Former Mets first baseman Mo Vaughn will earn $17.2 million this season — much of it repaid by insurance — despite not having played baseball since the beginning of the 2003 season.
The Mets will pay Tom Glavine, who will be 39 on opening day, nearly $11 million this season as a result of a curious obsession they had two winters ago with luring the aging lefthander from the rival Atlanta Braves.
They will pay 36-year-old Mike Piazza more than $16 million even though the catcher has lost much of his power and all of his durability.
Still, it is not its exorbitant payroll that is most alarming about the Mets’ front office; it has long been a favorite pastime of New York executives to pay players for success they achieved while playing for other teams.
No, new Mets general manager Omar Minaya has bigger things to worry about than a few exorbitant salaries; he must worry about a possibly divided clubhouse of black and white veterans and the Latin stars the Dominican Minaya has brought in to replace them.
Minaya grabbed plenty of headlines this offseason — and deservedly so — for his landmark signings of Dominican ace Pedro Martinez and Puerto Rican center fielder Carlos Beltran, but the more minor moves the GM has made this offseason might raise some eyebrows among the Mets’ constituency. It would be unfair to say that Minaya has any racial agenda, but he has steadily unloaded or alienated many of the Mets black and white players and consistently replaced them with Latin ones.
Minaya is also still receiving a great deal of attention for his continued pursuit of free agent Puerto Rican slugger Carlos Delgado and a senseless proposed trade for the Cubs’ mercurial Dominican right fielder Sammy Sosa which, despite Sosa’s feast-or-famine batting style that is ill-suited for the sprawling Shea Stadium, for some reason won’t die.
Since being hired Sept. 30, Minaya has quickly put his impression on the Mets’ roster. He made such a token effort to re-sign star pitcher Al Leiter, a lifelong Mets fan who wanted to finish his career in New York, that an offended Leiter ended up bolting for Florida. He has also traded reliever Mike Stanton (for Dominican reliever Felix Heredia) and backup catcher Vance Wilson (for Dominican shortstop Anderson Hernandez), two highly popular players in the Mets clubhouse.
Minaya has not felt any need to hide his very public attempts to trade Piazza, Cliff Floyd and Mike Cameron. All three have contracts they don’t deserve, but they are three of the Mets most well-liked players, valuable for public relations purposes. Cameron is a tireless volunteer in the New York community who was a nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award last year, baseball’s most prestigious honor for humanitarianism; Floyd is an injury-prone but unquestionably tough player who mets.com beat writer Kevin Czerwinski says is quick with a quote and even quicker with a smile; and Piazza has with class been the public face of the Mets since he arrived in 1998.
Floyd is the man for whom Minaya would swap Sosa, Piazza has been shopped all winter for numerous combinations and Cameron’s name has surfaced in trade rumors ever since the two-time Gold Glove award winner was — quite understandably — miffed about Beltran displacing him from center field.
Meanwhile, Minaya has made quiet signings to fill minor holes in the Mets’ roster. Dominican Manny Aybar and Puerto Ricans Juan Padilla and Roberto Hernandez will compete in spring training for spots in the Mets’ bullpen. Puerto Rican Ramon Castro will likely assume Wilson’s role as Piazza’s backup. Venezuelan utility man Miguel Cairo may make fan favorite Joe McEwing expendable come April. And most notably, Minaya signed the decaying 42-year-old Venezuelan first baseman Andres Galarraga, who has played as few as 90 games at first base in five seasons. Considered by some a genial inspiration who conquered cancer with grace and by others a hothead whose juvenile machismo is shown every time he charges the mound after being hit by a pitch, Galarraga is one thing for certain: over the hill.
These signings, combined with those of Martinez and Beltran, make it likely that Kerry Robinson, an African-American reserve outfielder, will be the only non-Latin newcomer on the Mets roster this Spring.
While much can be made of Minaya’s apparent preference for Latin players, it is also should be noted that Latin players prefer Minaya. The only Latin GM in Major League Baseball, Minaya courted Martinez and Beltran with frequent visits to their respective Latin American homes and negotiations in Spanish.
For the role players, however, Minaya went to no such lengths. They are a dime a dozen, interchangeable with the ones on Cleveland, Milwaukee, or San Francisco, and thus they are chosen often for reasons of team chemistry. Lenny Harris, a skilled pinch hitter for the Mets in 1998, was brought back by management in 2000 because he was adored by everyone in the clubhouse, especially Piazza, then the team’s unquestioned star.
Is Ramon Castro Beltran’s Lenny Harris, a backup whose only distinction is that he makes the star happy? Maybe, but where does that leave Piazza, Floyd, Glavine, Cameron and budding superstar David Wright?
Minaya should be lauded for his attempts to embrace New York’s ethnic diversity, particularly its significant Latin population. But he must be careful not to alienate his white and black players and to remain in step with Mets fans and members of the media: Both groups are still predominantly white and prefer, for better or for worse, to hear interviews in English.