A cursory look around today's leaderboards might cause some searing pangs of regret once the names Jose Bautista and Philip Humber scroll by. Both were once Mets, and both might look good in the black, blue and orange right now, especially after Humber's near-no-no against the Yankees. The lessons of their provenance are murky at best, though.
Maybe you even forgot that Bautista was once a Met. That's acceptable. He may only have been a Met for hours. On July 30th, 2004, the Mets traded Justin Huber to the Royals for the 23-year-old infielder only to turn around and add Bautista to Matt Peterson and Ty Wigginton for Kris Benson and Jeff Keppinger. They probably never even considered where in the organization Bautista would land. In reality, he wasn't ever really a Met, but for the purposes of this mental exercise, let's pretend the team considered him an asset and thought about keeping him.
Philip Humber's story is more well-known in these circles. He was drafted twice by a New York franchise - once in 2001 out of high school by the Yankees in the 29th round, and once by the Mets with the third overall pick of the 2004 draft. After racking up 25 starts and a 4.27 ERA built on a 7 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9 for Triple-A New Orleans, he was included with Deolis Guerra, Carlos Gomez and Kevin Mulvey in a trade with the Minnesota Twins for Johan Santana.
Even though Santana has been an excellent pitcher for the Mets so far, and the trade has been named Omar Minaya's one success story, is it fair for us to wonder if 2004 was a fateful year for the Mets franchise? Did the Mets make a mistake by letting these two players slip through their fingers after owning them both that year?
Short answer: no.
The long answer is a little more complicated. Of course both of these situations are different, so let's take each in turn.
Jose Bautista first. Just checking his transaction history before 2004 should give us a clue of how well-regarded he was around baseball. A mere four years after being drafted by the Pirates in the 20th round, Bautista was taken by the Baltimore Orioles in the 2004 rule 5 draft. He racked up 12 plate appearances with the Orioles, struck out in three of them, and hit three singles and scored a walk. The Orioles were done looking by June 3rd and put him on waivers - and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who ended up 21 games under .500 that season, selected him off of waivers. Perhaps they were tired of using Damian Rolls (.205/.259/.285 in 132 PAs) in the outfield that year, or they just thought they had room to take a look at Bautista.
Yeah, that lasted 25 days. June 28th, the Royals, one of three teams that ended up worse than the Devil Rays that year, purchased him for a few thousand dollars. From that day forward, Bautista collected 26 PAs, showed no power, and struck out 12 times against one walk. And then the Royals traded him to the Mets for a few hours on his way back to his first team.
The caveats. Obviously there was something about Bautista that interested these teams. Though he never made it above HIgh-A with the Pirates, he showed an above-average ISO in his last stop (.182) and the ability to at least fake third base. His walk rate there (13.8%) mitigated his strikeout rate some (29%). Obviously, it was the strikeout rate that concerned everyone, and it's also probably a given that 2004 was a lost year for him, developmentally.
But the transaction history paints a clear picture, especially since he was traded to his current team for a player to be named later in 2008. The worst teams in baseball pretty much had their shot at Bautista, took a look, and passed.
And this is where Philip Humber actually makes sense as a segue.
You may have noticed that Humber's great game the other day was for the White Sox. That's because the Twins, after trading for him and watching him accrue a 5.34 ERA while striking out 6.5 per nine and walking 3.4 per nine at Triple-A, put him on waivers in 2009. And he cleared. Yeah - everyone in baseball had a shot at Humber, and every single team whiffed, or passed, however you want to call it.
It gets worse - he was signed by the Royals as a free agent (them again), then put on waivers again in 2010, selected by the Athletics, put on waivers in 2011 and selected by the White Sox. Insert joke about second-hand leftovers here.
So these two players have something in common other than their Mets history - they are two players that pretty much any team in baseball could have had. In 2004, they were both Mets briefly, but in 2008 and 2009 they could have been anyone's property. Let's not shed a tear or kick ourselves for missing out if all other 29 teams could say the same.
One last thing. The book is not yet written on either player. Considering Jose Bautista's $14 million salary over the next five years, the Mets may yet count themselves lucky for having let him go.
Humber is obviously not as good as his effort against the Yankees the other day. He's got a strikeout rate a shade under six for his major-league career, and though his walk rate so far in six games this year is decent (2.49), for his career it's below-average (3.64). His groundball rate is basically average (44.8%, 44% is average). Doing everything average-ish is worth something, but it's not worth scuttling a Johan Santana deal over.
And yeah, Kris Benson didn't quite work out like the Mets hoped, but it's no given that Jose Bautista is the best hitter in the American League going forward. He does have that nice .300+ ISO and has now done it for about 900 plate appearances counting his September in 2009. But he also has 1900 other plate appearances where his ISO was closer to the .180 his minor league career seemed to suggest. Take Brady Anderson from September 1995 through his crazy season into April of 1997, and he has a .302 ISO. He still ended his career with a .170 ISO.
So don't get too sad about Philip Humber and Jose Bautista slipping through the cracks. Everyone pretty much had a shot at them, and it's not even yet clear what we missed. Heath Bell, on the other hand...