Trader Steve At It Again
No Met has been more closely watched over the past two weeks than General Manager Steve Phillips; a man that hasn't seen a July 31st trading deadline he didn't like. Phillips trades with the veracity and frequency of a day trader. Years ago, ex-Padres GM Jack McKeon earned the moniker of "Trader Jack" for his reputation of trading with frequency. Steve Phillips is this generation's version of "Trader Jack" and for the most part he has been extremely successful at brokering some major deals in his tenure as Mets GM.
With that said, Phillips has been watched more closely than Mike Piazza these past two weeks; as Mets fans eagerly waited to see if Phillips would broker a deal to strengthen the Mets team for the unexpected wild card run. A few weeks ago, we were thinking about what prospects Phillips could get for players like Roberto Alomar, Edgardo Alfonzo, Al Leiter and company and now we were talking about who the Mets were going to add. It just shows you the marathon that is the baseball season. Well, after all the hype and anticipation, Phillips did not disappoint as he made two deadline deals; one with the Colorado Rockies and another with the San Diego Padres.
Phillips acquired the starter he craved and the Mets desperately needed when he obtained righty John Thomson and outfielder Mark Little for outfielder Jay Payton, reliever Mark Corey and minor-leaguer Robert Stratton. In a market that contained Paul Byrd and Livan Hernandez, Thomson may have been the best talent and bargain. The Mets add Thomson who has always had good stuff, but had problems staying healthy early in his career as well as having to pitch in Colorado. His past injuries, however, have not deprived Thomson of any of his talent. He throws a wicked sinker in the 90s and throws strikes. What made Thomson more attractive was the fact that he is under contract beyond this year. In order to obtain Byrd, the Mets would probably have had to give up their best pitching prospect in Aaron Heilman - something Phillips had no intention of doing. Besides, Byrd is having a career year pitching for a last place team in Kansas City with no pressure. It would have remained to be seen how Byrd would have held up under the pressure of pitching in a wild card race. Furthermore, asking a player to change leagues is always risky because there is a time of adjustment and, when each game is critical, risking one or two bad starts from Byrd until he gets re-acclimated to the National League may have been too risky. Also, let's not forget that Byrd's only other successful season was with the Phillies a few years back when they too were playing poorly. So this guy is close to 32 and has had two good season for poor clubs, where he pitched with no pressure - definitely not worth an organization's top pitching prospect, especially, when Byrd has stated his intentions to resign with Kansas City even if he is traded. Phillips may have just made the wisest move in staying away from Byrd.
Gone are Payton, Corey and Stratton. Payton, a former 1st round pick, battled through two elbow operations and a myriad of other injuries to establish himself into a quality major-leaguer. However, despite a promising rookie season in 2000, Payton has never built on his successful rookie campaign. Payton has often been either nagged by hamstring injuries or has not been able to resist chasing bad pitches. There will be those that will question trading Payton for Thomson, especially during Payton's hot streak, but just remember that this is the same Jay Payton that has frustrated the Mets fans for the past two years and the same man that most Mets fans would have traded for a beer and a hot dog up to a month ago.
As for the other pieces of the Thomson deal, Corey and Stratton. Corey has also worked hard to make himself into a quality reliever, but he doesn't have neither the stuff nor the make-up to be anything more than a long reliever. The negatives on Corey is that his stuff is too straight; allowing teams to sit on his fastball, which is average, and going to town - like the Astros did this weekend. As for Stratton, he has been a major disappointment since the day the Mets used their 1997 1st round pick on him. Stratton has always had power potential, but he just cannot make enough contact to take advantaged of that power. Stratton strikes out more times than an old guy at a club. Stratton struck out over 200 times in the minors a few years ago and at age 25 is losing his prospect status, if he ever had such a status. Stratton is more suited to be a DH than an outfielder. His defense is subpar and his speed is average at best.
