Spilled Milk Part One: What-If Trades In Met History
First off a little brown-nosing–Joe’s article on what if the Mets hadn’t made certain moves was very entertaining and thought-provoking. Nice work boss! It got me to rummaging through the cobwebs in the corners of my brain. For reasons that are now apparent, I have stored a lot Met-related information there. I also have a copy of the revised Jack Lang’s The New York Mets: 25 Years of Baseball Magic, (which is now itself 25 years old) as the source material for this story.
As has been told and retold, the Mets have made some good trades, some bad trades and some God-awful trades. But, they have also failed to pull the trigger on several deals, deals that if made would have in all probability altered the course of the franchise. Do you remember these?
1.The Mets Don’t Get Joe Torre, 1969. The Mets of the Miracle Mets era (1968-1976) were known for two things: stellar pitching and poor hitting. In an early attempt to augment a poor offense, they had a deal in place with the Atlanta Braves for Torre, who was then the Braves starting catcher. The ransom was steep: Atlanta coveted Met prospects Amos Otis and Nolan Ryan. The Mets just couldn’t pull the trigger, they where OK with letting Ryan go, but not Otis. Torre was shipped to St. Louis instead, where he hit 18/101/.289 with the Cards in 1969. His two best years followed, including an MVP season of 24/137/.363 in 1971. No Met has ever had that kind of season. Meanwhile the Mets ended up moving both Ryan and Otis anyway. In attempting to fill their hole at third base, the Mets made two of the worst trades in team history; Otis went to Kansas City for Joe Foy and Ryan to California for Jim Fregosi. While the long-term effects of this non-trade probably would have been beneficial to the Mets (an League MVP and no Fregosi curse) it’s the short term effects that give pause. With Torre on board, perhaps the Mets don’t make the Donn Clendenon trade, thus he doesn’t win the 1969 World Series MVP for the Miracle Mets. Perhaps the addition of Ryan and Otis makes Atlanta strong enough to eliminate the Mets in the 1969 NLDS. Maybe Ryan doesn’t get untracked in Atlanta either or Otis doesn’t discover cork. This one has a lot of moving parts and could be argued either way. That is unlike this next one…
2.The Mets at first accept and then reject the Los Angeles Dodgers offer of Don Sutton and two prospects for Tom Seaver, March 1976. We all know what happened next—after a protracted pissing contest for the next season and a half, the Mets shipped their franchise player to the Reds for four otherwise forgettable players. Ah, but what if the Mets had actually made the first deal they had for Seaver, swapping him for another future Hall of Famer in Sutton? Well for openers, Sutton garnered more wins (145 to 129) than did Seaver over the next ten years. And, like Seaver, Sutton was an articulate and media-savvy personality who would have fit in well in New York. Then there are the two throw-ins to the deal: first was Rick Sutcliffe, who after two cups of coffee in the majors in 1977 and 1978 wins 171 games between 1979 and 1994. The other player was outfielder Pedro Guerrero, who also broke into the majors the next year and by 1980 was a 20-homer/.300 average right fielder. By the time he wrapped up his career in 1992 with the Cardinals, Pedro had bopped 215 home runs, which would rank him third on the Mets all-time list. The Dodgers won four division titles, three NL pennants and one World title from 1977 to 1983 with some combination of those three on their roster, while the Mets never reached .500 during the same period. Perhaps a one-two punch of Sutton and Sutcliffe would have convinced management to hold on to other prominent rotation members Jerry Koosman and Jon Matlack. Guerrero could have grown into the power-hitting star that this era’s team had been long searching for. Most importantly, the malaise that gripped the team and the fan base for the next seven years after the Seaver trade to the Reds might have dissipated much earlier as the three ex-Dodgers proved their worth.
3.Lorinda de Roulet cancels the deal that would have shipped Craig Swan to the Angels for shortstop Dickie Thon, winter meetings 1979. Who is Lorinda de Roulet? She was the daughter of the former Mets owner Joan Payson. After the matriarch died and Lorinda’s father showed no interest in running the team, his widowed daughter took the reigns. When then-GM Joe McDonald had a deal in place for the diminutive Thon, Mrs. D nixed the deal when she saw a photo of Thon–then just a 20-year old rookie with the Angels—with the remarks “he’s just a baby.” That “baby” went on to amass a 15-year career. And you thought Fred Wilpon was a bad owner. There is a sad postscript to this non-deal: at the height of Thon’s career in 1984, he was beaned by the Mets’ Mike Torrez in an April game at the Astrodome. Thon, coming off a season before where he had been voted to the All-Star team and hit nearly .300, was never the same again. If he had been wearing blue and orange instead of that rainbow jersey, the beaning likely never happens.
So the late 70’s/early 80’s Mets could have had Sutton and Sutcliffe on the mound, Guerrero hitting homers and playing right, the slick-fielding Thon anchoring the infield and an influx of young talent like Jeff Reardon (no need to trade him for Ellis Valentine with Guerrero in right), John Stearns, Lee Mazzilli, Mookie Wilson, Wally Backman and Hubie Brooks either here or on the way, On the flip side, the team might never have totally collapsed in 1979, which convinced the Payson Estate to sell the team, ushering in the Frank Cashen era and the coming of the 1986 championship team. Better won-lost records also means no high draft picks and likely no Darryl Strawberry or Doc Gooden. See, it works both ways.
Next week, I’ll take a look at non-deals from the modern (1986 and beyond) era. Among them is a how future World Series MVP doesn’t leave, another non-trade that led to a world championship, a chance for a mulligan that might have brought a divisional crown and a league MVP refusing a World Series berth. Later, I’ll take a look at the current team’s situation and how history might prove a guide for moves this off season.