The Bad With A Silver Lining
Now that we’ve established The Locks on our New York Mets All-Time Traded-Away starting nine, it’s time to delve a bit deeper into the abyss of disastrous trades made by the boys from Queens. Today we’ll complete our outfield, adding a right fielder to Amos Otis in center and Lenny Dykstra in left (yes, we know that’s not Lenny’s natural position, but since this is a post on the Mets, we feel free to take liberties in playing people out of position).
We will also start to flesh out the infield that will support Tom Terrific and Nolan (the good news for this squad is that those two legendary hurlers strike out a lot of batters, so sure-handed defenders are merely optional), by adding a third baseman to the mix, along with a second sacker.
Two of the three deals we’ll chronicle today fall into the controversial category (although after reading this you’ll see as I do that while no deal rivals the Ryan-Fregosi tragedy, these were pretty darn bad). The third is one mostly forgotten, but in retrospect, another brutally poor lapse in talent evaluation by the Mets front office that ended up sending a rival to the World Series.
Right field: As the Mets finally began to build out a legitimate farm system in the late-’60’s, their outfield of the future started to take shape. The aforementioned Amos Otis was “untouchable number 1” when prospective trade partners came calling. Their other “untouchable” position player was a young, switch-hitting, right fielder named Ken Singleton. The Mets’ brass were right to view Singleton as a cornerstone piece in the franchise’s future, but unfortunately it wasn’t the Mets’ future he would impact, as he was traded to the Expos prior to the ’72 season, in a trade broadly touted as a huge win for New York.
Here’s where it gets controversial, as the headline in the Singleton trade was none other than Le Grand Orange himself. With Rusty starting in right, the Mets would nearly dethrone the A’s in the 1973 Fall Classic, and the charming lefty quickly became a fan favorite. The problem is that he was only the second-best right fielder involved in that trade.
In reality, it turns out Singleton could swing every bit as potent a bat as Rusty. In fact, while Yogi, Tug, Millan and Tom Terrific led that 1973 Ya Gotta Believe run to the NL pennant, Singleton was quietly putting up 23 dingers with 103 RBI’s, while stroking a cool .302 up in Montreal (Staub had a solid ’73 season also, with 15 HR’s, 76 RBI’s and a .279 average — but it didn’t compare to what Kenny was doing north of the border).
And in a disturbing pattern all too familiar to Mets fans past and present, the Expos hadn’t been willing to settle for only the Mets most can’t-miss outfield prospect since Amos Otis, they wanted additional assets beyond young Mr. Singleton in order to part ways with THE Rusty Staub. So, of course the Mets obliged.
In addition to Singleton, the Mets shipped out shortstop Tim Foli, who had been the number 1 overall pick in the MLB amateur draft back in 1968. Truth be told, I never liked Foli as a kid (probably because he took AB’s away from Buddy Harrelson), but the guy totaled over 1500 hits in his MLB career, and picked up a ring as the starting shortstop on the We Are Family Pirates in ’79.
But wait there’s more. The Mets had offered the untouchable Singleton, plus former first overall pick Foli, but to ensure the deal went through, they threw in Mike Jorgensen, a young, lefty hitting first baseman with an awesome glove. Jorgensen wasn’t going to get much playing time behind John Milner and Eddie Kranepool in New York, but went on to start the next few years in Montreal and ultimately put together a decent, 17-year career in the majors (that included a second stint in Flushing in the early-’80’s).
So to total it up, the Mets gave up three top prospects who would all go on to have long and productive major league careers. Singleton, Foli and Jorgensen would collectively accumulate over 4300 base hits during the course of their careers, and in return the Mets received four years of Rusty, who’s most productive years at the plate were before and after his first stint at Shea (more on that in Part 3).
Yes, I know it’s become somewhat blasphemous to ever say anything that could be construed as negative about Rusty Staub if you are a Mets fan today, but this isn’t about Rusty, it’s about the Mets dealing Singleton! Side by side, Ken Singleton was the better player. Period.
