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It'll take more than one offseason to fix Mets

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Bob Klapisch

Bob Klapisch covers baseball for The Record in New Jersey and worked at the New York Post and New York Daily News. The author of five books, he was recently voted a top-five columnist in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors.

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Jerry Manuel has enough street-smarts to know he's perilously close to getting fired in 2010 — or if he doesn't, he should take note of the way the Mets have booby-trapped the organization. There are enough managers-in-waiting to rattle even the most clueless incumbent. In just the last two weeks, the volatile Wally Backman was hired at Class-A Brooklyn. The more cerebral Tim Teufel was promoted to Class-AA and Terry Collins, who managed the Astros and Angels a decade ago and interviewed for the Mets' job in 2004, is now the organization's minor league field coordinator. All three represent a clear and present danger to Manuel's job security. Obviously, the Mets' hierarchy isn't holding Manuel solely responsible for a 92-loss season that was sabotaged by injuries. But the apathy and lack of hustle displayed by the players who finished out the year stands as a nagging indictment of Manuel's leadership. Backman, in an interview with the New York Post, fired a thinly-veiled warning shot at Manuel when he complained about, "the way (today's players) run the bases. Some of the lackadaisical styles that you see out there. They wouldn't have survived ... playing in New York in the '80s. The people woulda run 'em out of town." Backman isn't campaigning for Manuel's job, at least not openly. And since his team's season doesn't begin until June, he won't be next in line should Manuel falter. But there's little doubt an anvil hangs over the manager's head as the Mets stagger into 2010. Manuel's chances of surviving would be enhanced if he was given a clear idea of the Mets' business plan: are they intending to challenge the Phillies, or instead taking a slower, longer-range approach towards rebuilding the broken farm system? The fuzzy mandate has similarly handcuffed GM Omar Minaya, who's unsure if he's allowed to pursue Matt Holliday in earnest, push to the front of the line in the Roy Halladay sweepstakes or start developing prospects again, the way the Mets used to in the '80s. In that sense, it's not just Manuel who's failed; Minaya is responsible, too. Six of the Mets' seven minor league affiliates finished with losing records in 2009, and the top-tier clubs at Class-AAA and Class-AA were a combined 61 games under .500. The Mets currently have just one rising star: first baseman Ike Davis, who combined to hit .298 with 31 doubles, three triples, 20 home runs and 71 RBI in 114 games between Class-A and Class-AA. He's a year away from Citi Field, if that, and developing quickly enough to keep the Mets from investing in Carlos Delgado beyond 2010. But Davis aside, the Mets' talent-pool is as thin now as it's ever been — which is to say, they're too top-heavy for any sustained run. One major league official said, "Jeff (Wilpon) forgot how his father (Fred) put this team on the map" by pouring money and resources from the ground up.
But to do that, the Wilpons have to be willing to invest as opposed to just spending. Despite their NL-high $140 million payroll last year, the Mets were less than generous on the next generation. According to Baseball America, the Mets doled out $3.1 million on last June's 35 signed draft picks — the lowest in the majors and a 50 percent drop-off from their 2008 investment. Reigning in costs isn't Minaya's call, of course. That comes from Wilpon, who may or may not have been stripped clean by the Madoff scandal. Initial reports say Sterling Equities, the Wilpons' investment firm, may have lost close to $800 million, although there are conflicting accounts which indicate the Mets actually walked away from Madoff with a small profit. In either scenario, the Mets are unlikely to continue over-paying for free agents in a win-now climate. That philosophy has failed. The Mets haven't been the same since Game 7 of the 2006 NL Championship Series, when they were beaten by a less-talented Cardinals team on its way to the World Series. Minaya keeps spending the Wilpons' money as if the Mets were just a player away. He's just about out of time. The 2009 carnage spoke volumes of the organization's miscalculation: with a gorgeous new stadium, a huge payroll and a big-market stage, the Mets have somehow become irrelevant. Manuel will be the first casualty if the team plays poorly in April and May, but a bigger fix is now in order. Totally eclipsed by the Yankees' enormous shadow, the Mets should use that cover to rebuild in the next 2-3 years. They need to pay their scouts and minor league personnel in a way that makes them an irresistible, forward-directed franchise. Firing Manuel would probably satisfy the cravings of the Mets' fan base, but they'd trade their blood-lust for 2-3 years of patience if they knew Wilpon and Minaya were spending their money wisely. As popular as the Yankees are, there's an entire sub-culture of fans dying to root against them. The Mets once filled that void: they used to be younger and hipper and more fun to watch. They can reclaim that past, but only by admitting 2010 isn't going transform this roster into the Yankees' or the Phillies', even if Holliday or Halladay somehow land in Flushing.
Tagged: Angels, Yankees, Blue Jays, Astros, Mets, Cardinals, Roy Halladay, Matt Holliday

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