September arrives this week and something feels different on the local baseball scene.
No New York Mets.
The Phillies entered the last two Septembers chasing their neighbors to the north, but this year the Mets are an afterthought in the National League East. The Phillies have a comfortable lead in the division, and barring what would be an embarrassing collapse, should win it for the third year in a row.
Have to be honest here: We miss the Mets.
Baseball came alive again in Philadelphia in 2007 and the Mets, who blew a late, seven-game lead, had a lot to do with it. The drama, excitement and entertainment value created by the Phillies' late surge that season was heightened by the Mets' misery. It's always fun for a team when its fiercest rival becomes its foil, and that's what happened for the Phillies the last two Septembers.
The fun continued last week in New York, when the Phils took three of four from the fourth-place Mets. It wasn't so much that the Phils won the series. It was how they won it: with Mets castoff Pedro Martinez on the mound; with the Mets hitting into a game-ending triple play; with Cliff Lee, a man who will have an impact on the division beyond this season, showing what a force he is on Monday afternoon.
During one of the inning breaks in that game, the Mets did one of those fan-interactive contests on the stadium video board. As one fan spoke on the video board, a handful of other fans could be seen in the background wearing paper bags on their heads.
The Phils and Mets play three more times this month, and that's it for the rivalry - until Jimmy Rollins or Carlos Beltran stirs something up in spring training. But, given the way things have gone for the Mets this season, one has to wonder how much of a factor they will be in the division in 2010.
After getting iced by Lee and Ryan Howard on Monday, the Mets received some bad news. Ace lefty Johan Santana was shut down with bone chips in his left elbow. Surgery will correct the problem and Santana is expected to be ready for spring training. But any time a pitcher has surgery on his elbow, there is always some uncertainty surrounding his comeback. The Mets knew Santana was experiencing elbow soreness at the all-star break but let him continue to pitch. They had better hope he did no further damage.
The Mets' pitching staff has other holes. Mike Pelfrey has been slow to develop into the top-of-the-rotation starter that scouts thought he would be. John Maine (shoulder) is one of the many Mets to be struck down by injury this season. Stumbling Oliver Perez is headed for knee surgery after the Mets unwisely gave him a three-year, $36 million contract over the winter. Why would the Mets give such an inconsistent talent such big money? Maybe, just maybe, the Mets believed they needed another lefthanded arm after the Phils went lefty-heavy in their lineup with the signing of Raul Ibanez. Advantage, Phils.
With a thin farm system, the Mets could use some free-agent help. However, affording that help could be a problem this winter. Owner Fred Wilpon incurred huge losses - estimates are anywhere from $400 million to $700 million - at the hands of crooked investor Bernie Madoff, and there are rumblings that could affect the way Wilpon operates his baseball business, though he has denied that.
The Mets' bleak financial picture might be the reason that general manager Omar Minaya has survived. Minaya's work - from the Perez signing to clumsy news conferences that cast doubt on his leadership skills - may have earned a firing with other teams. But Minaya has a three-year contract extension, which kicks in next season. The Mets are going to make him work for his money.
Not all the Mets' problems have been Minaya's fault. The team was decimated by injuries to core talent. Beltran, Carlos Delgado, Jose Reyes, David Wright, and Maine have all been hurt. Setup man J.J. Putz has missed significant time after requiring elbow surgery. (He had elbow problems with Seattle last year, but that didn't stop Minaya from trading for him.) Last week, the Mets had more than $80 million worth of salary on the disabled list. That's more than the payrolls of 13 teams.
It's been one of those seasons for the Mets, one of those seasons when their theme song should be: Meet the Mess.
The Phillies won't shed any tears about not having to chase the Mets this September.
But we kind of miss them.
Cliff Lee's brilliant beginning with the Phillies has some fans doing a little hand-wringing. As a veteran who was traded in the middle of a multiyear contract, Lee has the right to demand a trade at the end of the season.
There seems to be little chance of Lee invoking this rarely used right.
First, he clearly likes being a Phillie. It's pretty much a slam dunk that the Phils will pick up his $9 million option for next season. The Phils are built to contend next season, and that will make Lee happy.
Demanding a trade would carry significant risk for Lee. He can designate six teams to which he would not go, but that would leave 24 others. If traded, there's a chance he could end up somewhere he doesn't want to be. And with a new team, Lee would forfeit free-agent rights for three years. He would be arbitration-eligible those three years, but his contracts would not be guaranteed.
"He's a year away from free agency, a year away from a big payday," one executive said. "Why request a trade and lose your freedom? There's too much risk."
On the move
The Tampa Bay Rays traded 25-year-old lefty Scott Kazmir to the Angels for prospects on Friday. The Rays say they are not throwing in the towel in pursuit of the AL wild card, and they aren't. Kazmir has pitched well lately, but he does have an ERA close to 6.00, and a possible replacement such as Andy Sonnanstine or Wade Davis should be able to equal that.
This deal is essentially a salary dump. The Rays save $24 million on Kazmir, who was signed through 2011 with an option for 2012. The money saved will help the Rays retain other young core players.
Kazmir is set to make $8 million next year. The Rays might have avoided dealing him had they not made the decision to sign Pat Burrell last winter. Burrell, who has been a major disappointment in his first season as the Rays' DH, is making $7 million. His salary goes to $9 million next season. Burrell entered yesterday hitting .241 with 12 homers, 50 RBIs, a .336 on-base percentage, and a paltry .405 slugging percentage in 96 games.