Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sandy Alderson Is Trying To Avoid The Year "2" Blues

As the dawn of the new millenium arrived, while people were talking about whether Y2K was going to give them the blues, the Mets were one of the best teams in the National League.  They were in the middle of their only back-to-back playoff appearances in franchise history and things appeared to be on the up-and-up.

Only two years later, the Mets were at the bottom of the NL East standings, becoming laughingstocks of the league and making regular appearances on David Letterman's Top Ten lists due to their futility on the field.  How did the Mets fall so quickly from their perch atop the National League?  Blame it on Y2B, otherwise known as the Year "2" Blues, a condition that occurs every time the calendar ends in a "2".

The Year "2" Blues has taken other forms in the past.  In the Mets' inaugural season of 1962, fans were happy to have National League baseball back in New York.  However, the product on the field was more Little League than National League, as the Mets lost a record 120 games.  Ten years later, the 1972 Mets actually did well, posting an 83-73 record (six games were erased due to the first players' strike in MLB history) and finishing in third place in the NL East.  However, during that strike, the team suffered through the tragedy of losing their manager, Gil Hodges, to a fatal heart attack.

Then came the 1982 season, and Y2B as we know it today hit the Mets will full force.  It all began when the Mets were looking for a power hitter and thought they found one in George Foster.

Don't look at us like that, George.  You were the one who sucked as a Met.

Prior to the 1982 season, George Foster was one of the premier home run hitters in the National League.  In 1977, he became the first player since Willie Mays to hit as many as 50 home runs in a season when he banged out 52 long balls for the Cincinnati Reds.  He followed that up by pacing the NL in homers (40) and RBI (120) in 1978.  In the six years prior to 1982, Foster was a five-time All-Star who averaged 33 HR and 112 RBI per season.  He wasn't just a home run hitter, as he batted over .300 three times and finished the six-year stretch with a .297 batting average.

In his final year in Cincinnati (1981), despite one-third of the season being wiped out by a players' strike, Foster still managed to collect 22 HR and 90 RBI, good for third place and second place in the league, respectively, and earning him his first Silver Slugger Award (the award did not exist prior to 1980).  George Foster was at the top of his game after the 1981 season, making him the top trade target for then-Mets' general manager Frank Cashen.  Oops.

On February 10, 1982, Cashen traded three players to the Reds for George Foster, hoping that this trade with Cincinnati would work out better than the ill-fated 1977 trade of Tom Seaver, which sent the Mets into the chasm they were still in.  Foster responded by turning in the worst full season of his career, batting .247 with 13 HR and 70 RBI in 151 games.  Needless to say, the Mets finished the 1982 season in last place.  Although Foster recovered to pick up 28 HR and 90 RBI for the 1983 Mets, his batting average continued to go down (.241), and his 38 walks kept his on-base percentage down to a career-low .289.  The dozens of fans at Shea Stadium had seen enough of George Foster, and he became the prime target of boo birds until his final game in New York in 1986.

The Mets did win the World Series in 1986, but by then Foster was long gone, having been released by the team in August.  After their championship season, the Mets remained in contention until 1991, when they suffered their first losing season since 1983.  Again, the front office felt a change was needed to bring the team back into contention in the NL East, so they opened their wallets and spent freely in 1992.  What they got in return was The Worst Team Money Could Buy.

Bobby Bonilla.  Bret Saberhagen.  Eddie Murray.  Jeff Torborg.  All four had participated in the postseason for other teams prior to 1992.  All four became Mets to try to recapture their prior successes in New York.  All four tanked in 1992.

For Bobby Bonilla, his free agent signing meant he was coming back home.  In his final season in Pittsburgh, the future Bronx tour guide hit .302 with a league-leading 44 doubles, 18 HR, 100 RBI and 102 runs scored.  Once in New York, his play deteriorated, as he hit .249, drove in 70 runs and scored 62 times.  His 23 doubles were barely half of his 1991 total, although he did improve his home run output by an earth-shattering one (19 HR in 2002).

Bret Saberhagen and Eddie Murray also did poorly in their first seasons in New York, as Saberhagen won only three games in an injury-plagued season and Murray batted only .261 with 16 HR, despite playing in 156 games.  As a result, the Mets lost 90 games for the first time in nine years and did not finish above .500 again until 1997.

Clearly, former Manager of the Year Jeff Torborg did not have a clue how to keep his expensive bunch of underachievers focused as Bonilla became an earplug-wearing, error-questioning, reporter-threatening malcontent, Saberhagen tried to get bleach throwing to become an Olympic event and Murray became the Sultan of Sulk.

One would assume the Mets would have learned their lesson after being hit by the Y2B bug for the second time in 1992.  But we all know what happens when you assume.  We also know that the Mets sometimes have a hard time learning from past mistakes.

