We are diving right into this one. Our All-Time Traded-Away squad needs filling out with a first baseman, shortstop and catcher. It could get a little tricky as we complete our starting nine, but fortunately these are the Mets we are talking about, and kind of like one of those cheap, Russian dolls, every time we think we’ve come to the end there’s another ugly, bad deal that pops up to remind of us just how deep this virus runs.
Worst of the Rest
I’ve already probed into the depth of despair felt by legions of Mets fans back on June 15th, 1977, when the Mets officially waved the white flag to the rest of the National League for what would become a seven year run of futility, sending Tom Terrific — The Franchise — to the Cincinnati Reds for four spare parts.
Due to the magnitude of that move, as well as the disastrous return we received back for Seaver, there was a dubious undercard to the Seaver deal delivered to the Mets faithful that night that has been widely ignored through the years.
Not unlike when we sweetened the Ryan deal by adding in Leroy Stanton, or bolstered the Singleton package with the inclusion of Foli and Jorgensen, the Mets decided to go big on that June evening 41 years ago.
If nothing else, I suppose we should give credit where credit is due. Let’s duly acknowledge that when it came to making awful trades that could suck the soul out of an entire, adoring fan base, the Mets were a combination of the ’27 Yankees and the Big Red Machine of ’75 and ’76. And the second deal consummated that June night was the exclamation point at the end of M. Donald Grant’s epitaph of ineptitude.
First Base: With Seaver gone, the Mets still had the two big-time lefties, Jerry Koosman and Jon Matlack, at the front of their starting rotation. The problem was, there was little in the way of offense to support them. Never known for their lumber to begin with, the Mets had somehow stumbled upon their first-ever, true slugger in 1976, when Dave Kingman came aboard.
Kong had been purchased by the Mets in the winter of 1975 from the San Francisco Giants for $150,000, and proceeded to come within a single jack of leading the majors in dingers that ’76 season, finishing second to Mike Schmidt with 37 (and this was despite missing 39 games to injury). Known for his epic strike out totals and low batting average, as much as for his tape measure homers, Kingman quickly became a favorite of pre-teens like SportsBro and Patrick, who were desperate for something positive to root for as hopes of another pennant grew dimmer by the day.
So with his big cleanup hitter off to a slow start in ’77 (nine homers through his first 58 games), Grant decided to clear the lone power threat in the lineup off the books, along with Tom Terrific, by trading Kingman to the Padres.
As a side note, this deal began an unusual odyssey for Kong in ’77, as the Padres hung onto him for another 56 games before sending him up the California coast to the Angels. The Halos only kept him around for 36 AB’s (he hit .194 as an Angel) before sending him back east to New York, where he finished the season in pinstripes. The reason this was noteworthy? At the time, he became the first player to homer for four different teams in the same season — congrats to the Big Man!
As a second Kingman side note, all Mets fans remember we reacquired the 6 foot 6 strikeout machine before the 1981 season (and he actually totaled 37 dingers again for us the following year in 1982 — despite hitting a meager .204), and in a seemingly serendipitous bit of symmetry, the player the Mets sent packing to the Cubs in return was none other than Stevie Henderson (one of the headliners in the ’77 Seaver purge). Again, can’t make this stuff up.
But back to that dark day of June, 1977. The Padres, never mistaken for one of the shrewder franchises around MLB, took on Kingman by agreeing to send two players back to Flushing in return. One was an ever-forgettable, right-handed reliever named Paul Siebert (who would close out his major league in Flushing in 1978 by going 0-2 with a 5.14 ERA). The second?
None other than a utility infielder, with a “cat who just ate the canary” grin nearing the end of a lackluster playing career, by the name of Bobby Valentine. Valentine fit right in with the Mets post-trade-deadline lineup of banjo hitters, posting a .133 average (you really can’t make this stuff up) the rest of the way in ’77, flailing away futilely over 89 overmatched AB’s.
Yup, Siebert (maybe the Mets thought it kind of sounded like “Seaver” and we’d forget we’d traded The Franchise) and Bobby V in return for the only slugger, at that point in Mets history, any Mets fan had ever paid good money to see take aim at the Shea bleachers wearing blue and orange.
One last note on Kong, only because his career trajectory is fascinating. The Mets, sensing for the second time he was washed up, released the big man following the 1983 season. He signed later that winter as a free agent with the A’s, where he would spend the final three seasons of his career.
