The Mets: Can They Avoid “That Deal?”

There is a passage in Jack Lang’s excellent Mets history book about an early 1970’s confrontation between Lang and then Mets Chairman of the Board M. Donald Grant over Lang’s newspaper column ripping a trade that Grant had orchestrated. “You said we had to make a deal and we made one,” Grant reportedly snarled. “Now that we made one, you’re killing us.” “I said you had to make a deal,” Lang replied, “but I didn’t say you had to make that deal.” This exchange occurred outside the Mets’ TV broadcast booth and grew so heated that Ralph Kiner had to close the booth door to prevent any additional foul language from going out on the air. Ah, good times!

For the record, “That Deal” was the infamous Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi trade. You can probably understand why Grant got so defensive.

In an offseason where they have to do something, the danger of making “That Deal” looms very large. Check the comments section of any Mets news posted online, the remaining faithful are disgusted and are drifting perilously close to apathetic indifference. Ticket sales and TV/Radio ratings reflect this. Even Matt Cerrone has the blues. These are desperate times and I feel some concern that in response, the Mets will make a desperate and ill-conceived move. But, they won’t trade away another young pitching prospect for an over the hill infielder again; they’re not that dumb, right? Well before you answer…

“That Deal” seems to be in the Mets DNA. I started rooting for them during 1970’s when it seemed the only trades they could make were bad ones: the Ryan trade, four insignificant players for Tom Seaver; an in-his-prime Rusty Staub for an over the hill Mickey Lolich; slugging Dave Kingman for gimpy Bobby Valentine. They swapped relief legend Tug McGraw to Philadelphia for John Stearns. The latter became known as “hard-nosed.” McGraw became known as “World Series star.” They had a few good trades here and there, but for the most part, the bad deals weren’t just bad, they were disasters.

Then came the early 1980’s and GM Frank Cashen, who seemed to have the magic touch. But, “That Deal” syndrome caught up to him with a vengeance later in the decade and in short order he traded away a World Series championship team for a collection of players who failed to live up to expectations. Meanwhile the players he banished, including Lenny Dykstra, Rick Aguilera and Kevin Mitchell, helped the Phillies, Twins and Giants respectively, to pennants, each playing a key role on their new team. The Cashen era ended with the signing of Vince Coleman. Anyone who thinks that Jason Bay was the Worst Free Agent Signing Ever apparently doesn’t remember Vince Coleman.

Fast forward to the mid 1990’s and now Joe McIlvaine, one of Cashen’s old protégés, is the GM. You could argue that non-deals for the highly touted Generation K arms where Joe’s ultimate undoing, but at the time, McIlvaine was simply following the conventional wisdom of stockpiling young arms (uh-oh). What really got Joe into trouble was “That Deal” he made with the Orioles, trading a now-unwanted Bobby Bonilla to for Alex Ochoa. Bonilla didn’t go on to superstardom, but Ochoa’s poor play gave credence to the whispers that McIlvaine wasn’t doing his homework and limited his scouting on Ochoa to reading Baseball America. This apparent poor work ethic bothered the higher-ups so much that in the middle of 1997 the Wilpons replaced him with Steve Phillips. The fun soon began.

Phillips got off to a great start, including having the incredible luck of getting Mike Piazza dropped on his lap. The period from 1997-2002 were heady times for Mets fans. The rise of the Internet soon spawned an electronic rumor mill that was churning out something new almost hourly. Phillips didn’t disappoint, moving players in and out with frequency and often going on WFAN or some other “old media” source, leaking out cryptic comments about pending moves.

It worked for a while: the Mets had the only back to back playoff seasons in their history to date in 1999 and 2000. Then Stevie Skill Sets went sour. “That Deal” for Steve came in the rather corpulent form of Mo Vaughn, who arrived from the Angels after the 2001 season. Overweight and nearly immobile, Vaughn was a mistake that was too big to hide from. It went downhill from there quickly for Phillips. His later big moves also went bust and he was shown the door in mid-2003. His replacement was Jim Duquette. It took less than a year for Duquette to make “That Deal.” Exit Duquette, enter Omar Minaya. Like Phillips, Omar got off to a hot start and built a post-season team even faster than Phillips did, but just as quickly he seemed to lose his way. He made “That Deal” right after the 2006 season, sending future all-star closer Heath Bell off to San Diego for two insignificant players. Overall, Omar made a bevy of bad moves that offseason, all of which set the stage for the consecutive late-season collapses in 2007 and 2008. Much like Cashen and Phillips, Omar doubled down on his mistakes, leading to the Bay and K-Rod signings and the trade for JJ Putz. Sandy Alderson succeeded Omar in 2010.

