Johan Santana – Pass?

Sometimes, we can get an idea on the future by looking at the past. Some call this “learning from your mistakes”; if you don’t learn from mistakes, you call it “history repeating itself”. Before the Mets empty their farm system in return for the best pitcher in baseball, let’s go back 20 years, to the last time the Mets traded a bunch of youngsters to the Twins in return for a Cy Young Award – winning lefthanded pitcher.

On the trading deadline in 1989, the Mets sent four players plus a PTBNL to the Twins in return for Frank Viola. At the time of the trade, the Mets were mired in fourth place, seven games out of first, and looking up at the Montreal Expos, Chicago Cubs, and St. Louis Cardinals — with the Pirates and Phillies far out of the race in fifth and sixth (amazing how much the NL East has changed since then, eh?). The previous year, the Mets won the NL East, only to be soundly eliminated by the Dodgers in NLCS. This was a team much like our current 2008 Mets — they were expected, and built, to win now. So the Viola deal made a lot of sense, because the Mets appeared to be just one dominating arm away from getting back into contention — and their ace Dwight Gooden was lost for the remainder of the season due to a shoulder injury. At the time, Frank Viola seemed the ideal replacement. He was 29 years old, a local boy (St. John’s alum), had just come off a 24-7, 255-inning, 2.64 ERA, Cy Young season, and was generally considered to be one of, if not the, top lefthanded starters in MLB. Though the Mets had mortgaged some of their future by giving away three of the top arms in the system, it was assumed that Viola would be leading the Mets’ staff for at least the next 3-5 years, if not longer.

Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out quite as planned. Viola went only 5-5 for the Mets in the second half of ’89 as the Mets finished in second place, six games behind the Cubs. He did have a strong 1990 with 20 wins, but fell off to 13-15 in 1991 and was allowed to exit via free agency after the season. It was a good decision from the Mets point of view, because Viola won only 26 games over the final five years of his career, before calling it quits in 1996.

Though the timing and circumstances of the Viola trade was different from now, it was comparable to the Mets’ interest in Santana in terms of desperation and perception — specifically, the switch to “win now” mode. Although you can’t argue with making some trades that will help the team win now — after all, the current Mets roster does appear to have the talent to go all the way — there needs to be a responsibility in regard to the long-term effects of any deal. Of course, it’s a delicate balance, and it’s not easy. But we need only look to the past to see how quickly a “contending team” — one that was flush with young talent — can become also rans.

The shortsightedness of the Viola trade was symptomatic of the Mets’ gross mismanagement of player personnel that began immediately following the 1986 World Series Championship. After beating the Red Sox in that magical October, the Mets made a series of trades that emptied the organization of bright minor league prospects and youthful, up-and-coming MLB talent. The theme of selling the future to improve the present started with the Kevin McReynolds trade in December, 1986, peaked with the Viola deal, and ended sometime in the early 1990s — though not because the Mets realized their stupidity, but rather because the organization had effectively run out of tradeable talent. The scariest point of all is that the Mets in the late 1980s had a seemingly overflowing amount of prospects in their farm system; a sharp contrast to the current situation on the whiteboard in Omar Minaya’s office.

Let’s go over a handful of the trades that effectively decimated the Mets’ organization, beginning with the McReynolds deal.

December 1986: Kevin McReynolds, Gene Walter, and Adam Ging for Kevin Mitchell, Shawn Abner, Stanley Jefferson, Kevin Armstrong, and Kevin Brown (not THAT Kevin Brown).

A lot of Kevins going back and forth. McReynolds was the key to the deal from the Mets’ POV, as Ging never graduated from the minors and Walter was a little-used LOOGY. Mitchell became an MVP on the West Coast, Abner was one of the most highly touted prospects in the organization at the time (think: F-Mart), and Jefferson was also a strong prospect who became the Padres’ starting centerfielder in 1987 (think: Carlos Gomez).

