The What-If Machine: What if the Mets had picked up Manny Ramirez off waivers?

In the fall of 2003, the Boston Red Sox placed Manny Ramirez on irrevocable waivers. Any team in baseball could have had him for the price of a phone call, but no one dialed.

At the time, only a few teams were rumored to be picking him up: the Mets, the Yankees, and the Orioles. None of them did. Baseball was in one of it’s mini-eras of fiscal conservation, which obviously was not collusion. Coming off four seasons of crushing the ball (.973 OPS or higher in all four seasons) while missing only 62 games and having one of the best arms in baseball, Vladimir Guerrero was only able to sign a five-year, $70 million dollar deal. That’s a much more impressive track record than Matt Holliday has coming into this offseason, and he is probably going to top $100 million in his next contract. Why am I not doing a “What if the Mets had signed Vladimir Guerrero?” scenario? It’s hard to be sure that he would have joined the Mets considering the relative failure they had experienced compared to the Angels in the recent past. Guerrero’s desire to stay away from the media frenzy also throws into question whether he’d sign in New York. It’s not as plausible of a scenario when you have to guess at someone’s free will, in my eyes.

The Mets were coming off one of the worst years in franchise history, a dismal 95 loss season in which they’d sold off the majority of their assets at the trade deadline. At the end of the year they were filling the lineup with replaceable players that would never see major league time again in their careers. Names like Danny Garcia, Prentice Redman, and Jeff Duncan littered the roster. Prized 2002 free-agent acquisition Tom Glavine had posted a 4.53 ERA, Al Leiter had started to get extremely walk-prone, and the rest of the rotation was filled with #3/#4 starters. It was a terrible time to be a Mets fan, with only the emergence of Jose Reyes in the middle of the season providing much hope for the future.

The Jim Duquette administration came into the offseason with no pressure and many big contracts off the books. Other than Mike Piazza, Glavine, and Leiter, the highest paid Met was Cliff Floyd at $6.5 million. Duquette was given the checkbook but the dollar amounts had been written for him. The Mets were only able to offer Guerrero a 3 year/$40 million deal near the end of the offseason, so they clearly had a budget. Duquette mixed value signings and terrible overpays. He managed to ink Mike Cameron to a bargain 4 year/$26 million contract, and while Braden Looper melted down in 2005 and earned the scorn of Mets fans, it’s easy to forget that he was paid only $2.8 million over 2 seasons with the Mets and was an adequate bullpen option. The Mets also gave 3 years and $20 million to Kaz Matsui, moving their most promising prospect at the time to second base to do it.

Despite the limited budget, the Mets had enough money to take on Ramirez’s contract. Counting the supposed Guerrero contract, the Mets were willing to commit roughly $20 million to payroll in the 2003 offseason. It would’ve exhausted their resources, but it could’ve been done. Why didn’t they do it? Asides from the Mets management not showing up at any Mensa meetings in the 2000’s, there were three real arguments against it:

1) Cliff Floyd was a very good left fielder coming off a great year, and he was signed to a contract that was a bargain.
2) Manny Ramirez was widely considered to be a terrible defensive player, and Shea Stadium is enormous.
3) Manny Ramirez is bad for the clubhouse according to Boston tabloids, who have a sterling track record on this sort of thing.

Let me poke my holes in these conclusions. I’m reminded of a Bill James quote, “Bad organizations will tend to project their weaknesses on their good players, and ultimately will dwell not on what the player can do, but on what he can’t.” I am a fan of the attempts to quantify defense, particularly UZR. Ramirez was believed to be a poor defender even before reputable statistics were created, and when UZR originally targeted him as someone costing the Red Sox an enormous amount of runs, it seemed to fit. However, his UZR dramatically improved after he escaped Boston, and with the same shift around Jason Bay’s numbers next to the Green Monster, I am suspicious of the results.

He would probably have had to play right field for the Mets, as Cliff Floyd had a mental block about playing first base after getting injured there earlier in his career. So what? The Mets spent nearly 700 plate appearances in 2004 between Todd Zeile and Jason Phillips. Phillips was coming off a superb year, but he never should have been expected to hit like he had in 2003 again. This coming from someone who owns a Jason Phillips jersey. They also spent most of 2004 explaining that Mike Piazza couldn’t catch and trying to force him to play first base. Instead of focusing all this effort on what Piazza couldn’t do (throw out base runners), they would’ve been much better off taking James’ advice: finding a catcher with a gun who would spell him against great basestealing teams, preferably who was left-handed and could hit a little, and just let it all hang out. Mike Piazza was still a valuable player behind the plate because of his bat.

The 2004 Mets were pretty clearly not going to be a winning team given the budget, so the focus should’ve been on finding star caliber players. The Mets had three young players in the periphery with this sort of talent at this point: Jose Reyes, David Wright, and Scott Kazmir. Lastings Milledge had this talent as well but had just recently been drafted and was far from a sure thing with no real minor league experience. Manny Ramirez, at this point, was an mpact bat who was still in his prime. Someone who churned out great offensive seasons with assembly-line style regularity. Someone who could be another building block for the next good Mets team.

