With the impending termination of Mets General Manager Omar Minaya and Manager Jerry Manuel, I thought it would be of interest to break down the history of our embattled GM. In this series, the good, the bad, the ugly of Omar's reign of terror will be explored (and sadly there's more bad and ugly then good).
I encourage you to read on after the jump and participate and share your memories, as well as correct me where my mind may have slipped up or blocked something out.
Part I: From Humble Beginnings (The 2004/2005 Offseason)
Summer 2004 was another rough one in Queens -- the third in a row, in fact. These Mets were just as inept as their previous incarnations, as they ended up a dismal 71-91 on the season. Added to this, the team's General Manager Jim Duquette, in his first full season, "allegedly" pulled off the enormous trade deadline blunder of dealing SP Scott Kazmir to Tampa Bay for the middling SP Victor Zambrano. Though many will tell you stories of Pitchers Al Leiter and John Franco, Pitching Coach Rick Peterson and the Wilpon's involvement, among others, the blame was almost universally hoisted upon Duquette's shoulders. Manager Art Howe's job status was not looking so hot either, as the team had struggled to get near .500 two consecutive years under his management and Howe was somewhat disrespected by his players for his laid-back, bland attitude (one anonymous player even described playing for him as like "playing for your grandfather").
The scent of change was in the air, as the glorious runs of 1999 and 2000 seemed to be so far removed in our minds. Mets fans wanted new leadership in place and in late September, they got their wish. Art Howe was fired with two weeks left in the season and soon after the games mercifully ended, the Mets announced the hiring of former Montreal Expos General Manager Omar Minaya as General Manager, while current GM Jim Duquette was kept on but given a different job title. Mets fans were of course familiar with Minaya, as he was the Assistant General Manager to Steve Philips until 2002 when MLB hired him to take over the Expos. We all knew Minaya came from a scouting background as he had been touted as the scout who signed Sammy Sosa, among other players while with the Texas Rangers and was also thought to have a hand in the Jose Reyes signing as well. It was a time of excitement for Mets fans -- there was a new General Manager to pin new hopes to and an overall newfound positivity in Metsland.
Minaya began building his team quickly and in early November, made the decision to hire former big league second baseman and Yankee legend (not to mention former Met as well) Willie Randolph as manager. Randolph beat out former Angels manager Terry Collins, Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo and a list of others who received interviews, including Jim Leyland and Jim Riggleman for the gig. In interviews after announcing the hiring, Minaya said that he wanted a manager "with whom he could grow, a manager who would work year-round on and off the field to form a partnership and help build the Mets back into a winner." With the manager in place, Minaya went right to work on laying the groundwork for the team on the field.
On November 30, 2004 Omar Minaya made his first transaction as Mets GM, resigning recently acquired SP Kris Benson to a 3 year contract worth 22.5 million dollars. This signing was one that was considered almost a near certainty, as the Mets had given up valuable pieces at the trade deadline in order to acquire the prospective free agent Benson from the Pirates. These pieces were 2B Jeff Keppinger, displaced 3B Ty Wigginton, #2 minor league SP prospect Matt Peterson and C/1B Justin Huber who was dealt to the Kansas City Royals in exchange for Jose Bautista, who went to Pittsburgh. Minaya soon thereafter made his first trade, as he completed a small deal with the crosstown Yankees on December 3rd, acquiring LHP Felix Heredia in exchange for former Yankee LHP (and Met disappointment) Mike Stanton.
Moving into December, Minaya made a few small moves that proved to be of interest later on. At the 2004 Winter Meetings, the Mets selected flame-throwing RHP Henry Owens in the minor league portion of the Rule V draft. Owens was an older prospect who had recently converted from catcher to relief pitcher. Two days later, on December 15th, the Mets announced the signing of Free Agent catcher Ramon Castro of the Florida Marlins to a minor league contract. Castro was a guy who was touted as a good defensive backstop and a legitimate hitter with some pop, but at age 28, had been considered a disappointment and was let go due to injury issues and inconsistent hitting.
All of these little moves were interesting, but it was obvious from the day he took over that Minaya was looking to make a splash. Omar wanted to get the Mets back to respectability and he knew that getting a big free agent to sign with the club would make a significant splash in the free agent waters. There were three legitimate stars on the market that summer with enough cache and name recognition to create this splash. The Mets, unfortunately, were still a punchline. A laughingstock. So when the name Pedro Martinez was linked to the Mets, people laughed. Everybody said "yeah, right." "That'll never happen." "Why would he leave Boston?" And then on December 17th, Omar Minaya created his splash and informed everyone he was not joking around. Rumors quickly spread like lightning on web sites and before everybody could even believe it, it was announced that SP Pedro Martinez had signed a 4 year contract with the Mets worth 53 million dollars.
