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“Mets in 10s” Excerpt: Best Trades

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David Cone, who came to the Mets from Kansas City in a deal involving backup catcher Ed Hearn, went from spot starter to front-line starter in 1988 and would stay there for the next four seasons.
Jerry Coli/Dreamstime

The following was reprinted from Mets in 10s: Best and Worst of an Amazin’ History by Brian Wright and from Arcadia Publishing, due out April 9. For updates, please follow the book on Facebook and follow Brian on Twitter and Instagram. You can now pre-order on various book-selling sites, including Amazon.

10. Ron Darling and Walt Terrell from Rangers for Lee Mazzilli

Team priorities don’t always mesh with sentimentality. During a serious rebuilding phase, general manager Frank Cashen desired additional assets for his restoration project.

His roster lacked much trade value, but the Brooklyn-born Mazzilli had enough. Risking backlash from fans who wanted to see him and women who wanted to marry him, Cashen exchanged the popular outfielder/heartthrob for a pair of minor league arms. This, by no means, was a blockbuster move.

However, it initiated a chain of positive outcomes for the Mets. With nineteen wins in forty-two starts and a moderate ERA, Terrell turned out adequately. Yet his shipment to Detroit in December 1984 brought a key piece for 1986 and beyond: Howard Johnson. Darling was hardly insignificant. Coming up to the show in late 1983, the Yalie mastered a split-fingered fastball that helped him win ninety-nine games—fourth all-time—while claiming the only Gold Glove ever awarded to a Mets pitcher.

Then came a satisfying boomerang effect. Mazzilli, having languished with another woeful club in Pittsburgh, returned to his hometown team in August 1986. The best player during the leanest of seasons was back for the glorious World Series journey as a factor off the bench.

9. Félix Millán and George Stone from the Braves for Gary Gentry and Danny Frisella

The mistaken belief that certain players wouldn’t amount to as much as once imagined is part bad luck, part bad foresight. Inversely, November 1, 1972, marked a time in which the Mets beheld a psychic-like look into the near future.

Gentry won thirteen games as a 1969 rookie, went the distance in the NL East clincher on September 24 and was the winning pitcher in Game 3 of the World Series. But his career was not taking a tremendous upward track.

The Mets deemed him and reliever Frisella, who regressed after an outstanding 1971 out of the bullpen, expendable enough to nab Millán, a three-time All-Star and former Gold Glover, and Stone, coming off a dreadful 5.51 ERA posting in 1972, from Atlanta. New York’s two newcomers fit beautifully into the Mets system, which relied heavily on pitching and defense. During a year in which starters were dropping like flies from injury, Millán played in 153 games and helped the Mets turn a National League-leading 179 double plays while hitting .290 and establishing a franchise record 185 hits as the No. 2 batter in the order.

Stone, often punished for having to pitch mainly in the launching pad of Atlanta, thrived in pitcher-friendly Shea Stadium—going 12-3 with a2.80 ERA. While he could never come close to repeating his 1973, Millán remained steady. He typified the term everyday player and set team records for hits (191) and doubles (37) in 1975.

In cruel twists of fate, both Gentry and Frisella developed chronic arm injuries while with the Braves. Gentry had retired by 1975, and Frisella was killed in an accident on New Year’s Day, 1977.

8. David Cone and Chris Jelic from the Royals for Rick Anderson, Mauro Gozzo, and Ed Hearn

With such a strong rotation heading into 1988, there could be several educated guesses as to who would stand out most prominently. None of those guesses would have been David Cone.

Although he was a filler in the depleted staff of a year ago, the talent the Mets had coming back lent itself to bump the twenty-five-year-old righthander to the bullpen. Another opportunity knocked when Rick Aguilera went down with a right elbow injury. Cone burst through as a big-league revelation. A shutout of the Atlanta Braves on May 3 confirmed he wasn’t solely a spot starter.

A 20-3 record and a 2.22 ERA (to finish third in the Cy Young Award voting) validated the trade Frank Cashen executed with Kansas City in March 1987 several times over. The Royals and John Schuerholz, a future Hall of Famer who rarely found himself this outmaneuvered, saw an unproven arm with potential hindered by a serious knee operation. The Mets gladly received a power pitcher who used changing release points and a devastating slider to win 61 percent of his decisions, fan 8.7 batters every nine innings and pace his team in strikeouts four out of seven years.

7. Bob Ojeda, Chris Bayer, Tom McCar thy and John Mitchell from the Red Sox for John Christensen, Wes Gardner, La Schelle Tarver and Calvin Schiraldi

It’s hard to find faults in a 1985 Mets team that won ninety-eight games and went neck-and-neck with the Cardinals for the East Division title. But if there was one surefire way to take down the Cardinals—or any team—it would be with starting pitching depth.

Ojeda was thought to be a left-handed adjunct slotted in the middle or at the end of the rotation. Not long after 1986 began, he rose to the top. While Gary Carter is perceived to be the “final piece” to the championship puzzle, the Mets would never have gained ten additional victories on their season-ending total if not for Ojeda’s 18-5 record and 2.57 ERA.