No one who really knows for sure will come clean on the reasons why the Mets have slashed payroll since 2010. Given their apparent lack of integrity, the Wilpons are a convenient target. While this doesn’t mean that they aren’t the main culprits, I do wonder where Alderson fits into the picture. Yes he has yet to really make “That Deal,” but his luck may be running out as it appears the purse strings may get loosened somewhat this winter.

One would be hard-pressed to find a Mets fan who isn’t at least vaguely disappointed by the Alderson regime so far. He was ballyhooed as the godfather of Moneyball and a deal making Zen Master, but the team seems stuck in reverse since his arrival. I like his deals for top prospects, but they are called prospects for a reason. Those moves can’t be fully evaluated yet. At the same time, his miscalculations have mounted and now so is the pressure.

The Mets couldn’t sell the 2013 team to their fans in the 2013 season. There is no way they can sell the 2013 team, sans Matt Harvey, again to ticket buyers and sponsors in 2014. This means they can’t run a lineup out there that features both Lucas Duda and Ruben Tejada as starters. Harvey’s injury means they can’t credibly position Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero as future cornerstones of a stellar rotation. Poor showings by Ike Davis, Travis d’Araund, Wilmer Flores and Matt den Dekker took away their ability to point to their small samples and say “well, extrapolating those numbers over six months…” Bud Selig’s pending departure means they probably can’t rely on further help from the Commissioner’s Office. Their top draft pick is protected this year. Pundits hammer at the Red Sox model as a way to get better quickly (as if the Mets are the only team paying attention). The Yankees appear poised to spend again. All of this might pressure Alderson and the Wilpons into “That Deal.”

So what do you think? How do you think the Mets can avoid making “That Deal?” Should they take a risk and move a prospect or two for a proven star? Should they sign a free agent to a long term contract? Or will they get “sticker shock” again for even the mid-range free agents? Should they just pack it in for another year and wait for 2015 when Harvey is healthy and Syndergaard and Montero are ready? I will try my hand at deal making soon enough, but for now, I’d like to hear from you.

A Mets fan since 1971, Dan spent many summer nights of his childhood watching the Mets on WOR Channel Nine, which his Allentown, PA cable company carried. Dan was present at Game 7 of the 1986 World Series and the Todd Pratt Walkoff Game in 1999. He is also the proud owner of two Shea Stadium seats. Professionally, Dan is a Marketing Communications Coordinator. He is married, lives in Bethlehem PA and has a 10-year-old son who unfortunately roots for the Phillies.
  1. Joe Kasper October 27, 2013 at 9:27 pm
    Lacka, lacka, lacka.
  2. Joe Bourgeois October 28, 2013 at 1:26 am
    Good piece.

    And I don’t have a good answer to it; I don’t think anybody does yet. The main factor for optimism, I think, is that Alderson doesn’t really need this job — and maybe doesn’t want it — so doesn’t need to “make a big splash.” But he might not be able to keep the Wilpons from doing something stupid that they think might sell tickets (such as the photogenic, broken-down Andre Ethier).

  3. Angelo October 28, 2013 at 2:46 am
    I enjoyed your piece. I do think that Sandy will make a trade this offseason for an established outfielder with some power in order to protect thier long term investment, David Wright in the lineup. I am sure that Sandy will be kicking the tires on Carlos Gonzalez along with Jose Baptista. Sandy will probably check in on Giancarlo Stanton as well but I do not think Stanton will be made available until next offseason. With Cargo, Sandy would get a 28 yr old in his prime with 4 more years on his contract which I think fits more with Sandy’s MO. Jose Baptista, although a few yrs older than Cargo would only have 2 yrs and an option remaining for about $14M a year. Again, something that I think Sandy would be more comfortable with instead of chasing FA’s Choo or Ellsbury for more years and more money since they are both Boras clients. But the million dollar question for Mets fans will be, who will Sandy trade? For example, if Sandy can get the Rockies to accept either Ike Davis or Duda to replace Helton along with prospect Rafael Montero for Cargo I think that would be a win, win for both organizations. Mind you, the Mets sent quite a few high level prospects in the Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter deals and they both worked out pretty well. Sometimes you just have to roll the dice.
  4. TexasGusCC October 28, 2013 at 3:12 am
    Dan, love the article. However, until we see a change of direction, we are still in punt formation.
    - Rehire a manager that doesn’t play his youngsters but worries about that fringe veteran. Even in September, as Baxter was playing down the stretch only to be released in two weeks after season’s end, but Den Dekker did not and neither did Satin or Lutz while Turner played. This mockery of an organization is enfuriating.
    - No bid whatsoever on Abreu and announcing that Duda will be the starting first baseman this year. Can’t figure that out, in late October.
    - Saying in late September that they will not sign a free agent that will cost them their second round pick.
  5. blastingzone October 28, 2013 at 3:56 am
    If Sandy signs Beltran and Byrd he won’t have to make that trade! Then sign a SS and starting pitcher like Arroyo
    or Kazmir and pick up the option on Harang and invite him
    Dice K and Mejia to spring training to compete for the 5th
    spot in the rotation and there won’t be that trade to worry
    about! As long as the mets don’t trade Syndergaard,
    Montero, or there top three starters and stick to FA’s they
    will be ok! They could still make some small trades but
    free agency should take care of there main needs!! Good
    article!!
    • argonbunnies October 28, 2013 at 2:51 pm
      I like the idea of keeping our young arms, but I don’t think outbidding the competition for Beltran, Drew (Best SS available in FA), and Byrd (who I see hitting .240 next year) will take us from where we are now to contention. They’ll make the team slightly better while locking up a ton of payroll, and we know the kind of awful teams this organization is willing to blame on payroll inflexibility.