All things said, the deal that brings Thomson to Shea is a good one not only for the rest of 2002, but for 2003 as well. Thomson now gives the Mets a third starter under contract for 2003. Remember that at the start of the year, the entire Mets rotation was potentially eligible for free agency - the contracts of Al Leiter, Shawn Estes, Steve Trachsel and Jeff D'Amico ran out at the end of the 2002 season, while Pedro Astacio had an team option for 2003. Now, the Mets have resigned Leiter for two years, Astacio has pitched well enough that the Mets will surely pick up his 2003 option and the Mets have Thomson, who is arbitration eligible. With the Mets looking to fill the number 5 spot in the rotation next year with either Pat Strange or Aaron Heilman from the farm, that leaves just one spot in the rotation that Phillips will have to look to fill for 2003.
Having designated the rotation and bullpen as his areas of concern, Phillips was not just content with just getting a starter. Phillips made a second trade on Wednesday - this one with the Padres. The Mets acquired relievers Steve Reed and Jason Middlebrook for reliever Bobby M. Jones and minor-leaguers Jason Bay and Josh Reynolds. This is an example of the kinds of solid trades that Phillips brokers and sometimes does not get enough credit for. I'm sure that many fans would have preferred to see either Kelvim Escobar or Esteban Yan coming to the Mets, but the truth is that either deal would have also cost the Mets Aaron Heilman and that is a heavy price to pay for a player you are asking to come in to be a set-up man. Having deciphered that the price for Escobar and Yan were to high, Phillips turned and acquired Reed, who is having the best season of his career, and Middlebrook, a guy with an electric arm that has just not been able to stay healthy enough to take advantage of that talent. Reed, a side-armer, is murder on right-handed batters. With Reed joining Mark Guthrie, the Mets now have a pair of relievers that will make life miserable for opposing managers in late-inning situations. Reed will come in and settle nicely into the bullpen behind Guthrie, Scott Strickland and David Weathers. Middlebrook needs to stay healthy, which is easier said than done. He has a really good fastball that is complimented by an assortment of quality pitches. However, Middlebrook will have a hard time finding a place on the Mets pitching staff. There are, currently, no places open in the starting rotation and, with D'Amico moving to the bullpen along with Reed, there is no position in the Mets bullpen. Middlebrook's acquisition is more towards looking to 2003. Middlebrook will either win a spot as the Mets long-reliever, a position Grants Roberts had claimed until his injury, or be used as trade bait.
As for the two Mets minor-leaguers in the deal - Bay and Reynolds. Bay was acquired earlier this year from the Expos in the trade that sent Lou Collier to Montreal. Bay has had some minor success in his career - hitting for a decent average - but does not project as nothing more than a fourth or fifth outfielder. Reynolds, a 2000 3rd round pick, is raw, but has some potential. He throws in the 88-92 mph range and has good control of his slider and curve. Of the prospects Phillips traded on Wednesday (Stratton, Bay and Reynolds), Reynolds is the best of he bunch. However, though he possesses some potential, Reynolds does not project as anything more than a number 3 starter and even that may be a stretch.
Overall, Phillips should be commended on his acquisitions. His team desperately needed help in both the rotation and bullpen and both those objectives were accomplished. Thomson and Reed may not be the sexiest names that were available, but in the long run they may prove to be the best. Phillips is often criticized for his penchant for trading minor-league prospects, but after analyzing both trades, Phillips acquired two quality pieces in Thomson and Reed, without giving up any of the Mets top ten prospects. You couldn't ask for anything more from your General Manager. Piazza or Vaughn may hit a homer to win a game against the Diamondbacks this weekend, but the real star of this week is still Steve Phillips.
