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Looking Back: Todd Zeile

After looking at Robin Ventura and Kevin Appier—two guys who, with a little better luck during their careers, might be solid Hall of Fame candidates—we'll next turn our attention to the guys I can't even pretend are realistic Hall candidates, starting with Todd Zeile.

Of all the Mets teams during my lifetime, the 1999 Mets were my favorite. With an infield of John Olerud, Edgardo Alfonzo, Robin Ventura, and Rey Ordonez, and Mike Piazza behind the plate, those Mets were a rare offensive-minded team in Flushing. After the season, I was crushed when the Mets failed to sign Olerud to the three-year contract he wanted—Steve Phillips sort of gave up when Olerud expressed his desire to go home to Seattle. Instead, Phillips turned to veteran third baseman Todd Zeile to fill in the gap at first, signing him to a three-year, $18-million contract.

I thought it was a huge mistake at first, one that the Mets, competing with a dominant team like the Braves, might not recover from. Take a look at these WAR totals:

Year Olerud Zeile
1997 5.2 2.2
1998 8.1 2.7
1999 5.3 1.4

Those are not comparable players, folks. Then, when you consider that Zeile was shifting from third to first, was three years older than Olerud, and signed essentially the same contract, it really didn't look like a very smart move to me. And it wasn't, because Olerud was still the better player, both in 2000 and going forward.

But you know what? It really didn't cost the Mets anything in 2000. Almost the same team from 1999 returned in 2000—the notable differences were no Johnny O. at first base and Roger Cedeno and Octavio Dotel were swapped for Mike Hampton—and despite some players letting down the team (Darryl Hamilton, Rickey Henderson, Ventura), the Mets made it to the World Series anyway. Olerud had something of a down year, hitting .285/.392/.439. Meanwhile, Zeile hit pretty well, producing a .268/.356/.467 line with 22 homers, 36 doubles, and 79 RBI in a lineup that otherwise struggled.

And the biggest surprise, to me at least, was how good a defender at first base Zeile was. He was pretty brutal at third, but he was a mobile first baseman with more polish than I expected from the guy who committed more errors in the 1990's than anyone. Total Zone has him at +12 for the 2000 season, which is actually a couple runs more than Olerud was worth with the glove. Olerud was still the better player, overall, but Zeile didn't represent enough of a drop-off to really cost the Mets anything, at least not in 2000.

2001 was another matter, unfortunately, when Zeile was pretty much done—his power vanished, although his on-base ability remained—and the Mets were forced to trade him for Jeromy Burnitz's bad contract in a three-team deal with the Brewers and Rockies. In the long run, Zeile was an error; however, the move was made with the short-term in mind first and foremost, and in the short-term it was close enough to a success for me.

The Mets, of course, brought him back for his final big-league season and even let the veteran return to his original position for a couple games: catcher. There was more than a little desperation involved, but it was also at Zeile's request. Manager Art Howe also took him out early in his final game, so that his final plate appearance could be a homerun.

Player Career Top 3 Top 5 Per 162
Todd Zeile 15.1 7.2 8.6 1.13

Nowhere near a Hall of Famer, but he did play well enough to enjoy a long career. Back in 2001, Bill James ranked him 81st among all third basemen, writing "A Brooks Robinson clone as a hitter, but more of a Larry Parrish at third base." Sounds about right.