There have been many bad acquisitions in Mets annals. There is no need to rehash the entire history here; all Mets fans know it by heart. Trades that seemed crazy at the time, and only became more ludicrous as time passed. Free agents were signed to long term, multi-million dollar contracts, then went on to play the worst seasons of their careers as Mets. Player development has yielded only four All Stars in fifteen years. (in a correction to my Reyes article, there has actually been another Mets’ organizational hitter named to an All Star team since 1990: Edgardo Alfonso. My apologies for the error.)
All of these things mean that the Mets must have had some bad stewardship over the past 43 years of their existence. It has not been all bad; this is a franchise that has played in four World Series and won two. It just seems that those teams have won in spite of the moves from their general manager, not because of them.
Omar Minaya is currently stockpiling talent like they were canned goods before the apocalypse. In his first year in charge, the Mets’ record improved by twelve games over the year before. With a power bat, a top closer, and who knows what else yet to arrive, it would certainly seem like another World Series berth is on the way. But how does he compare to his predecessor?
Jim Duquette was only the Mets’ general manager for a little over one year. In that one year, he did much damage to the Mets’ infrastructure. Mets fans should feel lucky that Omar Minaya took over as general manager; Duquette might have picked up Al Leiter’s option, passed on Pedro Martinez, and signed Steve Finley to a long-term deal. That seems crazy, but not until you look at Duquette’s record.
June 12, 2003: Steve Phillips is fired as general manager of the New York Mets. Obviously, I cannot defend the entire Steve Phillips regime, but he rebuilt a team that was left for dead in the early 90’s and got the Mets into the 2000 World Series. Of course, he then overspent the team into oblivion, but he does have that World Series on his resume.
One day before he was fired, Steve Phillips recalled Jose Reyes from Norfolk to replace Rey Sanchez, who went on the disabled list with a strained left thumb. A quote from Phillips:
We expect Jose (Reyes’) stay with the Major League club to be of short-term duration. With Rey (Sanchez) going on the disabled list, we thought this would be the perfect opportunity for Jose to get his first big league experience. We expect Jose to go back to Norfolk when Rey returns.
With Phillips out and the team 29-35, the first stage of Jim Duquette’s reign as general managerwill require trading some of the higher-priced veterans whose contracts are expiring in return for young talent to stockpile a fairly barren minor league system. Duquette’s ability to obtain promising minor leaguers will be the first test of his administration.
July 1: The first big move of the Duquette regime is made. Roberto Alomar is traded to the Chicago White Sox for Royce Ring, Edwin Almonte, and Andrew Salvo. The Mets are forced to pick up the tab on Alomar’s remaining salary. While Alomar was a tremendous disappointment as a Met, his trade value was still high enough that the Mets should have received a decent prospect in return, especially with the Mets paying off Alomar’s contract. Instead, the cornerstone of the deal, Royce Ring, has shown absolutely no ability to one day become a productive major league pitcher.
Also from July 1, Rey Sanchez is activated from the 15 day disabled list. Jose Reyes is not sent down, as Steve Phillips had planned. Jim Duquette explains the change in plans, saying:
Any time you can get on-the-job training at the major-league level without being overmatched it’s a positive. We’re looking at his development. We said all along we were watching carefully his offensive approach. That’s still something we’ll continue to evaluate, even with him staying up here for the time being.
Reyes, it should be mentioned, was hitting .205 at this point. I guess Duquette did not consider that overmatched. Art Howe agreed with Duquette:
We didn’t know exactly how he was going to respond to the opportunity.. Offensively, obviously, he’s not hitting as well as you would probably like. And defensively he’s made his share of mistakes. But you see that there’s an upside there.
Maybe I’m crazy, but isn’t the minor leagues the place for players to develop their upside into something tangible on the major league level? Reyes’ rush to the major leagues would wind up hampering his development as a hitter. But that is far from the only way the messed with Reyes’ development, as we will see.
July 14: Jeromy Burnitz is traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Victor Diaz, Kole Strayhorn, and Joselo Diaz. No complaints on this trade. Victor Diaz has the ability to become a quality major league hitter. Burnitz pretty much stopped hitting well as soon as he left the Mets. Score one for Duquette.
July 16: Armando Benitz is traded to the New York Yankees for Jason Anderson, Anderson Garcia, and Ryan Bicondoa. Only Garcia is still in the Mets’ system. None will ever contribute significantly to a major league team.
July 29: Rey Sanchez is traded to the Seattle Mariners. Jose Reyes is now the undisputed starting shortstop. Any shot the Mets might have had to send Reyes back down to get some more development time is gone. On the plus side, the Mets acquired a marginal prospect.
