Well, we’ve survived another winter—pitchers and catchers have reported. And what a winter it proved to be: Mets fans were treated with a flurry of transactions that were almost universally hailed by the media as shrewd, pumping a little air into hopes that had been largely deflated after the 2017 season, as well as some early winter rumblings of continued parsimony on the part of the hated Wilpons.
So, after a slow start to the offseason, the Mets took advantage of an extremely sluggish free agent market and landed several new players. They also brought back some familiar faces. This makeover has no doubt helped ticket sales a bit and at least temporarily, restored a little faith in the franchise’s ability to get itself back into the winner’s circle.
I sure hope so (more on that later), but the Mets attempt to return to glory via an infusion of new talent hasn’t worked out so well in the past. Here are three examples. For the sake of clarity the seasons before and immediately after the busy offseason will serve as the timeline:
Transactions: Traded pitcher Ray Sadecki for Joe Torre, purchased the contract of Dave Kingman, swapped back-up catcher Duffy Dyer for outfielder Gene Clines; and most significantly, moved 1973’s folk hero Tug McGraw to Philadelphia for Centerfielder Del Unser.
Background and Results: The Mets 1974 season was everything their stunning run to the 1973 World Series was not. Most telling was their ineffective offense, as the team collectively slashed 235/311/329, good for 11th, 11th and 12th respectively, in the then 12-team National League. A mysterious shoulder injury threatened McGraw’s career (or so the Mets thought), and they viewed getting Unser from Philly in return as a great coup. McGraw would pitch for ten seasons as a Phillie, and was a key part in their late-70’s revival and eventual 1980 championship. Meantime, Unser was gone by the middle of the 1976 season. The Mets got even less mileage out of Clines, who lasted only a year, while Dyer played for five years in Pittsburgh. Torre was far past his prime by 1975. Kingman hit some of the longest home runs ever hit by a Mets player, but he was plagued by a low OBP and he couldn’t field worth a lick. He also had a rep as a bad guy.
The Verdict: of all the re-boots, this was the most successful, although “success” is a relative term. The 1975 Mets went 82-80, well out of contention for the NL East title. They actually did slightly better in 1976, winning 86 games. The Mets then hit the wall in 1977 and wouldn’t be heard from again for seven years.
Transactions: Traded three players, including former minor league wunderkind Gregg Jefferies to Kansas City for ace Bret Saberhagen. Signed FA’s Bobby Bonilla, Eddie Murray and Willie Randolph. They also traded useful PH Mark Carreon to Detroit for lefty Paul Gibson.
Background and Results: The 1991 season had been disastrous for the Mets, as it was the franchise’s first losing year in nearly a decade. So, they headed towards 1992 with a new manager, Jeff Torborg, a new GM named Al Harazin and new slogan, “Hard Ball is Back.” Instead, they played hardly ball. Saberhagen was shelved for most of ’92 with a finger injury. Randolph was totally washed up. Murray, who came with a rep for sullenness, was exactly that. Bonilla was a train wreck, both on and off the field. The 72-90 1992 season was an embarrassment for the franchise, followed the next year by a 100+ loss season and several humiliating off-the-field incidents that held the team up to national ridicule. Harazin and Torborg didn’t complete the 1993 season and everybody from this do-over was gone by July of 1995, as they took warm bodies in exchange for Sabes and Bonilla. A re-boot of the re-boot, if you will.
The Verdict: Epic Fail. Another stretch in the wilderness ensued. Fortunately this one was shorter the post-77 exile, and by 1997 the team was rising from the ashes and pointing in the right direction again. Until…
Transactions: Steve Phillips traded failed outfield prospect Alex Escobar and others to Cleveland for Roberto Alomar. Super Steve also engineered a three-team swap with Milwaukee and Colorado that netted the Mets Jeromy Burnitz and Jeff D’Amico. He traded free agent flop Kevin Appier to the then-Anahiem Angels for Mo Vaughn. He traded for LHSP Shawn Estes. He signed Free Agents David Weathers and Roger Cedeno, and picked up Endy Chavez about a half dozen times, only to move him out each time (Endy began the year in the Expos system). He also acquired a then little known rookie outfielder named Jason Bay, who would be shipped to San Diego that summer.
Background and Results: After a nice run from 1997 to 2000, the Mets fortunes faded quickly after clinching the 2000 National League pennant. They lost the World Series in five games to the Yankees and then missed out on both Ichiro and A-Rod during the winter. Next, they failed to reach the playoffs in 2001. So Phillips got busy. I need to remember 2002 anytime I get nostalgic for the gun-slinging Phillips. Cedeno, Vaughn, Alomar and Burnitz were complete flops. D’Amico, despite his impressive size, couldn’t find the plate and had zero stuff. Estes is most famous for missing Roger Clemens when he intentionally tried to hit him during an interleague game at Shea. Weathers became an unnecessary piece. The two best players Phillips laid his hands on that offseason were Bay and Chavez, and he moved both of them, essentially for nothing.
The Verdict: Another fail. Phillips was shown the door before the 2003 season ended. His successor, the hapless Jim Duquette, moved a few of Phillips’ acquisitions for warm bodies. Unfortunately Duquette would soon make his own blunders, paving the way for Omar Minaya’s star-crossed tenure as Mets GM.
The Mets moved Josh Smoker to Pittsburgh for a minor league LHRP. They resigned Jose Reyes. They signed Jay Bruce, who they had traded last August. They grabbed veteran 1B Adrian Gonzalez (whom they could have had for Armando Benitez back during Duquette’s great sell-off of Phillips’ assets) while having Atlanta pick up almost his entire salary. They signed 3B Todd Frazier, LHSP Jason Vargas and RHRP Anthony Swarzak.
So, will any of these moves help? I think Frazier and Bruce, given their recent history in New York, will. Reyes too. For different reasons, both Vargas and Swarzak are question marks. Gonzo reminds me of Torre, circa 1975.
The 1975-76 Mets played as well as they did because of the team’s cadre of starting pitchers. Kingman aside, the rest of the team’s acquisitions played relatively minor roles. In 2018, Frazier and Bruce are definitely being counted on, but like their 1974 antecedents, the 2018 Mets fortunes will rise or fall on the ability of their pitching staff. This means Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard reaching at least 175 effective innings. Oh, and Yoenis Cespedes needs to be able to play in at least 135 games, if not more.
Should that happen, the rest of the pieces should fall into place and they could be on pace for an 86-76 season, with a chance to add a few players in July and push towards 90 wins. Otherwise, it’s back to the drawing board–or whatever electronic marvel has made that old standby obsolete.