Mets first step in rebuilding is just that

June 24, 1993|By Dave Anderson | Dave Anderson,New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- At last, the Mets' co-owners have used the dreaded word that is baseball's synonym for surrender. The word is rebuild.

"We're here," Fred Wilpon was saying Tuesday as Nelson Doubleday stood next to him, "to rebuild a championship team."

It's a start. In their best sincere suits, the co-owners were behind a microphone in the Diamond Club at Shea Stadium, announcing Al Harazin's resignation as chief operating officer, executive vice president and general manager, while acknowledging that Joe McIlvaine is their choice to take over the reconstruction of this fallen franchise.

"If Joe came back to us and wanted to run the team," Wilpon said, "we would be very pleased."

McIlvaine helped assemble the Mets who won the 1986 World Series; he also helped to disassemble the Mets in the seasons that followed. Even so, he's the best general manager available to assemble a new Mets team with Dallas Green, thankfully, preferring to remain as manager. Green's commanding personality is more important in the dugout than behind a desk.

McIlvaine recently resigned as the San Diego Padres' general manager after ordered to slice his player payroll. If he returns to the Mets, his problem would not be salaries.

"No one has accused us of cheaping out," Wilpon said, alluding to the club's $39 million player payroll. "We haven't cheaped out in any area. Nor will we in the future."

Doubleday talked of how quickly the Phillies suddenly emerged as a runaway first-place team this season, as if the Mets might do the same. But what will the Mets rebuild with? They need virtually an entirely new roster, position by position.

Of all the Mets players, only Bobby Bonilla is good enough, healthy enough and young enough to be considered a cornerstone for a National League East contender. Dwight Gooden, Bret Saberhagen and John Franco have pitched well when healthy, but their arms keep creating unanswered questions. Sid Fernandez will be a free agent.

Looking to next season, the Mets might need an entirely new infield. Eddie Murray won't be back at first base. Jeff Kent has not been convincing at second base. Tim Bogar is merely holding the fort at shortstop after Tony Fernandez's departure. Howard Johnson, unable to play third base now because of a mysterious virus, will be a free agent.

In center field, Darrin Jackson has yet to justify the Tony Fernandez trade. If left fielder Vince Coleman doesn't pull a hamstring muscle, maybe the Mets will be able to deal him.

More than any other position, the Mets need an all-star catcher who can hit home runs and get the most out of the pitchers. When the Mets were either winning or challenging for the National League East title, Gary Carter was as important as Gooden, Keith Hernandez or Darryl Strawberry. Without him, the Mets' batting order and pitching staff haven't been the same.

But the essence of the Mets' problem is the absence of immediate blue-chip help from their farm system. There's no Gooden there, no Strawberry there. If anything, the Mets' best prospects are still several years away. McIlvaine would need to use free agency and trades to retool the Mets for next season. And there's no guarantee that the Mets' best prospects will ever develop into impact players. Most of their recent prospects have been overrated.

McIlvaine has been fingered as one reason for the Mets' liberation or disposal of Strawberry, Lenny Dykstra, Kevin Mitchell and Wally Backman.

"You want to tell me how many games Mr. Dykstra has played since he left; you want to tell me how many games Mr. Strawberry has played since he left," Doubleday said, his voice rising in defense of those moves. "We go after talent. We don't go after citizens."

As much as anything else, the Mets will be going after a team good enough to attract the political and financial support for a domed stadium to be built around the turn of the century as part of an entertainment center not far from Shea Stadium. "Constructive entertainment," Wilpon said. "No thrill rides."

The only thrill ride would be a rebuilt Mets team good enough to win a World Series and good enough, eventually, to attract a buyer. Asked if the co-owners were considering selling the franchise now, Wilpon replied, "Absolutely not."

That's understandable. The Mets aren't worth much now. But in the nation's inflated economy, if the Mets were rebuilt into a World Series winner, the franchise will be worth $200 million. Ask the co-owners then if they might sell.

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