The Steve Phillips Alternate Universe

David Wright, fortunately not wearing a Toronto Blue Jays uniform

David Wright, fortunately not wearing a Toronto Blue Jays uniform

Can you imagine how bad this team might be without Jose Reyes and David Wright?  Because it is by the grace of other baseball general managers that both are still on the New York Mets.  Consider that in 2001, the Mets had originally offered Jose Reyes in the package of players that eventually netted Roberto Alomar.  The Indians insisted on Alex Escobar, at the time the Mets’ top prospect.  That very same offseason, Steve Phillips offered the Toronto Blue Jays David Wright in exchange for Jose Cruz, Jr.  JP Ricciardi turned that one down since at the time, Wright was a 19 year old third baseman in the South Atlantic League.

Jose Reyes, wearing the blue and orange instead of the navy and red

Jose Reyes, wearing the blue and orange instead of the navy and red

Can you even imagine how dreadful the last five years would have been without the chance to watch David Wright and Jose Reyes flourish for this team?  Imagine two more Kazmir-like disasters hanging over this franchise, only worse?  Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, but in this case the Mets were really, really lucky.  With a little hindsight, we can see how disastrous these trades would have been.

Disclaimer:  it’s possible that Steve Phillips would have only made one of these trades, not both.  Maybe after trading Reyes for Alomar, he becomes suddenly protective of David Wright.  Who knows.  I am looking at the worst-case scenario mostly because I’m a Mets fan who always expects the worst, plus I hate Steve Phillips.  I am simply imaging a post-apocolyptic world where everything goes wrong.  If you think the last three years have been tough, imagine what could have happened…

The Mets would have retained Alex Escobar with Reyes in Cleveland.  With Phillips in control, it’s not inconceivable that he wouldn’t have eventually traded Escobar away for another piece, but had they kept him, Escobar would have been a disappointment.  Escobar never panned out thanks to injuries, only taking 439 plate appearances in the majors despite great tools.  At the age of 31, he is already out of baseball.  He did play decently in the little time he did log in the majors, hitting decently for the Nats in 2006 and playing good defensive in a small sample size for Cleveland in 2004, so I think it’s safe to say that had it not been for the injuries, Escobar could have been something.  But the Mets dodged a major bullet when the Indians insisted on Escobar, not Reyes.

With Reyes gone, the team would have had a hole at shortstop from 2004 onward, as they have not developed another shortstop prospect over this same time frame.  Thus, we can assume that in 2004, the Mets still would have signed Kaz Matsui to play shortstop for them, since they wound up doing that anyway.  It’s also safe to assume that Matsui still would have been a disaster at shortstop.  Let’s then assume that Omar Minaya, upon taking over as General Manager in 2005, would have decided they were going to need to move Matsui off of SS, since he decided that on his own anyway.  Free agent shortstops available in the 2004-2005 offseason included Orlando Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, and David Eckstein. 

Let’s assume that Omar signs Cabrera, whom he had been familiar with as GM of the Montreal Expos, and who had just won the World Series with the Boston Red Sox.  Since the Angels wound up signing Cabrera for 4 years and $32 million, figure the Mets probably have to better that somehow.  Knowing Omar, he probably adds another year to the deal, so make that 5 years and $40 million.  It wouldn’t have been a bad contract until last year, when he was awful.  His defense alone would probably be worth the $8 million a season.  Still, as good as Cabrera was from 2005 to 2008, averaging 3.4 WAR a season, he wasn’t Jose Reyes, and considering that Reyes averaged 4.6 WAR over the same time frame (even with a  lousy 2005) and was paid under $8 million total for the privilege (or what we would be paying Cabrera per season), I think it’s safe to say we made out OK without Cabrera in the end. 

Signing Cabrera might have also had other repercussions; with having to fill shortstop outside of the organization a priority, maybe the Mets can’t sign Pedro Martinez or Carlos Beltran.  Since Pedro signed first, and since the team already had Mike Cameron to play center field, the odd man out is Beltran.  This isn’t cut-and-dried, of course; after all, the Mets did make a pitch to go after Carlos Delgado after signing Beltran, so they had money to spend this offseason.  Yet it’s possible that after signing Pedro and Cabrera, Omar is suddenly unable to blow Beltran away with his offer and Beltran goes back to the Astros instead.  It’s possible that by trading Jose Reyes in 2001, Steve Phillips would have cost the Mets Carlos Beltran 4 years later.  Kind of ironic considering his later comments towards Beltran, isn’t it?

