In 1975, Rusty Staub had his best season ever for the Mets, batting .282/.371/.448 with 30 doubles, 19 home runs and 105 RBI. Then, in the offseason, for reasons few fans could understand, the Mets traded Staub to Detroit for veteran lefthanded pitcher Mickey Lolich. Actually, the trade was Staub and AAA pitcher Bill Laxton for Lolich and AAA outfielder Billy Baldwin.
I remember thinking that maybe this guy Baldwin was some super-prospect (he wasn’t) because otherwise, this trade was hard to justify.
Trade Staub? Maybe not unthinkable, because the Mets thought they had his replacement in the much younger Mike Vail. But for Lolich? Was that the best they could do ?
Mike Vail came to the Mets as a minor league throw-in in an otherwise inconsequential swap of utility infielders with the Cardinals. But Vail quickly established himself as a superior hitter at the AAA level, and he was an immediate sensation when the Mets brought him up. His 23-game hitting streak made fans and team officials think they had found a future long-term fixture in right field.
With Vail in the picture, maybe they thought Staub could be a valuable trade commodity to a team that had a solid starting three in Koosman, Seaver, and Matlack, but needed an established 4th starter.
In his heyday, Lolich was the Tigers’ pitching star of the 1968 World Series, but by 1975, he was still a workhorse, but a 35-year old, terribly out of shape workhorse who had lost 39 games in his last two seasons and didn’t figure to get much better. Would a change of leagues return Lolich to glory?
Well, Lolich went 8-13 for the Mets in 30 starts and was soon departed, while Staub continued to be a productive hitter for years. Fortunately, Rusty returned to the Mets a few years later and he became baseball’s premier pinch-hitter.
And Vail? He injured his knee playing basketball in the off-season, leaving a gaping hole in the Mets’ lineup and when he returned, he never lived up to his potential with the Mets, although he hung around with a few other teams for a while as a 4th outfielder and pinch hitter.
The 1976 Mets finished 86-76 with neither Vail or Lolich making many positive contributions. Could the Mets have been a legitimate contender if they had kept Staub ? We’ll never know.