Forget arguing over whether this was a good deal or not, and focus on the fact that the Mets gave up Mitchell, Abner, and Jefferson — all big trading chips at the time — in return for the 28-year-old McReynolds. On the one hand, the Mets believed they were getting an All-Star outfielder who was about to enter his prime. On the other, they gave away a package similar to what would today be Lastings Milledge, F-Mart, Gomez, and two decent AA pitchers. At the time, the deal made sense because the Mets had plenty of youthful outfielders in the system and McReynolds was expected to be a fixture for years to come. This deal may not have hurt so much had the Mets not continued with their irresponsibility in trading away youth.

June 1989: Lenny Dykstra, Roger McDowell, and PTBNL (Tom Edens) for Juan Samuel.

Ouch. One of the worst trades in the team’s history. But forget about that, and look at it from the perspective of sending away the 26-year-old Dykstra and the 28-year-old McDowell, for the 28-year-old Samuel, a guy who was probably in reality over 30 (Dominican Republic birth certificate) and on the downside of his career. Edens wasn’t a terrible prospect, either, spending seven years in MLB as a serviceable middle reliever.

July 1989: Frank Viola for Rick Aguilera, Kevin Tapani, David West, Tim Drummond, and Jack Savage.

We went over the Viola side of the argument. You probably know Aguilera went on to become one of the most dominant closers in the AL in the 1990s, and Tapani had a respectable 13-year career as a #2 / #3 starter. Interestingly enough, West was considered the biggest coup in the deal — he was the Mike Pelfrey of the organization at the time, only better. Drummond wasn’t a tremendous prospect, but at the time was considered a Major League ready pitcher (and he did break into the Twins bullpen in ’89 and ’90); think of him as Carlos Muniz. Savage was the PTBNL and essentially a throw-in.

Again, let’s not argue whether it was a good deal. Rather, compare this to the aforementioned McReynolds deal — it was another case of recklessly dealing away an abundance of youth. Also in comparison, the Mets felt they were protected at the time, since they had youngsters such as Ron Darling, Dwight Gooden, Sid Fernandez, and Randy Myers already at the MLB level. But the madness continued …

December 1989: Randy Myers and Kip Gross to the Reds for John Franco and Don Brown.

Even in hindsight, this doesn’t appear to be such an awful deal from the Mets’ POV. Myers was a 26-year-old, up-and-coming closer while Franco was already established and two years old. As it turned out, their performance and longevity was similar. But the fact the Mets got older, that they might have overpaid, and that they sent away another decent trading chip (Kip Gross was a decent prospect at the time), it was another straw on the camel’s back.

December 1991: Kevin McReynolds, Gregg Jefferies, and Keith Miller to the Royals for Bret Saberhagen and Bill Pecota.

The last of the big-time prospects, Jefferies, was sent away along with McReynolds for Saberhagen, a 28-year-old with both a Cy Young and a serious arm injury in his recent past. The Mets grossly overpaid for Saberhagen, who at the time of the deal was still a question mark in regard to his health — there were questions as to whether his elbow would hold up (it didn’t).

This trade in particular sums up the problem that was about to destroy the Mets as an organization. They were desperate for Saberhagen because Viola didn’t pan out, Sid Fernandez was eating his way out of MLB, and Gooden was sniffing his way out. Had the Mets had held onto Aguilera, Tapani, West, Drummond, and some of the other arms dealt away, perhaps they wouldn’t have been in this predicament. To make matters worse, McReynolds was part of the deal — the guy who they acquired when they began emptying their prospect pool. Although Jefferies didn’t quite live up to his billing, he was still a solid, borderline All-Star who could hit and play several positions. But the Mets weren’t able to turn the 24-year-old Jefferies and McReynolds into more youthful depth — which was a disgrace. Instead, they continued to deplete the youth in their previously brimming system without giving back.

About the only significant young players the Mets brought in during this period were David Cone — and many feel that was a stroke of luck rather than genius — and Jeff Kent, who was sent away before reaching his potential. You may remember the Mets sent Kent away for Carlos Baerga, yet another former All-Star on the downside of his career.

Are you seeing a familiar pattern here? Mets trade away their youth, get older and older, all in the name of winning today. It’s happened before, it’s happening again. Here’s something fun — go take a look at the 1992 Mets roster. You’ll see Willie Randolph there, as well as other aging former stars and has-beens such as Eddie Murray, Bobby Bonilla, and Vince Coleman. Take a good long look at that team, and then consider what the 2010 Mets might look like if they empty the farm for Johan Santana.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.
  1. isuzudude January 4, 2008 at 6:10 pm
    I will apologize for the length of this post in advance.