Steve Phillips, dummy.

Steve Phillips, dummy.

Then there is the Jose Cruz trade.  The Mets would have acquired him before his walk year in 2002.  Since nobody knows who David Wright is in 2002, the Mets would not necessarily feel obligated to give Cruz an extension of any type to justify the trade, so it’s possible the Mets would have given away their eventual franchise cornerstone for one year of Jose Cruz.  And they offered this to the Blue Jays!  As much as Steve Phillips likes to take credit for David Wright now, remember that he offered him straight-up for a player who was out of baseball five years later.  If he had made this trade, Phillips’ legacy would have been “trading David Wright” instead of ” LOL Brooke Hundley.”

What would the Mets have gotten from Cruz in 2002?  Not much offensively.  He batted .245/.317/.438/.754 in his last year in Toronto, a below average season that likely cost him money in free agency, as he only signed a one-year deal with the Giants in the offseason.  It looks especially poor after he had hit 30 homers a year the previous two seasons; he would never crack the 30 home run barrier again.  He was good defensively in 2002, which makes up some of the offensive production.  He played left and right regularly after having been a center fielder previously, as he moved out of center to make room for Vernon Wells.

Would Cruz have been a Met beyond 2002?  Obviously, it’s almost impossible to say.  Without looking at stats and going by my gut, I think Phillips would not have signed him beyond 2002, and after he had a poor year, I don’t think they would have brought him back.  This trade would have given the Mets an outfield of Cruz in center, Jeromy Burnitz in right, and Roger Cedeno in left.  Much like all of Steve Phillips’ moves for 2002, this outfield would have looked great on paper (well, maybe not Cedeno) but fizzled out on the field.  As it was, the unheralded duo of Timo Perez and Jay Payton put up 3.9 WAR splitting centerfield duties in 2002, more than Cruz’s 2.4 WAR on the Jays, though it’s not an apples to apples comparison since Cruz played the outfield corners in Toronto.  At any rate, trading for Cruz actually would have made the Mets worse in 2002, and that was a season where they finished 75-86.

Without Wright around, what happens at third base?  Third base isn’t quite as linear as shortstop because the Mets did have an internal candidate to play third base at the time Wright was brought up to the majors.  Remember Ty Wigginton?  I do, as I am one of about 10 Mets fans who once owned a Ty Wigginton jersey.  Anyway, the Mets would not have been able to trade Wigginton in 2004 for Kris Benson, which means the Pirates likely trade Benson elsewhere and the Mets keep Wiggy, Justin Huber, and Matt Peterson.  Without trading for Kris Benson, the Mets wouldn’t have been able to get John Maine or Orlando Hernandez two years later.  Without trading for Kris Benson, maybe the Mets also don’t trade Kazmir for Zambrano, either.  Then again, maybe Kazmir is traded to the Pirates for Benson instead.  Who knows.  We will just assume that they trade for Zambrano but not Benson, since again, this is about the worst case scenario.

I don’t know how long the Mets would have kept Wiggy at 3B.  Probably not long, as he stunk for the Pirates the very next season.  By the 2005-2006 offseason, the Mets will now have to acquire a third baseman in addition to acquiring a closer, a first baseman, and a catcher.   It’s possible the Mets would not have signed Billy Wagner or traded for Carlos Delgado and Paul Lo Duca if they also had to get a third baseman for 2006 as well.  Suddenly, bringing in a new Proven Closer ™ or a power hitting first baseman is a luxury they may not be able to afford.

What might save the Mets is that the 2005-2006 free agent crop was noticeably weak at third base; some of the better options that year were Bill Mueller and Joe Randa.   It’s also possible the Mets would have looked at trading for a player like Mark Loretta to play 3B, but after trading for Delgado and Lo Duca, they would have been low on prospects.  Maybe instead of trading for Lo Duca, they wait out…Ramon Hernandez?  Bengie Molina?  It’s hard to say, but at any rate, not having Wright dramatically recalibrates their 2005-2006 offseason. 

Let’s assume that among the available options at third base (Wigginton, Mueller, Randa, and Loretta, or as I like to call them, Four Bland White Guys), they sign Mueller, since he’s the best of the bunch, and besides, since this is a negative piece, he’s also the one who had the worst 2006 season after having career-ending knee surgery after playing just 30 games.  Since in this alternate reality, the Mets never signed Beltran after tapping out their resources to sign Cabrera and Pedro, they should be able to match or beat the Dodgers’ $4.5 million offer to Mueller.  Where does that leave the 2006 Mets?

