It's been interesting in the last couple years to watch the cognoscenti of the baseball world, most especially but not exclusively the folks at Baseball Prospectus, turn their affections from the Phillies to Mets just as the Phillies began to emerge as the divisional power. I do understand why: on balance, the Mets' core of David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Johan Santana is no worse and arguably better than the Phils' core of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, and Cole Hamels, and the Mets have more money to spend (though the Phils have more than enough to compete these days). The Mets seem to "win" every off-season, having added Francisco Rodriguez (and J.J. Putz) last winter, Santana the one before that, Carlos Delgado and Billy Wagner before 2006 and Beltran and Pedro Martinez a year earlier; the Phillies didn't really measure up with winter acquisitions in any of those years.
Yet the Phils have won the division the last two seasons, and are tied for first through a month and a half this year despite an atrocious collective performance from the starting rotation and a series of meltdowns from closer Brad Lidge (who might be in the midst of another as I type here). The biggest reason the Phils edged out the Mets in each of the last two years is probably the jobs done by the two general managers, Pat Gillick for the Phils and Omar Minaya of the Mets, filling in around their superstars: Gillick found guys like J.C. Romero and Jayson Werth for nothing and made in-season trades for the likes of Joe Blanton, Scott Eyre and Matt Stairs, while Minaya tossed away the likes of Heath Bell and Jesus Flores a couple winters back and let his club's depth deteriorate to the point that he was relying upon journeyman reliever Luis Ayala to close games during the 2008 stretch drive after Wagner got injured. And right now, with Delgado on the shelf and Reyes nicked, he has Jeremy Reed playing first base and Ramon E. Martinez starting at short. As Rob Neyer notes, that's no good for a team with basically unlimited money:
You know what's worse, though? When Tim Redding is your fifth starter. Because you know what that means, don't you? It means that Livan Hernandez is your fourth starter. I happened to be at the ballpark in San Francisco last Friday night, and I just sat there in the first inning, dumbfounded, as Hernandez gave up hit after hit after hit. I can't say that I exactly felt sorry for Hernandez -- after all, nobody forced him to take the Mets' money this spring -- but I couldn't quite help myself.
More, though, I felt sorry for Mets fans who have to put up with a pitcher like Livan Hernandez every five days (particularly if he really is the club's fourth starter, and really will pitch every five days). Frankly, there's simply no excuse for a team with a new ballpark and a $150 million payroll to trot Hernandez out there regularly, and wind up with Jeremy Reed at first base in a close game, and Angel Pagan in left field at the same moment, and ... well, you get the idea. I can't feel sorry for the Mets, and I can't feel too sorry for their fans. Not with that payroll. As a guy who just likes to watch good baseball, though, I find this odd collection of talent just a little bit offensive.
The episode this is "worse" than was last night's Mets loss, for which I didn't quite stay awake. It featured Ryan Church, not tagging third base as he trotted home on what should have been the go-ahead run in the 11th inning, after which he was called out; and the last two of five errors in the bottom of the inning as the Mets fell to Los Angeles by a 3-2 score.
In addition to the Mets' depth problems on display, the gruesome defeat, or rather its aftermath, highlighted the other big difference between the Mets and the Phils. The first of the two errors in the 11th came after a leadoff walk, when Dodgers batter Xavier Paul hit a fly ball to center; Beltran called for it, but left fielder Angel Pagan--another backup pressed into duty--either didn't hear him or ignored him. The ball ticked off Beltran's glove and rolled away, putting men on second and third with no outs. Three batters later, the Mets lost the game when emergency first baseman Reed made a throwing error on a possible double play--but it was the fly ball that both did them in and revealed the club's other serious issue. From the game story:
Pagan and Beltran converged. Beltran said he called the ball, “like, six times,” but Pagan did not move.
“Pagan was still in the middle and I couldn’t see the ball,” Beltran said. “If Pagan would have called that ball, my job is to get out of the way. Basically he stood in the middle and I just couldn’t see the ball.”
This would never, ever happen on the Phillies. Beltran is a superstar, a guy whose contract is worth nearly $120 million; Pagan is a journeyman who's still probably thrilled to get the per diem. It's never good form for any player to toss a teammate under the bus, but for a star to do that to a backup is... well, it's awful. And for a manager, in this case Jerry Manuel, to allow that sort of dynamic to fester borders on gross negligence.
The Mets and Phillies are sufficiently close in talent that a big injury or two, or even simple luck, could determine which club wins and which loses--as arguably those factors did the last two seasons. But for as much as old-school baseball types probably overvalue non-quantifiable factors like "chemistry," I'd certainly rather have the Phils' non-quantifiables.