September 5: Jose Reyes is placed on the DL with a sprained ankle. This should have been the point where Reyes was brought back up to play another month in the majors after having spent July and August in Triple-A. Instead, he will miss the rest of the month with leg problems that would continue to bother him for much of the next year, as opposed to the hitting problems that continue to bother him to this day.
September 28: The Mets’ season mercifully ends. The Mets finish 66-95, good for last place in the NL East, 34.5 games out of first. This cannot be blamed on Jim Duquette, as he inherited a team that was miles out of first, and then gutted it to rebuild for the future. Sure, the Mets only acquired one player that will contribute to that future, but nobody knows that yet. The Mets go into the off-season with holes at second base, center field, right field, in the starting rotation, and in the bullpen. How these holes are filled will play a huge part in determining their future.
November 5: The Mets hire Rick Peterson away from the Oakland Athletics to serve as their pitching coach. Peterson was credited with developing the young arms of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito during his time in Oakland, and is expected to work with some of the Mets’ young arms like Jae Seo, Aaron Heilman, and Scott Kazmir. Mets fans hope that Peterson may one day mold a similar trio in New York.
December 10: Japanese shortstop Kazuo Matsui is signed to a three-year contract. This is not a stop gap measure to give Jose Reyes another season of minor league time. Instead, the plan is to move Reyes to second base to accommodate Matsui. So now, not only have the Mets messed with Jose Reyes’ development by bringing him up at least a season too soon, but they are moving him to another position as well. All to accommodate a player who has taken zero major league at bats.
The Matsui signing will turn out to be a disaster. He was an awful defensive shortstop, and failed to produce at the plate at his Japanese league levels. Reyes would be moved back to shortstop after the 2004 season, after spending an injury-prone season at second base, while Matsui would suffer a similar fate in 2005.
December 18: Mike Cameron is signed to a three year deal to be the Mets’ new starting center fielder. Cameron would prove to be one of the few Mets acquired this offseason who would play well in 2004.
January 6, 2004: Braden Looper signs a two year deal to become the new closer for the Mets, despite the fact that Looper had failed as a closer for the Florida Marlins the previous season. In spite of this, Looper would put up a decent 2004 season for the Mets before completely collapsing in 2005.
January 12: Vladimir Guerrero signs with the Anaheim Angels. The Mets had engaged in a long courtship for Guerrero, that saw them almost land the slugger before pulling back on offering a long term deal due to injury concerns (the Mets had been burned in the past on bad contracts given to injury-prone talent). If Omar Minaya had been the Mets’ general manager in 2003, he absolutely would have sealed the deal on this. Guerrero would win the 2004 AL MVP and lead the Angels to two straight playoff appearances, while the Mets instead started the 2004 season with a platoon of Karim Garcia and Shane Spencer in right field.
February 20: Fred Wilpon, in an interview on WFAN, says “We are not rebuilding. We have rebuilt.” In case you aren’t following along at home, the Mets’ rebuilding effort consists of Kaz Matsui, Mike Cameron, Braden Looper, Karim Garcia, Shane Spencer, and a dozen or so minor leaguers, only one of whom will ever make a significant contribution to a Mets team. The most amazing thing about the quote is that Wilpon was able to say it without laughing.
March 6: Shane Spencer and Karim Garcia, the platoon pairing that will play right field for the Mets instead of Vladimir Guerrero, allegedly rough up a delivery driver in a pizza parlor parking lot near St. Lucie, Florida. Chargers are filed, but nothing major comes of it. Vladimir Guerrero was involved in no legal altercation that I am aware of on March 6, and is instead preparing to embark on a MVP season. Spencer and Garcia would both be gone before the beginning of August.
March 27: Outfielder Timo Perez is traded to the Chicago White Sox for Matt Ginter. Matt Ginter could accurately be described as “the Timo Perez of pitchers.” A year and a half later, Perez would win a World Series ring as a member of the White Sox. Sometimes, life isn’t fair.
March 28: With Jose Reyes not ready to start the season due to lingering effects from his ankle injury and a hamstring injury, the Mets acquire Ricky Gutierrez from the Cleveland Indians. Gutierrez would prove to be so bad, he would be released one month later, a full month before Reyes returns from the DL.
