Reggie Jackson famously declared that he was the straw that stirs the drink, when he compared his 1977 New York Yankees to a cocktail, in that it needed the proper ingredients and balance for it to be flavorful and have just the right amount of kick. He claims he was misquoted when he mentioned that Thurman Munson could only stir it bad, but his analogy of mixing a cocktail to building a team was insightful. Each successful team, like a cocktail, needs balance -- too much of one ingredient or not enough of another can spoil the overall effect. Whatever analogy one wants to use -- mixing a cocktail, cooking a meal, building a sandwich (if Reggie used the sandwich metaphor, it's possible we'd be remembering a different quote: "I'm the Marshmallow Fluff that holds the Fluffernutter together") -- piecing together a team is an art form, with careful construction and a well-thought-out plan needed. There are numerous philosophies when it comes to compiling a roster (or a sandwich for that matter), and we presently have three local examples, all in different phases of putting their teams together. The New York Rangers have spent the last few years building their 2011-'12 squad, and they're now one of the top teams in the NHL. The New York Knicks are just now quickly piecing together their team for this season. And the New York Mets are dismantling their team, in the hopes of assembling a competitive team in the future, and one that will contend long-term.
While the Rangers and Knicks have shared a philosophical outlook on roster building in the past, which mainly comprised of spending a whole lot of money and bringing in big names in an attempt to fill up Madison Square Garden, they went in opposite directions this time around. The Rangers have built from within, using homegrown talent and youth to form a core, and then signed a couple of high-priced free agents, along with a few role players, for the finishing touch. And right now it's working. With Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan Callahan, Derek Stepan, Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, Dan Girardi, Michael Sauer and Michael Del Zotto, not to mention Marc Staal and the traded-for Ryan McDonagh, comprising the nucleus of the team, they didn't have any need to take a flyer on aging free agents or names that may not have been New York-friendly. Instead, they brought in only two high-priced free agents, Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards, who both filled a need, namely offensive production, and who are both in the prime of their careers. There are no square pegs in round holes, Theo Fleury-like disasters or taking a chance on an Eric Lindros. Gaborik and Richards have shined in the Broadway lights and have seamlessly fit into a team-first concept. Glen Sather finally went the patient route, and the team is now set up to contend for years to come, with just the right balance of defense, scoring (though they could always use a little more), physicality and, yes, it helps to have one of the elite goaltenders in the NHL, in Lundqvist.
The NBA, of course, is a whole different animal than the NHL. It's a league of stars, and while the Knicks (in the name of Donnie Walsh) also had to use patience as a key to their philosophical outlook on rebuilding, the patience they employed involved jettisoning one overpaid underperformer after another, extinguishing all the pain and damage that Isiah Thomas thrust onto the franchise in his failed tenure running the team (into the ground). But after Walsh completed his miracle cleansing, there wasn't much waiting around when the dismantling was done and the replenishing of the roster began, as the Knicks jumped quickly to attain a pair of superstars in Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. Tyson Chandler joined them to form the nucleus, and the few homegrown players they have are young and mostly unproven complementary players, such as Landry Fields, Toney Douglas and Iman Shumpert. The stars came first, and role players were put into place around them. While their future success is still up in the air, the Knicks finally have a team that can begin to contend, with a few pieces here and there still to be added, but the days of starting from scratch once again are over, at least for the foreseeable future.
The Mets find themselves where the Knicks were a few years ago. Sandy Alderson gets to play the role of Donnie Walsh. Omar Minaya certainly won't be lumped in with Isiah Thomas, as I wouldn't wish that comparison on anybody, and Minaya unquestionably did some good things, as his team did make it to the seventh game of the NLCS, which Thomas' teams never came close to doing. It's the Wilpons themselves who have soiled their own franchise, in many ways, and Alderson has to remake the team in spite of, and because of, his owners (though Walsh had his own Wilpons to contend with, in James Dolan). The Mets GM is now in the dismantling portion of the process, though the team still has a few stars left, with David Wright and Johan Santana and a possible soon-to-be-star in Ike Davis, but what each has left or how they'll perform in the future is a question mark, and Alderson may dump one, two or even all three players in the rebuilding process. All signs point to Alderson taking the Rangers' approach. He sees Zach Wheeler, Matt Harvey, Jenrry Mejia, Jeurys Familia, Brandon Nimmo and other prospects as the core of the future. With Jose Reyes already gone, and the possibility of Wright and Santana not around for the long haul, it's doubtful Alderson and the Mets will take a quick-fix approach like the Knicks did. But in baseball, it takes more than two stars to contend. A team needs a full 25-man roster, with players fitting different roles and taking up different percentages of the payroll. And often the road to success is a long, painful process.
Walsh left the Knicks in good standing and with the cap space and flexibility to field a winning team. So now we'll see how Alderson leaves things for the Mets. He may be around for years to come or he may be a fly-by-night, in-and-out GM, the way Walsh was. But his job is to fix the Mets, one way or another. Walsh was the Wolf, cleaning up Thomas' mess, and he did so with remarkable execution, and then he (kind of ) disappeared. Will Alderson be able to work the same magic? He may take a page out of Walsh's book, but he'll most likely be using the Rangers' blueprint, with youth first and free agents added later, when it's time to stop the wrecking ball, and start the real team-building process.