Browsing Archive December, 2016

It Was 20 Years Ago Today: Joe McIlvaine’s Best Deal Ever

December 20, 1996: The New York Mets trade RHP Robert Person to the Toronto Blue Jays for 1B John Olerud.

What I remember most about this announcement was that it was the first  trade news that I ever got via the Internet. it came over a clipping service that the company I worked for at the time subscribed to. I had added the phrase “New York Mets” to a search string weeks before, and was online when this story broke.  I also remember being very puzzled and upset about this move, but in hindsight, it turned out to be the best move in Joe McIlvaine’s otherwise mostly awful tenure as GM of the Mets.

I fully acknowledged that the 1996 Mets had a lot of holes, but I didn’t think first base was one of them. The team had hit rock bottom in 1993, but had rebounded somewhat in the strike shortened years of 1994 and 1995. Under McIlvaine, they had shed the contracts of Bobby Bonilla, Vince Coleman and Bret Saberhagen and had an inspiring crop of prospects ready, or so it seemed then,  to bring back the glory days to Shea. A strong finish in 1995 had many of us thinking the squad was about to take the next step in 1996.

The hard-throwing Person was one of a quartet of starting pitchers that had already propelled the Mets Double A team to the Eastern League championship. The now infamous other three quarters of that star-crossed rotation, Bill Pulshipher, Jason Isringhausen and Paul Wilson, were all touted as the Mets homegrown answer to the stellar Atlanta Braves rotation. Speaking of homegrown, the Mets also had the wonderfully-named Butch Huskey as their incumbent first baseman. Huskey had slashed a not-unimpressive 278/319/435 the year before. A genuinely decent and quiet young man, Butch seemed the perfect antidote to the toxicity of the now-departed veterans.

Much to the my dismay the Mets stumbled badly in 1996, throwing massive amounts of sand into the gears of this prospect-driven Mets renaissance that myself and many others had envisioned.

On the surface Olerud looked like another step backwards, a declining veteran with a big contract. Weren’t the Mets trying to get away from this type of player? He had a stellar 1993, winning the AL batting crown, but had steadily declined since then. He had one year left on his contract and the Blue Jays chipped in 80% of it. The deal had to be approved by the commissioner’s office because of the large amount of money changing hands. Remember, this was 1996; five million dollars certainly ain’t what it used to be!

This trade and Olerud’s tenure as a Met are frequently overlooked, which is a shame, because both were absolutely fabulous. Olerud slashed 294/400/489 in 1997 and drove in 102 runs. He signed a two year extension at the end of 1997, but instead of becoming complacent, he got better. He slashed 354/447/551 in 1998, that average breaking Cleon Jones’ 1969 Mets record for highest individual batting average in a single season. His fielding was impeccable, he was credited as the anchor man in the 1998-99 “Best Infield Ever” that  included Edgardo Alfonzo, Rey Ordonez and Robin Ventura. He played all 162 games of the 1999 season and while his numbers tailed off slightly, he was a mainstay both offensively and defensively, as the Mets returned to the playoffs for the first time in 11 years. They faced off against the Braves in the 1999 NLCS and his Game Four homer keyed a furious Mets comeback that unfortunately fell short  three games later in Turnerland.

Overall he slashed 315/425/501 in his three years here, the best stint of his career, even considering the big years he had in Toronto. Despite his success, he departed for his hometown of Seattle after the 1999 season. He enjoyed three more strong years in the Pacific Northwest before a farewell tour that included productive stops with the Yankees and Boston. In retrospect, the Mets should have pushed harder to keep him as they could have used his bat in the 2000 Subway Series and in their failed defense of the NL crown the next year.

It’s probably not too much of a stretch to think that had he stayed in New York, he might merit serious consideration for the Hall of Fame. As it stands, he is now largely ignored when the great hitters of the 1990’s are discussed.

Person went on to have a decent, if unremarkable career. He would go 46-37 for Toronto and the Phillies. For a long time he had more innings pitched, more wins and more strikeouts and any of his more highly-touted Binghamton Mets Generation K pitching rotation mates. Eventually and mainly by staging a comeback in 2011, Isringhausen caught up and passed him in those categories. Don’t get me wrong, Isringhausen definitely had the better career.

One more thing about this trade: it happened weeks after the Winter Meetings and wouldn’t be the last time that the Mets would strike a deal later on the winter. In fact, McIlvaine’s successor Steve Phillips added the pair of pitchers the Mets needed (Al Leiter in 1998 and Mike Hampton in 1999) to return to the post-season in deals made later in the winter (February and December 23rd) respectively than this one. Sometimes, patience can pay off, as it did for the Mets in all three of these post-Winter Meetings trades.

Something to ponder while we sit and wait for any trade or free agent signing news this time around. Happy Holidays, everyone.





Mets bullpen needs a split

Putnam, Uehara, Holland

I’ve always been a fan of rare pitches. It’s made sense to me that a pitch batters see less often will be harder for them to recognize, and a pitch they get fewer swings against will be harder to barrel up. In today’s game, the cut fastball is the latest pitch to go from rarity to trend, and it’s recently gotten to the point where batters are crushing the mediocre ones.

