Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Mets and the Success Cycle

When you run a baseball team, the first thing that you should do (and I doubt the Mets have done this in a while) is to take a look at where you are on the success cycle. I haven't been able to find much reference online to this concept as it relates to baseball, but it's an enormously important concept in business. In business, however, it is referred to as the life cycle.

In business, products and even companies as a whole participate in some general permutation of this cycle. A business or product will debut, will grow, and will hit their initial peak. From that point, they can adapt and make changes which will bring them to a new, higher plateau, or they can be allowed to decline until they no longer exist. Where you are on that cycle determines what kinds of decisions you will make - whether to invest in R&D, whether to make capital improvements, etc.

In baseball, however, all 30 teams exist and will continue to exist regardless of their success or failure. One look at the Pirates or Royals will assure you that no matter how bad you are and for how long, you won't go out of business (contraction talk aside). What does remain true, however, is the fact that teams are better or worse equipped to "make a run" at the playoffs or to "rebuild" depending on factors as plentiful as the ages of their star players, the condition of their facilities, changes in ownership, changes in the economy of their surrounding area, and the relative strength or weakness of their farm system.

As far as the success cycle and baseball goes, it appears the most prominent article on it was written years ago by Jonah Keri over at Baseball Prospectus. Although he never explicitly defines the success cycle, he takes an in-depth look at the 2002 Pittsburgh Pirates and discusses the importance of determining your place on it:
The cycle is a baseball continuum on which every team resides. To measure a team's place in the cycle, assess its talent in the majors and minors. Can the players in the organization, mixed with a few trade acquisitions and free agents the team could reasonably sign, yield a competitive team? More precisely, can the team expect to compete while its current core of major-league players remain productive and under contract?

* * *

Recognizing a team's place in the cycle is perhaps the key element in any team's game plan, because it drives decision-making. If a GM misreads his team's place in the cycle, he may get overaggressive and commit too much cash in an effort to win before a core is in place, and quickly fall back to the rebuilding stage. On the other hand, being too passive with a team ready to win can cost the franchise a shot at a pennant.
This is a concept that one would hope was obvious to everyone, particularly the management of your baseball team. Without an accurate idea of where your organization is on the success cycle, you will continue to throw good money after bad, and will never marshall the resources required to pull yourself out of the muck and back into contention. Even the best allocation of money, made by the smartest general manager, is useless if done at the wrong time.

Here at Fonzie Forever, we screamed at the top of our virtual lungs that the Mets should stand pat last offseason, save money, and figure out where they stand. In fact, the idea that the Mets should stand pat was the inspiration for two of my favorite posts from last year: "How Bay-Watch Became Omar-Watch" and "Carlos Beltran's Surgery and Moving On", both of which seem somewhat prescient right now.[1]

With the health of Carlos Beltran, Johan Santana, and Jose Reyes all uncertain, there was no way a coherent plan could have been developed for the 2010 season. Under any set of circumstances, they were unlikely to succeed. Even if Santana, Beltran, and Reyes all came back strong, the Mets would also need David Wright to return to form, Mike Pelfrey to continue his growth, and for other players to step up.

As fate may have it, the Mets were actually quite fortunate this year. Despite the media circus, and the Jason Bay injury, and the Santana re-injury, the Mets received enormous contributions from players who weren't even on the map at the beginning of the year. RA Dickey pitched like an ace all season and produced 3.8 WAR. Angel Pagan emerged as an excellent player and posted 4.8 WAR. Ike Davis rocketed to the majors and hit his best possible projection, posting 2.5 WAR. Hisanori Takahashi was an incredible steal. Wright's power returned, and Reyes was mostly healthy. Almost everything broke in the Mets favor last year, masking an otherwise horrendously put-together squad.

Even with all of that, the Mets managed only 79 wins. And it is precisely all of the above that makes it so difficult to decide where the Mets are on the success cycle right now.

Had the Mets committed to rebuilding last season, several things would have happened. First, and most importantly, there would be no Jason Bay contract, freeing up an almost unthinkable $48 million over the next three years. They could have traded Feliciano or Takahashi mid-season to a contending team in exchange for prospects or salary relief, perhaps packaging them with some money in order for a team to take Oliver Perez or Luis Castillo.

This would be a very different offseason if the Mets had their current core - Wright, Pelfrey, Reyes, Dickey, Davis, Thole, Pagan, Beltran, Niese, Parnell, etc. - and an additional $20 to $30 million to spend. There was absolutely no benefit derived last year by pretending that they could compete when they couldn't.
But at this point, I have no idea what to make of the Mets and their place on the success cycle. From 2006-2009, they were clearly at the top of the cycle -- blemishes aside, they were competitive every year. To contrast that, from 2002-2004 they were in a non-competitive lull. It was in those few seasons that the Mets were able to draft Wright and Reyes, and trim payroll so that they could afford to throw big money at Pedro Martinez, Carlos Beltran, and Carlos Delgado.