In those three campaigns in Oakland, Kingman would go for 35 HR’s and 118 RBI’s in ’84; 30 and 91 in ’85; and 35 and 94 in ’86. And after that he was forced to retire (with 442 career round-trippers) because no other club was willing to pick him up. Was he really that bad in the clubhouse? Must have been.
I believe we have found our first baseman.
Shortstop: I almost went with Tim Foli here, but felt that would be double-dipping since we’d given him prominent coverage in the Singleton-Staub trade that brought the All-Time Traded-Away squad our right-fielder. Then I thought about moving Kevin Mitchell over from third, but the idea of a middle-infield of Jeff Kent and Mitch (even with Seaver and Ryan striking out 15 batters every start) seemed too scary to take a chance on, so I went with a glove.
Back in the early-’80’s when the sainted Frank Cashen began his herculean task of restoring pride and dignity to the train wreck that had become of the New York Mets baseball club, the first thing the new GM did was to invest heavily in his farm system (while trying to distract the paying customers by signing has beens like George Foster, and trading for the likes of Ellis Valentine and Kingman at the major league level).
Cashen and the team’s new talent evaluators began to put together a strong group of minor leaguers, many of whom would form the nucleus of the ’86 championship club. But even Cashen wasn’t immune to erring on the side of trying to upgrade his roster as the team slowly improved and the stakes creeped higher. When the Mets surprised the rest of the league by going neck and neck with the Cubs in ’84 before fading at the finish, Cashen was only just getting started with his fine tuning.
One of the highly touted youngsters Cashen and co. had rushed to the majors in an effort to demonstrate to the fans some hope for the future (before his bat was close to ready), was Jose Oquendo. Oquendo was the starter at short for the last of those uncompetitive Mets clubs of the ’80’s — the ’83 squad that went 68-94.
Jose had arrived at Shea having just turned 20, back in the spring of 1983, showing off a slick glove but little else. He played 120 games and posted 328 AB’s in his rookie campaign, but couldn’t hit a lick, coming in at .213 with a single HR and only 17 RBI’s. He hung around as a backup in 1984 before Cashen shipped him to St. Louis in April of ’85.
Those of us who despised the “White Rat,” Whitey Herzog, and his arrogant gang of speedsters on those Cardinals clubs of the mid- to late-’80’s, recall that making a deal with Whitey and the Redbirds in those days was the kiss of death. And from 1986 through 1991, the former-Met Oquendo became the original Swiss Army Knife for those St. Louis teams that seemed to delight in tormenting us Mets fans, stealing two division titles that rightfully belonged to us, in 1985 and 1987.
Oquendo, anointed by Herzog the Cardinals’ “Secret Weapon,” played great defense all over the diamond and even displayed deceptive power in the alleys (the Cards’ crappy astroturf definitely helped his numbers, as balls skidded all over that outfield). He even pitched mop up a few times, including throwing four (not a misprint) innings in a 1988 contest (he walked six, gave up four hits and two runs, but what the heck was Whitey thinking? Four innings?), ultimately getting tagged with the loss. He was a staple of those great defensive clubs in St. Louis, ultimately retiring a Cardinal following the 1995 season.
In return for the man who would become the White Rat’s secret weapon, the Mets got back another shortstop, Angel Salazar, who would never play a single game for the Mets.
So let’s plug in Oquendo between Mitch and Kent, and with Kong over at first we’ll hope that every grounder heads in the general vicinity of Jose, while the three sluggers await their next turn at bat.
Pinch Hitter: I needed to get back to Rusty, lest the haters out there think I completely dissed the man we all came to revere in blue and orange. The reality is that despite how bad that ’72 trade was that landed Le Grand Orange in New York, we compounded our mistake four years later, blundering yet again when we shipped him out of town. I noted earlier that Rusty’s best offensive years occurred both before and after his first stint in Flushing. Let’s examine a few of the “after” campaigns.
One could argue that Rusty’s finest years at the plate anywhere came in a Detroit Tiger uniform between the years of 1976 and 1978 (Staub’s best year as a Met happened to be his last one in ’75, when he went for 19 HR’s and 105 RBI’s — the latter a Mets record at the time).
But in ’76, Rusty’s first year as a Tiger, he hit .299 with 15 HR’s and ’96 RBI’s. In 1977 he piled on with 22 HR’s and 101 RBI’s, and then completely tore up the Junior Circuit in ’78, clubbing 24 dingers to go along with 121 ribbies. Apparently he did still have something left in the tank.