Not so with our old friend the split-finger fastball. The big pitch of the 1980s is now thrown by very few MLB pitchers, and every time a guy from Japan comes over and features a good one, it seems to produce great results. Akinori Otsuka? Hideki Okajima? These guys weren’t studs in Japan, but their out-pitches sure translated to MLB. Was it because their splitters were particularly great? Or was it because MLB hitters didn’t have any to practice on? In 2006 Salomon Torres led MLB in appearances and was the Astros’ and Brewers’ kryptonite, throwing a fastball whose velocity was embarrassing for a late-inning short reliever. He didn’t throw it too much, though; his go-to pitch was his splitter.

The Mets aren’t primed to throw out huge dollars or give away huge talent for a sure-thing reliever. But bargain-hunting doesn’t seem appropriate for a team with a lot of “win now” to it either. So how about a mixed-bag guy with a great out pitch? How about betting on the splitter?

First up is Koji Uehara, a strike-thrower with the best K/BB rate in MLB history. He’s a free agent who’s willing to pitch in a variety of roles and shouldn’t break the bank. His fastball is deceptive and made more so by his sharp, diving splitter, which he throws a ton. The risks: he’s 41, can be homerun prone, and had his worst year as an MLB reliever last season.

Next up is Zach Putnam. Putnam throws his splitter almost exclusively in some outings. When it’s at its best, he doesn’t need anything else. Putnam pitches for the team which just traded away Chris Sale and Adam Eaton, so I have a feeling he’s not off-limits. I’d guess that the Mets should be able to part with a palatable amount of minor league upside for him. The risks: health. Putnam’s arm is extremely late in his delivery, and he’s already had shoulder and elbow problems in his short career.

Finally, we have former elite closer Greg Holland, more of a guy who happens to throw a splitter than a “splitter guy” like Putnam and Uehara. At his best, Holland’s fastball, slider and splitter were all elite. He’s coming off Tommy John surgery and looking to re-establish himself, so this is as cheap as he’s going to get. Unfortunately, the place where he’s looking to re-establish himself is in the 9th inning, where the Mets’ incumbent just saved 51 games.

I don’t know which of these options is the best bet, and which is the most doable for the Mets. But I do think they’d be well-served to pick the best option and go for it. I’d love to see the swings the NL East would get against the splitters thrown by these guys they’ve never (or at least rarely) faced before. Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy may not have ever seen anything like it!

Which of these three pitchers would you prefer? Got any better ideas for relief help? Let us know in the comments!


News Flash…

…the Mets contingent has just arrived at the Winter Meetings!

Seriously, I wasn’t really expecting a whole lot from them, but as was the case during the 2012, 2013 and 2014 Winter Meetings, they came, they talked and they left empty-handed. Met fans that were fat and happy last December after a World Series berth are far less content this December, so this development has Mets bloggers, boardies and WFAN callers (yes they still exist) back in 2014 mode.

I’ll admit to feeling more than just a twinge of jealousy with some of the big deals being announced, while the biggest Mets news this week is that Tim Tebow won’t get an invite to their major league spring training camp. But, I think that spending $80-plus million for a closer on the wrong side of thirty or trading three top prospects for a good, but not great player (and then planning to play him in a different position) is a far worse development than telling a fan base ravenous for some player move news that diner has been delayed. Those Stupid Idiots on the Baseball Network and their 24/7 coverage aren’t helping either.

Let’s not forget that prior to the Winter Meetings, the Mets bagged Yoenis Cespedes, who had been ranked by many observers as the top player in this year’s Free Agent class. They retained the services of Neil Walker, who was a relatively unsung hero during the dog days of last summer and who’s presence in the lineup makes a world of difference. They also held onto seven young and cheap starting pitchers, uber-prospect Amed Rosario, and the ever-popular and still very useful Curtis Granderson.

They must have missed my article on Michael Conforto. Even worse than that, this week we all bumped our heads on the glass ceiling that is the Mets payroll budget. I get it that this is the Wilpon’s money (or most of it is) and that the current level of payroll is more money than any of us will ever see in our lifetimes. But this team is close, very close, and the right addition or two could make a huge difference.

I have read some speculation that Sandy Alderson’s recent comments are his subtle way of poking the Wilpons publically into loosening the purse strings some more. I agree. Alderson knows these guys and until proven otherwise, I believe he knows what he is doing.

Stay tuned and keep the faith.


The Curious Case of Michael Conforto

Michael Conforto

Kudos to Sandy Alderson and the Wilpons on retaining the services of one Yoenis Cespedes. At “only” $110 million for four years, the deal has a chance to not be too terrible, or at least only terrible for a season or so. While Cespedes isn’t the ideal major league player, he fits with the Mets well.

Like perhaps many of you, I felt a shudder run through me when I read about the potential for Cespedes to pull in a 6 or 7 year deal, with an upwards of $150 million price tag. So, good job by the Mets to get this done at a rate that won’t leave Cespedes a baseball pauper (and may allow him to get one more lucrative contract before he retires), but doesn’t hamstring the team’s finances in the process. The fact that the deal was done before the calendar flips to December also gives the Mets the bulk of the remaining off-season to fill the other issues with their roster.