August 31st - The Real Deadline
With July 31st coming and going, the baseball world turns its attention to August 31st - that is the last day a team can acquire a player from outside their organization and have them eligible for post-season. Trades after July 31st are tricky, however, because a player must first pass through waivers in order to be traded. However, 2002 will be interesting because, potentially, more trades will occur in August than in July. Many teams will attempt to pass players with big contracts in the hopes that two things would happen: 1) either a team claims them and takes on the remainder of that player's contract or 2) the players passes through waivers, allowing the team to then seek a trade. Many players are expected to get through waivers as no team wants to end up with the next Randy Myers or Jose Canseco contract. A few years ago, the San Diego Padres put in a claim on Randy Myers when the Toronto Blue Jays attempted to slip him through waivers because the Padres thought that the Braves, who they were in a pennant race against, were looking to trade for Myers. The Braves has no interest in Myers, but when the Padres put in a claim for him, the Blue Jays, instead of pulling Myers back, let Myers be taken and the Padres were stuck with Myers and the remaining $14 million of his contract. Myers ended up only making 21 appearances for the Padres before getting hurt. As for Canseco, the similar thing happened a few years ago when the Yankees put in a claim for him in order to prevent him from going to a contender. The Yankees, eventually, got stuck with Canseco for the rest of the season.
No team is going to risk making the same mistakes as the Padres and Yankees, so it is expected that many player will make it through waivers; thus, providing for the possibility that more trades will occur in August. Many interesting names may become available that can help contending teams, including the Mets. Some of the more prominent names that are expected to be exposed to waivers are Colorado pitchers Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle, Chicago White Sox reliever Keith Foulke, Detroit's Bobby Higginson and Juan Acevedo and Florida's Preston Wilson. Let us take a closer look at all of these players and how they may or may not be a good fit for the Mets:
Mike Hampton: After a brief analysis, it is certain that no one will claim Hampton because of the nearly $90 million left on his contract. The Rockies would love to unload Hampton's contract and I'm sure that Hampton would love to leave Colorado and its school system behind, but, unless the Rockies are willing to either eat up a chunk of his contract or take back some bad contracts in return, it seems as if Hampton is stuck on the Rockies roster.
Although Hampton helped pitch the Mets to a World Series in 2000, there is no chance of ever seeing him don a Mets jersey ever again. You'd have a better chance of seeing Bobby Bonilla back than Hampton. The way that Hampton left the Mets itself is worth the hell he is enduring in Colorado. When Hampton became a free agent, the Mets made every effort to resign him to what was then one of the richest contract for a pitcher. Hampton found every excuse not to resign - finally embarrassing himself by saying that he preferred the Colorado school system to that of New York. I'm sure that the $120 million the Rockies gave him had nothing to do with it. Ironically, it has been reported that Hampton has taken his children out of Colorado's fine school system and placed them in school in Houston. Go figure.
What is disturbing about Hampton is that he cannot use pitching in Colorado as an excuse because he has been even worse on the road. Besides, as a Met, Hampton was not one of the more well-liked players in the clubhouse. Many teammates did not appreciate his comments about Mike Piazza after the Roger Clemens bat-throwing incident in the World Series where he alluded that if he where Mike Piazza he would have done something. Such a statement now seems awfully hypocritical, especial when one realizes that Hampton was the one pitching that night and could have easily evened the score by drilling Derek Jeter or Bernie Williams. So don't expect Hampton to ever return to Shea unless it is in a Rockies jersey.
Denny Neagle: The Mets attempted to sign Neagle after the 2000 season to help fill the void left by the departing Hampton. Having rejected the Mets offer, which was for an average of $10 million per year but for less years than he got from Colorado, the Mets then turned to Kevin Appier. Like Hampton, Neagle has floundered in Colorado, where he has discovered that his curveball does not break as it does everywhere else. Neagle is one of those pitchers who may be able to reclaim his pre-Rockies form like the late Darryl Kile and Pedro Astacio did, but with 3 years and $30 million left on his contract that is a big risk to take. Besides, with the acquisition of Thomson and the recent success of Estes, the Mets rotation is as solid as it has been all year; thus, negating the need for another starter.
Keith Foulke: Just a few years removed from being one of the best young relievers in baseball, injuries have done him in over the past year or so. He was one of the relievers that Phillips was looking at before acquiring Reed. Foulke throws a good fastball in the 90s and a good slider. However, he has not been able to regain the same movement he had on his pitches since his surgery and has been hit hard at times. With the Mets acquiring both Reed and Middlebrook and with D'Amico moving to the pen, the Mets have no need for Foulke. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Angels make a run at Foulke, though, to help take the load off injured closer Troy Percival.