April 1: The Mets’ rebuilt roster breaks camp with 40 year-old Scott Erickson in the starting rotation Erickson hasn’t pitched in the majors in two years. You may note that I did not include any starting pitchers in the transactions listed above, because the Mets did nothing to address their starting rotation in the off-season, other than offer non-roster invites to the likes of Scott Erickson and James Baldwin. Aaron Heilman, Jae Seo, Baldwin, and Erickson were supposed to compete for the 4 and 5 spots in the rotation, but all were so awful, Heilman, Seo, and Baldwin wound up in the minors, and somehow, improbably, Erickson wound up in the rotation. Ladies and gentlemen, your rebuilt 2004 New York Mets!
April 3: The Mets trade Roger Cedeno to the St. Louis Cardinals for Chris Widger and Wilson Delgado. Widger is released the next day, and Delgado starts the season in Norfolk. Yet they actually improved their roster with this trade. Cedeno would go on to play for the Cardinals in the World Series that year. Sometimes, life isn’t fair.
April 6: The Mets open their season in Atlanta with a 7-2 win over the Braves. Kaz Matsui homers in his first major league at-bat. This would represent the peak of Matsui’s career as a Met.
April 8: Scott Erickson goes on the 15 day disabled list with a strained left hamstring. At least that wasn’t predictable or anything. Jae Seo is recalled from Norfolk and promptly stinks up the joint in several ballparks across the US.
May 1: The Mets finish the month of April with a record of 9-14. Any realistic Mets fan could not have expected any different. Fred Wilpon is perplexed as to why his rebuilt team sucks.
May 9: James Baldwin is recalled from Norfolk. Baldwin would pitch six innngs over two starts, giving up ten earned runs in two losses, and would be released two weeks later. Other than that, his stint as a Met went great.
June 1: The Mets are 24-26 at the end of May, shockingly closer to .500 than anybody could have expected. Hey, maybe the Mets were rebuilt after all.
June 17: David Weathers and Jeremy Griffiths are traded to the Houston Astros for Richard Hidalgo. Hidalgo starts his tenure with the team hot, but soon cools back down to his Astros-level. Still, he makes Garcia and Spencer expendable, but he’s not Vlad Guerrero, either.
June 19: Jose Reyes returns from the DL with the Mets still hovering around .500. In his first games back, he looks a little tentative on the bases, as the effects from his ankle and hamstring injuries are still clearly bothering him. Playing a new position probably isn’t helping him, either.
July 4: On the day of our nation’s independence, the New York Mets complete their first-ever series sweep of the New York Yankees. The Mets also finish with a winning record against the Yankees for the first time since interleague play began. Things are looking up.
July 7: The Mets beat the Phillies 10-1. The Mets’ record is 43-40, three games over .500. This would represent their high water mark of the season. They are in the thick of things in both the wild card race and the NL East race.
July 15: Tom Glavine and Mike Piazza represent the National League in the All-Star Game. Neither are Jim Duquette acquisitions. The NL loses 9-4.
July 19: Karim Garcia is traded to the Baltimore Orioles for Mike DeJean. Pizza parlors in the Baltimore area begin closing immediately after Orioles home games are completed.
July 21: With a rash of injuries decimating the Mets’ corner infielders, Mets prospect David Wright is recalled from Norfolk. Unlike Reyes, Wright has been tearing up Triple-A pitching, showing poise and patience at the plate. Wright would prove to be one of the few bright spots for the Mets in the second half of 2004.
July 30: Things are no longer looking up for the Mets. They are 49-53, several games behind the charging Braves for the NL East lead. The wild card is also starting to look out of reach. It looks like it might be time to pack it up, look to next year, perhaps deal a veteran coming to an end of a contract.
July 31: That isn’t what happens. This day would come to be known by some Mets fans as “Black Friday.” Six months too late, the Mets decide to do something about their lack of starting pitching. Third baseman Ty Wigginton, no longer with a position to play thanks to the emergence of David Wright, is dealt with minor leaguers Matt Peterson and Justin Huber to the Pittsburgh Pirates for mediocre starting pitcher Kris Benson and minor league infielder Jeff Keppinger. As it turns out, this trade is not that bad; Wigginton played terribly for the Pirates, and Peterson doesn’t look like he is going to pan out. However, in order to justify trading two prospects and a utility infielder, the Mets give Kris Benson a three year, $22.5 million dollar contract in the off-season. All so the Mets could acquire a pitcher with a career ERA of 4.25.
However, the worst was yet to come. There had been rumors since spring training that Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson was not fond of Scott Kazmir’s mechanics or his attitude. His performance in St Lucie was still very good, and Kazmir had just been promoted to Double-A Binghamton. His stay in upstate New York would prove to be a short one, as he was traded with Jose Diaz, to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for Victor Zambrano and minor league reliever Bartolome Fortunado.