Third Base: Here’s another controversy coming your way. If you are a Mets fan old enough to remember the ’86 World Series winners, you loved that team. Top to bottom. Rough and tumble, bold and brash — from manager Davey Johnson saying in spring training that he didn’t just want to win, he wanted to dominate, to Gary Carter’s rah rah fist pump to the crowd after every homer, to Ray Knight cold-cocking Eric Davis when the Reds outfielder slid into third spikes high — they were aggressive in every way.
It was a fantastically wild and wonderful romp through the regular season, followed by one of the most memorable, exciting and entertaining post seasons ever (and I’m talking baseball history here, not just Mets history, and this is not homerism folks — already anticipating a snarky reply from my favorite Sox fan with the “so-so reputation” on FaceBook).
We all lament the fact that this awesome squad only came away with one world championship in the ’80’s. Blame Straw’s broken thumb in ’85 and Doc’s suspension for coke in ’87, or Scoscia’s flukey homer in the NLCS in ’88, but whatever the reason, we only got the one.
To me, the key reason the team dropped off from 108-game winners in 1986 to second place in ’87, had less to do with Gooden’s suspension (remember, when he was suspended, the remaining starters — Ron Darling, Bob Ojeda, Sid Fernandez, Rick Aguilera — were still far and away the NL’s best rotation), than it did the terrible trade they had made that offseason, when they sent star-in-the-making Kevin Mitchell to San Diego, in return for ho-hum Kevin McReynolds.
And let the debate begin. To this day I run into McReynolds supporters who say he was the best left fielder in franchise history. Puh-lease. He was slow. I know, he stole bases, but everything about him was so darn slooooow. He never seemed to fit the mold of that brazen bunch that ran away with things in ’86, and always appeared uncomfortable under the bright lights and intense scrutiny of New York City.
It took the guy ten minutes to finish a sentence when interviewed, he rarely showed emotion, and while he put up numbers during his time in Flushing, his bland personality and lack of fire to me symbolized what “just missed” about those teams of ’87 and ’88. All that talent on paper should have delivered multiple championships, yet that killer instinct spark was never quite there other than in ’86.
Now Mitch, on the other hand, was the ultimate warrior and a winner. By now we all know well the tired backstory that the Mets painstakingly put out there following the trade, saying that they worried about what a bad influence he was on Doc and Darryl (seems to me those two managed to find plenty of trouble on their own for decades after Mitch was shipped out of town), but what I remember vividly was that Kevin Mitchell was a great teammate on that awesome ’86 squad.
He was the first guy out of the dugout when trouble started on the field, and known throughout the league as one guy not to be messed with. He played all over the diamond, with surprising defensive dexterity (anyone remember that when we first saw Kevin Mitchell appear in blue and orange he was starting at shortstop?), and his hit in the 10th inning comeback of Game 6 will forever be remembered as one of the most meaningful and memorable in Mets franchise history. All in his rookie year.
And we traded him for “aw shucks” Kevin McReynolds. Of course Mitchell would go on to win the MVP in 1989 (can you believe 47 dings and 125 RBI’s playing his home games at Candlestick Park — that is McCovey-esque!) and post three different years of at least 30 round trippers. McReynolds’ contribution to the MVP conversation was having just good enough a year in 1988 to take away votes from Darryl Strawberry (who should have won the award going away), thus allowing Kirk Gibson to sneak in and steal the hardware with the New York voters divided.
Yes, McReynolds was more consistent than Mitch, and had more longevity, but I’m practically falling asleep typing this sentence as I conjure up memories of his time as a Met. Pencil in Kevin Mitchell as our third baseman on the All-Traded nine — give me fire, intangibles and a great teammate over old whatshisname any day of the week. Best I can offer the McReynolds apologists is this “silver lining” — he was better than Fregosi.
Second Base: Quick, when the Mets traded David Cone to the Blue Jays at the deadline in 1992, who’d they get in return? Yes, Coney nearly made our All-Time Traded-Away list, too, but the deadline deal we made in trading him back in 1991 was a necessity, as the Mets were heading into one of their many “dark periods” and Cone was up for a new contract coming off consecutive strikeout titles. Plus, we did receive a future MVP in return.
