets once again stayed away from free agents for most of the 1980s. Whether intentional or not, that strategy seemed to work as Frank Cashen used a combination of savy trades and steady player development to build one of the National League’s best teams in the latter half of the decade. However, when the 1990s rolled around, the Mets became more active, and from that point forward, some of the team’s most infamous free agents were signed.
Using the “Boon-Bust” criteria noted in the chart above (the lack of historical data relating WAR to salary environment makes an objective assessment impossible), only two of the team’s 22 signings appear to be successes. Based on WAR and total salary paid, John Olerud and Lance Johnson easily standout as the two best free agents in Mets’ history. Olerud’s 18.6 WAR is second only to Beltran’s 30.7 WAR, but he needed four fewer seasons and about $100 million less to do it. Meanwhile, Johnson’s win added per dollar paid ratio is even a shade better than Olerud’s.
Unfortunately for the Mets, there are many more contracts on the negative side of the ledger. Acquisitions like Bobby Bonilla and Vince Coleman in the early 1990s helped the franchise earn the moniker “the worst team money can buy”, but the real dark period in Mets free agency occurred during the following decade.
Although it’s easy to point at recent contracts like the ones given to Jason Bay, Luis Castillo, and Pedro Martinez as the ultimate busts, two ill-fated signings underwhelm more than all the others: Kazuo Matsui and Kevin Appier.
Perhaps in an attempt to match the Yankees’ success with Hideki Matsui, the Mets aggressively pursued a high profile Japanese import of their own. Not only did the team give Matsui a $20 million contract, but the Mets also shifted their most promising young prospect to a different position in order to accommodate him. Getting replacement level value at such a high cost was bad enough, but stunting the development of Jose Reyes added an incalculable opportunity cost.
Even worse than the Matsui signing, however, was the four-year, $42 million contract given to Kevin Appier, who only lasted one season in Flushing. Had the Mets held on to Appier for all four years, it’s possible that the deal wouldn’t have turned out so poorly, but when GM Steve Phillips decided to parlay his costly error into Mo Vaughn, the mistake was further exacerbated. Adding Vaughn’s salary and production, the Mets spent well over $50 million for a WAR of -0.9, making the combined transaction the hands down loser in Mets’ free agent history.
In addition to the limited boons and many busts, the Mets have received solid value from signings like Eddie Murray, Robin Ventura, Cliff Floyd, Tom Glavine and Beltran. On the whole, however, the general perception of the Mets being snake bitten by free agency appears to be true. Then again, it could just as easily be argued that the Mets have been cursed more by the players they’ve failed to sign than the ones they actually did. After all, the Mets have always been rumored to be in the mix for the game’s elite free agents, but somehow always seem to come up short. Perhaps if the organization had gone the extra mile for players like Alex Rodriguez to Vlad Guerrero, its fans and owner alike would be living a more charmed life?