Zambrano held the distinction of being the ace of the Devil Rays staff, which is kind of like saying that Police Academy 4 holds the distinction of being the best of Bubba Smith’s movies. Peterson is convinced that he can “fix” a 30 year-old pitcher with no track record of success at the major league level. We’re still waiting, Rick. Kazmir, meanwhile, would finish ninth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2005, and looks to have a bright future in Tampa Bay. On a personal note, I came home that night to find my cat laying dead in my dining room, having passed away at the age of 20. That was an omen right there that things were not going to turn out well for the Mets.
Also, Shane Spencer was released following a drunk driving arrest, and Scott Erickson was traded to the Texas Rangers for nothing. I guess some good happened on this day.
August 15: The Mets place shortstop Kaz Matsui on the disabled list, two days after placing Jose Reyes on the DL. Thus, the two middle infield “rabbits,” as Fred Wilpon had called them, are both sidelined as the likes of Jeff Keppinger and Wilson Delgado man these positions. Meanwhile, things are falling apart for the Mets. They are 56-60, and are completely out of the NL East race, and close to being out of the wild card race.
August 19: After three starts, Victor Zambrano is placed on the disabled list. He would not pitch again until next season. He would not pitch well, ever.
August 27: Dan Wheeler is traded to the Houston Astros for Adam Seuss. Wheeler would become a very good arm in the Astros’ bullpen, while the Mets would search for reliable relief help for much of the next year-plus. Dr. Seuss is now out of baseball.
September 2: The Mets finish a disastrous 1-11 homestand with a 9-6 loss against the Florida Marlins. Their record now stands at 60-73. Nobody is talking about the playoffs anymore. The rebuilt Mets will have to work just to stay out of the NL East basement for the third consecutive season.
September 10: Victor Diaz is recalled from Triple-A, the first player Duquette acquired in the salary dumps of 2003 to make the majors. He shows flashes of offensive production, with a .840 OPS in his short stint with the big league team.
September 14: The Mets announce that Art Howe will be fired at the conclusion of the 2004 season. Howe was not a Duquette hire, so I can’t blame that one on him, but I can blame the awful team Howe was forced to manage in 2004 on Duquette. Howe would finish with a 137-186 record in his two seasons as Mets manager.
September 24: Kaz Matsui and Jose Reyes are simultaneously activated from the disabled list. Lord only knows why when the team is twenty games under .500.
September 30: It is announced that Omar Minaya, general manager of the Montreal Expos, will be the new GM of the Mets, replacing Jim Duquette. The Mets then begin a series against those same Montreal Expos, as a final slap in the face to the Expos and their fans. Jim Duquette remains with the team in the role of Senior Vice President of Baseball Relations, but strangely, he has no control over baseball relations.
October 3: The Mets complete the 2004 season with a 8-1 victory over the Montreal Expos in the Expos’ final game before moving to Washington to become the Nationals. The rebuilt Mets finish 71-91, five wins better than the previous year, which is enough to keep them out of the NL East cellar.
So let’s examine this record. After dumping Armando Benitez, Roberto Alomar, and Jeromy Burnitz, the Mets acquired one player that looks like even a part-time player at the major league level. After Steve Phillips promoted Jose Reyes to the Mets for a taste of the majors, Duquette made the mistake of keeping Reyes up when he showed no ability to hit or play defense. To this day, Reyes has troubles at the plate that could have been addressed with more seasoning in the minors. To make matters worse for Reyes, he was forced to learn a new position after the Mets signed Kaz Matsui. Duquette passed on Vladimir Guerrero, signing Karim Garcia and Shane Spencer instead. And then there were the Black Friday acquisitions of Kris Benson and Victor Zambrano. The best moves Duquette made as general manager were the signing of Mike Cameron and the trade for Victor Diaz. One is no longer a Met, and the other is only considered a part-time player at this point. That is the Jim Duquette record.
Omar Minaya would hire Willie Randolph as the new manager, and aggressively seek out Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran, the best pitcher and the best hitter on the free agent market. This time, the Mets rebuilt for real, finishing 83-79 and staying in the playoff hunt until mid-September. As for Duquette, you would think any real examination of his record would keep him from working in baseball as a general manager again. Instead, the Baltimore Orioles hired him to fill that very position at the conclusion of the 2005 season. To Orioles fans, I wish you well. I hope the rebuilt Orioles of 2006 do not resemble the “rebuilt” Mets of 2004.