Bobby Higginson: Rumors were circulating in July about a potential trade that would have brought Higginson to Shea and sent Burnitz to Detroit. Detroit's reasoning was financial. Both Higginson and Burnitz will make roughly around $11 million in 2003, but the difference is that Burnitz's contract ends after 2003 whereas Higginson has two more years left for roughly over $8 million in 2004 and 2005.
Higginson has put together some solid years, but has struggled over the past year. He, like Burnitz, hits lefty and can play right field, but Higginson has not been able to find his power stroke, so, in essence, the Mets would have traded Burnitz for a player hitting around .290, but will hit under 20 homers maybe even 15. They say that the best trades are sometimes the ones you never make - that may be the case with this one. Higginson would have been an upgrade over Burnitz, but not one big enough to justify an additional two years at $8 million in 2004 and 2005. It may be wisest for the Mets to either eat up a portion of Burnitz's contract and trade him in the offseason or letting him play out his contract and then using the money saved to make a run at the Expos Vladimir Guerrero after the 2003 season (should he become a free agent) or Japan's Hideki Matsui after this season.
Juan Acevedo: Same story as with Foulke. Acevedo is a great example of why trading veterans for prospects in an attempt to rebuild is not always the smartest thing. In the mid-90s, the Mets traded Brett Saberhagen to the Rockies for Juan Acevedo and Arnold Gooch - neither panned out for the Mets. Acevedo has always had great velocity on his fastball, but no movement on it. He has also never been able to throw the rest of his pitches consistently for strikes, which allows hitters to sit and wait for his fastball. He has had some success as the Tigers' closer this year, but there is no need for Acevedo on the Mets.
Preston Wilson: A former Met prospect and one of the three that were packaged to the Marlins for Mike Piazza - the other two being Eddie Yarnell and Geoff Goetz. Another example of why trading prospects isn't always terrible. At the time, Wilson, Yarnell and Goetz were rated as three of the Mets Top Ten Prospects. Both Yarnell and Goetz never panned out and, although Wilson has become a good major-leaguer he is no Mike Piazza.
As for Wilson's status as a Marlin, the Marlins want to rid themselves of the 3 years and nearly $30 million left on Wilson's contract. Sources say that the Marlins will almost surely expose Wilson to the waivers and, if a team puts in a claim on him, may allow a team to take him just to clear his contract from their books. Wilson has always had 30-30 potential and for the most part has lived up to it and is on pace to do it again this season. His problem has been that he is an undisciplined hitter that strikes out too much and which causes him to hit for a mediocre average.
Wilson presents an interesting dilemma for Phillips. If the rumors are true that the Marlins are looking to rid themselves of Wilson, then does he make a move to bring Wilson back to patrol centerfield for the Mets? As it stands, the Mets starting outfielders are Timo Perez, Roger Cedeno and Jeromy Burnitz. Perez has played beyond expectations and has earned the right to play everyday, at least for the rest of the season -that leaves Cedeno and Burnitz. It's obvious that if the Mets are going to win the wild card race that they need more production from their outfield; whether that comes from Cedeno or Burnitz or from outside the organization. This is what makes Wilson such an interesting proposition.
Acquiring Wilson would allow the Mets to shift Perez to right field, where Perez is more comfortable, since Wilson plays a gold glove-caliber centerfield. Wilson would also bring additional speed and power to a team that could use it. Placing Wilson sixth in the batting order behind Piazza, Vaughn and Alfonzo would make the lineup more formidable as they go down the stretch.
The negatives on Wilson is his plate discipline and his contract. Chris Chambliss has worked wonders with Mo Vaughn and the rest of the Mets (except for Burnitz), perhaps he could work his magic with Wilson as well - also having his father, Mookie, with him will be a plus. Also, let's not forget Wilson's ability to hit at Shea. Wilson has been one of the best hitters at Shea over the past few years and ranks in the top 3 among opposing players who have hit the most homeruns at Shea over the past few years.
