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COMMENTARY : The Mets Are Young, but Very Soon They Will Be Good, Too

August 20, 1995|KEN ROSENTHAL | BALTIMORE SUN

Maybe it's the New York Mets' clubhouse. Or maybe it's a mosh pit.

Half the players wear earrings. The other half look like they're on their way to see Nine Inch Nails.

"I kind of feel like an albatross," center fielder Brett Butler said last week. "Some of these kids, I could be their father."

Little did Butler know, he would soon become their former teammate. The Mets traded him to Los Angeles Friday for two minor-league outfielders.

New club motto:

Don't trust anyone over 30.

Now that Butler, Bobby Bonilla and Bret Saberhagen are gone, New York is the youngest team in baseball, with an average age of 25.9.

Joe Orsulak, 32, is the second-oldest Met behind John Franco.

The Mets have already played 17 rookies this season, and the number will exceed 20 after they make their September call-ups.

No wonder their payroll is down to $12.9 million -- a reduction of almost 50 percent from opening day, and less than what the Baltimore Orioles are paying Ben McDonald, Kevin Brown, Brady Anderson and Chris Hoiles.

This is not a small-market team stripping itself of all high-priced talent. This is a large-market team with enough intriguing prospects to shift direction.

The Orioles should be so lucky.

How ironic that the Mets are rebuilding with youth while the Orioles are going in the opposite direction, operating with an impatience normally displayed by New York teams.

Owner Peter Angelos might have the money to keep replenishing talent, but that doesn't guarantee he'll produce a winner. The Orioles might never crash like Detroit. Then again, they might never rebound like the Mets.

Perhaps it's no accident that the Orioles are 5-15 since the Bonilla trade, while the Mets are 10-8 despite also losing Saberhagen and adding only Damon Buford. Perhaps it's a sign of things to come.

In April 1992, the Mets' payroll exceeded $42 million. They finished 72-90 that season, 59-103 the next. But now, under general manager Joe McIlvaine, they might be in contention for the rest of the decade.

Will their youthful make-over sell in a city where championships are expected every season? Well, the Mets' average attendance is only 18,126. It's not like they can do much worse.

They're drawing ridicule in the tabloids -- "Attention, K-Mets Shoppers" was one recent New York Post headline -- but their young talent is the envy of baseball.

The Mets are about where Cleveland was two years ago, but with far better pitching. This is how McIlvaine helped Frank Cashen build the powerhouse Mets clubs of the mid-1980s. Now that he's the GM, he's at it again.

McIlvaine first acquired his passion for player development as a scout with the Orioles from 1974 to '76. He undertook a similar rebuilding process as the San Diego GM from 1990 to '93, but with one important difference.

"In San Diego, I did it with a gun to my head," McIlvaine said, referring to ownership's demands to trim the payroll. "In New York, I'm doing it by choice."

Not everyone believes that -- the Mets reportedly were on track to lose between $15 million and $20 million before trading Bonilla and Saberhagen. The deals saved them $3 million this season and $9 million the next.

Could the Mets have contended more quickly if they kept those two players? Probably. But now the payroll is so low, McIlvaine can plug in veterans according to need.

McIlvaine knows he can't field a team of all rookies, especially in New York, but the Mets will seriously consider playing three young outfielders next season - Jay Payton, Carl Everett and the former Oriole, Alex Ochoa.

"I've got to sit here and take the hits for a while," McIlvaine said. "I'm not afraid. It takes courage to trade guys like Bonilla and Saberhagen when you don't really have to. It can all blow up in your face."

It will, if the youngsters falter. But the Mets signed and developed more major-leaguers (59) than any team in baseball when McIlvaine ran their farm system in the '80s. They seem even more loaded now.

Right-hander Jason Isringhausen and left-hander Bill Pulsipher could be the Seaver and Koosman of the '90s, and right-hander Paul Wilson -- the No. 1 pick in the '94 draft -- may be a better prospect than both.

Juan Acevedo, Eric Ludwick -- the list of talented young starters goes on. Bobby Jones is already a quality major-league pitcher. Pete Harnisch, signed through 1997, figures to anchor the staff.

Yet, pitching is just part of it. The Mets rave about rookie second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo. And they've got a player at Triple-A, Rey Ordonez, who might be the game's next great shortstop.

Mets hitting coach Tom McCraw, the former Orioles instructor, got so tired of hearing the young Mets talk about Ordonez, he phoned Norfolk coach Ron Washington for a first-hand scouting report.

"Is he the best shortstop in the league?" McCraw asked.

"Mac," Washington replied, "he's the best shortstop in the world."

Ordonez is coming. Wilson is coming. Ochoa is coming.

"This club is going to be in contention," Butler said before departing. "It could be as soon as next year."

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