  • C:  Paul Lo Duca
  • 1B: Carlos Delgado
  • 2B: Kaz Matsui/Jose Valentin
  • 3B: Bill Mueller
  • SS: Orlando Cabrera
  • LF: Cliff Floyd
  • CF: Mike Cameron
  • RF: Victor Diaz, as without Cameron being traded, Xavier Nady never comes to New York
  • SP:  Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine, Victor Zambrano, Steve Trachsel, and Brian Bannister probably break spring training with the team.  It gets ugly after that, as Pedro, Bannister, and Zambrano would all eventually get hurt.  Without the Benson trade, the Mets never get John Maine from the Orioles.  They might have been able to swing something for El Duque without Jorge Julio since neither guy was pitching particularly well at the time of the trade, but the rotation is still perilously thin.
  • RP:  Billy Wagner, Duaner Sanchez, Aaron Heilman, Pedro Feliciano, Darren Oliver, Chad Bradford, and Heath Bell instead of Jorge Julio.  Knowing how little the team valued Bell, they probably wind up trading him to the Diamondbacks for El Duque.
  • Bench: Endy Chavez, Chris Woodward, Julio Franco, and Ramon Castro.

Does that look like a playoff team to you?  It looks like a team that would have struggled to finish fourth in the NL East to me.  Other ways the 2006 Mets are affected; without Xavier Nady to trade, the Mets are screwed after Duaner Sanchez is injured in his cab accident, and the team never acquires Oliver Perez (for better and for worse).  With the team likely miles from contention in mid-August, they also never trade for Shawn Green, meaning Victor Diaz remains their everyday right fielder all season due to lack of better options.  The Mets are a non-contender, the Phillies dynasty of the past three years likely gets a one-year head start and wins the 2006 NL East, only Mets fans don’t care because we gave up on this team in August.  Imagine a world where we don’t hate Shane Victorino?  I get goosebumps thinking about it.

Moving beyond 2006, the collapse of 2007 doesn’t happen.  Why?  Because the 2007 Mets likely still aren’t good enough to compete.   Omar Minaya still probably targets Moises Alou to replace Floyd in left field, but I have no idea what he does about right field and at third base.  The rotation is a disaster in 2007 even with Oliver Perez and John Maine; without them, it’s even worse.  Maybe Omar goes after Barry Zito in 2006 and gets burned on that bad contract in yet another misguided effort to make a splash.  Going beyond 2007 is starting to make my head hurt, but needless to say, prospects aren’t good.  Omar Minaya probably doesn’t survive 2008 as general manager.

Omar Minaya doesn't know what he's going to do next

Omar Minaya doesn't know what he's going to do next

What was the purpose of constructing this alternate reality?  Mostly to demonstrate how lucky Omar Minaya has been to have players like David Wright, Jose Reyes, and Carlos Beltran to cover for his mistakes.  In the cases of Reyes and Wright, not only have they been good enough to cover for those mistakes, but cheap enough to let him acquire other premier talents like Beltran, Delgado, Wagner, and later Johan Santana.  He absolutely deserves credit for the Beltran signing, as it was a risky move that made one of the better players already on the team redundant in Mike Cameron.  But without the payroll flexibility of having Wright and Reyes under team-friendly contracts and performing at near-MVP caliber rates, Omar would not have been able to add Beltran to the mix.

It’s also to show the value of young players.  Wright and Reyes have both been great, but because they have been locked under team control, they have also been relatively cheap.  That’s why I am against making any trades this off-season for guys who might be future stars like Fernando Martinez, Ike Davis, or Jenrry Meija.  If these guys pan out, they will cost the team for the first six years, and considering that Wright and Reyes are on the verge of becoming expensive, it would behoove the team to have the next generation of young, cheap stars on the horizon to retain both Wright and Reyes and add the next Carlos Beltran to the mix.  If that means the Mets don’t trade for Roy Halladay or Adrian Gonzalez, so be it.

Most of Omar Minaya’s success as general manager can be attributed not necessarily to his own talent, but because Mark Shapiro and J.P. Ricciardi said no to two young players just out of the Sally League, because Steve Phillips was protected by his own stupidity.  Without Reyes and Wright, it’s unlikely Omar would have received that contract extension a year ago.  Unfortunately, Minaya is going to get one more chance to prove he’s a legit major league general manager.  Let’s hope that if he offers the 2013 version of Reyes and Wright to another GM that he is as fortunate to get bailed out on his own stupidity as Phillips was in 2001.

