Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Mets bang for the buck players


June 5, 2007
Bargain-Basement Acquisitions Help Mets Reach the Top

At 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 21, 2005, the office of Commissioner Bud Selig sent an e-mail message to every team in baseball listing 50 players who had become free agents because their teams had not offered them contracts for the next season.

The message included inauspicious players like Joe Dillon, Brian Myrow and Hiram Bocachica. It also included an outfielder named Endy Chávez, who had hit a combined .216 that season with Washington and Philadelphia. In 48 hours, the Mets were congratulating themselves for quickly signing Chávez to a one-year deal worth $500,000.

Eighteen months later, the Mets are still patting themselves on the back, and why shouldn’t they? They are a third of the way through the 2007 season and are just where they hoped to be — with the best record in the National League and a tidy lead over Atlanta in an improved N.L. East. They have been successful by avoiding slumps — they are one of two teams not to lose more than two games in a row this season — by playing standout defense, and in particular, by using Chávez and other bargain acquisitions like infielder Damion Easley and starting pitcher Jorge Sosa to cope with the numerous injuries the team has had.

It is the success of those backup players this year, and for that matter, the standout performances of Chávez and José Valentín last season, that have underlined how savvy General Manger Omar Minaya and his staff have been the past three seasons in making moves that had more to do with scouting and judgment than with the Mets’ considerable financial resources.

To sign Chávez and Valentín, or Easley and Sosa before this season, a blank check was not required. Other teams, even small-market ones, could have tried to grab them. All told, Minaya acquired those four players for about $3.5 million. They are the kind of below-the-radar moves, perhaps more than the expensive signings of Pedro Martínez, Carlos Beltrán and Billy Wagner or the trades for Carlos Delgado and Paul Lo Duca, that have earned Minaya the admiration of his peers.

“Once you have your core guys, you start filling in the other spots,” Minaya said in a recent interview. ”

The Mets’ method for evaluating talent is not much different from that of other teams. But not every team is benefiting from low-cost moves the way the Mets are. A detailed look at two of those signings — Chávez and Easley — is instructive.

In the case of Chávez, the Mets, toward the end of the 2005 season, sought a backup outfielder who would represent a substantial upgrade over Gerald Williams. They liked Jeff DaVanon, who had played with the Los Angeles Angels in 2005, but not as much as Chávez, a natural center fielder who could play all three outfield positions and had the experience of being an everyday player; Chávez played 273 games in 2003 and 2004 in Montreal. The Expos’ general manager at the time was Minaya, who never forgot Chávez’s superb defense and called his agent, Peter Greenberg, a few hours after learning that Philadelphia did not tender Chávez a contract for the 2006 season.

In the Mets’ front office, questions emerged about Chávez’s offensive skills. His reluctance to bunt and take pitches had quickened his departure from Washington during the 2005 season, and he had a loopy swing that did not match his strengths. But the Mets figured that working with the hitting coach Rick Down would eliminate some of his bad habits. “With Endy, not too many stats guys were jumping all over him,” Minaya said. “He’s a scout’s guy, and as a general manager, you’re only as good as your scouts.”

John Ricco, an assistant general manager for the Mets, was hammering out a deal with Chávez when Minaya learned that Baltimore had joined the bidding. The Baltimore third baseman Melvin Mora, who like Chavez is from Venezuela and is one of his close friends, had implored the Orioles to improve their offer. To reinforce his own recruiting pitch, Minaya spoke to Chávez. Their time together in Montreal might have given the Mets an edge. “I’m trying to take care of him because he took care of me,” Chávez said.

Chávez missed nearly three weeks of spring training last season participating in the World Baseball Classic, and Manager Willie Randolph had trouble forming an opinion of him. “We just kept telling him, ‘Trust our scouts, trust our scouts,’ ” Minaya said of Randolph. “And he did.”

Randolph knew much more about Easley, but not as much as the Mets’ vice president for development, Tony Bernazard. After the Mets decided not to re-sign Chris Woodward, their resident backup middle infielder, they pored over the free-agent class for 2007.

As soon as the free-agent signing period began in November, Bernazard, who had known Easley for about 15 years, called him at his home in Arizona. The Mets, he explained, were looking for a right-handed complement to Valentín, who is on the disabled list, and someone who could come off the bench late in a game and hit a fastball. That is something that Easley, with seven homers this season, one short of the team lead, has done with great success. “We wanted someone unselfish,” Bernazard said. “Mr. Easley was very comfortable in that role.”

Easley drew interest from several other teams, including the Yankees, but he said he did not really consider any team but the Mets for two reasons. He had never been to the playoffs, and he felt the Mets had a great chance to get there. The other reason required a little more analysis. He examined how the Mets used Woodward over the past two seasons and figured that he would probably receive similar, if not more, opportunities.

“I knew I wasn’t going to get 500 or 600 plate appearances here, so I started thinking what kind of a difference I would make if I got 200 or 250 at-bats,” Easley said. “And when you sign a guy expecting to get 200 or 250 at-bats from him, you really have to do your homework. I know the Mets did theirs.”

For that matter, the Mets also did their homework with relief pitchers Chad Bradford and Darren Oliver, two acquisitions who greatly benefited the Mets last season for a combined cost of $2 million. Both have moved on, but Chávez, Easley, Sosa and Valentín are all here. Who knows who else Minaya may have his eye on?

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