    Joe, I definitely agree with the main point of this article, which is not to constantly trade away your organization’s youth for aging players – particularly pitchers. All of your examples hit the nail on the head as to why the Mets went into a tailspin in the early 90s and only managed to re-correct themselves around 1998. Surely using the same bone-headed philosophy now would put the Mets right back on the fast track to last place.

    I think right now, if someone is unhappy with the Mets’ current direction, you are of one of two trains of thought. Number 1: you dislike Omar because he has failed to acquire the “big name” after the September collapse and has failed a few times in the past of luring the superstar to NY (Soriano, Matsuzaka, Zito, etc). Number 2: you dislike Omar because he is doing what Joe has just pointed out – trading the young and talented peices of the future for players who can’t even help the Mets win their own division. Obviously, you can’t be both, because usually teams need to give up the young prospects to acquire the big names. But, as has been my stance since the season ended, Omar simply is not to blame for the Mets current state of disarray. You can’t solely blame Omar for not acquiring that ace pitcher or huge slugger this offseason. Is it his fault the Twins don’t want to give up Santana for 4 of our best young players not named John Maine or Fernando Martinez? You just can’t force a trade if both teams don’t want to agree to it. Fans on these blogs make it sound like it’s so easy for Omar just to go out and use the rest of MLB like it’s the Mets minor league system. “These two or three so-so prospects from our team for your best player.” Folks, it doesn’t work that way. Sure, some other teams may have gotten some pretty sweet players for not a whole heckuva lot this winter (the Cabrera/Willis trade and the Brad Lidge trade come to mind), but that’s where differing points of view come in to play. Even though us bloggers and 90% of the experts out there might say that Carlos Gomez and Mike Pelfrey are bonafide future all-stars and are as good as any prospects in baseball, GMs on other teams still may not think that way. And at the end of the day, their opinion are the only ones that matter. And I think for Omar not to overact and overpay for one guy, via trade or free agent contract, is a testiment to how GOOD of a general manager he is, not vice versa. I’ve also heard a lot of people say stuff like Omar’s never gotten his man and that the Mets can never pull off the blockbuster trade anymore. Nonsense. Carlos Beltran anyone? Pedro Martinez? Billy Wagner? Carlos Delgado? Oliver Perez, John Maine, Duaner Sanchez, Shawn Green, Luis Castillo? I guess some people just aren’t paying attention.

    In defense of Number 2, of the recent trades the Mets have pulled off in which we included prospects for an established ML vet, which prospects were really of any particular value to our future? Jae Seo is 6-16 since going to LA. Tim Hamulack is 0-3. Shawn Henry and Jose Castro (Jeff Conine trade) aren’t anything. Evan MacLane (Shawn Green) was 7-7 with an ERA of 7.70 with Arizona’s AAA team. Drew Butera and Dustin Martin (Luis Castillo) are nothing. Brian Bannister has seemingly panned out for KC, but at the time the Mets were certainly getting the better prospect when acquiring Ambiorix Burgos pre-TJ surgery. Even despite Carlos Delgado’s struggles, the Mets have still gotten the better end of the Mike Jacobs/Yusmeiro Petit/Grant Psomas swap. Dante Brinkley and Gaby Hernandez (Paul Lo Duca) have yet to even crack the major leagues. Critics will certainly be quick to point to the Heath Bell/Royce Ring and Matt Lindstrom/Henrey Owens trades of last year, but we know the true stories behind those trades. The Mets didn’t have the room left on the roster for these pitchers who were soon going to be out of minor league options, and thus were forced to trade them to teams who knew of the Mets dire situation and wound up giving us crap in return. Those two trades are pretty bad in retrospect, but can Omar really be to blame for Willie’s incessant mismanagement of the bullpen? And outside of those two deals, I can’t think of one other trade Omar’s agreed to that has put the Mets at any serious disadvantage, or that has seriously compromised the depth of our minor league system.

