Eight years ago, the Mets came out of the All-Star Break with a win against the Philadelphia Phillies in extra innings. Although they were only two games above .500 at the time, the Mets were in the thick of a tight four-team race in the National League East, with one game separating the Braves (46-42), Phillies (46-42), Marlins (45-43) and Mets (45-43). The Mets then proceeded to lose eight of their next 11 games, losing some ground to their division rivals, but still only five games behind the division-leading Braves.
Despite their struggles, general manager Jim Duquette considered the Mets to be contenders for the division title (at the time, the Padres and Giants were tied atop the wild card standings, with both teams ten games above .500) and decided to upgrade the team in a last-ditch effort to stay in the playoff hunt. “Last-ditch” ended up being an appropriate term for the trades orchestrated by Duquette, as the Mets dug themselves a “ditch” that they could not climb out of, while Duquette didn’t “last” as Mets’ GM, replaced before season’s end by Omar Minaya.
Although there were three trades made by Duquette on July 30, 2004, two of them were connected. The first trade sent top prospect Scott Kazmir to Tampa Bay for starting pitcher Victor Zambrano and reliever Bartolome Fortunato. Although Zambrano had a 35-27 career mark for the perennial basement dwellers in Tampa, his 4.47 ERA and 1.49 WHIP were not exactly top-of-the-rotation caliber.
In 2003, Zambrano led the American League in walks (106), hit batsmen (20) and wild pitches (15). Prior to his trade to the Mets, he was once again leading the league in walks (96) and had hit 16 batters in 22 starts. Clearly, Duquette thought a change in scenery and ten minutes with pitching coach Rick Peterson (as Peterson infamously claimed would be all he would require to “fix” Zambrano) would do the trick. He thought wrong.
Injuries and poor performances limited Zambrano to 35 starts as a Met, as he went 10-14 for the team with a nearly identical ERA (4.42) and WHIP (1.49) as he had in Tampa. Similarly, Bartolome Fortunato suffered from injuries (he missed the entire 2005 season) and poor performances on the mound (7.06 ERA and 1.66 WHIP in 17 career relief appearances for the Mets) and was out of baseball by 2006.
Scott Kazmir, although not as successful as a first round draft pick should have been, still became the Rays’ all-time leader in wins, strikeouts, starts and innings pitched (he has now dropped to No. 2 in those categories, supplanted by current Rays pitcher James Shields). Kazmir also led the Rays to their only World Series appearance in 2008, the same year the Mets finished a game short of the playoffs for the second consecutive season. With a productive Kazmir on the pitching staff instead of fill-ins and journeymen, who knows where the Mets could have gone in 2006, 2007 and 2008?
The other two trades orchestrated by Duquette on that fateful late July day in 2004 featured a player who was barely a Met and a player who now kills his former team with regularity. First, Duquette traded minor leaguer Justin Huber to the Royals for a little-known prospect named Jose Bautista. The Mets then sent Bautista and infielder Ty Wigginton to the Pirates for former No. 1 overall draft pick Kris Benson and infielder Jeff Keppinger.
Bautista has since become one of the most feared sluggers in the major leagues, leading all players with 124 HR since the beginning of the 2010 campaign. Wigginton is not just the last Met to bowl over a catcher at the plate, but he has also become a pretty good hitter in his own right. Since leaving the Mets in 2004, Wigginton has hit 138 HR for six teams. In 30 games (24 starts) against his former team, Wigginton is batting .308 with five HR and 26 RBI. He also owns a .390 on-base percentage and a .560 slugging percentage against the Mets. In 2012, Wigginton has become a one-man wrecking crew versus the Mets in more ways than one. In only 29 at-bats, Wigginton has three home runs and 14 RBIs against the team that sent him packing eight years ago. He also wrecked Josh Thole’s head, sidelining him with a concussion in a (you guessed it) home plate collision with the Mets’ catcher.
The two players received for Bautista and Wigginton did not have the greatest success for the Mets during their time in New York. Jeff Keppinger only played in 33 games for the Mets in 2004, spending the entire 2005 season at AAA-Norfolk, before being traded to the Royals in 2006 for Ruben Gotay. Keppinger has become a solid utility player since then. He hit .332 in 241 at-bats for the Reds in 2007, and is now hitting .312 for the Rays in 138 at-bats this season. In six-plus seasons since leaving the Mets, Keppinger is a .283 career hitter.
Kris Benson was never horrible as a Met (14-12, 4.23 ERA, 1.25 WHIP in 39 starts). He just wasn’t what the Mets hoped they were getting. Although Benson was only 30 when he pitched his last game for the Mets in 2005, he went on to win 13 more games in the majors for three teams (Baltimore, Texas, Arizona) before calling it a career to become a successful businessman following the 2010 season.
That brings us to Sandy Alderson and the 2012 Mets. (Finally!) This year’s Mets came out of the All-Star Break a half-game out of the second wild card spot and 4½ games behind the first place Washington Nationals. One sweep to the Braves later, and the Mets find themselves 3½ games out of the final wild card spot and 6½ games out of first.
With all the talk about improving the league’s worst bullpen, maybe Alderson should hold off on making a trade that would only serve to help the team this year. If he is to make a trade, it has to be one that can also help the Mets in the future, not just one that might be too little, too late to help them succeed in 2012.
If the Mets continue to fall in the standings, similar to the way the 2004 Mets did after the All-Star Break, it would behoove Sandy Alderson not to make any drastic moves. There’s no need to sell off the future in a last-ditch effort to remain in contention in the present. The 2004 Mets were around .500 when Duquette became Trader Jim. They finished the season 20 games under .500. This year’s squad might not contend as long as we’d like them to, but they’re also not the type of team who will finish so far under .500 that the general manager will be canned.
That was then. This is now. And Sandy Alderson is a better GM than Jim Duquette. If the Mets don’t gain ground in the standings prior to the trade deadline, I have full faith in Sandy Alderson that he will either not make any trades or he will only deal for a player who will help the team beyond this season. Buying for the sake of buying doesn’t get you anything but the door slammed behind you on the way out. Sandy Alderson knows this, and that’s why he won’t “Duquette” out with other teams for players. He’s a better general manager than that.