Does someone in the Mets’ front office break a mirror every 15 years? In 1962 and again in 1977, the team began to suffer through seven years of bad luck (i.e., losing seasons) and, starting in 1991, spent six more years in the desert. A winning record in all other campaigns but one has produced three long eras of good feeling. Given this year’s performance, Mets fans want to know whether Steve Phillips is picking shards of broken glass out of his coiffure.
Phillips, named the team’s general manager four years ago, has the highest winning percentage in Mets history and engineered the team’s first back-to-back playoff berths. Phillips’s apparent strategy: Build around starting pitching and bullpen depth and pray that an offense relying on a few stars will be decent. That smoke-and-mirrors attack dissolved this season. When your first baseman and outfielders have fewer homers combined than potential Met Alex Rodriguez, your team should be last in the majors in runs scored. So is 2001 just a bad year, or are the Mets about to fall through the looking glass? We examined highlights from Phillips’s trading record to find out.
December 1997: Outfielder Alex Ochoa to Minnesota for outfielder Rich Becker. With Ochoa and Becker the same age, Phillips gambled our-guy’s-worse-than-your-guy. He lost. Becker hit .190 before being waived. Ochoa’s now a speedy outfielder who hits for a high average with line-drive power. F
December 1997: Outfielder Carl Everett to Houston for pitcher John Hudek. Everett can be a pain in the neck, but he’s hit over .300 with 83 homers since the deal, and his teams win. Hudek pitched OK before being traded for Lenny Harris six months later. D
February 1998: Outfielder Robert Stratton and pitchers A.J. Burnett and Jesus Sanchez to Florida for pitcher Al Leiter and infielder Ralph Milliard. A month later, the Mets reacquired Stratton. In May, Burnett became the seventh ex-Met to throw a no-hitter. (The Mets await their first.) Leiter’s been the staff ace, and only Piazza and Alfonzo have been more valuable. B+
May 1998: Outfielder Preston Wilson and pitchers Geoff Goetz and Ed Yarnall to Florida for Mike Piazza. Wilson was the majors’ only 30-30 player last year. Goetz, recovering from shoulder woes, is dominating AA hitters this year. Yarnall, now pitching for the Orix Blue Wave, helped bring Mike Lowell to Miami. Piazza is simply the best-hitting catcher ever and the most valuable everyday Met in team history. A-
December 1998: Catcher Todd Hundley and pitcher Arnold Gooch to Los Angeles for outfielder Roger Cedeno and catcher Charles Johnson and, on the same day, Johnson to Baltimore for pitcher Armando Benitez. Hundley still has injury woes. Cedeno was brilliant in 1999, stealing 66 bases. Benitez is a dominant closer. B+
July 1999: Outfielder Terence Long and pitcher Leo Vazquez to Oakland for pitcher Kenny Rogers. Long was runner-up Rookie of the Year last season. Rogers won five games that helped the Mets slip into the 1999 playoffs, but issued the bases-loaded walk that ended the NLCS. D
July 1999: Pitchers Jason Isringhausen and Greg McMichael to Oakland for pitcher Billy Taylor. Once a sore-armed starter, Izzy is now the A’s closer. Taylor posted an 8+ ERA down the stretch. F
September 1999: Pitcher Dan Murray to Kansas City for pitcher Glendon Rusch. Murray, stuck in AAA Omaha, can’t even warm a seat in the Royals’ lousy bullpen. Rusch has become a solid No. 3 starter. A
December 1999: Outfielder Roger Cedeno and pitchers Octavio Dotel and Kyle Kessel to Houston for pitcher Mike Hampton and outfielder Derek Bell. Cedeno has not remained as productive, but Dotel is now an outstanding reliever. Bell didn’t do much, but Hampton led the Mets in innings pitched and ERA, and threw 16 shutout innings in the NLCS before skipping town. B
March 2000: Pitcher Jesse Orosco to St. Louis for utilityman Joe McEwing. How Phillips got anyone for a washed-up 42-year-old remains a mystery. Getting a utilityman with some pop in his bat was a miracle. A
December 2000: Outfielder Bubba Trammell to San Diego for pitcher Donne Wall. Bubba’s now bashing homers like a maniac. Wall’s a nightmare. D
July 2001: Pitchers Dennis Cook and Turk Wendell for pitchers Bruce Chen and Adam Walker. Phillips had acquired Cook and Wendell in solid trades early in his tenure, but veteran middle relievers are a luxury. Chen, 24, showed flashes of brilliance last year and could be an ace by 2003. B
July 2001: Pitcher Rick Reed to Minnesota for outfielder Matt Lawton. The Twins trade away arguably their best everyday player to add depth to one of the AL’s best rotations. Lawton is six years younger and millions cheaper, but couldn’t Phillips have gotten more for the best pitcher moved at the trading deadline? C+
Earlier Met success lasted as long as it did thanks to brilliant young pitchers. Phillips does not have that cushion. Other than Alfonzo, Benitez, and Rusch, the best Mets are old. This winter, Phillips must bring a slugger like Alou, Bonds, or Giambi to Shea, or the Mets may not return to wonderland for a very long time.