Enigma – The New York Mets Farm System, Part 1

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An important part of my job, it seems to me, is that by covering a MLB club as an organization, rather than as a 25-man roster, I will have fuller understanding of the decisions the major league club makes. It’s fairer, in my mind anyway, to judge the end results of any given club’s execution in this manner.

Like the professional ballplayers they cover, some writers gain this type of perspective by starting their careers in the minor leagues, covering the Single-A to Triple-A clubs of the team they will eventually cover. Why more writers aren’t trained this way, I’m not sure, but when the result is people like Adam Rubin, the former longtime New York Daily News beat writer for the Mets – who now works for ESPN New York – it’s a pretty good argument.

Despite nearly a decade of comprehensive coverage of the Mets, Rubin is best known for his exclusive news-breaking stories that exposed former VP of Player Development Ton Bernazard’s long-criticized management style. Even more noteworthy, Mets GM Omar Minaya questioned Rubin’s integrity in the presser to announce the Bernazard firing, making the Wharton Business school graduate wonder if he would ever be able to cover the team again.

Now, before you start thinking, “here goes Healey with another Bernazard-bashing column”, I bring this up for a reason. First of all, I also began my career providing “organizational coverage” of the Mets, and have done since 2001. During that time, I have seen three regimes in action, so I have some perspective in this area.

Secondly, it is my contention that the Mets’ system, as it is viewed today, might have a better reputation simply because of the removal of its former overseer.

***

SI.com Jon Heyman called the newfound respect and promising performances of youngsters Ike Davis, Miguel Tejada and Jenry Mejia in Spring Training “one of the top stories of spring training”. While it’s true that these prospects are giving hope to many Mets fans that the club’s long term future might be more promising then it looked six months ago, Heyman also states “it’s too late to give ex-Mets exec Tony Bernazard his job back, but if removing his shirt and being impolite once or twice were his only faults, firing him seems like a bad call now.”

Let’s leave that aside for the moment.

Heyman is not the only pundit giving the Mets system better grades of late.

“It’s fashionable in New York to bash their system, but productive international scouting continues to bail out their draft efforts, which are repeatedly hamstrung by ownership’s refusal to exceed slot in the first few rounds.” – Keith Law, ESPN

Law ranked the Mets’ system at #15 among MLB clubs, an improvement over the previous winter, when he ranked them #17. Not a huge jump, but when you consider he upgraded his ranking after a full season of play, rather than a few meaningless ST games, that’s a fairer opinion.

Other observers were less than optimistic about eight months ago.

“… The hard facts are the Mets’ farm system is among the worst in baseball. All you need is to look at what has transpired this year where the best the system has been able to offer in the face of all the injuries are Argenis Reyes, Nick Evans, Wilson Valdez, thrice-released Angel Berroa and Fernando Nieve, a March waiver claim from the Astros. “ – Bill Madden, July 23, 2009 NY Daily News

As with most issues, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Perhaps the person that puts it best once worked in the Mets minor league system, and has dealt with them on a adversarial basis since leaving a few years ago.

“Do they have good players in their system? Sure. (But) having talent is only one part of the equation. Developing that talent … getting it ready for the majors — and preparing the kids for life in a big city with a team that is expected to win are others. The Mets have to prove they can do that on a consistent basis.” – Former Mets minor league employee, now an AL team official.

Several folks we spoke to talked about Bernazard and his staff’s inability to determine which players would benefit from being rushed through the system and the others that needed extra seasoning. Others maintain that Bernazard’s constant presence in minor league clubhouses interfered with some of the minor league skippers’ ability to delegate authority and maintain discipline.

Finally, said a former Mets scout, it was Bernazard’s background as a “Player’s Association guy” and a “glory hound” that doomed him, and created much of the criticism of the Mets system.

“It was more a disorganized mess than a lack of talent. If you didn’t agree with Tony about a player, he either dismissed your opinion, or tried to fire you. If any of the managers wanted to fine or discipline one of Tony’s guys, there’s be hell to play and a visit to remind the (manager) just who was the big man in town. You have to remember this guy worked for the union when he retired, not for a ball club. He was used to getting patted on the back by players and their agents for helping them in negotiating with clubs. He never had to work with the baseball people in the trenches, where ego and bravado is quickly dismissed as “horsebleep”. When it comes to it, Tony wanted everyone to kiss his ass, and refused to kiss anyone else’s.

Could despising one guy be responsible for trashing a whole system? It appears so. Outside of one player agent, nearly every single scout, baseball official and team executive I spoke to in recent years had negative things to say about the Mets, their system, and Tony Bernazard.

Lots of “extremely difficult to work with, or for”, or to meet with halfway”, and yet no one ever offered the “but the system is in good shape.”

Even to biggest of Bernazard critics, of whom I am one, can see the Mets’ farm system is no longer a joke, that’s for sure. But if Bernazard’s only infractions have been shirt removal and f-bombs at security guards, he’d still have a job. Also, it’s hard to imagine new Minor League coordinator Terry Collins or Single-A Brooklyn Cyclones manager Wally Backman having been hired if Bernazard was still around.

However, if you’re going to give him the heat for being his own worst enemy, you also have to recognize that the system does have talent, and he is at least deserving of some of the credit for that.

Mark Healey is the Online Editor for Baseball Digest, and the host of Baseball Digest LIVE. He is also the founder and Executive Editor of Gotham Baseball. Follow him on Twitter at @BaseballDigest9

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