    All this being said, I would STILL do a Johan Santana trade. For the right price, of course. There are those among us who think the Mets are crazy for not giving up Jose Reyes, John Maine, and Aaron Heilman to get their hands on Johan. Thank goodness none of them have any positions in the Mets management heirarchy. Heilman may be the only one of the three that is possible to be included in a Johan trade…but I’d have to figure he’d be the centerpice, and Carlos Gomez would pretty much make the trade even. Add in one of the Pelfrey/Humber/Mulvey trio, and that’s the deal. It’s fair for both parties, and the Mets and Twins know it. But we’re still only in early January, and both teams are still in posturing mode. And for Omar to remain firm on his offer is what’s being lost on most impatient fans, here. If we were to fast forward to 3 years in advance, having seen Omar ship F-Mart, Gomez, Heilman, Pelfrey, Humber, and Mulvey to Minnesota, only to see Santana injured or on another team, those would be the same fans calling for Omar’s head because he overpaid for one player. But all they can see now is 2008, and Johan pitching alongside Pedro and Ollie and Maine. 2010? Worry about that year when it comes, they say. Well, not Omar. And thank goodness for that.

  2. joe January 4, 2008 at 6:56 pm
    All good points, isuzu.

    As of now, I’m on the side that believes Omar has done a pretty good job thus far, but afraid he’s about to self-destruct. As you’ve said, the vast majority of his prospects-for-vets trades have worked out very well. What worries me is that we’re at a similar point to where the Mets were during the ’89 season. In 3-4 years, will we be comparing the Milledge deal to the trade of Dykstra and McDowell? Will a Santana trade be compared to Viola? The similarities are too chilling, especially after having lived through the dark days of Tom Herr, Dick Schofield, Bobby Bonilla, and Kevin McReynolds part two.

    Yes, it would be awesome to have Santana on the ’08 squad. But is he necessary? That’s the tough question. Further, what happens if the cost is Pelfrey, Mulvey, F-Mart, and Gomez? Who is left in AAA? In AA? This becomes a compound issue if/when Pedro and Ollie leave after ’08, Santana begins sliding, and/or an injury or other unforeseen circumstance occurs (i.e., sudden slides of El Sid and Darling, injuries and substance issues with Doc, etc.).

    If the rumors are right, the Mets will be making a very similar trade to the Viola deal. The difference, however, is that in ’89, they had a LOT more prospects — and it was still a damaging deal in the long run — whereas in 2008, such a trade effectively eliminates the supply of players “on the cusp”, as well as the bulk of valuable trading chips for the next two years at minimum.

  3. Micalpalyn January 4, 2008 at 7:17 pm

    I think thats one of your best pieces of work. You brought a needed clarity to the topic. And please excuse my brevity.

    1. Omar is NOT to blame inn fact the reverse! He has refused to empty the farm for any player including johan. My guess is he WILL NOT give upo Fmart AND Gomez.

    2. Bannister probably would still be here had he not been injured, having (even in Willie-world) beaten out Steve Trachsel for a starting job in 2006. I agree he should not have been traded, but having traded heath Omar was looking at that NOL shuttle seat vacated by Heath and necesitated by Willie’s Bullpen system. also Omar was looking at humber and Pelfrey as depth that did not materialize.

    3. I agree isuzu: In silencing the critics of the Kaz matsui -Victor Zambrano era, Omar gave up Gabby, Yusi and who? Duqutte lost Kazmir, Robbie alomar, jeromy Burnitz, and Armando benitez and there is nothing in that shopping basket of value. Yes, I agree that if Del signs as a FA a yr earlier maybe we have Yusi in the #5 slot. But frankly I am beginning to wonder if the Mets CAN develop a pitcher….I think they do better letting other teams develop pitching then trading for them.

    4. IF I have one hindsight thought its that Zito, who would have cost a pick (actually not having lost it to SF for signing Moises Alou), could have been good at Shea. But then maybe Ollie gets traded or cut. Right now though teaming Zito with Ollie, pedro, maine and (?) might be palatable.

    5. I am not sure I WOULD trade for Santana. For some reason I am optimistic Pelfrey in his 3rd yr will rebound, also, humber with his excellent curve might suprise. I think Gomez has to looked at his defense, ceiling and his ability to spell Beltran make him an asset, also I think Fmart needs to be here 1 more yr.