Okay, so back to the winter of ’75. Sensing that Staub was over the hill (anyone else seeing a pattern emerging here?), the Mets made their deal with Detroit, shipping the redhead to the Tigers in an effort to bolster the blue and orange starting pitching (apparently having Seaver, Koosman and Matlack in the rotation wasn’t enough, so they moved their best lefty bat to add to this strength — SMH even now, 43 years later).
Coming to Shea in return for Rusty was one of the American League’s most outstanding and unsung left-handers, Mickey Lolich. The problem for Mets fans was that the Amazins weren’t getting the Lolich that out-dueled Bob Gibson to deliver the 1968 World Series to Detroit, winning three games and Series MVP in the process. Or the Lolich that won 25 games and struck out 308 batters in 1971. Instead, the Mets were getting the Lolich who had turned 35 the prior September, and had lost 39 games in his final two campaigns in Motor City.
So while Rusty was endearing himself to yet another city (500+ hits for four different franchises — only ballplayer to accomplish the feat) and making the All Star team in his first year in Detroit, poor Lolich was being regularly booed off the mound in his one year at Shea, going 8-13 for what would be the last Mets club to finish above .500 for quite some time.
Of course Rusty returned to us in 1981, and resumed his role as a wildly popular good will ambassador, as well as a terrific pinch hitter and back up first baseman until his retirement after the 1985 season. For that, plus the ’73 NL Pennant run, we had to find a way to get him into this lineup, and the mostly-forgotten Lolich deal has certainly earned him his spot.
Catcher: And this brings us to the end of the line, as we fill out the All-Time Traded-Away lineup card. For a fitting conclusion to this exercise, we identify yet another anomaly that only a franchise with the checkered history of the New York Mets could come up with.
There isn’t a single catcher eligible for our team. As Casey would say, “you can look it up.” And I did.
Since the inaugural season of 1962 under Mr. Stengal’s watch, there have been 95 men who have strapped on the tools of ignorance behind the plate for the blue and orange (Jerry Grote played the most games, with 1176, followed by Piazza with 826, if you were wondering). Not one of the 95 was dealt away in a trade that we can describe as worthy of a handful of Advils today.
How could a franchise that traded both Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver during their primes not have made a bad deal involving a catcher? Well, some things just can’t be explained, I suppose.
Not to be deterred, we will pivot in the opposite direction to complete our roster. Stepping into bizarro-land, we revert back to the most lopsided trade in our history that actually falls in our “plus column,” where the catcher involved actually acquired us a star in the making!
Yes, we are going back in time to the offseason following our hallowed championship run of 1986, when we sent packing our beloved backup catcher, Ed Hearn, for some kid out in Kansas City none of us had ever heard of, but supposedly threw hard and had a catchy last name.
But oh how we all loved Ed Hearn! Kid Carter’s caddy had become a favorite of us all during the magical ride of 1986. He always seemed to hit a double and drive in two runs on those days Carter was given a rest, while capably managing that awesome pitching staff. And on top of all that, he was one of the most affable guys ever to be interviewed post-game by Ralph Kiner. Surely the bespectacled, always smiling Mr. Hearn would take the reigns from Carter one day, producing his own prolific numbers as a number one backstop. Or so we all thought.
And that’s why I, for one, was not at all happy when we dealt Hearn away for some farm hand. In return came young David Cone. Yup, Cashen got this one right and then some. Hearn never amounted to anything close to a star in his two injury-plagued years as a Royal, and we all came to adore Coney, perhaps the most enjoyable Mets pitcher to see hurl in person, alongside ’85 Doc and Tom Terrific.
So raise a glass for Ed Hearn! Someone had to catch this squad, and who would have guessed that in the Mets’ storied and infamous history we’d never made a bad deal at catcher (hopefully I didn’t just jinx us — does this mean Kevin Plawecki is destined for stardom when we move him this offseason?).
There it is — the New York Mets All-Time Traded-Away Team
P — Tom Seaver
P — Nolan Ryan
RP — Jeff Reardon
CF — Amos Otis
RF — Ken Singleton
LF — Lenny Dykstra
1B — Dave Kingman
2B — Jeff Kent
SS — Jose Oquendo
3B — Kevin Mitchell
PH — Rusty Staub
C — Ed Hearn
And yes, the Hearn for Cone trade reference could plant a seed for a future (much shorter) post on all the good deals the Metropolitans have made in their history.
Enjoy the weekend everybody!