This is a bit of a random subject to be thrown on here, what with the trade deadline approaching, but it's the trade season that made me think of this topic.
No doubt Mets fans don't look too fondly upon Steve Phillips. But I wonder how much of our contempt for Steve has to do with the way he went out, as well as his idiotic statements, commentary and actions since departing the team. Because when you look back at Steve Phillips' tenure, he wasn't that bad. In fact I'd argue he was the best GM the franchise had since Cashen, present gurus excepted. Granted that's a lot like being the best Falco song after "Rock Me Amadeus," but it's hard to argue that any post-Cashen GM had a better track record.
Phillips's first deal after being named General Manager was a deadline trade in 1997. The minute the trade was announced, it seemed like a pretty good haul: Turk Wendell, Mel Rojas, and Brian McRae for Lance Johnson. Okay, none of the guys the Mets got from Chicago were world beaters, but it shored up the bullpen and added a semi-useful bat, though at the cost of a productive outfielder. And then we heard that Mark Clark was part of the trade. And then Manny Alexander. Now it seemed like a questionable move, at best.
It didn't help that the main prize in the deal - Rojas - turned into a complete bust. Still, the deal turned out to be not quite a disaster. Clark and Johnson were basically out of baseball in three years, and Alexander was a negative-valued bench warmer, in and out of baseball for another decade - though Clark did have one last good season in 1998 to help the Cubs to the Wild Card . . . over the Mets. And while McRae and Rojas were disappointments, Wendell turned out to be the best player involved in the trade, bolstering the Mets' bullpen for three seasons of great hijinks (and not in the Brian Wilson, "oh look at me" obnoxious way).
That deal set the tone for the Phillips' regime. A mix of good and bad, but just a bit more good. Over the next couple of seasons Phillips made a number of moves that moved the Mets into contendership and ultimately back-to-back playoff appearances, including a trip to the World Series. The biggest move came in May of 1998 when he traded for Mike Piazza. Though the Mets had Todd Hundley soon returning from injury, Phillips decided against passing up the opportunity to land one of the premier offensive machines in the game. Admittedly I was one of the foolish idiots who originally opposed the Piazza trade, but my mind was changed almost as soon as the trade went down. The Mets didn't even have to mortgage the future in dealing for Piazza, giving up Preston Wilson and a couple of other middling prospects.
That was the second big piece acquired from the Marlins in 1998. In the Spring, Phillips had acquired Al Leiter for Robert Stratton, AJ Burnett, and Jesus Sanchez. In other words, the Mets acquired two-All Stars for relatively little in exchange. Preston Wilson had an adequate career, and AJ Burnett has been consistently inconsistent, but there's no doubt that these were two outstanding deals from the Mets' point-of-view.
The 1998-1999 off-season, like the 2005-06 off-season for Minaya, may have been Phillips's best. He signed Rickey Henderson, Orel Hershiser, and Robin Ventura as free agents, and also dealt for Armando Benitez and Roger Cedeno. That's 17 fWAR added for relatively little cost. Then in the middle of the season he added some depth in acquiring Shawon Dunston and Darryl Hamilton, again giving up very little. Of course he also made a pair of deals with the A's: trading Jason Isringhausen and Greg McMichael for Billy Taylor, and then Kenny Rogers for Terrence Long. Well, they can't all be winners - though Rogers actually did pitch pretty well before that fateful game six against the Braves.
Before the 2000 season, Phillips made another great move by trading Cedeno and Octavio Dotel for Mike Hampton and Derek Bell. Bell would more or less be a bust, but Hampton was a critical factor in getting the Mets to the post-season.
Unfortunately, this was probably Phillips's last significant positive deal. The rest of his tenure was chock full of minor deals that yielded little value or blew up in his face. In his defense, some of the deals seemed very good at the time. When Phillips dealt Melvin Mora for Mike Bordick, most of us thought it was a great move - evidenced by Mike Francesa describing Bordick as a "winning" player approximately 3,000 times when the Mets traded for him, (For those of you who don't remember, it was perhaps even more sycophantic than the time he discussed Brandon Inge).
And of course we all remember the 2001-02 off-season. The less said, the better. Again, though, not all the moves were so bad, even in retrospect. Could anyone have really predicted that Roberto Alomar, coming off a nearly 8-WAR season, was going to so thoroughly self-destruct? Also, the Mets didn't really give up much in the deal. On the other hand, the Mo Vaughn-Kevin Appier exchange always seemed a bit dubious.
When we look at Phillips's six years, there's a lot to commend. He made a lot of nice acquisitions and never really gave up anyone that we regretted parting with. Considering that he's the guy who suggested that the Nationals should at least think about trading Steven Strasburg for Roy Oswalt, he didn't deal away any future stars except Jason Bay (remember when Jason Bay was good?).
Then again, that was part of the problem - he didn't have stars to deal. Looking back at the drafts under Phillips leaves a lot to be desired. Here are the first picks the Mets made in the those drafts, in successive order: Jason Tyner, Neal Musser, Billy Traber, Aaron Heilmann, and Scott Kazmir. Well, at least he got decent at the end. But overall, these drafts were just putrid. The only other notables drafted during Phillips' tenure were Ty Wigginton, Angel Pagan, Mike Jacobs, and David Wright. On top of that were amateur free agent signings like Jose Reyes and Melvin Mora. But really, other than Wright and Reyes, this is a pretty bad record of player development.
The other mixed bag was Phillips's free agent signings. A couple of days ago Lovechild had a fanpost chronicling the free agent (and other major acquisition) busts throughout Mets history, and you'll notice that the only person on here from the Phillips era was Vaughn, with an honorable mention for Alomar. Things fell apart at the end, but Phillips never really saddled the Mets with terrible contracts that the franchise would regret for years and years. And he made several smart signings, mentioned above.
Then again, you can make the case that the biggest moves were the ones he didn't make. Could he have lobbied a little harder to keep John Olerud? Maybe not, but he perhaps could have upped the ante for Alex Rodriguez. I know that we've been wearied by some awful signings in recent years, but was Phillips a bit overly-cautious? He did open the purse strings to retain Piazza, and it's not like the Mets were penny pinchers during this time period. But, strange as it may be to say it, maybe Phillips's greatest fault as a GM was his reluctance to go for the big prize.
Ultimately, I'm not sure what to make of Steve Phillips as a GM. There are very few moves that he made that we look back now with deep regret, and more than a few that showed touches of brilliance. It could just be that his strength was his weakness, and that he'd have had more success if he'd have been willing to have a few more failures.