MEET THE MESS

By Murray Chass

February 4, 2010

The word is multitasking. It is such a relatively new word that it doesn’t appear in my dictionary, the third edition (1992) of the American Heritage Dictionary. A nice lady at Houghton Mifflin, the publisher, told me multitasking first appeared in the fourth edition published in 2000. She was also kind enough to read the definition: “The concurrent operation by one central processing unit of two or more processes.”Mets Fan

In other words, doing more than one thing at a time. Now that I think of it my oldest child was multitasking when he was in fourth grade. His teacher said she spotted him reading a comic book tucked between the pages of the book the class was reading. She did not reprimand him, though, she said, because he was able to keep up with the class work. He was multitasking.

Mrs. Van der Hayden would not have caught the Mets multitasking. They obviously don’t know how to. They are incapable of performing more than one task at a time.

I learned that fact from a bunch of telephone calls I made to agents who represent free agents. I made the calls in an attempt to understand the failure of the Mets to improve themselves more than they have this winter, if they have improved themselves at all.

Signing free agents is not the only mark of improvement. But it says an awful lot about a team’s efforts. And free agency is the most direct way of making improvements. A year ago the Yankees signed CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira and proceeded to win the World Series.

Despite a lackluster class of free agents this winter, the Mets pursued some. They signed Jason Bay after a protracted negotiation and also tried to sign Bengie Molina and Joel Pineiro, though they would have preferred John Lackey as the added starting pitcher.

The agents who spoke about the Mets all spoke off the record, except the one agent who wouldn’t say anything on or off the record. They chose not to be quoted by name because they expect to do business with the Mets in the future and didn’t want to alienate them.

But more than one agent cited the Mets’ inability to deal with more than one free agent at a time as the primary reason they lost out on free agents. “We’re interested in your guy,” more than one agent recalled the Mets saying, “but we have to deal with this other guy first.”

In one instance, the Mets were a player’s first choice, an agent said, but he was one or two down on the Mets’ pecking order – a phrase used by another agent – and the player and the agent weren’t going to wait for the Mets to deal with them. They went elsewhere.

Another agent said that Omar Minaya, the Mets’ general manager, told him at the winter meetings in December that the Mets would address their catching need in January. “How can they wait and be sure what will be there?” the agent asked.

Another agent called the process frustrating. I have other names for it: foolish, wasteful, destructive, irresponsible, to suggest a few. Surely, a general manager is capable of talking to more than one agent simultaneously, working on parallel tracks, even if one signing depends on another.

Last winter the Yankees signed three free agents to contracts totaling $423.5 million within a three-week period. Obviously Brian Cashman didn’t sign one, then call the second, sign him and then call the third. A general manager has to be a juggler to do his job well.

omar-minaya3But this winter the Mets had their priority list – outfielder, catcher, starting pitcher – and by the time they got their outfielder and found their catching target wanted more money to move east than they wanted to give him, they had squandered the opportunity to get a worthwhile pitcher.

As a result, unless they sign John Smoltz or make an unexpected move, they will have no additions from outside the organization in the starting rotation. And aside from Johan Santana, they have no one they can rely on consistently.

Last year it was a productive outfielder, Raul Ibanez, who could have added significant punch, but by the time the Mets reached his spot in their pecking order, after closer and starting pitcher, he was gone to the Phillies.

Reports and rumors have been almost rampant that Minaya is not running the team’s baseball operations but that Jeff Wilpon, the chief operating officer and son of owner Fred, is. I’d like to believe that because that would explain why the Mets have had such a dreadful winter.

A recent report on ESPN.com said that Jeff Wilpon “has been the lead negotiator for the Mets this offseason, and not Omar Minaya, which has reinforced the belief in some corners of the organization that Minaya is one extended losing streak removed from being fired.”

Even closer to the organization, a Mets’ employee has observed to a friend from outside the baseball operations department that “Minaya is a ‘puppet,’ a ‘figurehead’ as he put it – for Jeff Wilpon and John Ricco,” the assistant general manager. “Wilpon and Ricco are making decisions and running the show. Further, the real decision-making authority on baseball operations rests with Jeff Wilpon. My college buddy feels that Jeff thinks he knows a lot more about running a baseball organization than he actually does, and ‘it’s just not working out for him.’”

Despite these reports, I have found no evidence of their credibility. If, as ESPN.com reported, Wilpon has been the Mets’ lead negotiator with free agents, why did only one agent acknowledge having spoken with Wilpon and he and all of the rest with Minaya?

Wilpon certainly has been involved in the finances of free-agent negotiations; that’s his job, and he would be irresponsible if he weren’t.Jeff Wilpon2 225

“Omar is in charge of the baseball operations department,” Wilpon said in a telephone interview. “Is he making suggestions to ownership what he wants to spend and on whom he wants to spend? Yes. It’s not for me to override the judgments of Omar and the baseball department.”

Minaya echoed Wilpon’s position and said he is prepared to take the blame for anything the fans don’t like about the baseball operation. “The general manager is always the one to blame,” he said. “I’m the one to blame. Coming off the year you had, you want to be able to add some people, but it hasn’t happened.”

There is one other element to consider, but no evidence is available to speak to it. The Mets have spent little money this off-season. Maybe they don’t think the available talent was worth extravagant spending. Maybe they’re saving their money until next year when more attractive free agents could be available. That’s what the Yankees did on passing on Santana two years ago and waiting instead to sign Sabathia and Burnett.  The result was the World Series championship.

Or maybe, as rumors have had it, Wilpon lost more money in his friend Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme than he has acknowledged, and he doesn’t have it for Minaya to spend on free agents. Nothing for Lackey; Madoff got it all.

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.