Wednesday, January 30, 2008

I'm Fine With Santana Signing With the Mets, But the Twins Got Fleeced

Everyone who knows I'm a lifelong, die-hard Yankee fan has checked in with me to make sure I'm not suicidal. After all, the dreaded New York Mets, one of my two most-hated sports franchises (the New York Rangers is the other), landed Johan Santana, the best starter in baseball. But the widespread outpouring of compassion is unnecessary. I'm fine. Shouldn't I be angry? Well, sure, but not why you think. I'm fine with the Mets landing Santana.

By the end of the winter meetings, it was pretty clear that only three teams had an interest in swapping top prospects for the right to give Santana a contract roughly equal in value to the gross national product of several third-world countries: The Yankees, Mets and Boston Red Sox. I realized at that point that of the three options, the Mets landing Santana was the best scenario for the Yankees. After all, I didn't want the Red Sox adding the powerful lefty to a stellar rotation that already includes Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling and Disuke Matsuzaka. And I certainly did not want the Yankees to give up Phil Hughes, who showed in the cauldron of a New York post-season against the Indians in the playoffs last year that he had the makings to be a star who can perform in the clutch (unlike, say, the league's most valuable player, who happens to play third base for the Bombers), along with the starting center fielder (Melky Cabrera), a top prospect (Jeff Marquez) and another mid-level prospect to be named. While I wasn't excited about Santana dominating overmatched batters in Queens, I liked the idea of the lefty plying his trade in the other league. The Mets were the least odious option of the three.

But, truth be told, I am pissed about the deal, but not because of where Santana wound up. What kills me is that the Mets got Santana for next to nothing. Where the Yanks were offering a potential number one starter with major league experience, a major league center fielder, a solid prospect, and a mid-level prospect, and the Red Sox had made available either a budding superstar pitcher (Jon Lester) or a budding superstar center fielder (Jacoby Ellsbury), both of whom performed well in the post-season last year, along with another top pitching prospect and a minor league shortstop who was Major League ready, the Mets offered two mid-level pitching prospects, an 18-year-old pitcher with a high ceiling and no guarantees, and a center fielder that, at best, will be an above average starter. At best. We're not talking four potential All-Stars here. The Twins' haul consisted of three possibly functional Major Leaguers and one young kid who could be great, or who could never make it past AA.

I don't care so much that the Mets got Santana, it's that they landed him without it hurting. The Mets held on to their best minor league prospect, outfielder Fernando Martinez, as well as their only young starting pitcher with some major league games under his belt, Mike Pelfrey (even if he was less than successful with the big club last season). Word is that the Red Sox didn't really want Santana, they only wanted to make sure the Yankees paid as much as possible for him if they landed him. Too bad there wasn't a fourth team involved to run up the price for the Mets.

Another thing that bugs me about the trade is the media's reaction to it (or lack thereof). The Twins have a rookie general manager, Bill Smith, and he was clearly fleeced, like a rookie base runner being picked off by a wily starting pitcher. At the time of the winter meetings in December, Smith had on the table the Yankee package centered around Hughes and Cabrera and the Red Sox packages revolving around Lester or Ellsbury. In those heady days for the Twins, word was that they didn't think much of the Mets' prospects, a thought echoed by baseball officials around the league. But Smith decided to wait, gambling that the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, and the unpredictable nature of the Steinbrenners, would ignite a bidding war that would land him either Ellsbury and Lester, or Ian Kennedy along with Hughes and Cabrera.

It was a colossal error in judgment. Sure, in 2002, 2003 or 2004, you could see George Steinbrenner going mental and offering half the farm system for Santana. Or, you could see the Sox panicking and giving away the store to get the two-time Cy Young Award winner. Unfortunately for Smith, there doesn't appear to be a calendar in the Twins' executive offices. You see, in 2004, and again in 2007, the Red Sox won the World Series. As you might imagine, this kind of takes the edge off of making rash moves when you've proven you can win it all, especially as you glance over at your depth chart and see Beckett, Schilling, Matsuzaka and Lester penciled in. Meanwhile, over in the Bronx, after the 2005 and 2006 off-seasons, general manager Brian Cashman flexed the authority he contractually wrangled from George Steinbrenner and put an end to the rash moves of the earlier part of the decade. Cashman concentrated on building up the farm system and avoided overpaying free agents, limiting his acquisitions to the low risk in years and dollars for Johnny Damon before the 2006 season and bringing back former Yankee Andy Pettitte for two years before the 2007 season. (Of course, the Yankees brought in Clemens in 2007 for a ton of money, but it was only for one year and only after a string of injuries to the pitching staff.)

Even with Hank Steinbrenner taking over after the 2007 season and showing a love of shooting off his mouth, the Yankees did not deviate from their new philosophy. The team splashed out big money contracts, but only for their own players (Abreu, Posada and Rivera, and after a soap opera, Alex Rodriguez). I don't think any serious baseball man thought the Yankees would give up Kennedy, Hughes and Cabrera for Santana.

But Bill Smith did. And what happened? The Yanks pulled Hughes off the table, the Red Sox pulled back, as well, and Smith was left with one crappy suitor for his all-world lefthander, who everyone in North and South America knew he had to move. Pick your analogy. If Smith was a poker player, he folded with a pair of aces and went all-in on an off-suit six-seven. If he was a stock trader, he let the market run to 150 before selling at 25. However you want to look at it, Smith botched the most important decision the Twins had for this year, and maybe for their foreseeable future. Instead of having Phil Hughes or Jon Lester at the front of their rotation, or Jacoby Elllsbury or Melky Cabrera patrolling center field, they'll have a lot of hopes and prayers that a bunch of mediocre prospects surprise some people and have decent Major League careers. Smith was as bad for the Twins as George W. Bush has been for the United States.

But the Twins are beloved by the media, the small-market, low-revenue, low-budget team that has been able to make consistent trips to the post-season despite their financial limitations. It would be blasphemy to say something bad about these lovable overachievers, right? But the Twins' success was built on the smart talent evaluations and market savvy of longtime general manager Terry Ryan. Ryan retired to a life as a super scout towards the end of last season, leaving Smith in the big chair to make the big decisions. Why couldn't the media just say, "The kid blew it." Instead there was a lot of silence, and a lot of excuses.

As a lowly blogger, I'll say what the sports writers for the newspapers and major websites apparently don't have the guts to say: Smith made a colossal miscalculation that, if not worthy of his immediate dismissal, at least should have him lose his authority in the front office until he better learns his craft. If I owned the club, Smith's possessions would be in a box by the curb right now. This was nothing short of a debacle for the Twins, and nobody is talking about it.

So I'm fine with the Mets getting Santana. I just wish it hurt more, and I wish sportswriters took Smith to task for blowing the deal. After all, if the Twins fans can't see Santana pitch anymore, at least they should have the catharsis of joining in a national recognition of how badly the club got screwed. I'm here for you Twins fans. I'll be the first to say it. Smith should be fired! If he does get canned (never happen, but go with me), I hope for his sake, he finds someone else to negotiate his exit package. If he does it himself, he'll probably end up owing the Twins money.