Certainly, this was a hefty sum for a pitcher coming off a disappointing year and in his mid-30's but to Minaya, this move was the beginning of building the Mets' brand. Pedro Martinez would not only become the team's ace but he would become the face of the franchise. He would be a draw for the fans and he would be a draw for new talent via the established Major League free agent pool and the international free agent market. At his press conference, Martinez said that he was looking forward to the challenge of helping the Mets win a World Series, but that in order to do so, he would need some major help. That help came on January 13, in the form of All-Star free agent CF and playoff hero Carlos Beltran, who signed a 7 year, 119 million dollar contract with the team.
As big a signing as Pedro Martinez was, the signing of Carlos Beltran was arguably the bigger and more shocking of the two. Beltran was still in the prime of his career at age 27, unlike Martinez who was rapidly approaching the decline phase of his career. Typically, a free agent of Beltran's caliber would not sign with the Mets until they are washed up and are looking for a team to overpay for their last contract. In fact, it was widely speculated that Beltran would sign with the crosstown Yankees and a rumor had even spread that he and his agent Scott Boras had offered the Yankees a discount of nearly $20 million. When the Yankees decided that they didn't have the money to spend, however, the field of teams was narrowed down to two; a staring contest between Beltran's previous team the Houston Astros and the Mets. Ultimately, the Mets won this proverbial staring contest. Beltran was glowing with pride and excitement at his press conference and stated that once the Mets had signed Martinez, he then became really interested. Beltran also stated that he "liked the direction" the Mets were headed and said it was a "direction of winning." In the end, Beltran stated that he was proud to be joining the "New Mets," a phrase which later became the 2005 Mets slogan and was plastered all over the team's website and ballpark for the season.
The Mets had just signed two of the three big free agents available on the market but Omar Minaya hoped to have one more trick up his sleeve. Minaya was looking for one more big splash, one more player to put his team over the top in 2005. That player was the third of the three big free agents, 1B Carlos Delgado of the Toronto Blue Jays.
The veteran 1B Delgado had been one of the most feared sluggers in the American League for a number of years, but the Blue Jays, his team throughout his entire career up to that point, were short on money due to a change in ownership and were also in the process of trying to rebuild. Because of this, they let their franchise first baseman walk away as a free agent. It was thought for most of the offseason that Delgado would be on Minaya's radar, so when rumors of talks between the two sides leaked out, it was not surprising. Once Beltran had signed his contract with the team, he began to lobby his good buddy and countryman Delgado to join him in New York. Throughout the offseason, the Mets kept in close contact with Delgado and his agent and things seemed to be going well as the Mets thought they had an in with Beltran already on board. Unfortunately, the Mets made a huge mistake that would cripple their chances of landing the slugging first baseman.
Tony Bernazard was not well-known as a Mets executive when his name came up in January 2005. Bernazard, a former major leaguer known for an 0-44 hitting streak of futility during his playing days, was a close friend of Minaya and was hired to be an assistant GM and become one of Omar's right hand men involved in a number of areas, including player development and scouting. The Mets met up with Delgado for the first time in Puerto Rico and in this fateful meeting, however, Minaya brought along Bernazard to help sell the team, one Puerto Rican man to another. This approach of using the "race card" as a part of the negotiations ended up backfiring as Delgado was ultimately offended by the tactic and shortly thereafter, the Mets were crossed off of Delgado's list altogether in favor of offers from the Florida Marlins and Baltimore Orioles. On January 25th, Delgado accepted a 4 year contract worth 52 million dollars from the Marlins and just two days later, the Mets settled on their backup plan at 1B by acquiring professional ball-hog Doug Mientkiewicz from the Boston Red Sox for minor leaguer Ian Bladergroen. In response to the negotiations with Bernazard, Delgado stated that race shouldn't matter in this situation and that "you're not doing me any favors by speaking in Spanish." This blunder on the part of Bernazard was an introduction for Mets fans to a man who would make many more questionable decisions in the future.
Some other notable moves that were made in Omar Minaya's first offseason included trading Vance Wilson to Detroit for 2B/SS Anderson Hernandez, signing free agent RP Roberto Hernandez to a minor league contract and trading goggle-wearing hero and 1B Jason Phillips to the Los Angeles Dodgers at the end of spring training for SP Kaz Ishii.
Be sure to stay tuned for Part II of the Omar Minaya Chronicles--The Quest for Respectability (The 2005 Season).