After four straight losing seasons, you guys think you have it bad. I get that; I went through an eight-year dry patch with my Twins in the mid-nineties (longer than any losing-season streak the Mets have put together, by the way, not that this is a competition). I understand how tempting it is to cling to your stars, guys like David Wright and the award-winning R.A. Dickey, and try to convince yourself that you can build around them or that fans will stop coming if they aren’t there. Trading them feels like giving up, and as Grant Brisbee wrote just a few days ago, there is still significant value that can be squeezed out of Dickey and Wright before they become dry, wheezing baseball husks. You don’t give those guys away for nothing.
However, you also don’t hold onto them and wring that value out of them if they’re not likely to be a vital part of the next winning Mets team. I have some experience with this: As a Twins fan, I cherished getting to watch Kirby Puckett play baseball at the tail end of his career in 1995, as he, Chuck Knoblauch, and Marty Cordova were the only watchable pieces on a team that lost 88 out of 144 games (a 99-loss pace in a non-strike-shortened year). I was damn near the only one, as Twins fans stayed away from that toxic club in droves. The team barely drew over a million fans and finished dead last in the American League in attendance. The lesson should be clear: having great iconic players is important, but nowhere near as important as fielding winning teams.
After years of signing marginal free agents to prop up a mediocre team, the Twins didn’t start to break out of their funk until Chuck Knoblauch was traded after the 1997 season and Eric Milton and Cristian Guzman were acquired from the Yankees. By the time the Twins were good again, Knoblauch was stuck in left field in the Bronx because of throwing problems and was worth less than a win above replacement while Milton and Guzman were both All Stars.
Sandy Alderson is faced with a choice, because Mets fans are not going to keep coming out just to watch Wright and Dickey, Cy Young award or not. Anyone who suggests otherwise is, frankly, living in a fantasy realm on Big Rock Candy Mountain, in a state of perpetual springtime and innocence — and good for them, but history and common sense both dictate that fans don’t come out to see losers, no matter who’s on the team.
I know you think your club is different, that it’s special, immune to the immutable laws of baseball fandom. Yet, last year, with Wright and Dickey and a relatively new ballpark, the Mets finished 11th in the National League in attendance. In 2003, as they muddled through just their second consecutive losing campaign, with future Hall of Famers Mike Piazza, Roberto Alomar, and Tom Glavine on the club, the Mets finished 11th in attendance. They followed it up with another 11th place finish in 2004. From 1991-1996, they finished 5th, 8th, 11th, 12th, 11th, and 12th in attendance. Regardless of who is on the team, the average fan doesn’t come out to watch losers, and with or without Dickey and Wright, the Mets are not poised to finish above .500 without reinforcements — and that is likely true even with Matt Harvey already in the majors and Zack Wheeler coming up behind him; with the possible exception of Wilmer Flores (an heir to Wright at third, at least in theory), the bats aren’t coming fast enough.
Either Alderson puts a lineup together that can support the out-of-sight play of these two stars, or he uses them to acquire pieces that aren’t currently in New York’s system. If the resurgent reports about the Mets being flat broke are true, by the way, this is an easy choice to make, as there’s no doubt that the club will be increasingly unable to address their holes before a Dickey extension runs its course (who even knows how Dickey, a “fast” knuckler with no UCL is going to age anyway?). Meanwhile, third base is perhaps the weakest position on the current free agent market, suggesting that Wright would be incredibly valuable to clubs with a hole at the hot corner.
To get an idea of what could be out there, consider what the Padres have done under their own financial restrictions. With Adrian Gonzalez a year from free agency, they traded him to the Red Sox, getting Anthony Rizzo and Casey Kelly (and change) in return. San Diego was also able to deal Mat Latos, an underpaid pitcher with significant injury risk coming off of a mediocre season, for a new starting catcher (Yasmani Grandal), a new first baseman (Yonder Alonso), an elite relief prospect (Brad Boxberger), and a rebound candidate for the rotation (Edinson Volquez). Simultaneously, the Padres became younger, cheaper, and likely better in the long term.
I’m not suggesting those deals are out there for the Mets. I’m saying the Mets would be foolish to ignore similar deals in the name of “legitimacy” or keeping trust with the fans, when fans never keep that same level of trust with their teams. This isn’t the same as the Marlins’ chronic bait-and-trade tactics or even the 1977 Midnight Massacre — it's just smart baseball. Dealing stars may not build trust, but it rebuilds teams, and that drives attendance.