Sunday, January 29, 2006

Viva Los Mets

Because it's a slow sports week, the New York Times has two columns today about the radio-talk-show debate over whether Mets general manager Omar Minaya is "Latinizing" the Mets by dumping talented non-Hispanic players in favor of Latinos. The debate is spurred mainly by two recent trades, which sent starting pitchers Jae Seo and Kris Benson to the Dodgers and Orioles for a total of four relief pitchers: Duaner Sanchez and Steve Schmoll from the Dodgers and Jorge Julio and John Maine from the Orioles. Ever since these trades were made, I've been hearing fans on WFAN complaining that the only reason for them was Omar's desire to pack the roster with Spanish-speaking players.

I don't know where this leaves Steve Schmoll and John Maine, by the way. I guess they're supposed to be taking Spanish lessons. I also wonder a little about the fans who call to complain about the Mets having "too many" Hispanics. They sound suspiciously like the fans who get very upset whenever anyone else complains about color or ethnicity patterns that run in the opposite direction--for example, the paucity of Black managers and executives in baseball: "Why do these people have to drag race into everything? It doesn't matter if someone is white or purple or polka-dotted--is there supposed to be some kind of quota system?" etc. etc.

So my immediate instinct is to scoff at the complaints. I'm okay with the specific trades that have been questioned. I like Jae Seo, and he pitched well the second half of last season. But the Mets bullpen has needed help desperately, and starting pitching is the one area in which we arguably have a tradeable surplus of talent. (And the trade gives Aaron Heilman a spot in the rotation, which I like.) Then there's Kris Benson, a lifetime below-500 pitcher who shows no signs of breaking out as a big winner. I'm happy to see him go--along with his ditzy wife, who helped start the controversy on her way out the door by complaining about the trade and intimating that Omar's motives were ethnic.

In the Times, Murray Chass does a good job of demolishing most of the anti-Omar arguments. He points out, for example, that Omar's transactions this season have also included signing relief ace Billy Wagner (rather than Latino alternatives Jose Mesa or Octavio Dotel) and trading for catcher Paul Lo Duca (rather than Ramon Hernandez or Bengie Molina). Those moves sure don't support the notion that Omar's goal is an all-Latin Mets.

I've been wondering why no one has gone back to look at Omar's track record in his previous GM job with the Montreal Expos to see whether his supposed "Latin bias" existed then. After all, it doesn't seem like something that would just come and go, does it? So I looked up the major league transactions made by the Expos on Omar's watch, from February, 2002, through September, 2004.

What I found was interesting. During that time, the Expos made deals (free-agent signings, releases, and trades) that involved 93 players from their major league roster. In the process, they acquired a total of 43 Hispanic players and 50 non-Hispanic players. They also gave up 36 Hispanic players and 57 non-Hispanic players. So when Omar left the Expos, their major league roster (40 players deep) included seven more Latinos than when Omar arrived.

To me, these numbers do suggest a pattern, though not a very strong one. The majority of players Omar added to the roster during his years in Montreal were not Hispanic, so it's obviously excessive to claim that "Omar was trying to build an all-Latin team" (which is the substance of Anna Benson's charge). But Montreal did become slightly "Latinized" while Omar was there.

Now the $64 question: What does it mean, if anything? I can see several alternatives:

1. It's sheer coincidence. If the best players available to Omar had happened to be Black or Italian or Asian, he would have acquired them.

2. Omar got a lot of publicity for being baseball's first Latino GM. Maybe Latino free agents (or their representatives) or other GMs looking to trade Latino players had a tendency to think of Omar first for that reason.

3. Omar's knowledge of and closeness to the market for Latino players enabled him to identify talented Latino players that Anglo executives might not be aware of or might undervalue.

4. Omar was biased and tended to acquire Latino players despite the fact that he was hurting his club in the process.

The fourth possibility, of course, is the one raised by Anna Benson and the one that is stirring up controversy in New York today. Does it seem plausible?

The test here, of course, would be whether or not Omar's teams improve or decline under his aegis. His track record isn't long, but so far it's pretty positive. In 2002, he took over an Expos team that had gone 68-94 the season before and took them to back-t0-back seasons of 83-79. A fifteen-game improvement is fairly unusual and impressive. They declined to 67-95 in 2004, a year when most commentators pointed to the uncertainty over the team's future (the franchise moved to Washington D.C., after the season), shrinking fan support (attendance fell by almost 30%), and the difficulty of managing a team with no real owner (the Expos were controlled by Major League Baseball) as factors that made Omar's job especially difficult. All in all, one would have to rate this as a good job under trying circumstances.

As for the Mets, under Omar's leadership the team went from 71-91 in 2004 to 83-79 in 2005, a strong twelve-game improvement. One year doesn't make a career, but Omar has at least earned the benefit of the doubt in my book.

It may be that Omar is indeed using his Latino background as leverage to find and sign good Latino ballplayers. (He has implied as much.) Given how much great talent is coming out of Latin America these days, that would be a shrewd move. Again, the only meaningful measuring stick is success. If the Mets improve again in 2006--as I think they will--and get into the playoff hunt, Omar will undoubtedly be appearing on magazine covers as baseball's latest "genius of the year"--deservedly so.

Meanwhile, everybody should chill out about Omar's signing an extra Latin player or two. Sometimes those ethnic ties can be very useful. Remember when Tommy Lasorda went out of his way to get the Dodgers to sign a low-rated prospect strictly as a favor to one of his Italian buddies? Mike Piazza turned out to be a pretty good ballplayer.

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