5 Responses to “The Steve Phillips Alternate Universe”

  1. tjv101 says:

    I almost have a headache from reading that as the pseudo-mets would have scared the hell out of me. I can’t imagine this team without Reyes and Wright…2 homegrown talents. Their hasn’t been two homegrown talents like them since Doc and Darryl and that was 25 years ago so that shows to me how awful the Mets farm system has been over the years and secondly how you can’t hang your hat on the possible success of Ike Davis, F-Mart, and Meija. Are you certain they are future stars? I don’t think so. This team is built to win now. They are a few pieces away from being a championship team. Beltran, Wright, Reyes, Santana, K-Rod (biting my tongue) are in their prime. I would gladly trade any and all of those players for a proven player and winner such as Roy Halladay. Let’s hope Minaya will do the same.

  2. Chris Wilcox says:

    Travis, the point isn’t just to win now, it’s to win now and win later. Ted Berg of wrote something great about this the other day, so rather than repeat his points, I implore you to check it out at:

    Remember, even if they don’t turn into stars, at least two of the three of those players should turn into useful major league players, and for the money they make in their first six years on the team, that’s money saved to make another big free agent acquisition down the road. The Mets need to concentrate on developing young talent from within to augment outside help if this is ever going to be a team that truly builds a winning future. Trading for one year of Roy Halladay is a step backwards, whether they give him an extension or not.

  3. tjv101 says:

    I read Tedquarters article and he makes some valid points but I will quote one of his lines…”But prospects are never sure things, and many, many of the players that appear most bound for success, either mechanically or statistically, never turn into Major Leaguers.” Thats exactly how I feel.

    Cox, now to you. That’s a big “SHOULD” you wrote that two of those three players will be useful major league players in your response. Let’s be honest here, you just don’t know. You certainly hope that those players turn into respectable major league players but the vast majority do not. I agree that the Mets need to build up their farm system and concentrate on developing their young players but I also strongly believe that this team needs to prove itself to themselves and their fans after three failing years so why not pull the trigger on a major trade acquisition. Or why not do both? But when do you suggest they win? How long do you want to wait? 2014? Let’s not waste away the work they’ve already done by having prime talent like Wright (cheap contract), Reyes (cheaper contract), Beltran, Santana, and K-rod on this team. Thats how it appears to me. If they have 6 budding prospects in the minors, I am not against trading away for them for a sure-fire year after year Cy-Young candidate proven winner like Halladay. This team needs to do something. Jason Marquis and Chone Figgins aren’t gonna elevate this team next season to the playoffs. And essentially that’s something that all Mets fans want…their team playing in October which is something that they’ve done twice in the last 9 years and to me that’s just not good enough.

  4. Chris Wilcox says:

    Spending money just to spend money is a bad trap to fall into, especially since the team also needs to generate some sort of profit. While in a perfect world, the Mets would field a team with Halladay and Lackey in the rotation, Adrian Gonzalez at 1B, and Holliday in LF, that’s just not the reality. The Mets don’t spend money like the Yankees, and they can’t run fantasy teams out there, and I accept that.

    It might even be for the best; trading Halladay might be great in the short-term, but even after you consider the cost of trading prospects to acquire him, the team then has to pay him, and he’s not going to want a penny less than what CC and Santana earned the previous two years. The only problem is, Roy Halladay is older than those guys, and has had a history of injuries in the past. Maybe he only takes a five year deal instead of six years, but that’s still a lot of money for a player who turns 33 next year. Are you ready to pay Roy Halladay $18 million a season until he turns 38? After trading away the team’s best prospects to get him? I’m not so sure I am.

    That’s why I wouldn’t mind seeing some restraint this year. They need to start building a foundation, looking for some good, cheap players that are freely available and better than the Omir Santoses that have been trotted out the past few years. If they do go after free agents, go after younger guys, as they are less likely to turn into pumpkins. And keep the kids! They may not even be great, but this team could use a splash of good right now.

  5. astromets says:

    I still wear my Wigginton T-Shirt jersey! He was my favorite until Wright replaced him.
    This alternate universe sucks. I got to believe something more positive would’ve happened throughout the years. Like, we never trade Kazmir or we trade Milledge for Manny and he takes off for us.
    Any future trade of prospects needs to be for all-stars only so we avoid the mistakes you outlined that could have been.

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