Now, how to get him. It'll be interesting to see if the Mets or another team makes a play for Wilson. If the rumors are true, then the Marlins may allow Wilson to be claimed off waivers for nothing, just to clear his contract money from their payroll books. Why would the Marlins do this? The Marlins want to keep their payroll relatively low for 2003 and a good way to ensure that is by trimming the $10 million a year that Wilson will make over the next three years.
However, here's another scenario. Say that Wilson goes unclaimed because no one, not even the Mets, wants to take on his contract? Perhaps the Mets could then turn around and swing a deal where the Marlins would take back a bad contract that would end sooner than Wilson's, thereby saving them money. Burnitz will almost surely be exposed to waivers, as the Mets would love to get rid of his contract and the $11 million he is due next year. There is no chance that anybody would claim Burnitz. Thus, why not trade Burnitz for Wilson. Using the same rationale employed in the Burnitz for Higginson deal that never was, the Marlins would have to pay Burnitz in 2003 roughly the same salary they would have paid Wilson, however, Burnitz's contract ends after 2003; thus the Marlins would save $20 million by not having to pay Wilson in 2004 and 2005.
Now, I know I said that I would not have done a Burnitz for Higginson deal, but this case is slightly different as we can all agree that Wilson is much better player than Higginson. Wilson is 4 years younger than Higginson, plays a flawless centerfield and is a more consistent offensive player. If Phillips is looking to take a gamble, then Wilson may just be his best option.
You thought that the all the trade rumors ended at 4:00 p.m. on July 31st? Think again. We may have only seen the beginning.
And Now A Word From Our Sponsors
Now, to the most important part of this column - your emails. I received some really good emails regarding the first edition of "The 7th Inning Stretch" - some writing with some kinds words, some writing to critique, some writing with their own solutions to the Mets problems. Good or bad, keep them coming.
Our first email comes from Brian, who writes regarding potential offseason moves to bolster the 2003 rotation:
"I agreed with most of what you said about the pitching staff. Leiter and Astacio at the top of the rotation, that sounds good to me. The Mets could then have one of their highly touted prospects in the number 5 slot. One person I would like to see them keep, if only a number 4 pitcher is Steve Trachsel. He has shown amazing ability to shutdown good hitting line-ups. Since his brief stint in the minors last season he has been nothing short of brilliant. Finally, I also would like to see a quality, veteran number 3 pitcher to fill the final spot. How about Rick Reed? He was the most successful pitcher during his time with the Mets."
Great email, Brian. You bring up some good points. With the addition of Thomson and the resigning of Leiter this past week, the Mets 2003 rotation is looking a bit more set than it did a month ago. The Mets 2003 rotation will now feature Leiter, Astacio (whose 2003 option will be picked up) and Thomson for sure. As for having one of their "highly touted prospects" to fill in the number 5 slot, it looks as if the Mets will have Aaron Heilman and Pat Strange battle it out in spring training for the number 5 spot. That leaves one spot on the rotation to be filled.
The Mets could resign any one of their free agents starters - Trachsel, Estes or D'Amico. D'Amico does not look like he will be resigned after pitching poorly and being relegated to the bullpen. Both Estes and Trachsel have been pitching well as of late and your point on Trachsel is solid - Trachsel has pitched as well as any other number 4 starter in baseball, though his record does not reflect it. Estes would be interesting because he, finally, seems to be harnessing his arsenal over the past three or four outings. Though he has only one win to show for it, Estes has held his opposition to two runs or less in his last three starts. If Estes keeps pitching this way, he may make it hard on the Mets not to resign him, if only to have another lefty in the rotation besides Leiter.
You bring up Rick Reed, which is an interesting idea. Reed did pitch as well as Leiter in his tenure with the Mets. However, since his trade to the Twins, Reed has missed starts at various times with an assortment of nagging injuries; whether it be a blister or his hamstring; though, the Twins may look to unload Reed in order to sign some of their younger players. This may allow the Mets or another team to come in and trade for him. If Reed could remain healthy, he would fit nicely in the Mets rotation. My only concern is his age and inability to go deep into games. At $8 million for the final year of his contract in 2003, that money may be best spent elsewhere.
