Mets Trades of the Past: Amazins’ Get Frank Viola

While we wait to see if the Mets trade R.A. Dickey and if so, what they get in return, I thought it would be interesting to look back at a trade where the Mets acquired the previous season’s A.L. Cy Young Award winner.

Of course, we know R.A. Dickey is unique because of his age, his specialty pitch, and his back story, but all along I assumed if the Mets did trade him, they could hope to come up with a package of similarly rated players as those they once gave up for Viola, although the emphasis would be on position players, rather than pitchers coming back.

The 1988 Mets had won 100 games and their loss to the Dodgers in the league championship series was unexpected and greatly disappointing for a team that fans thought was going to be a powerhouse for years. In 1989, Dwight Gooden began to experience shoulder trouble and the Mets were hovering just above the .500 mark at the July 31 trade deadline. They had already made one questionable trade during the season sending Lenny Dykstra and Roger McDowell to the Phillies for Juan Samuel of whom manager Davey Johnson told GM Frank Cashen “get me Samuel and we’ll win the pennant”. Now they were looking to add a starting pitcher to replace Gooden in the rotation that was otherwise still very strong with David Cone, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, and Bob Ojeda.

Viola was the Twins’ ace, but had gotten off to a rough start with an 8-12 record and an ERA  close to 4.00, over a run a game over his previous season. What did it take to get Viola ? A package of 5 pitchers :

Rick Aguilera, an established, but still young major leaguer who had been used by the Mets exclusively in relief in 1989, mostly as a setup man for closer Randy Myers.

David West, a lefty who was once considered the best young pitcher in the Mets’ farm system, but who had been found wanting on the major league level.

Kevin Tapani, a young pitcher who had been acquired by the Mets along with Wally Whitehurst when the Mets sent Jesse Orosco to the Dodgers. Tapani had been the Mets’ most effective AAA pitcher, but had no place in the Mets’ rotation.

Jack Savage and Tim Drummond, two mid-level prospects with AAA experience.

Although Viola only went 5-5 for the Mets in ’89 and the team finished second, he did win 20 games a year later as the Mets again finished second in the division. In 1991, Viola was 13-15 for the Mets before leaving as a free agent. Meanwhile, Aguilera established himself as one of the best closers in baseball, saving over 300 games after leaving the Mets, after a brief trial as a starter when he first went to the Twins. Tapani became a dependable starter for the Twins for the next 6 years and won 143 games  in a 13-year major league career.

West was basically a disappointment based on his initial promise, but he still managed to appear in over 200 major league games in a career that lasted until 1998. He had one particularly solid year with the Phillies as a lefty specialist.

Neither Savage nor Drummond made any impact in the major leagues, so their value in the trade as throw-ins was negligible.

So, in summary, the Mets did get a Cy Young winner who gave them 2 1/2 years of quality pitching, but in the long term, they certainly gave up more than they got. Nevertheless, it wasn’t a bad gamble at the time, because the Mets felt that a “pro” like Viola could lead them to a pennant and weren’t about to turn over a starting spot to a rookie like Tapani.

Now, all these years later, the Mets find themselves in an opposite position, where they are looking for young, potential impact players for a proven Cy Young winner. When I hear rumors that other teams won’t even give up one top prospect for someone like Dickey who can put them over the top, I can’t understand it and the Viola deal is a pretty good example of why I feel that way.

About Barry Duchan 76 Articles
I've been following the Mets since 1962. Have to admit I was a Yankee fan as a kid, but I found it to be so much more interesting to see how a young team could build itself up rather than following a team where the season didn't really begin until October. I remember them all - Casey, Marv, Choo Choo, Don Bosch, The Stork, etc. As the years went on, I became more and more of a Mets fan, and a Yankee hater once Steinbrenner and Billy Martin entered the picture. After retiring, I relocated with my family from Long Island to Chapel Hill, NC in 2005. I still get to watch almost all of the Mets games and writing about them on Metsmerized Online and on my new site Mets Memories.