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.