      I really think we need to win a trade or two in addition to some FA moves.

  6. DanB October 28, 2013 at 6:48 am
    Sometimes making no moves out of fear of failing is worse then making a bad move.
  7. Dave October 28, 2013 at 9:10 am
    Here’s the problem as I see it; the Mets need massive upgrades in left field, right field, shortstop, and first base. They could stand to improve at second base, catcher, and center field depending on your opinion of the incumbents at each.

    Now there is no set in stone way to build a contender, but it seems to me like power arms are a lot harder to come across than power bats, so maybe the team should hold onto their young pitchers in the inevitable event that rotation and bullpen mainstays go down with injuries.

    I hate to say it but a team with this many holes is not one or two moves away from the postseason. Is it really worth making a big splash for the right to lose less badly?

  8. Carl LaFong October 28, 2013 at 1:21 pm
    As an Angels fan I just hope whatever deal the Mets make is with the Angels. I’ve been a big Mets fan ever since the Nolan Ryan trade. Let’s talk David Wright.
  9. DanB October 28, 2013 at 1:38 pm
    If the David Wright rumors start, you know the Met’s financial situation is much worse then we thought. I don’t expect it, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
  10. crozier October 28, 2013 at 1:44 pm
    This a nice piece, Dan, though it isn’t much fun to see decades of bum deals lined up like that.

    “That deal” was worse than you report it. Leroy Stanton was part of the Fregosi trade, and while not an All Star, he played several credible years for the Angels. I recall Mets scout Whitey Herzog said he wouldn’t trade Fregosi for Stanton even up, never mind Ryan.

    I do take issue with your take on the McGraw trade, though. I’ll take a good starting catcher for a reliever any day. McGraw wouldn’t have improved the late 70s/early 80s Mets: you can’t save losing games. And it’s easy to shoot arrows at the Bay deal in retrospect, but I doubt anyone would think twice about a similar deal now. Good hitting/defensive outfielder in his 20s? I’d roll the dice again.

    As to what they do now, I see no way around trading a prospect or two, because where else is the offense going to come from? Even if the free agent market were decent, there aren’t any compelling reasons to join the Mets over the competition.

  11. argonbunnies October 28, 2013 at 2:45 pm
    The Mets’ job is to know their players better than anyone else, and to trade guys who are less likely to pan out than they may seem to the outside observer.

    Does Syndergaard lack an MLB out pitch? Does Montero allow too many fly balls for a strike-thrower without dominant velocity? Does d’Arnaud not see the spin on breaking balls? Is Wheeler a huge injury risk? Is Murphy’s defense even worse than the eye test and the metrics say? If so, see if you can upgrade by moving these guys!

    Unfortunately, the Alderson regime has not shown any ability to be ahead of the curve on their own guys. They banked on Ike / Duda / Tejada, traded Pagan for nothing after a down year, etc. Trading Duda after 2011 and Ike and Tejada after 2012 would undoubtedly have injected the organization with some talent, but the front office has been about as on the ball as the average fan — looking for any reason to believe in “our guys” despite the odds.

    Given all this, I’d say that if the Mets do make a trade, the likelihood of it being “that trade” is fairly high. You’ve got to give to get, and if you don’t know which pieces to give, they may well come back to haunt you.

