Differing Philosophies: Phillips vs. Duquette

The last time the Mets were playing "meaningful games", a term owner Fred Wilpon coined this past off-season as what seemed then as an ambiguous concept meant to generate excitement about a team coming off of a 95-loss season, seems like ages ago. Today, the team is a game out of first with a chance to move into a potential three-way tie for the lead spot in the division. In fact, the Mets haven't played "meaningful games" this late into the season since July of 2002.

However, there exits a few principal differences in the two Mets teams and their respective situations. The standings, of course, are chief. In 2002, the Mets were in the thick of a crowded race for the Wild Card; as mentioned, 2004 sees them just a game out of an undecided NL East chase.

Additionally, the 2002 Mets team was a fledgling group of over-the-top superstars, with underachieving Roberto Alomar, Mo Vaughn, and Jeromy Burnitz taking up huge hunks of a bloated payroll. Those "proven veterans" had been sloppily pieced together the winter before by then-General Manger Steve Phillips, whom, during his tenure as Mets' GM, proved himself willing- often to a fault- to make high risk maneuvers, in hopes of capturing the franchise's third World Championship. While his Mets reached as far as the 2000 World Series, his willingness to go for broke often proved both ineffective, and, eventually, a hindrance to future Met teams. That failed Wild Card dream of July in 2002 saw Phillips deal promising minor league outfielder Jason Bay to the San Diego Padres in a deal that brought back righthanded reliever Steve Reed. Reed did his job- in 26 innings, Reed went 0-1 but hurled for a 2.08 ERA- but, despite Reed's performance, Phillips did not do his. Bay, now with Pittsburgh after being traded in last year's Brian Giles deal, is hitting .307 with a 1.013 OPS, along with 12 HR, 39 RBI, 12 2B and 26 runs scored- all for the league minimum of $305,000. The Mets ended up falling out of contention in mid-August of that year, and went on to lose 86 games. However, the Reed deal was just an indictation of Phillips' careless deadline dealings.

In May of 2000, three time-Gold Glover Rey Ordonez broke his arm sliding into second base in a game in LA, against the Dodgers. Looking for a shortstop to replace the then-fan favorite, Phillips went shopping for veterans. He found a trading partner in Jim Bowden, GM of the Cincinnati Reds, who agreed to a deal that would send potential Hall of Famer Barry Larkin to Queens for minor league outfielder Alex Escobar, who had been named Baseball America's number one prospect the winter before. Larkin, with his no trade clause, would eventually say no to being traded to New York, but it did not deter Phillips from his quest to deal talented youth for a veteran shortstop.

His yearning to deal led him to Baltimore, where he negotiated a deal to acquire Mike Bordick, who, before a 20-homer first half of 2000, he had been known as an all-glove, no-stick shortstop. This time, he sent a favorite of manager Bobby Valentine, infielder Melvin Mora, to Baltimore in the deal. Bordick hit a homerun in his first at-bat as a Met, but didn't do much after that, hitting only three more homers the rest of the way, to go along with 20 RBI and a .260 average. Mora? All he's doing is hitting .347/.433/.556, with 12 homeruns, 43 RBI and 60 runs scored. That 2000 stretch run also saw Phillips send former top prospect Paul Wilson, whose career had been sidetracked by injury, to the Devil Rays for reliever Rick White. Wilson, now the Cincinnati staff ace, has been mentioned in trade rumors that would bring him back to the team that drafted him number one overall. The 2004 Mets, seeking bullpen help as well, could have used St. Louis closer Jason Isringhausen in their pen right now, but he was traded to Oakland in 1999 for Billy Taylor.

With the Mets back in contention, the third principal difference between the 2002 and 2004 teams will impact both the race this year, and the Mets team for years to come. In a pitching poor market, there is one real prize on the block- Arizona's 40-year old, 3-time Cy Young Award winner Randy Johnson. The Mets, with their farm system in its best shape in nearly a decade, have the chips to trade for Johnson- third base phenom David Wright, who has dominated both AA and AAA pitching this year and is just a Ty Wigginton slump and an overdue phone call away from manning third at Shea, would most definitely be included in any package for Johnson, who is coveted by the Yankees and Red Sox, as well. Arizona would probably ask for Scott Kazmir, the 20-year old left handed flame thrower whom recently moved to AA Binghamton, as well

If Phillips was still the GM of this Mets team, Johnson, contingent on his waving of his no-trade clause, would be a Met faster than you can say "the future". However, times at Shea have changed with a new regime in town. New GM Jim Duquette has a different approach to deals. Any shot the Mets have at Johnson is being termed as a "long shot" by Duquette himself, as he continues to balance winning now with securing a strong future for his team. He refused to deal Wright in a deal for now- Astro Carlos Beltran when the Royals demanded him in any deal for the centerfielder. Kazmir, Duquette says, is virtually un-tradable, as well. Duquette refused to deal either Kazmir or second basemen Jose Reyes to Texas for Alfonso Soriano this off-season, and even with his team performing well, he remains unlikely to abandon his principles.

Johnson is obviously attractive, and he fits half of Duquette's younger pitching wishes. With youngsters Jae Seo and Matt Ginter making up a shaky back end of the rotation, he would be willing to go old for the right price. He kept the payroll below $85-million to start the season in hopes of adding a marquee name at the deadline if his team was in contention, and the fleecing of Houston for a rejuvenated Richard Hidalgo only increased the team's payroll by just a million dollars. Thus, as Duquette has said, money is not the issue.

Looking at the impact Bay, Mora, Wilson and Isringhausen have had on their new teams, not to mention the awesome production and rave reviews both Wright and Kazmir have racked up over the past two years, it would be hard for Duquette to deal any future fixtures for a shot at a playoff spot this year.

Not only is this Mets team built for this year, but with Kaz Matsui in his prime and seemingly now understanding- and dominating- Major League Baseball; Jose Reyes now healthy and still just 21; Wright knocking on the door; a productive outfield with an average age of 30; and a fresh set of hard throwing arms, including Kazmir, righty Matt Peterson, first round pick Phillip Humber, and newcomer Yusmeiro Petit looking to become part of the future rotation, the Mets seemed to be set up for long-term success. Duquette seems to know the value of cheap, athletic young talent, and it would behoove him to stick to his guns while trying to improve his 2004 squad's chance at a pennant run. Even if they fall short this year, the next decade could be filled with October baseball for the Mets… if Duquette plays his cards right.

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