For the first time in 15 years, there was no October baseball in New York this year.
October is baseball's holy month, the time when teams win championships, create good feelings among their fans, and make big revenue from jacked-up ticket prices and the sale of T-shirts, sweatshirts, jackets, caps, DVDs and just about anything else people will buy to hold on to said good feelings.
Witness Philadelphia the last 21/2 months.
Over the last week, Brian Cashman and Omar Minaya did their best to ensure that their teams stay busy (and their fans keep spending money) in October 2009.
Cashman, the Yankees' general manager, signed CC Sabathia, the prize of the free-agent pitching market, to a seven-year contract worth $161 million. It didn't matter that the Yankees' previous offer of $140 million already was about $40 million more than any other team had offered Sabathia. The Yankees needed a big-time, marquee starting pitcher, and with a franchise value of $1.3 billion (and climbing as they get ready to move into a new stadium), what's $161 million?
Two days after locking up Sabathia, the Yankees tossed $82.5 million at A.J. Burnett as Cashman followed through on his off-season vow to land multiples of top starting pitchers.
Across the Triborough Bridge, Minaya, the Mets GM, had made his own vow, promising to upgrade the bullpen that featured many of the Picassos that Cole Hamels referred to when he took the bait from a New York radio show host and called the Mets "choke artists." (Can't argue with Boy Wonder there, though it might have been better to keep smiling and let the Mets cough up divisions each September rather than applying what could eventually be looked at as a verbal Heimlich maneuver. Oh, well, after what he did in October, Hamels can say whatever he wants because he can back it up.)
Minaya did his best to dislodge two squandered division titles from his team's throat at the recent winter meetings.
"I like big ideas," he said as the meetings concluded Thursday.
Minaya converted two big ideas into the bullpen upgrade his team desperately needed. He signed Francisco Rodriguez to a three-year, $37 million contract then traded for Seattle's J.J. Putz. Both are closers. Both have been all-stars. Rodriguez set the single-season record with 62 saves for the Angels last season. Putz had a combined 76 saves in 2006 and 2007, but struggled with a pair of injuries (a strained rib cage and a strained right elbow) in 2008. The Mets were satisfied with Putz's medical reports, and his performance in the final two months (he went 4-1 with a 2.53 ERA and struck out 27 in 211/3 innings) suggested he was on track.
Rodriguez and Putz, both power-armed strikeout pitchers, give the Mets the kind of end-game weapons that put teams over the top. Look how good the Phillies were with Brad Lidge this season. Look at how much better they got when Ryan Madson became a shutdown eighth-inning man in September and October. Without his work, the Phils might not win the National League East and might not have that rousing parade on Halloween Day.
"The Phillies really took off when Madson got going," Minaya observed.
A year after the Phils pulled off a great trade for Lidge, Minaya was not trying to follow the Phils' blueprint. He knows the value of a fire-extinguishing closer. That's why he signed Billy Wagner three years ago. But Wagner got hurt in 2008, and the Mets' bullpen veered badly out of control. Meanwhile, with Lidge as the steadying influence, the Phillies' bullpen was a strength all season.
Thanks largely to Lidge, who went 41 for 41 in save chances, the Phillies were 79-0 when leading after eight innings.
The Mets, who blew 29 saves, second-most in the NL, were 78-7 when leading after eight innings.
The Phillies won the division by three games after trailing the Mets by 31/2 games with 16 to play.
If the Mets had Putz and Rodriguez in 2008, the NL East might have shaken out differently.
None of this is to suggest the Mets will be the favorites in the division in 2009. Rodriguez and Putz both arrive in New York with some question marks. Some scouts have said that Rodriguez has lost a little sizzle on his fastball, but he still has his power breaking ball and has developed a good change-up. Still, you have to wonder why the Angels, a big-spending team, made little effort to retain a 26-year-old all-star who stayed within the marketplace at $12.3 million per season. It's also worth wondering how Putz will deal with not being a closer anymore. The move from the ninth inning to the eighth requires an adjustment, especially for adrenaline-junkie closers.
The Phillies, with a World Series title and a cast that includes studs in the lineup, the starting rotation and bullpen, remain the team to beat in the NL East.
Last winter, we learned that big-headline acquisitions don't always win divisions. The Mets were hailed as the NL East favorites when they traded for Johan Santana, but still ended up going home in October. Santana did his job, winning 16 games en route to the league ERA title. He might have reached 20 wins - and New York might have held off the Phillies - if the Mets' bullpen had not blown seven of his leads.
With Rodriguez and Putz, the flaws that conspired against Santana and his team in 2008 appear to be gone. On paper, the Mets are better. But they must succeed on the field, or once again wear the label that Hamels affixed to them.