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.

13-14 Offseason

About the Author

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.

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