The Mets side of the Cone deal included an athletic, but ultimately awkward and ineffective outfielder, named Ryan Thompson. Joining Thompson in heading to New York was a rookie infielder named Jeff Kent, who conjured up memories of the great welterweight Roberto Duran (“hands of stone”) when he played the field.
The Kent Years barely register for me as I think back on that time. These were the years of Bobby Bonilla wearing ear plugs and Brett Saberhagen spraying bleach in the direction of reporters. Of Vince Coleman casually tossing fire crackers at autograph seekers while manager Jeff Torborg sat by stone-faced, letting the inmates run the clubhouse asylum.
Who had time to pay attention to a board-handed infielder who flashed occasional power but gained more notoriety for being a lousy teammate (he threw a very public tantrum late in his first year as a Met when the veterans hid his clothes as part of a rookie hazing prank) and prickly interview? All while managing to annually be among the league leaders in errors at two infield positions.
Yup, the Jeff Kent that graced Shea with his presence from the end of 1992 through the middle of 1996 looked nothing like the guy who San Francisco Giants fans insist belongs in the Hall of Fame. And while I don’t think Kent should sniff the Hall (although I do appreciate the fact that he was the one guy in the Giants clubhouse that gave it right back to Barry Bonds when the steroid king was being an ass), I do see their point, because like Mitchell, once he escaped New York the guy posted some sick numbers.
However the Mets were either unwilling or unable to see the potential of the young infielder, so they shipped him off to Cleveland at the ’96 deadline for Carlos Baerga. You remember Baerga, right?
At the time, we Mets fans celebrated this deal. Baerga appeared to be the second baseman possessing the future Hall of Fame trajectory, and Kent was, well, Kent.
He of the prickly personality and cheesy mustache had remained terrible in the field (by the time we traded him he’d shifted to third, where he made 21 errors in 89 games at the time of the midseason deal — not a misprint), and unimposing as the five-hole hitter for another in a long line of underachieving, terrible Mets clubs.
So what does Kemp do once he sheds the blue and orange? I cringe to even recount the numbers, so we’ll go with rough averages. For the nine years beginning with his first year at Candlestick for the Giants in ’97, through his first year with the Dodgers in 2005 (this includes his two-year stint as an Astro in ’03-’04), all Kemp did was mash to the tune of:
*28 homers a year
*110 RBI’s a year
*40 doubles a year
All while consistently hitting around .300, making 5 All Star teams and crushing it (.334, 33 HR’s, 125 RBI’s) during his MVP season of 2000 (of course we see that those were the steroid years, so while maybe we don’t add an asterisk, it does warrant at least a “hmmmm” — teammate of Barry Bonds — double-hmmmmm). And while never to be confused with a legend like Doug Flynn when flashing the leather, he did learn to catch most of what came right at him while in the field.
Meanwhile we got Baerga, who immediately showed us all that he’d left his best years behind him in Cleveland. In fact, Baerga’s Mets legacy today is that his teammates unmercifully teased him about the size of his enormous head, accurately comparing him to a real life Mr. Met.
The silver lining here? A bit of a stretch, but by moving out the borderline HOF-er Kent in favor of the washed up Baerga, ultimately it forced the Mets to try upstart Edgardo Alfonso as their full-time second baseman. This move, made from desperation, allowed Alfonso to produce two incredible offensive and defensive years in ’99 and 2000 that spurred the Mets to their first back to back playoff appearances in team history.
Now our All-Time Traded-Away team is rounding into shape. We’ve got Seaver and Ryan going deep into games as our starters, with Reardon relieving on the rare occasion when one of our horses doesn’t author a complete game.
Our outfield is set, with what should have been our center and right combination for the entire decade of the ’70’s now reunited on our squad — Otis’ blazing speed in center making up for the fact that Singleton didn’t cover much ground over in right (sorry guys, but neither did Rusty). Nails rounds out our outfield, and he’s joined by two MVP’s anchoring our infield — Kevin Mitchell at third and Jeff Kent at second.
Next up we’ll fill in the final blanks with our “Worst of the Rest” deals, and rest assured there are some great names still to be bandied about, as the treasure trove of bad trades runs deep in Mets-land.