No one holds a grudge quite like a Mets fan. When most baseball fans complain about trades and free agents, it's usually in regard to a player leaving their team, like when the Mets unceremoniously traded away Tom Seaver in 1977. Other complaints surround player acquisitions that crashed and burned, as was the case with the 1992 Mets, also known as "The Worst Team Money Could Buy." What makes the relationship between Vladimir Guerrero and Mets fans so special is that Guerrero never played a game in a Mets uniform.
Over the last fifteen years, the Mets have always been active in free agency and player acquisitions. The 2004 season brought Kaz Matsui and Mike Cameron. The following year saw the signings of Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez. Before the 2006 season, two separate trades with the Marlins netted Carlos Delgado and Paul Lo Duca. These acquisitions were the beginning of a movement toward contention for a team seeking its first playoff appearance since 2000, when the Mets lost the Subway Series to the Yankees. With these moves, combined with the rising stars of David Wright and Jose Reyes, the Mets seemed poised for greatness.
The 2006 season proved to be that team’s one great year: They finished with a 97-65 record and a commanding 12-game division lead over the second-place Phillies. The Mets were the talk of the National League, as Wright, Reyes, Beltran, Delgado, and Lo Duca graced the cover of the July issue of Sports Illustrated. They swept the Dodgers in the NLDS without breaking a sweat. The Cardinals, a team that won the NL Central with a record just over .500, awaited them in the next round.
The Mets seemed to have the series in the bag before it started. Before their fans could believe it, the series had gone to Game Seven. And then Aaron Heilman gave up a two-run home run to Yadier Molina—a home run ball that Endy Chavez could not grab, as he did in spectacular fashion earlier in the game. And then Beltran watched strike three go by in the ninth inning. And then the supposedly lowly Cardinals went on to beat the Tigers in the World Series.
It was all downhill from there for the Mets. They were eliminated from playoff contention on the final days of both the '07 and '08 seasons—the former a result of Hall of Famer Tom Glavine having the worst start of his career. In his post-game comments, Glavine tried to come off as stoic and collective. Instead, he came off as indifferent and uncommitted. Much like Beltran, Glavine has never been forgiven by Mets fans. Both men are reminders of the shortcomings of a team whose last playoff appearance was almost ten years ago.
So where does Vlad Guerrero factor into all of this? As Mets fans like to lament, he should have been in orange and blue. Following the 2003 season, the Mets tried to court Guerrero with a three-year, $30 million deal. Netting the All-Star right fielder with a powerful bat and a cannon for an arm would have been a major step forward for the organization. However, Guerrero turned the deal down to accept $70 million for five years with the Angels.
You want to talk about instant success? Guerrero was AL MVP in 2004. The Mets floundered with Karim Garcia in right field in the first half, before trading him away and replacing him with Richard Hidalgo in a separate deal. Garcia (.234/.272/.401, 72 wRC+, 7 HR, 22 RBI) and Hidalgo (.228/.296/.463, 93 wRC+, 21 HR, 52 RBI) combined didn't even come close to matching Guerrero's numbers (.337/.391/.598, 154 wRC+, 39 HR, 126 RBI).
With the arrival of Carlos Beltran in 2005, the Mets shifted Mike Cameron over to right field, where he and Victor Diaz played the majority of the season. For a team that was trying to make the playoffs, the Cameron-Diaz platoon was not much better than actually putting Cameron Diaz in right field. (This is somewhat of an exaggeration, as Cameron was good when healthy, while Diaz was occasionally a league-average offensive player.) Meanwhile, Guerrero was busy putting up another phenomenal season at the plate (.317/.394/.565, 148 wRC+, 32 HR, 108 RBI) as he led the Angels to a second-straight playoff appearance.
One could make the case that the 2006 Mets didn't necessarily need Guerrero to win the World Series. They started the season with newly acquired Xavier Nady in right, and he produced solid numbers in the back of a potent lineup. In desperate need of pitching, the Mets traded Nady to the Pirates in July for Oliver Perez and Roberto Hernandez. The Mets replaced Nady with Shawn Green, a shell of his former All-Star self who ended up being a downgrade from Nady both at the plate and in the field.
Again, the rest of the lineup was still strong enough to compensate for the change, and the team’s defeat in the NLCS could probably be chalked up to a depleted pitching staff and an exhausted lineup. Of course, there always needs to be individual scapegoats. Beltran gets blamed for striking out. Heilman gets blamed for giving up the go-ahead runs. Green gets blamed for not being Vladimir Guerrero (.329/.382/.552, 134 wRC+, 33 HR, 116 RBI in 2006).
As mentioned already, the Mets were knocked out of the playoff race on the last days of the 2007 and 2008 seasons. While the lineup remained strong during those years, the already vulnerable pitching staff (particularly the bullpen) only got worse. Green’s 2007 season was more of the same, leading him to split time with Lastings Milledge. Milledge was traded the following year for new right fielder Ryan Church in a deal that also included catcher Brian Schneider. Due to injuries and underperformance, Church lost significant playing time to NL Comeback Player of the Year Fernando Tatis.
Guerrero wrapped up the final two years of his Angels tenure with similar stats to those he produced in his first three years. Of course, had he taken the Mets' three-year deal, those last two years might not have mattered for this discussion—although it’s possible that the Mets would have extended him, likely at the expense of Green and/or Moises Alou. The question remains: What if he had signed with the Mets?
There's no doubt that adding the best right fielder and one of the best all-around hitters in baseball would have changed the fortunes of any team. The 2004-2006 Mets only got better offensively each year, but Guerrero would have been their lineup’s crown jewel. In hindsight, signing Guerrero in '04 could have stopped the Mets from spending significant money on Beltran and Pedro Martinez the following year. Martinez's poor pitching output from 2006 to 2008 would not have been missed, but his locker room presence changed the Mets’ culture and perspective. Beltran proved to be a long-term investment, remaining with the Mets until 2011 and turning in one of the best Mets careers in franchise history. His legacy continues to live on with the Mets, as they traded him to the Giants for pitching prospect Zack Wheeler.
After all the comparisons and number crunching, it could come down to the difference between Beltran and Guerrero. While Beltran had a better all-around season in 2006, he also struck out looking to end the NLCS. Granted, nine out of ten players would not have hit that Adam Wainwright curveball. But the free-swinging Guerrero would have certainly been up there hacking away until the end. Maybe he's the man who would have made contact.
No regrets, just what-ifs. Beltran was amazing, and Guerrero would probably have been incredible in New York as well.