Thursday, September 20, 2007

Trades From The Past - Bob Ojeda

Continuing this series of posts on the best trades the Mets ever made, if Bernard Gilkey was the only hitter to have a career year after being traded to the Mets, then Bob Ojeda was clearly the first, last, and only pitcher to similarly have a career year after coming to Flushing.

Ojeda had been a decent, if unspectacular starting pitcher for the Red Sox for a few seasons. The Mets had been impressed with the work another former Boston lefty, John Tudor, had done with the Cardinals and were seeking a similar pitcher, so they inquired about Ojeda. Coming off a 1985 season in which he was 9-11 with a 4.00 ERA, Ojeda was definitely obtainable, but the Sox were still able to attract what seemed like a pretty hefty price from the Mets.

Calvin Schiraldi was among the Mets' best young pitching prospects, Wes Gardner looked like the Mets' best young reliever and John Christensen and Laschelle Tarver were AAA outfielders who looked ready to contribute on the big league level. The Mets sent all 4 to Boston for Ojeda, a pretty good minor league pitcher named John Mitchell, and a couple of other minor leaguers, Chris Bayer, and Tom McCarthy. At the time of the deal, few fans expected Ojeda to be anything more than a fourth or fifth starter and it looked like the Mets were overpaying in prospects for a mediocre pitcher.

But Ojeda had a tremendous year for the World Champion Mets in 1986, going 18-5, 2.57 and placing fourth in the Cy Young balloting. An off-season freak injury made 1987 a lost year for Ojeda, and after that, he was just so-so for the Mets, but his big year in 1986 made this trade one of the best ever for the Mets.

Although the Mets have dealt for one-time aces throughout their history from Warren Spahn and Dean Chance to Frank Viola and Bret Saberhagen, it was the Ojeda deal that brought them their very best starting pitching acquisition. Whether Oliver Perez or John Maine ultimately prove to be better long-term is as yet unknown, but Ojeda will remain the only established pitcher to have a career year right after the Mets acquired him.

Trades From The Past - Bernard Gilkey

When discussing the outstanding trades the Mets have made over the years, the acquisition of Bernard Gilkey from the Cardinals is usually forgotten. In part, this could be because Gilkey really had only one good year for the Mets - although it was a terrific one, and also because even with Gilkey, the 1996 Mets weren't a very good team. Yet, Gilkey remains possibly the only experienced hitter ever to come to the Mets and immediately respond with the very best year of his career.

Gilkey had been the regular left fielder for the Cardinals for a few years and always was solid, if unspectaular. In 1995, Gilkey batted .298 with 17 homeruns and 69 rbi's. Then in December of 1995, St. Louis signed Ron Gant as a free agent and suddenly Gilkey was out of a job. Based on his past performances, it would have seemed that the Cardinals could have dealt Gilkey for much more than they got in return from the Mets in January, 1996 - minor league pitchers Eric Hiljus and Eric Ludwick (brother of current Cardinal of Ryan Ludwick) and outfielder Yudith Rosario. It seemed like a trade the Mets really couldn't lose on, unless one of the young players they sent away became a star. Of course, that didn't happen. Remarkably, though, Gilkey had an exceptional season for the Mets in '96, .317, 30, 117 - career highs in every department (compare to Gant's .246, 30, 82 for the '96 Cardinals). Gilkey sort of reverted to form in 1997 and was soon gone from the Mets, but his legacy remains as possibly the only hitter in the 46-year history of the Mets to post a career year immediately after being traded here. If anyone can think of another, please let me know !

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Trades From The Past - Sid Fernandez

When you think about the really good trades the Mets have made, the Cone and Hernandez deals come to mind first, but although few and far between, the Mets have made some other pretty good trades in their history, so as things continue to fall apart for this year's team, I thought I'd try to inject a positive note by looking at a few of the other good deals the Mets made.

Following the 1983 season, the Mets traded a middling relief pitcher, Carlos Diaz, and the veteran utility man Bob Bailor to the Dodgers for a pair of minor leaguers, Sid Fernandez and infielder Ross Jones. Although I'd never seen Fernandez pitch, he had compiled some eye-popping minor league numbers and it was a surprise to me that the Dodgers would let him go for a couple of run-of-the-mill players with little potential to get better. Before long, we all found out that Fernandez had a major weight problem, didn't have extraordinary stuff or a blazing fastball and had the kind of laid-back attitude befitting a Hawaiian surfer dude. He relied primarily on a deceptive motion. But he was plenty good enough.

Although Sid never duplicated the astonishing numbers he had put up in the minors, he did put up some very impressive ones and fit nicely with a Mets' team that had some other outstanding starters whose styles were totally different.

Fernandez' hits per inning ratio was among the best in baseball history and he won 114 games in his major league career, most of which was spent with the Mets. Sid tried to make a few comebacks. I believe the last time was in spring training with the Yankees in the late '90's.

