The first decade of the 21st century may go down as the most painful in New York Mets history.
Of course, it started with great promise: in 2000, the Mets made it to the playoffs for the second year in a row and won the National League championship. But it was all downhill from there: the Mets lost the World Series to the Yankees; hired Art Howe; shifted Jose Reyes to make room for Kaz Matsui; traded Scott Kazmir for Victor "I'm Not Even Related to Carlos" Zambrano; fell to the Cardinals in the 2006 NLCS; lost a seven-game lead to the Phillies with 17 games to play; lost another lead the following September; and spent all of 2009 reeling from injuries. The past decade also featured Willie Randolph's unsmiling tenure; Mike Piazza's sudden physical breakdown; Roberto Alomar's bizarre under-performance; and Mo Vaughn's weighty failure. Oh, and Mets owner Fred Wilpon reportedly lost millions of dollars in Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme.
Naturally, Mets fans hope that the worst has passed. But if the Amazin's aim to turn things around in the coming decade, they must avoid repeating their two most baneful blunders from the previous one.
First, the Mets need to stop paying top dollar for veterans who are well past their prime. Granted, this seems pretty obvious. Yet time after time during the 2000s, the Mets signed or traded for former stars who were already on the downward slope of their careers: Vaughn, Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine, Jeromy Burnitz, Shawn Estes, Richard Hidalgo, Shawn Green, Moises Alou, Julio Franco, Luis Castillo, Gary Sheffield, and J.J. Putz. Moving ahead, Mets brass should resist free agents who, under the best of circumstances, might -- just might - repeat their performance from three seasons ago. Personnel moves should be based on up-to-date data, not wishful thinking.
Second, the Mets should part with their aging stars before it is too late -- preferably, by trading them away for younger, less expensive prospects. This would mark a shift from the sentimentality of the previous decade, which deterred the Mets from trading Mike Piazza once his decline became evident post-2002.
In this vein, the Mets should trade Carlos Beltran now, while they can still move his costly contract with relative ease. Beltran might be attractive to any team that sees itself as one good outfielder away from contending: he will be only 33 years-old next season; has two years left on his contract; and, despite his injury-plagued 2009 season, is still considered a perennial all-star. But he is no longer the franchise player around which a contender might be built, and his trade value is likely to decline precipitously after this off-season. Therefore, Beltran is most valuable to the Mets as immediate, prospect-attaining trade bait -- and least valuable as an expensive, decent player on an otherwise bad team.
At the moment, it is hard to imagine the Mets contending in 2010. After all, many players are returning from injury; the entire right side of the infield and much of the outfield need to be overhauled; and at least three other teams in the National League East look stronger. In turn, the Mets should build for the future by pursuing younger, cheaper prospects. Of course, this is hardly a new strategy -- but it is one that the Mets have long avoided to their peril.