Instead of going for the star, the Mets got the underrated Cameron and Matsui. I thought both of those were pretty decent moves at the time, and while Cameron is never going to be an offensive force, you can win a championship with him being a supporting member. Matsui was more of a scouting gamble, but after Ichiro came over and lost most of his power, it should have tripped a few alarms about Japanese players. The projections systems thought he would be Barry Larkin-lite, but in retrospect, he probably should’ve been rated around the lines of a Yunel Escobar today. He wouldn’t even hit that projection, of course, but it would’ve been a little closer to the truth.

I wouldn’t say those were bad signings, but I’d contend that the Mets would have been much better off claiming Ramirez on waivers. Lets create a world where the Mets did absolutely nothing differently than they actually did between then and now except getting Ramirez in 2003 and negating the Matsui and Cameron signings. 2004 happens, the Mets still make an abysmal Scott Kazmir trade short-sightedly and anguish is felt. Duncan is given center field and Garcia is given second base. They both prove they are awful, and the Mets struggle out to about the same record as they had. Maybe a few extra wins given Ramirez’s superb hitting. Say they get up to 75-77 wins.

Next offseason, Omar Minaya is hired. The Mets smartly go out and nab Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez and we play the whole season over again, except for, of course, Ramirez. Let me add and subtract some WAR:

2005 WAR:
Cameron: 2.0
Matsui: 0.1
Doug Mientkiewicz: 0.6

These are the guys that were actually a part of the Mets going 83-79, with a 89-73 Pythagorean record that would put them right next to the Astros. My projection here involves Victor Diaz at first base.

In their place, lets assume simply replacement level production and Ramirez.

Manny Ramirez: 4.3.

Would this boost be enough to make up the 6 games the Mets needed to make the playoffs? Maybe it would’ve, maybe not. Either way, it certainly would’ve made things more interesting. Perhaps Carlos Beltran doesn’t struggle as much with the great expectations with Manny behind him? The Mets weren’t too far off being a playoff team in 2005, and it’s not inconceivable that they could’ve been with Ramirez.

2006 comes, the Mets ship Victor Diaz off for some reason (has anyone ever figured out what he did to get blackballed after that 05 season?) and wind up with Carlos Delgado. They do not acquire Xavier Nady or Shawn Green, because they don’t have Mike Cameron to start the trade process. There wasn’t really much effect either way in 2006; the Mets had such a great confluence of luck and talent that they were probably going to the playoffs anyway.

2007. Cliff Floyd walks, Moises Alou is in. Here is your relevant comparison:

Shawn Green WAR, 2007: 0.4
Manny Ramirez WAR, 2007: 0.9

Closer than you’d think, right? But there’s also the fact of Manny being a true talent -15 or so corner outfielder. In 2007, his Fenway-driven UZR was -28. Either way, I don’t think there is much of a doubt that having Ramirez over Green would’ve delivered the Mets, no matter how heartless they were, into the postseason in 2007. Where they could have joined such teams as the 2000 Yankees and 2006 Cardinals in having a chance to fluke into a World Series in a year where they weren’t as good as they previously were.

The 2008 version comes down to this equation:

Ryan Church WAR, 2008: 1.6
Manny Ramirez WAR, 2008: 6.8

Yes, I think that might’ve been enough to make up one game. As a bonus, the Mets would have either gotten to keep Milledge or watch the fallout from the bizarre Milledge for Brian Schneider trade quickly ruin Minaya’s reputation. At least until the playoff games happened again and he was praised for no reason, like Ed Wade was. In 2009, Manny’s 50 game suspension would’ve just been another data point that the Mets had pissed off the baseball gods and were being punished, so he’d have fit right in.

Are there major caveats to this sort of analysis? Absolutely. There is no guarantee that Ramirez would’ve taken to right field again at a -15 UZR rate. Maybe he would’ve been -20 or so. Of course, Ramirez might have hit even better than he actually did in 2004-07 teeing off on National League pitchers instead of playing in the AL East.

There are tens and twenties of avoidable or executable moves that could have gotten the Mets to the playoffs in 2007 and 2008. They only missed by a game each year. I guess what I find so appealing about this scenario is that the Mets could have gotten it all for nothing. There is usually some form of free will involved in these scenarios to hedge bets on, such as framing one around Guerrero signing with the Mets. The Mets could also have just traded for Manny in 2007 or 2008, but that would’ve involved a price. For one moment, one of the best players in baseball was available for absolutely nothing. No catch. If the Mets had the initiative to be bold, it could have meant three more seasons of playoff baseball for the cost of nothing and a completely different atmosphere around a jaded and cynical fan base.

When you have a chance to acquire a great player at a bargain, you can figure out the details later. This was the mindset that the Mets should always have given their market position. If they had, the Mets could’ve been looking at four straight years in the playoffs and a brand on an equal footing to the Yankees. That’s worth a whole lot more than $100 million over 5 years.

~ by Rivers on 2009/12/10.

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