Sid was fun to watch and a highly effective, if, unorthodox starting pitcher. On the other side, both Diaz and Bailor did pretty much what was expected during their short tenures with the Dodgers. So, this was definitely one of the Mets' all-time best trades.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

M. Donald Grant, Chairman Of The Board

The person most responsible for the Mets' worst years was probably M. Donald Grant. He is best known for sending Tom Seaver away, but his influence in the organization was a detriment toward building a competitive team, or keeping one, and things didn't get better until he was out of the picture when the Mets were sold to Wilpon and Doubleday.

Grant, a stockbroker, was Mrs. Payson's close personal advisor when she became the original owner of the Mets. He probably had very little influence in player movement for the first several years, and in the days before free agency, no one could say that the Mets were particularly cheap. But unlike, say a George Steinbrenner who took full advantage of baseball's free agent system from the start, Grant did not believe that a ballplayer deserved to be making as much money as a stockbroker or real estate magnate, and probably didn't think they belonged at the same parties or meetings, either.

Grant could be described as a patrician, a snob, a man with a plantation mentality. He was known to bring his fellow Mets' stockholders to the clubhouse, where he would introduce his players as a fine bunch of boys and single out the recent trade acquisitions and players up from the minors by calling out "new boys over here". He, indeed, belonged to a different generation, but at a time when his fellow owners were prepared to face baseball's new reality, he was lording over the Mets in a manner befitting Charles Comiskey and the 1919 White Sox.

Grant's meddling, no doubt, played a part in driving Mets' GM Bing Devine,who was doing a nice job of trying to build a winner, back to St. Louis. It was probably after Mets' GM Johnny Murphy passed away in 1970 that Grant's influence began to increase. Whitey Herzog was Mets' player development director and heir to the GM job, but Grant passed him by because he knew he wouldn't stand for any interference from someone who in Whitey's words "knew nothing about baseball". The next two Mets' GM's Bob Scheffing and Joe McDonald probably had their hands tied by Grant, his frugality, and his belief that ballplayers should be quiet, sign their contracts, and just play ball. When a player became outspoken about salary issues such as Tom Seaver and Dave Kingman did, it was only a matter of time before they would be sent away. When Gil Hodges died just before the 1972 season began, Grant again chose to bypass the outspoken Herzog, driving him out of the organization, in favor of Yogi Berra.

Probably the best example of how out of touch M. Donald Grant was with the average fan was when he tried to explain the Tom Seaver negotiations and subsquent trade in terms of bluffing and playing tricks in a hand of bridge. How many Mets' fans have any idea how to even play bridge ?

The above are my thoughts and recollections of Grant. To read more, go here :

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Old Time Mets - Cliff Cook

One of the very first trades the Mets made after the 1962 season began was the one that sent veteran Don Zimmer, who had just broken an 0-for-34 slump, to the Reds for lefty Bob Miller (not to be confused with righty Bob Miller, an original Mets' draft pick) and third baseman Cliff Cook.

The previous season while the Reds were winning the National League pennant, Cliff was the MVP of the AAA American Association, batting .311 with 32 home runs and 119 rbi's. If the league's defending champion had no room for a player who tore up the minor leagues, certainly the fledgling Mets did. Or did they ? Cook was pretty awful from the day he arrived. Not only didn't he hit, but he had a bad back that inhibited his ability to play third base, and he wound up being used more in the outfield, where he wasn't much better.

Cliff hit .232 as a part-time player with the '62 Mets, but after hitting .142 in 106 at-bats with the 1963 team, he was sent to AAA Buffalo where he hit .260 and never played in the major leagues again. Cook turned out to be one of many examples that being a dominant player in AAA doesn't always translate to being a good one in the big leagues. It should be noted that 2 days after trading for Cook, the Mets made a deal for another player who had torn up AAA in the past - Marv Throneberry.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Old Time Mets - Felix Mantilla

Felix Mantilla, not to be confused with Felix Millan, was an original expansion draft choice of the Mets. He had been a utility infielder for the Milwaukee Braves for the previous six years, and had that tag when the Mets drafted him.

Mantilla might have been a better choice for the Mets at third base than Don Zimmer, or Cliff Cook, who came to the Mets early in 1962 in exchange for Zimmer, but Mantilla quickly established himself as a poor defensive player and it wasn't until all the other options proved unsuccessful that Felix got his crack at the third base job. His offensive numbers with the Mets in '62 weren't all that shabby - 11 homeruns, 59 rbi, and a .275 average, all career highs to that point. But at the end of the season, no one was too excited about Felix's future with the Mets. So, when the Mets were able to deal him to the Red Sox for 3 players in December of 1962, it looked like a good trade.

Coming back to the Mets were Tracy Stallard, best known for giving up Roger Maris' 61st homerun in 1961, who was regarded as a hard thrower and still a prospect at the age of 25, Pumpsie Green, Boston's first black player who hadn't accomplished much with the Red Sox but who seemed likely to take Mantilla's spot as the Mets' semi-regular third baseman, and a minor league shortstop, Al Moran, who was reputed to be a good-field, no-hit type.