In 2002, the Mets were only two years removed from the franchise's fourth World Series appearance.  They followed up their pennant-winning campaign with a disappointing 2001 season, finishing 82-80 and needing a strong final month just to push their record above .500.  General manager Steve Phillips, who wasn't present for the previous Y2B infestations (the Mets were transitioning from Frank Cashen to Al Harazin in 1992), felt the Mets were just a few trades away from erasing the mediocrity of 2001 and returning to the playoffs.  Things didn't work out exactly as planned.

Phillips sought to improve the right side of the infield by acquiring former All-Stars Mo Vaughn and Roberto Alomar.  He also wanted to add power and speed to the outfield.  Enter former Mets Jeromy Burnitz and Roger Cedeño.  Four words can summarize how each player did for the 2002 Mets.

Bust.  Bust.  Bust.  Bust.

If only Mo Vaughn's batting average had been higher than his weight, things could have turned out differently for the 2002 Mets.  Or not.

Mo Vaughn was the only one of the foursome who had anything resembling a productive year for the Mets in 2002 (.259, 26 HR, 72 RBI).  Of course, that came from a player whose average season from 1995-2000 (.306, 38 HR, 118 RBI) left a little more to be desired.

Roberto Alomar, on the other hand, had just come off an MVP-caliber season in 2001 (Vaughn missed the entire 2001 season with an injury).  Alomar hit .336 with 34 doubles, 12 triples, 20 HR, 100 RBI, 113 runs scored and 30 stolen bases for the Cleveland Indians in 2001 and was poised to become the best all-around second baseman in Mets history.  That title still belongs to Edgardo Alfonzo, as Alomar was a shadow of himself in 2002.  In fact, his numbers in 1½ seasons as a Met (.265, 13 HR, 75 RBI, 22 SB) were less than what he produced in his final season in Cleveland.

From 1997-2001, former Met outfielder Jeromy Burnitz was among the most consistent power threats in baseball.  Playing five years in Milwaukee, Burnitz averaged 33 HR and 102 RBI per season and hoped to become the first legitimate power threat in right field for the Mets since Darryl Strawberry switched coasts following the 1990 season.  That did not happen, as Burnitz collected only 19 HR and 54 RBI in 154 games in 2002, while watching his batting average dip to .215.  Burnitz did follow Strawberry in one respect, as he became a Dodger in 2003 after being traded to Los Angeles in July.

Roger Cedeño came out of nowhere to have an amazing season with the Mets in 1999, batting .313 and setting the franchise record with 66 stolen bases.  He was then included in the trade that netted the Mets Derek Bell and 2000 NLCS MVP Mike Hampton, but came back to New York in 2002 to join fellow ex-Met Jeromy Burnitz in the outfield.  He thanked the Mets by reporting to camp out of shape and becoming the worst speedster acquisition since Vince Coleman.  Cedeño finished the 2002 season by batting .260 and stealing only 25 bases in 149 games.  In addition, his once-fleet feet produced only 19 doubles and two triples, but they did develop the uncanny ability to generate boos from the Shea faithful, boos that continued to be heard until the Mets' next winning season in 2005.

That was then.  This is now.  The year is 2012.  It's a Y2B season.

Second-year general manager Sandy Alderson is not falling into the trap his predecessors couldn't avoid jumping into.  There have been no blockbuster trades featuring former All-Stars to report this offseason and the only acquisitions of note have been to strengthen the bullpen (Jon Rauch, Ramon Ramirez, Frank Francisco) and outfield (Andres Torres).  Scott Hairston was re-signed to a one-year deal and four arbitration-eligible players (Mike Pelfrey, Manny Acosta and the aforementioned Ramirez and Torres) were signed as well.

This is not your father's Mets team.  Nor is it Frank Cashen's, Al Harzin's or Steve Phillips' team.  It's a new Mets team with a different general manager who, unfortunately, is restricted by what he can do by the owners' ongoing financial problems.  However, even if the team did not have money woes, Alderson was not going to be the type of GM to make big-ticket moves just to make a splash in the free agent and trade market.  He is a thinking man's GM who takes fiscally reasonable risks, rather than ones that can blow up in his face.

Is Sandy Alderson the general manager who finally has developed immunity to the Y2B bug?  Only time will tell, but the way things are being set up for the 2012 Mets and beyond, the team on the field isn't going to be laden with malcontents and aging has-beens.  The Mets are a young team that's going to play their hearts out for the fans.  They may not produce all the wins the fans would like, but they are going to be a team that's fun to root for.  That's a lot more than could be said for the teams of George Foster, Bobby Bonilla, Roberto Alomar, et al.


Frank Gray said...

Great read!! Tell me Eddie Murray doesn't look like Apollo Creed in that pic above though.

Ed Leyro (and Joey Beartran) said...

He went from looking like Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) in Pulp Fiction in the '70s and '80s to the Apollo Creed look in the '90s. The man knows his movie icons.