NEW YORK - When the Mets hired him as their manager in the fall of 2010, Terry Collins couldn't see anything but the team that was right in front of his face. The roster was loaded with players whose past performance suggested that, at its best, that Mets team could challenge the club that back then owned the National League East: the Phillies. That Mets team had David Wright and Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes and Jason Bay. That Mets team had a promising outfielder, Angel Pagan, and a promising starting pitcher, Mike Pelfrey, coming off career seasons.
"I didn't look down the road," Collins said Friday afternoon here at Citi Field before the Mets defeated the Kansas City Royals, 9-3, in Game 3 of the World Series. "One of the things, when you're in the wintertime, is you're looking at your lineup saying, 'If these guys all do what the back of their baseball cards say, we've got a chance to be pretty good.' . . . But in 2010, we had no idea how long it was going to take."
That Mets team went 77-85 in 2011, and in its results and its manager's misplaced optimism, it proved closer to those more recent Phillies clubs that sank to the bottom of the NL East than the ones that won five consecutive division titles. But that season marked the start of the Mets' trundling along, slowly and deliberately, on a journey back to respectability - a ride that didn't seem to going anywhere until late July, when general manager Sandy Alderson finally floored the gas pedal by trading for players such as Yoenis Cespedes, Juan Uribe, and Kelly Johnson. Only then did the Mets take off, going 41-24 to close the regular season, and their rise to the top of the National League should fill the Phillies with equal parts hope and dread.
Let's begin with the dread. The Mets' starting pitching - Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler (who missed the entire 2015 season after tearing a ligament in his elbow) - is young and terrific and cheap. None of them is going anywhere for a while, and that rotation has enough power, depth, and promise to dominate the Phillies and the rest of the league just as it did the Dodgers and Cubs in this year's postseason. With pitching like that, the Mets through free agency and trades can plug whatever holes might open in their lineup each year and still have enough offense to contend.
Now, the hope. The primary reason Alderson had to embark on such a long rebuilding project was that owner Fred Wilpon's connection to and investments with Ponzi-schemer Bernie Madoff crippled the Mets' ability to spend big-market money on their roster (or made them unwilling to spend, depending on one's perspective). The franchise's opening-day payroll fell from $143 million in 2011 to $85 million in 2014, according to Baseball Prospectus, as it ostensibly got back to basics and replenished its supply of prospects. It's an open question, then, whether the Mets will have the resources and desire over time to pay to retain those starting pitchers.
"If you're a real baseball team with real owners, you don't have to choose between building a farm system and [acquiring] talent at the major-league level," said author Howard Megdal, who has written several books about Major League Baseball, including Wilpon's Folly, which detailed the impact of the Madoff scandal on the Mets. "You see that throughout the game. You see it in Boston. You see it in St. Louis. You see it everywhere. But it's been presented publicly as a false choice to justify the cost-cutting that had to happen for various non-baseball reasons."
Despite the Madoff albatross, the Mets had drafted and signed enough talent before Alderson's arrival to turn over their roster once they began rebuilding. Daniel Murphy, Lucas Duda, Juan Lagares, deGrom, Harvey, Matz, closer Jeurys Familia - all of them were already in the organization when the Mets hired Alderson in October 2010. By contrast, the Phillies went through an infamous fallow period in their player development that contributed to the crumbling of their mini-dynasty. "I've been in major-league draft rooms," said Megdal, a Cherry Hill, N.J., native, "and there are teams that would pick and people would pay attention. And then the Phillies would come up, and everyone would go get a sandwich."
In his final year-and-a-half as general manager, though, Ruben Amaro Jr. did dig up several shiny coins from the couch-drafting Aaron Nola, acquiring five well-regarded prospects for Cole Hamels and Jake Diekman. And thanks to their gargantuan 25-year, $5 billion partnership with Comcast, the Phillies don't have to make the same false choice that the Mets made. They don't have to choose between building a farm system and using money on major-league players. No good team has to. They can do both, and it doesn't have to take them as long as it took the team 90 miles to their north, playing for a championship this weekend at Citi Field.