  12. BklynCowpoke October 28, 2013 at 2:59 pm
    Unless they can acquire a YOUNG offensive player who will be under team control for a substantial period of time, i.e…. Stanton/Gonzalez, I would be content for the Mets to pretty much stand pat next year, while their top prospect pitchers continue to develop, and Harvey can return to the rotation in 2015.
    • argonbunnies October 28, 2013 at 3:15 pm
      Probably smart. But FRUSTRATING!

      Also, a year of lost revenue due to losing fans might factor in. Or not. I have no idea how many extra tickets sold equates to an extra $6 mil (the “going rate for a win”) spent on the next year’s roster.

  13. DaveSchneck October 28, 2013 at 9:12 pm
    I am extremely bewildered by the “wait until 2015″ sentiment. I know Mets fans have been abused for the better part of a decade, but have so many of us adopted the same losing mentality of the ownership? First off, regarding Harvey, there is about a 90% likelihood that he will return, but a lesser chance that he will ever be as dominant as he was this season. That dominance may well have occurred due to overthrowing that is unsustainable without injury. Second, why on earth would any team as bad as the Mets not try to improve on the many AAAA players on the 2013 roster? This should not be all that difficult…it should not require parting with blue chip prospects of signing $100 million contracts. Third, the Metand s cn afford to make one impact deal this winter, but it will require them to sign two legit starters and include Niese in a package deal. Again, this can be done without a dumb long term commitment – there are enough starters out there that will sign for a year or two to put up good numbers in Citifield for their next contract. There is absolutely no reason why Met fans need to suffer through another year of loserball. Add two to three MLB arms, make one deal for a bat, upgrade the SS sign another mid-tier bat. Then, sprinkle in the young arms in 2014 as the ripen and earn their ticket to Flushing. A payroll of $100 mil without commitments beyond 2015 can do it. It’s a great time for “that deal”, as in the one that helps end the losing streak.
    • TexasGusCC October 28, 2013 at 10:05 pm
      Add the following to my post up above as another reason I believe we are still in punt formation:

      http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/jose-abreus-swing/

      If this guy looked at Abreu for the first time and figured he can be top 25, couldn’t our scouts see something worth bidding on?

      • DaveSchneck October 29, 2013 at 8:25 am
        Tex,
        Oh, I have no confidence that the Mets will act in the manner that I think is appropriate. I know that you were big on Abreu, and time will tell. I won’t judge on any one move or non-move, but on the overall assembly of the 2014 team. Last winter, despite the pieces obtained in the Dickey deal, Alderson failed miserably, leaving way too many holes on the team. I will give them to opening day 2014, but if they fail this winter, it will be much more disasterous for the franchise and brand than it was last winter.
        • TexasGusCC October 29, 2013 at 9:09 am
          Dave, I really wasn’t big on Abreu but rather was big on improving. Obviously, if they bothered with Abreu, DePodesta would have gone to see him. This player was taken very seriously by other ball clubs but the Mets did not even bid, and put it out that they had “other options”. That’s what I don’t see, the other options. Only Davis has done anything, and I would start him in Vegas.
  14. Micalpayn October 29, 2013 at 1:33 am
    Joe. Good read.
    You forgot a lot of my other favorite (bad) trades
    The Bret Saberhagen deal. Originally, as I recall Kevin Appier was in that deal…who was healthy…KC desperately wanted Keith Miller.
    And the David Cone deal…bad deal period, but the Mets should have had Derek Bell, not Ryan Thompson. Of course compounding this was the subsequent deals that snt Brett and Jeff away.

    Fast forward: I like Wilfredo Tovar at SS. I also agree that 1st base is a mess. My preference there is Justin Morneau. So why not deal away, Davis and Duda, I would shed Murphy too in favor of rotating Fores and Justin Turner.
    Last year Sandy wanted Liriano, this year there is another top starter available coming off injury…Santana…who has a 5.5m buyout…Risk..yes..but you owe him 5.5 m anyway.
    Sandy does not have Michael Wacha…or Matt Harvey, but he does have Dillon, Niese, Wheeler, Syndergaard, Montero in his equation. I am looking forward to more from Matz and Fullmer as well as Ynoa, Puello and hopefully more from Lagares.
    Why say all that? There are players i can see traded away, And I do think we have some good young players. Like everyone else I think Sandy must be carefull with his selection of personnel but 1 or 2 players like a Justin Morneau would be a nice direction.