But now? They seem to be tweeners. They have good, young talent (Davis, Niese, Thole) on the team which will help keep them on the rise for the next few years. They have established stars whose peaks they are currently enjoying (Wright, Reyes, Pelfrey, K-Rod). But they also depend on some injured or older players (Beltran, Santana) who may or may not contribute this season.

The tough part is, that because of all the good fortune last year, the Mets could concievably compete this season if they had some money to spend. That wasn't true at this time last season.

But as good as the 2011 Mets fortunes look, they don't look as good as the fortunes of the 2012 Mets. According to the invaluable Cot's Contracts, the 2012 Mets will be shedding the contracts of Carlos Beltran, Oliver Perez, Luis Castillo, and hopefully Francisco Rodriguez. Combined, that's in excess of $50 million dollars coming off the books for players who are marginal contributors or outright failures.

This year was going to be ugly either way, but it appears to have been saved from disaster by some incredibly good fortune in 2010. Now, it is up to Sandy Alderson and company to take a good, long look at this team and decide: where are the Mets on the success cycle right now? Is 2011 a season where we double-down, hope Beltran and Santana come back, and continue to push toward the pennant? Or do we cut our losses right now and aim to retool for 2012, when we get an incredible amount of payroll relief?

Either way, I hope that Alderson is decisive. If the Mets stand pat and do nothing this offseason, they will not be helping our future teams to be as competitive as they can be. This is New York, and I know that "rebuilding" is a four-letter word. But you can't deny the success cycle. And since we're a big market team with big-time money and a brand new stadium, the rebuilding phase will not have to be very long.

Thank you to Metsblog and to Amazin Avenue for the links. Please don't forget to follow us on twitter at @fonzieforever or to add us to your RSS feed!

[1] From the Bay article:
This is it - the beginning of the end for Minaya. This is EXACTLY the kind of move that ends a tenure as a GM. That, while receiving lukewarm approval from the fanbase and newspapers today, will be a complete and utter disaster by the end of the contract.

Is this the guy we want to occupy 10% of our payroll with? Is this the kind of player we want to shape the rest of our roster around? Is he a cornerstone for the next Mets World Series team? I don't think so.

From the Beltran article:
The loss of our centerfielder - a generational talent - is the LAST reason to pour more resources into the 2010 team. Now, more than ever, I think the Mets should stand pat and see what they have got. See if Reyes and others can bounce back, and see if we have a core of a contender for 2011 and beyond. And who knows? Maybe the team as currently constituted will be good or lucky enough to make a run -- and then we can make moves in-season.

And just so nobody accuses me of highlighting only the entries that I was correct about, my other favorite articles from last year included one where I insisted that Reese Havens was a better prospect than Ike Davis and another which said John Lackey and Aaron Harang were basically equals. Can't win 'em all.


daddydearest said...

I would agree with you on this in any sport other than baseball. There are teams that will always compete (i.e. Yankees, big market teams) UNLESS they are done in by injuries and HORRIBLE personnel moves like the Mets. Then there are teams that will never be able to compete for more than a few years. Look at the Rays who are good now with a ton of young talent, yet their best players are already being poached by higher market teams like Crawford and Pena.

Another example is the Brewers. In 2008, they made the playoffs for the first time in 26 yrs and they had to make a Sabathia sized splash just to reach the 1st round and get eliminated. Of course after the yr the Yankees signed him and the Brewers haven't competed since despite the Buster Olneys of the world claiming that they built a team the right way.

The 2 reasons are the no salary cap which makes it impossible for small market teams to keep all their good young players and the complete randomness of the draft. There are no sure things in the draft (no drafts really but MLB drafted players take the longest to develop and the least amount go to help the professional club immediately). That makes the 1st overall pick far less meaningful.

I know, I'm a genius.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting perspective. Before free agency, most baseball trades were to swap from a position (let's say 3b) of abundance to a position of need (let's say catcher.) Now most trades are about timescales - swapping a player who is good but expensive now for prospects. One team increases chances of winning now, the other the chances of winning later.

You're right that teams need to figure out when they can peak, and try to win then, but if they can't build for the future.

I don't think what you have is a cycle, per se. Prospects are too unpredictable. But when things are coming together, you have to go for it, as Texas did this year in taking Lee for a few months.

Andrew said...

To be honest, if Jerry Manuel wasn't the manager, I think they could have made the playoffs.