During this surprisingly exciting World Series (shows what I know), I've heard it lamented more than once that the Mets gave up on Nelson Cruz and got nothing but Jorge Velandia in return. I normally support any kind of anti-Steve Phillips prejudice you can imagine, but this seems a bit unfair. Cruz had barely played above the instructional level when the Mets traded him away, was subsequently dismissed by two more teams (Oakland and Milwaukee), and took nine years to become an everyday major leaguer, an astronomical amount of time.
It's a familiar refrain, one that pops up any time a former Met farmhand does even remotely well. Earlier this year, people moaned when ex-prospect Philip Humber took a no-hitter into the seventh against the Yankees. "All we got back for him was lousy stinking Johan Santana!" Much like the grousing over Cruz, it ignored the fact that Humber has bounced among several organizations since his days in the Mets' system.
However, if people jump the gun on judgments like this, it's because the Mets have committed some terrible prospect trades in their day. With the exception of some bright periods (late 1960s, early 1980s), the team has traditionally been awful in its ability to hang onto its talent long enough to see it ripen. Mets history is littered with the names of players who were shipped off in short-sighted swaps and became superstars elsewhere.
So let's do our own Mets-themed issue of What If? Let's say you could wave a wand or press a button, and one--and only one--terrible prospect trade in Mets history could be undone. Which one would you pick?
This excludes the Tom Seaver trade; obviously, that's the worst trade in Mets history for a million different reasons, and allowing that to enter the contest makes this a no brainer. I'd also like to focus on players who had yet to become stars when the Mets unloaded them. I'm talking about players who the Mets gave up on before they could show their potential, and whose absence in subsequent years makes you pine for what could have been.
The first impulse is to say Nolan Ryan, but I'm not so sure. It's always been theorized that he only became a star when he went to the American League and benefited from its strike zone, and I'm inclined to agree with that. Another point to consider is that, as awesome as Ryan would become once he left the Mets, pitching was not their issue. Their 1-2-3 of Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Jon Matlack was arguably among the best in the league at that time. Would the Mets have been better off with Ryan than Jim Fregosi? Of course, and it remains one of the more indefensible trades in the history of the team (if not the sport), but I wonder just how much a difference Ryan would have made for a team that was already loaded with pitching.
For trades that really hurt, I think you have to look at ones where the Mets shipped off the kind of player they lacked when they needed him the most. The offense-starved teams of the early 1970s sure could have used players like Amos Otis and Ken Singleton. Unfortunately, both were shipped out of town before they could contribute much at the major league level (though Singleton did bring back Rusty Staub).
Imagine what the Mets could have done with that aforementioned 1-2-3 if they had a halfway decent lineup. The NL East back then was not exactly a powerhouse division (hence why the 1973 Mets were able to win it). Perhaps several playoff berths could have been theirs. Maybe such sustained success could have kept Seaver in town after all? I know, M. Donald Grant would have found some other way to drive him out of town, but hell, it's my fantasy.
For a more recent example, what about Heath Bell? He spent most of his time with the Mets on the shuttle between Norfolk and Shea. He didn't show a whole lot in his appearances in the bigs to that point, but you got the impression that no one in the organization had much faith in him, either. He was traded to San Diego before the 2007 season for the immortal Jon Adkins and the irreplaceable Ben Johnson, and finally figured things out at Petco Park.
Would he have done so for the Mets? Would he ever have been given a chance with the Mets? Impossible to say. I do know that 2007 turned out the way it did, and that the team's atrocious pitching was the biggest reason why. Bell had a WAR of 3.5 that season, and he wasn't even San Diego's closer yet. The Mets missed out on the playoffs by one game. Do the math. It's hard for me to not think that the spiral of pain and LOLs the team has been caught in since then could have been avoided with another playoff berth, not matter how it ended, which to me makes Bell's trade one of the more painful ones in team history.
So, now that you have the parameters, if you could undo just one terrible prospect trade in Mets history, which one would it be and why? Make the call in the comments.