A popular thing to do online these days is to rake GM Omar Minaya over the coals for his roster construction this year.  Here I examine how valid that claim is.

It is not a fun year to be a Mets fan.  It is the third week in July and the season is basically over.  I was holding out hope that the Mets could stay close to .500 and make a charge when the walking wounded returned.  But the Mets have not played well recently, the injuries all seem more serious than the club is willing to adimt and the Phillies have started to string together some wins.  So, now it is time to make decisions based upon 2010 and beyond.

But before we get to that, I would like to take a minute and address what I feel is at the very least a misunderstanding among the fan base.  In one breath fans are saying that injuries are killing the Mets this year and the very next breath they are saying that general manager Omar Minaya did a poor job of constructing a bench and preparing for injuries.

In fact, this is the best bench that Minaya has assembled in his Mets tenure.

Now, that may very well be damning with faint praise, but it is nevertheless true.  Let’s take a look at what Minaya and others figured would be the squad of the 2009 Mets as we approached Opening Day.

C – Brian Schneider, Ramon Castro

!B – Carlos Delgado, Fernando Tatis

2B – Luis Castillo, Alex Cora

3B – David Wright

SS – Jose Reyes

OF – Daniel Murphy, Carlos Beltran, Ryan Church, Jeremy Reed, Gary Sheffield, Angel Pagan

SP – Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey, John Maine, Oliver Perez, Livan Hernandez/Tim Redding

RP – Francisco Rodriguez, JJ Putz, Sean Green, Bobby Parnell, Pedro Feliciano, Brian Stokes

Now you can quibble with the names here – Redding and Pagan opened on the DL, Hernandez was in the minors while Marlon Anderson and Nick Evans were on the Opening Day roster.  But I think this is pretty close to the group the Mets hoped to have for the majority of the season.

Unlike in previous seasons, when backup catchers and second basemen dominated the bench, this group had each spot covered and offered different things for manager Jerry Manuel to utilize depending on the situation.

Tatis offered a solid backup and each of the infield and outfield corners, along with being a good pinch-hitting option.  Cora was primarily insurance for Luis Castillo continuing to stink but could also spell Reyes at shortstop, something recent clubs did not have.  Reed was an excellent defensive player, Pagan showed glimpses of talent when healthy and Sheffield was going to be useful as a power bat off the bench versus LHP.

They were locked into Schneider and Castillo because of pre-existing contracts and the Madoff scandal.  But with four stars in Beltran, Delgado, Wright and Reyes, along with a young hitter who showed lots of promise in Murphy, and a veteran in Church who hit very well in 2008 when healthy, the Mets looked like they could carry a weak-hitting catcher and a second baseman who may not be able to hit the ball more than 200 feet.

That seems like a very respectable bench to me.  Let’s compare that to what other teams in the division had for backups.

Phillies – Chris Coste, Eric Bruntlett, Greg Dobbs, Geoff Jenkins and Matt Stairs

Braves – Clint Sammons, Omar Infante, Greg Norton, Martin Prado, Matt Diaz

Marlins – Ronny Paulino, Andy Gonzalez, Ross Gload, Wes Helms, Brett Carroll

Nats – Wil Nieves, Josh Bard, Willie Harris, Alberto Gonzalez, Josh Willingham, Elijah Dukes

Is there any team that had a bench substantially better than the Mets?  The Phillies reserves look dreadful.  Prado and Diaz are nice for the Braves but they opened the season with Jordan Schaefer as their center fielder and no adequate replacement.  The Marlins did not have a suitable replacement for Cameron Maybin in center, who was very likely not to be able to play 162 games in the majors.

Only the Nationals’ bench looks equivalent to the Mets and certainly not stronger.  Harris’ ability to play both the infield and outfield helps (although he probably could not play SS) and Willingham and Dukes could easily be starters for Washington, which they have turned out to be at one point or another in the season.

Perhaps these clubs had injured players or guys in the minors that they hoped would provide depth.  Brooks Conrad, Chris Coghlan, Pedro Feliz and Anderson Hernandez are now in the mix for their respective clubs, although I maintain that none of these guys would make a difference for the 2009 Mets.

People look at the Mets’ payroll and think they should have a better bench than they do, or at least did coming into the season when all of the stars were healthy.  But no team can handle the loss of multiple stars.  A bench is supposed to be able to give the starters a breather here and there or handle the loss of a player to the 15 or 21-day disabled list.  There is, after all, a reason why these guys are on the bench and not starting for another team.

So, I believe it is a big error to say that Minaya did a poor job of constructing his bench.  However, I do think we can question how Minaya assembled the overall team.  Minaya decided to re-sign Delgado and use the rest of his money this off-season on pitching.  The big moves following the 2008 season (and their 2009 salaries) were:

Delgado – $12 million

Perez – $12 million

Rodriguez – $8.5 million

Putz – $5 million

In the off-season, I wrote an article for the defunct New York Mets Daily where I acted as the team’s GM.  I also picked up the option on Delgado and this is what I thought the club should do:

We need two starting pitchers, a reliever, a starting outfielder and someone who can play shortstop.  I prioritize the club’s needs as SP, OF, RP, SP, SS.

AJ Burnett – 5 years, $85 million (signed for 5 years, $82.5 million)

Adam Dunn – 4 years, $72 million (signed for 2 years, $20 million)

Juan Cruz – 2 years, $8 million (signed for 2 years, $6 million)

Pedro Martinez – 1 year, $4.5 million (signed for 1 year, $2 million)

Now, the Mets ended up spending less than what I had budgeted for them, which was $151 million.  But my lineup would have looked like this:

SS – Reyes

3B – Wright

LF – Dunn

CF – Beltran

1B – Delgado

RF – Tatis (I released Church rather than offering him arbitration)

2B – Murphy

C – Schneider

SP – Santana, Burnett, Pelfrey, Maine, Martinez

RP – Cruz, Heilman, Stokes, Sanchez, Feliciano, Smith, Schoeneweis

Reserves – Anderson, Castillo, Castro, Chavez, Easley

So, I spent more money, had a much worse bullpen and a bench that was no better.  Now, Dunn’s bat would have been an improvement and Burnett would look good now, too, but I would still be struggling for SP with the likely injury problems to Martinez.

It is easy to say that the Mets should have signed Dunn and/or Bobby Abreu but entering the off-season, both of those players figured to command multi-year contracts at premium pricing.  Many wanted the Mets to sign Derek Lowe or Ben Sheets but Lowe has a 4.40 ERA and declining BB and SO rates and he would have been a poor fit in front of the Mets infield defense, anyway.  Plus, Sheets has missed the entire season.

My take is that given the hand Minaya had this off-season (granted the Castillo and Schneider problems were of his own making) with the holes he had to fill and the money available to fix them, he did a fine job of roster construction.  It is not what I would have done, but the choices he made were very logical.  And the bench was a fine mixture of players.

So, before you fire Minaya, I would suggest overhauling the team’s medical staff first.  And make it a priority to treat injuries seriously.  Without doing the research necessary to verify this claim, I still feel comfortable saying that the injuries to Reyes, Delgado, Beltran, Maine and Putz were all deemed nothing serious at first.

And I still think Manuel is a bigger problem than Minaya going forward.  And Tony Bernazard is not helping, either, but that is a whole different column.

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