Stallard was decent for the Mets. Actually he was brilliant at times, and awful most of the time, but he did sort of establish himself as a regular starter with the Mets before being traded away. Moran became the regular Mets' shortstop, almost by default, and batted .193 with 1 homerun in over 300 at bats for the Mets in 1963. Green was a huge disappointment who didn't make the Mets out of spring training and spent most of the year in AAA. He never became a major league player of any note.

But Mantilla surprisingly had 3 pretty good years for Boston. In 1963 he was a utility player who got only 178 at bats, but hit .315. In 1964 and 1965, he was more or less a regular player, In '64, splitting his time between the outfield and second base, he batted .289 with a remarkable 30 homeruns and 89 rbi's. In 1965, as Boston's regular second baseman, he went 18,92,.275 and made the all-star team for the first and only time in his career. He took advantage of Fenway's Green Monster, constantly pounding hits over or against the wall. Yet, surprisingly, at season's end, he was dealt away for light hitting shortstop Eddie Kasko.

So, Mantilla, like Jim Hickman was an original Mets' draft pick who eventually managed to live up to his potential, if only for a short time. Unfortunately, for Mets' fans, it came too late to help the Mets.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Mets Trades Of The Past - The Biggest One Ever

On December 8, 1977, the Mets were one of four teams involved in one of the most complex deals in the history of baseball. This was it :

The Mets sent John Milner to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Atlanta Braves sent Willie Montanez to the New York Mets. The Texas Rangers sent Adrian Devine, Tommy Boggs, and Eddie Miller to the Atlanta Braves. The Texas Rangers sent a player to be named later and Tom Grieve to the New York Mets. The Texas Rangers sent Bert Blyleven to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pittsburgh Pirates sent Al Oliver and Nelson Norman to the Texas Rangers. The New York Mets sent Jon Matlack to the Texas Rangers. The Texas Rangers sent Ken Henderson (March 15, 1978) to the New York Mets to complete the trade.

I wish I could tell you who conceived this deal and how it fell into place, but frankly, I have no idea. For the Mets' part, they replaced John Milner with Willie Montanez and sent Matlack away for Tom Grieve and Ken Henderson. Montanez was considered a better all-around player and certainly flashier than Milner, but I think that Met fans were disappointed with Willie's production and expected a major upgrade from Milner. Actually, the one full year Willie spent with the Mets wasn't bad statistically, but he seemed to fail a lot in big spots and hit his best in one-sided games. Ironically, the following season, the Mets sent Montanez to Texas, another of the parties in the original deal, in exchange for Ed Lynch and Mike Jorgensen and a couple of years later, the Pirates traded Milner even-up to Montreal for Montanez.

As for the other part of the trade for the Mets, it turned out to be a lot less than either side expected. Matlack had one solid year for the Rangers, but that was about it. Neither Grieve nor Henderson was anything other than a part-time player, though the Mets were expecting more, I'm sure.

The big names in the deal were Blyleven and Oliver, so maybe the deal started out as a one-for-one and other general managers just joined the party. I suppose after giving up Blyleven, the Rangers needed another pitcher and that's how Matlack got involved, but it looks to me like the Mets were a pawn in this trade, and they were probably fortunate it didn't turn out any worse than it did for them.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Old Time Mets - Jim Hickman

If Marv Throneberry symbolized the bumbling incompetence of the early Mets, Rod Kanehl the everyman quality, Ed Kranepool the hope for the future, and Roger Craig the frustration, nobody symbolized all of these qualities wrapped into one player the way Jim Hickman did.

If Al Jackson was the Mets' best expansion choice, Hickman was clearly second. The tall, rangy outfielder was basically the Mets' regular centerfielder for their first four seasons, although it seemed like the organization was always trying to replace him. Hickman would show flashes - the first Met to homer 3 times in a game, the first to hit for the cycle, the guy who homered to end Roger Craig's ridiculously long losing streak - and yet, Jim was a target of boobirds for his frequent strikeouts and double play grounders in clutch situations. Defensively and on the bases, Jim was okay, but his long strides and gangly build somehow made it seem like he wasn't trying because it looked like he should have been better.

When the Mets finally disposed of Hickman as the throw-in sent to the Dodgers along with Ron Hunt in the Tommy Davis trade, most Mets fans either didn't care or said "good riddance" and his performance with the Dodgers, a .163 batting average in his only season in L.A. seemed to confirm what some Mets' fans thought all along - that this guy was no major league player.

Yet, incredibly, and seemingly from out of nowhere, in 1970, Hickman then with the Cubs produced a remarkable season, a .315 batting average, 32 homeruns, 115 rbi's, a spot in the all-star game where he drove in the winning run, and an eighth place finish in the NL MVP race. Suddenly he was among the most feared hitters in the league. Who was this guy ?

The following year, he hit just .256 and his rbi's were down to 60, more typical of the kind of years he had with the Mets, and before long, he was gone from the major league scene. But if ever a mediocre player had one shining year, living up to the potential that Mets' fans once hoped he had, though most eventually abandoned that idea, Hickman was the one. In retrospect, his 1970 season is still a little hard to believe.