    6. what do we expect from Johan? I think the media frenzy for a championship or bust…similar to the Randy Johnson expectations in the Bronx will put too much pressure on the organization. I for one, think we can get the 15 wins we covet elsewhere. As one ‘expert’ said several weeks ago on MLB rumors ..I think Omar will be happy to be 2nd in the Johan race. Remember last yr? Who would have known Zito would not have excelled in the NL? could the Mets and Omar afford for a similar year from Johan having emptied the coffers of young talent the likes of Fmart, Gomez and Deolis?

    7. As such I am looking at Blanton and Rich harden for 2008, as well as Beddard, Javy Vazquez, Kazmir and Dontrelle. But the fact Ken williams and the soxx, The Astros, and the Dbacks have allowed themselves to be fleeced have made me very wary of our probility of making a fair trade.

  4. sincekindergarten January 5, 2008 at 6:12 am
    Guys, I see Pelfrey being the pitcher we saw in September–three wins in five starts–rather than the pitcher we saw in April of ’07. I also think that, if he goes to the Twins, the Twins are going to say, “Just throw the damn ball, and use that curveball,” and he’s going to win 14-15 games for them. I generally trust Rick Peterson, bnut I think it was foolish to try to get Pelfrey to become more of a groundball pitcher, and to take away his curveball.

    And, as I’ve said before, I wouldn’t mind our starting staff as it is now. The very last thing I want to see Omar do is to go out and make a deal just to make a deal, and get shafted in the process. Pedro is going to have a year that most pitchers dream about, if only for the reason that his ego won’t let him have anything else. With Pedro there the whole year, Ollie Perez will benefit to the point that if the Mets haven’t locked him up by Opening Day, they will throw more scads of money at him. Think 5 years, $65 mil. Now, let’s remember John Maine. He went to Tom Glavine in ST last year and asked Glav to teach him the circle changeup. Wouldn’t it be a tad better to learn from someone who throws it from the same side as you do? And, El Deadguy will rise and give us quite a few quality starts.

    Right now, I see the Mets winning 93 to 95 without Johan Santana. With Johan, well, Jimmy Rollins will wish he had made that statement about the team in Queens (“We’re going to win 100”).

  5. isuzudude January 5, 2008 at 4:03 pm
    Mic: thanks, brother. I agree with your #1 and I really like your #6. You’re so right that if the Mets acquire Santana – regardless of who we give up in the process – fans, critics, and other teams will all view the Mets as the NL favorites. And anything less than that would be a failure (and sour fans would somehow find a way to make it Omar’s fault again). And then we’d begin that slow and steady decline into mediocrity for the next decade as the team has been stripped of all youth and depth. I also agree that some combination close to Pelfrey/Lieber/Garcia in our #5 hole will combine for 15 wins in 2008, which is more than likely what Johan would have given us too.

    SK: I really wish I could echo your optimism. I just think asking for Pedro to stay healthy, and Duque to give us 120+ innings, and Maine and Perez to continue to get better, and Pelfrey to take that next step – all in the same season – is asking for the impossible. Somewhere along the line there’s going to be a speed bump, whether it’s Ollie’s wildness or Pedro’s shoulder or whatever. I agree that I think the Mets have right now enough to win around 90 games, but that’s assuming everything breaks in our favor. And when has everything ever broken in our favor since game 6 of 1986? Here’s to hoping that you’re right, though. I’d love to see it.

    Minor note: Mets acquired some OF help today, trading for Angel Pagan from the Cubs. It’s another classic Omar trade, on two fronts. #1 – he gives away nothing (Corey Coles & Ryan Meyers) to get Pagan; and #2 – he acquires an hispanic player for two white guys. Whatever to make the team better, I guess. Pagan should fill Ben Johnson’s role as 1st OF called up from AAA when Alou gets hurt…and could push Church to platoon duty if he hits well in ST and Church slumps early in ’08. Still, I’d love to see a guy like Kevin Mench added to the squad to really give RF that lefty-righty punch so many teams employ to success nowadays (Jenkins/Werth in Philly, Hawpe/Spilburghs in Colorado, Ethier/Kemp in LA).