That however is where it gets tricky. The Mets still have a few holes to fill and they most likely will need to fill them in exchange for assets they already possess. In the past, Alderson has steadfastly refused to part with any of his young pitching (at least during the winter), so it is unlikely that he does so again this year. Injuries to several of those pitchers has more than likely lowered their value, making it even less probable that Alderson deals one of them.

Jay Bruce is probably a lock to be moved and soon, but I would be utterly shocked if The Mets received anything in return that resembled a missing piece to their 2017 puzzle, especially if they want their trading partner to pick up all of Bruce’s remaining salary. Curtis Granderson may garner some interest, but can you really see them trading away baseball’s 2016 Man of The Year? Me neither.

Which brings us to Mr. Conforto. Taken with the 10th pick of the June 2014 draft, he zoomed through the Mets system and was playing left field in the majors barely 13 months later. In fact, when the Mets dealt for Cespedes less than a week after Conforto’s arrival, they kept Conforto in left and moved Cespedes to center. Michael enjoyed a solid rookie season, slashing 270/335/506. He tailed off a bit in the NLDS and NLCS, but carried himself well in the World Series, hitting pair of homers. He began 2016 as the starting leftfielder (Cespedes stayed in center), but after a hot April, he just seemed to lose it. He hit .173 from May 1 on with a .255 OBP and was twice sent to AAA Las Vegas. The Mets left him off the roster for the Wild Card Game.

Hard to pinpoint exactly what happened, but the optics indicate a vulnerability to inside sliders, which was all he got a steady diet of from late April on. Those pitches don’t break in the hot, dry desert air the way they do at the major league level, he so while he put up video-game like numbers back in Vegas, he just struggled again upon his return to New York. It wasn’t exactly doing him any good to send him down, but they really had no other choice.

Conforto is a left fielder, pure and simple. He doesn’t run all that well and his throwing arm isn’t anything extraordinary. If he doesn’t hit, he isn’t even a replacement-level player. Last year, he didn’t hit. And with Cespedes locked up in left field until 2020, Conforto doesn’t really have a place to play. The Mets could stand an upgrade in center field, probably behind the plate and most definitely in late inning relief. Their lineup lacks speed. Could a trade of Conforto help fill at least two of those holes? If I’m Alderson, I’d be exploring that possibility.

On the plus side, Conforto is still young and has a great pedigree, both as a top draft pick as well as being the son of two elite athletes. He honed his craft at Oregon State, in a program that has produced over two dozen major league players. He has had some success at the major league level, and represents (on paper at least) a left-handed source of power, an desirable commodity that is in short supply right now. He also has five more seasons of team control. There is still a lot to like about him. Both the Mets and any potential trading partners will need to gamble on the veracity of his pedigree and 2015 performance vs. the reality that was his 2016 campaign. It could be a very interesting situation. A package of Conforto, one of the Mets surplus middle infielders and a lower-level arm might net a big fish in return.

Also, it wouldn’t be a Capwell Mets Today post without a little Mets history: back in the early 1970’s the Mets had a young outfielder whom they had drafted in 1967 and who was also (relative for that time) rushed to the big leagues. After a promising rookie campaign, he took a step backwards in his sophomore season, although his fall was not as dramatic as Conforto’s. That offseason, the Mets packaged him with other prospects in a big trade with the Montreal Expos for an established slugger. That young outfielder was named Ken Singleton and over the next 13 years he would average 282/388/436, and be named to three All Star teams. While his old team was floundering, he flourished away from Shea, finishing third in AL MVP voting in 1977 and then second in 1979 (The Expos traded him to Baltimore a year after getting him). The 1973 Mets were a win-now team and Rusty Staub, the player they got for Singleton and Co., did help them get to the World Series. So much time has passed since that it is difficult to gauge which was the better deal, the 1973 pennant or Singleton’s career, although in fairness, Singleton out-hit Staub in 1973. That deal, along with the rise of both Amos Otis and Nolan Ryan, also former Met farmhands, made the then nascent Mets fan me a “systems guy,” a strong proponent of building a team from within. 40-plus years later, I am more of a “win now” guy, probably due to the passage of time. On the flip side of the argument is Hubie Brooks, whom the Mets also traded after his sophomore season in a package for another Expos slugger. Even though Hubie would outhit the player the Mets acquired him for from the point of the trade until both had retired, this move proved to be the final piece in the Mets quest for a World Championship. The player the Mets got in return was Gary Carter.

So for me, it boils down to this: I favor a trade of Conforto if the return makes the team demonstrably better in 2017. If not, I guess I can live with Conforto in right and a Granderson/Juan Lagares platoon in center. I really hate the idea of playing Conforto in center. I am not too crazy about him in right either, but if he can rediscover his stroke, any defensive gaffs could probably be overlooked.

So what about you? Trade Conforto or keep him? Prefer him in center or in right? Remember Ken Singleton? Sound off below.