  15. izzy October 29, 2013 at 5:09 am
    When you are afraid of making “that deal” you won’t make all the great deals that the article glossed over and even called incredible luckin the Piazza case. Its a recipe for nothing but 70 something winning seasons. The Piazza deal wasn’t luck author. The fish would have sent him anywhere else if the Phillips/Doubleday weren’t willing to risk some prospects for Mike. Your premise fails with the desperation to blame a few bad deals for the Mets failures.There were lots of factors. There were also great deals which took the Mets to the top or at least into contention. Sports are all risk. If you are afraid get out.
    • DaveSchneck October 29, 2013 at 8:27 am
      Iz,
      Agree 100%. Selective memory is not fair. Carter, Hernandez, Cone, Darling, HoJo, even to some degree Viola, those were all tremendous acquisitions that contributed to a World Series, divisional titles, and winning teams.
      • NormE October 29, 2013 at 8:45 am
        I agree. Today’s personnel is truly non-contending. The team needs restructuring. As Izzy said, you can’t be afraid.
        The problem is that the team probably doesn’t have much to entice other teams, except pitching.
      • Dan Capwell October 29, 2013 at 1:01 pm
        Hi Dave–It isn’t “selective memory,” the first five players you mentioned came during Frank Cashen’s “magic touch” I referred to earlier. I would hestitate to call the Viola trade “good.” Frankie V had one decent season in 1990. That trade was made to get the Mets into postseason (fail) and they gave up a real good pitcher in Rick Aguilera.
        • DaveSchneck October 29, 2013 at 1:47 pm
          Dan,
          Understood, I see your point. I just don’t think it does justice to single out the lemons and group the gems, and those were some gems. Frankie V is iffy, but I think he is doing some fine work in Savannah so maybe that trade is still paying dividends.
        • Micalpalyn October 29, 2013 at 7:14 pm
          Actually, that trade was a lot worse than that. Rick aguilera had been a defac to closer for the mets who wanted a ‘better ‘ closer, Aguilera went to Minnesota and became a n automatic closer. That deal also had Kevin tapani who was a top of the rotation starter for them on a World Series winner . Again two guys who could have prevented the dark skies of the nineties.
  16. DanB October 29, 2013 at 9:40 am
    If the Mets punt 2014 (as I have been predicting for a couple years), it means waiting until 2016 at the earliest to compete. It will take two off seasons of acquisitions to fill all the holes.
  17. Brian Reilly October 29, 2013 at 1:19 pm
    Great article! One question for anybody: If the Mets were to trade for Andrus, would it make sense to take on more of his contract and trade lesser prospects? If they were only willing to take on a percentage, which prospect/prospects would be required to make that deal?
    • argonbunnies October 29, 2013 at 8:49 pm
      Depends on the expected budget. Andrus’ contract looks horrific now, but with TV money flooding the game, it might not be so bad in 3 years.

      If we can get him for little other than money, it’d be an interesting gamble. Hopefully he stays a plus runner and defender for several more years, and though I don’t see much hope for his bat, ya never know.

      If his defense regresses at all, though, we’re looking at Jason Bay for twice the years.

      • Brian Reilly October 30, 2013 at 7:40 am
        Thanks for the feedback. I hate the thought of 10 years too, but he is only 25, hits .274 in the AL (which is supposedly the better pitching league) and has played 5 full seasons, no injuries. I think Bay is in a different category, because those long Citi Field outs blew his psyche. Thanks again
  18. DanB October 29, 2013 at 1:33 pm
    According to little Jeffy Wilpon, the Mets are not handicapped by salary. They are currently at about $4million. Large market teams are usually at least $150 million. They have no position player prospects. Of course they should take on payroll versus giving up prospects.
  19. Alex68 October 31, 2013 at 3:56 pm
    A big trade would be great. Alderson can pull it off. Look at the Wheeler and Syndergaard/D’Arnaud deals. Brilliant. It comes down to whether another team is looking to trade someone like Tulo, Cargo, or someone like that.
    • TexasGusCC November 1, 2013 at 1:29 am
      Alex? LOL, who is this imposter?
  20. popmafioso1 November 13, 2013 at 4:18 pm
    Phillips passed on A-Rod-so he gets a free pass on everything else. Imagine adding the stench of Alex’s scandal to all the other catastrophes we’ve endured? Or worse-having some success due to A-Rod now be suspect and devalued! A-Rod is Phillips “That Deal”. And NO one mentions that Ryan was 29-38 as a Met-no one could have predicted 19, 21 and 22 games won the next 3 years.