An interesting scenario is developing in Atlanta, where both Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux will be free agents at the end of the year. Atlanta has already said that they will not be able to sign both. Could the Mets come up with a good enough financial deal and salespitch to entice whoever doesn't resign to come to New York? It's a real longshot as I think Atlanta will find a way to resign both, but if they don't I still don't see either coming to Shea. Maddux had his chance to come to New York before he signed with the Braves, when the Yankees were courting him, but word was that he wasn't comfortable with living in New York. As for Glavine, he has already stated that if he doesn't resign with the Braves that Boston would be his first choice. However, stranger things have happened. Thanks for your email Brian - great one.
Our second email comes from Stephen, who writes concerning Bobby Valentine:
"Whether or not he is the problem, I think Mr. Valentine always provides an interesting and sometimes unique perspective to the game. He can often be irritating in his laid-back and almost academic passivity; nevertheless, interesting and frequently refreshing."
I like Bobby Valentine. I think he has done a lot for this organization. Considering what his predecessors Dallas Green, Jeff Torborg and Buddy Harrleson did or did not do, Valentine should be given a lot more respect. Often it his attitude and big mouth that due Valentine in. Regardless, I judge a manager by what his team does on the field. It's true that the Mets have played like the contenders they were built to be over the past month, but what about the first three months of the season? Had the Mets not gotten off to such a horrific first half of the season, then they wouldn't be having to chase the Dodgers, Giants, Reds and Astros for the wild card spot. My gripe with Valentine was not that the offense wasn't hitting because he had no control over that, but rather the mental mistakes and lack of heart that the team was playing with in the first half. They were making dumb mental and defensive mistakes and playing like a team that didn't care and that, ultimately, is a reflection on the manager. Naturally, that opinion changes slightly now that the team is winning and playing with heart and minimizing those mental mistakes. I'm still concerned at the fact that the Mets always seems to get off to slow starts. They did it in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002. They often dig themselves a hole that they are not always able to climb out of. I'm not sure if it has to do with the way Valentine runs his spring training camp, but this team is always flat the first two months of the season. Regardless, I think Valentine will be at the helm for this year and the next, but he has to figure out a way to get this team off to a better start in 2003.
Our final email comes from Jenny, who has some kind words regarding this column:
"I just wanted to thank you for "The 7th Inning Stretch" article. It is the most insightful and honest piece I've read in a long time. Let's hope the Mets organization take your advice to heart. As devoted followers of the team, we understand and see exactly what you are talking about and often wonder why the owners/management of the organization cannot see the obvious mistakes they've made and are continuing to make. Thanks again. I am now a fan of your article."
Jenny, thank you for those kind words. This column is a labor of love, but what makes my job easier and worthwhile is knowing that there are knowledgeable fans out there who appreciate not only this column, but the rest of the contents on this web-site.
Thank you Brian, Stephen and Jenny for those great emails. I was amazed at the amount of good, solid emails I received. There are some really smart fans out there. Keep up the good work and keep those emails coming. Send them to email@example.com, who knows I may even use it on a future edition of "The 7th Inning Stretch."
That's about it for this edition of "The 7th Inning Stretch." Don't forget to tune in for another edition of "The 7th Inning Stretch" this week (that's right two in one week), where I'll be tackling the baseball labor situation.
Also, be on the lookout for a future edition of "The 7th Inning Stretch", where I'll be taking an in-depth look at the Mets farm system. I will examine its current renaissance on the shoulders of Jose Reyes, Aaron Heilman, Justin Huber, David Wright and, recently signed, Scott Kazmir. I'll discuss why the Mets farm system went from being one of the best in baseball in the 80's and early 90s to one of the poorest by the end of the 90s and, here's a hint, its not because they traded away most of their prospects. And, finally, I'll give my two cents on what the Mets need to do to continue the rebuilding of their farm system and never allow it to deteriorate like it did in the late 90s. All this and your emails (don't forget to send them to firstname.lastname@example.org) on the next edition of "The 7th Inning Stretch."
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