The chief asset New York received helped it win in ’86 and, in a way, so did one of the pieces it gave up. Schiraldi was miles away from modest during his cups of coffee with the Mets in 1984 and ’85—a gaudy 7.63 ERA in 43.2 innings. Due to stellar success and the injuries around him, he became Boston’s closer by August 1986 and was on the cusp of closing out the World Series altogether.

That was, until Schiraldi returned to the timid pitcher the Mets knew he was capable of being. And to their great appreciation, it came to form with the championship at stake.

6. Noah Syndergaard, Wuilmer Becerra, John Buck and Travis d’Arnaud from the Blue Jays for R.A. Dickey, Mike Nickeas, and Josh Thole

Easy to forget, but Dickey arguably had the best pitching season of the decade. At age thirty-seven and after failing as a conventional pitcher for several teams, the knuckleballer won twenty-one games in 2012 and became the Mets’ fifth Cy Young Award recipient.

As warm as Dickey’s story is, the cold reality of this business reared its head, not more than a couple months later. Dickey could still be good, as knucklers don’t deteriorate as quickly, but probably not Cy Young good. And the Mets were far from good.

Sporting flowing locks and a triple-digit heater, Noah Syndergaard struck out 218 batters in 2016.
Jerry Coli/Dreamstime

Thus, they willingly relinquished the best piece of their recent past for a potential battery of the future. The Mets turned out to be right in guessing Dickey had reached peak value. It’s certainly a testament to him that he remained a viable starter in the league, but his ERA since ’12 has been higher than 4.00 and his single-year strikeout tallies never were as high as it was when he attained 230 during the hardware-gaining campaign.

It might be a bit presumptuous to make an evaluation on the two most important pieces the Mets received. Still, d’Arnaud probably looks like, at best, a starting catcher—not a franchise catcher. Syndergaard, meanwhile, has already established himself an ace (or no. 1a) and a regular Cy Young contender himself, just as long as he remembers that he’s training to be a starting pitcher, not “World’s Strongest Man.”

5. Yoenis Cespedes from the Tigers for Luis Cessa and Michael Fulmer

Sandy Alderson would not, and could not, stand with the status quo.

A pitching staff, maturing on the fly, was keeping the 2015 Mets above .500 and within arm’s reach of the NL East-leading Washington Nationals—despite an offense short on power and shorter on depth.

Terry Collins likely had to hold back his lunch filling out the lineup card. John Mayberry Jr., Eric Campbell, and Anthony Recker comprised a middle of the order capable of challenging for first place—if that place was Triple-A.

This is a sampling of what the New York Mets were trotting out in late July. A box full of kittens would be more threatening.

As the July 31 trade deadline loomed, Mets management bewailed over the failed attempt two days before—however it failed—to acquire Carlos Gomez from Milwaukee. Jay Bruce became the focus next, but a path to that deal became impassable. Try again next year, Sandy. The target then became Cespedes—eighteen home runs, sixty-one RBIs and a .293 average with Detroit.

At somewhere way too close to 4:00 p.m. cutoff, Alderson shipped off Cessa and Fulmer for an instant offensive upgrade while avoiding a village full of pitchfork-wielders and torch-bearers at his Citi Field office by sundown. But no Mets fan could have anticipated the ripple effect his addition would have. The lead driver in a three-month thrill ride to the NL pennant, Cespedes was the switch-flipper on a lineup that evolved from powerless to powerhouse. Fifty-seven games, seventeen home runs, and forty-four RBIs later, the Mets were postseason-bound.

4. Donn Clendenon from the Expos for Jay Carden, David Colon, Kevin Collins, Steve Renko, and Terry Dailey

As Cespedes was to 2015, Clendenon was to 1969. The analogous nature of these transactions isn’t connected by statistics but by impact on the eventual result.

Already staggering baseball’s foundation in mid-June, the time of the old trade deadline, the Mets still trailed the Chicago Cubs by eight games in the NL East. Pitching was plentiful, but the contact-driven offense averaged 3.8 runs.

It’s not about getting the best player. It’s about getting the right player. Clendenon was a seamless fit. And Donn, languishing with the expansion Expos after leaving the Pirates and even briefly retiring, had found the right team. He deposited twelve home runs, thirty-seven RBIs and a .777 OPS—numbers which, while impressive, don’t scream out season-changing catalyst.

Donn Clendenon’s 1969 began with him on the expansion Montreal Expos and ended with him as the World Series MVP with the Mets, thanks to the mid-June trade that gave muscle to the New York offense.
The Sporting News Archives/Wikimedia Commons

But beyond the periphery, Clendenon reinforced the Mets’ lineup against left-handed pitching, deepened a relatively thin bench, was defensively solid at first base and added experience to a team that had never faced the pressures of a pennant race.

It led to the overthrow of the Chicago Cubs’ NL East lead, a steamroll to the division title and a conquering of the National League pennant. Those happenings were prologue to what took place in the World Series—when he batted .357 and went deep in Games 2, 4 and 5 to garner Most Valuable Player award honors.

While the five players traded for him proved to be of small consequence, Clendenon enjoyed a better season in 1970: slugging .515, charting an OPS of .863 and driving in ninety-seven runs.