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A Tale of Two Dice-K's

The Mets nearly landed Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2006. When they didn't, it set the stage for the horror that followed.

Kevin C. Cox

It seems particularly cruel for the Mets to have Daisuke Matsuzaka right now. Yes, it is cruel to see a once great player struggle to find something he will never get back. And yes, it is cruel to ask Mets fans, at the close of another lost season, to watch his torturously prolonged outings.

On top of all this, it seems cruel that the Mets should finally get Matsuzaka on their roster six seasons later than they wanted to. Because it reminds us of the first time the Mets failed to acquire him, and how that small failure led to a catastrophic one.

Back in 2006, Matsuzaka sent the baseball world aflutter when he announced that he would seek to play in the American major leagues. Matsuzaka had been the ace of the Seibu Lions since 1999, but had come to most MLB scouts' attention during the inaugural World Baseball Classic. Many teams were anxious to own Matsuzaka's baffling "gyroball," a pitch so mysterious that no one could quite describe it (Matsuzaka included). But he would not come cheap. Anyone hoping to sign the righty would have to lay out a hefty posting fee to the Lions just for the right to negotiate with him, then ink him to a large contract befitting his reputation and his representation (Scott Boras).

In those bygone days, the Mets were counted among the teams with deep pockets. They were also counted among the teams in dire need of pitching. Two-fifths of their starting rotation were lost on the eve of the playoffs in 2006 (Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez), while yet another—Steve Trachsel—was mired in then-unspecified "family issues" and proved himself all but useless in two postseason starts. Unless they found pitching elsewhere, they would enter 2007 with pitching staff comprised of a disturbing mix of question marks and age.

The biggest object of Mets' desire that winter, everyone assumed, was free agent Oakland southpaw Barry Zito; it seemed not a matter of if Omar Minaya would sign Zito, but when. However, once Matsuzaka made his intentions known, it presented an intriguing alternative to Zito that the Mets pursued very seriously. The exact posting fee they were willing to spend remains unknown, but Minaya recently characterized the amount as being in the vicinity of $35 million. Considering that was almost triple the previous mark for a posting fee ($13 million for Ichiro Suzuki in 2000), the Mets had to figure their chances of landing Matsuzaka were pretty good.

The Red Sox, who had just struggled through a down year and missed the playoffs, felt the need to make a big splash and wanted to leave nothing to chance. They bid an astonishing $51 million (or $51,111,111 for you completists) and eventually inked Matsuzaka to a six-year $52 million deal. Boston's move sent shockwaves throughout the game, particularly in the Bronx, where the Steinbrenners made the Veruca Salt play and posted $26 million for their own Japanese pitcher Kei Igawa (which works out to about $1.6 million per major league game he appeared in).

But it was New York's other team that would ultimately suffer more for Boston's acquisition of Matsuzaka. The Mets did not sign Barry Zito, as everyone suspected they would, and he went to San Francisco with a seven-year deal that looks only slightly less insane now than it did then. The Mets did not sign any starting pitchers of consequence before the 2007 season, in fact. This, plus an injured Pedro Martinez, meant they'd enter the year with a starting rotation of Tom Glavine, Orlando Hernandez, John Maine, Oliver Perez, and Mike Pelfrey.

When you think of the horror of 2007 (if you must), you no doubt think of the Mets' bullpen handing victories to the opposing team on a silver platter in an endless series of crushing September defeats. However, one contributing factor in the relief corps' hideousness was that they were called on so often. Glavine was the only Mets starter who crossed the 200 innings pitched threshold, and him just barely. Maine threw 191, Perez 177. As for the back of the rotation, El Duque made 24 starts to the tune of 147 2/3 IP, but was injured again by the end of the season. Pelfrey, still a rookie, struggled mightily and was demoted by the end of May.

That left a disturbing number of games in shaky hands. Jorge Sosa, a suspect reliever at best, was pressed into service for 14 middling starts. Brian Lawrence received six ill-advised chances to start and won just one of them while posting an ERA of 6.33. Jason Vargas was also given a shot to start, gave up nine runs in his second outing, and was quietly filed away. (He would have elbow surgery in the offseason and not return to the bigs for two years.) David Williams and Chan Ho Park were given one-off specials; both lost their lone starts as Mets and were never seen in orange and blue again.

Pelfrey was recalled from triple-A in July, but continued to exhibit much of the growing pains that earned him a demotion. The trade deadline came and went, and no capable pitcher was acquired, mostly because the Mets were reluctant to part with prized prospects like Lastings Milledge and Fernando Martinez. Pedro returned in September, but the Mets, out of necessity, continued to experiment wildly, hoping to find anyone who could give them innings. Most egregiously, Phillip Humber made his first major league start on September 26 against the Cardinals, even though the Mets were already tumbling badly and only 5 games remained in the season. He lasted just 4 frames and the team went down in defeat yet again.

Would Matsuzaka have made a difference? He was considered a bit underwhelming in his "rookie" season, largely because of the enormous amount of money the Sox spent to acquire him. The gyroball legends caused Boston fans to think Matsuzaka was something flashier, strike-out-ier, than he really was. Still and all, he did throw 204 2/3 innings, strike out 201 batters, and post a 4.40 ERA in the toughest division in baseball.

Matsuzaka posted a BRef WAR of 4.1 in 2007. The combined WAR of all the pitchers who settled at the dregs of the Mets' rotation that year (including young Big Pelf) was -1.1. The 2007 Mets missed out on the playoffs by one game. All they would have needed in the place of Brian Lawrence et al was simple competence, and Matsuzaka would have provided much more than that.

But the Mets didn't get Matsuzaka in November 2006. The Sox did. Boston went on to win the World Series, while the Mets went on to...let's just say they went on to not win the World Series.

There are other near misses from this time, other pitchers who could've prevented The Big Slide. The Mets nearly traded for Roy Oswalt at the 2006 trade deadline, but a three-way deal with Houston and Baltimore fell through. Assuming Oswalt stayed in New York (he was signed through 2007), he could have made an even bigger impact than Matsuzaka that year (BRef WAR of 6.7 in 2007). And then there's Scott Kazmir, the one time Mets farmhand who arguably pitched his best season in 2007 (league-leading 239 Ks in 206 IP), but pitched it for the Tampa Bay Rays, thanks to Victor Zambrano.

However, Oswalt and Kazmir have not come to the Mets in diminished form. Matsuzaka has, and the cruelty of that cuts several ways for Mets fans. To see him on the mound now in a Mets uniform is not only to see the humbling sight of an athlete whose career has come to an ugly end. It serves as a reminder of the dark days of 2007, a time when the Mets searched in vain for a Matsuzaka to plug up the holes in their ship and found only...well, pitchers that looked a lot like Matsuzaka does now.