The Ax Finally Falls On Phillips

The shoe has finally dropped at Shea. The Steve Phillips era in Flushing is now over, as he was fired yesterday as the general manager of the New York Mets. After a disappointing last place finish last season, and with the team off to another embarrassing start this year, Mets owner Fred Wilpon finally decided that enough was enough. And for Mets fans, the firing probably didn't come quickly enough.

The Mets have been mired in a post-World Series slump ever since their magical run to the Fall Classic in 2000. Their record has gotten progressively worse every year since then, even as their payroll has skyrocketed. They've gone from winning 97 games and earning the wildcard spot in 1999 to their anemic 75-86 record last year, while finishing 26 1/2 games out of first place. And while Phillips wasn't actually one of the players on the field, it was he who ultimately made the decisions to bring in the collection of overpaid, underachievers that now make up the Mets' roster.

Many people, Phillips included, felt that the Mets overachieved to reach the World Series in 2000 and that with a few tweaks to the lineup, they would be contenders again for the next few years. So, after that season, and armed with a bag of money and the full blessing of ownership, Phillips went shopping for players that he felt would help the Mets get back to the postseason and finally overtake the Braves. However, the first indication that things wouldn't go according to plan was the stunning defection of Mike Hampton to the Colorado Rockies.

Hampton's departure left a gaping hole in the starting rotation that has yet to be filled. Then, as the bidding for Alex Rodriguez and his potential Hall of Fame bat got underway, Phillips made the infamous remark that A Rod wanted to create a "24-plus-one man roster," because of the preferential treatment and perks he reportedly demanded from whatever team he was to sign with. Whether that was the case or not (and Rodriguez denies ever making those claims), Phillips used that as an excuse for why the Mets' decided to drop out of the race to get A Rod. Rodriguez subsequently ended up in Texas and continues his assault on the record books while re-defining the position of shortstop.

However, it's been the deals that Phillips has made that will forever be his legacy in Queens. Last year, he signed Roger Cedeno to a $18 million deal to be a leadoff man, steal bases and to provide the team with some much-neeeded speed. Cedeno has shown the ability to do none of those things and has been benched. Jeromy Burnitz was also brought back to Shea to give the Mets a lefthanded power hitter to compliment Mike Piazza. However, Burnitz struggled last year through the worst year of his career and has only recently begun to get his stroke back.

And in a move that was roundly looked upon as a coup for the Mets, Phillips was able to trade for second baseman Roberto Alomar, himself a potential, future Hall of Famer. However, Alomar has looked like a complete shell of the player that many people thought was among the best second basemen of all-time. Alomar has looked slow in the field and, at times, lost at the plate. He has yet to come close to the numbers that he put up while with the Indians, Blue Jays, or even the Padres, and is among several Mets that may be jettisoned soon to shed payroll.

The deal that blew up in Phillips' face moreso than any other, though, was his move to sign Mo Vaughn. After watching Vaughn hit in an indoor batting cage for a few minutes, Phillips pulled the trigger on the trade that sent Kevin Appier to the Angels in exchange for "Big Mo." At the time, Phillips remarked, "We saw Mo work out about 10 days ago and we're confident that he's healthy. Mo is ready for a big season. We've been looking for so long to add a big lefthanded bat to our line-up and all of our people feel that Mo is the one to give us that added punch."

This was despite the fact that Vaughn was 34 years old at the time and coming off a one-year layoff due to tendon surgery on his left arm. Vaughn was seen as a low-risk, high-reward investment, but it didn?t work out, and apparently, neither did he. Vaughn never looked like he was in shape (other than round) last year and endured a miserable season at the plate, hitting just .259 with 27 homeruns.

The bulk of those homeruns came during the last two months of the season, though, when the Mets were just playing out the string. Vaughn, whose 2003 batting average sits at a robust .190, is now currently on the DL and may never play again. The only saving grace is that if he does retire, insurance will cover the remaining $26 million left on his contract. Apparently, Wilpon finally realized that just throwing money at players doesn't necessarily bring a team a championship. "We've learned that painfully," he said.

Now it is up to interim GM Jim Duquette, who takes over Phillips' duties, to turn this mess around. It's time for the Mets to admit that this season is a washout and that they are in a rebuilding mode. Wilpon already admitted as much when he said at the press conference announcing the firing, "We will attempt to energize this team this year and in future years by getting younger and more athletic."

However, with a payroll of $116.9 million tied up in contracts to underachieving ballplayers, Duquette has his work cut out for him. Several Mets, namely Alomar, Burnitz and Armando Benitez will be dangled to other clubs in an attempt to get young prospects, while the kiddie corps from Norfolk, including prize shortstop Jose Reyes (who's already made a splash with the big club) and Aaron Heilman, will be given every opportunity to show the Mets' hierarchy what they can do at this level.

The Phillips' tenure was not without it's high points. The 2000 Subway Series against the Yankees energized this city like no other event in a long time. Bringing Mike Piazza to Queens was one of the few acquisitions that did turn out right for him. However, his inability to acquire an adequate supporting cast around Piazza, coupled with all of the bad signings, the public feuding and subsequent firing of former manager Bobby Valentine, and the sudden free fall of the team's fortunes gave Wilpon no recourse but to fire him. This move, which was long overdue, was just the first in a series of moves that the Mets must make in order to rebuild the ballclub.

Phillips was no longer the right person to oversee the personnel changes that this team obviously needs to make. Duquette will now be given the opportunity to try and make lemonade from this group of very bitter-tasting lemons. Let's just hope that Duquette proves that he's more adept at scouting talent and making deals than his predecessor was, because from what we've seen at Shea for the last two years, he couldn't possibly do much worse. Could he?

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