Friday, January 31, 2014

A "Best On The Worst" Side Story: The Donne Wall For Johnny Damon Non-Trade

Every year, I write a 13-part weekly series that spotlights former Mets players who are connected via the theme of the series.  This year's theme, "The Best On The Worst", focuses on Mets players who experienced their best seasons on some rather lackluster Mets teams.

This past week, I turned the focus of the series over to Steve Trachsel, a pitcher who won 66 games as a Met, with 50 games of those victories coming between 2001 and 2004, a four-year period in which the team was nearly 60 games under .500.  While doing research for the piece, I came across a news article that caught me by surprise.  It was so shocking that I felt the need to write a side story to the Trachsel post.  And it's all because of a certain relief pitcher on the Mets who could have been traded for a dynamic leadoff hitter in his prime, but wasn't - the Donne-for-Johnny trade that never was.

Back in December 2000, the New York Times published an article by Murray Chass on the signing of Steve Trachsel.   Chass discussed the flurry of activity by Mets' general manager Steve Phillips, which included the free agent signings of starting pitchers Kevin Appier and Trachsel, as well as a trade for relief pitcher Donne Wall.  At the time, the Mets had a strong bullpen with right-handers Turk Wendell and Armando Benitez and left-handers Dennis Cook and John Franco.  Chass noted that because of the Mets' bullpen depth, Wall could have been flipped to Kansas City as part of a deal that would have brought 27-year-old Johnny Damon to Flushing.

Wall had pitched beautifully for San Diego prior to his acquisition by the Mets, posting a 2.92 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in three years with the Padres.  Meanwhile, Damon had come off a season in which he hit .327 with a league-leading 136 runs scored and 46 stolen bases.  But Damon was a center fielder, and the Mets already had one of those in Jay Payton, who had just finished third in the Rookie of the Year vote.  Damon was also a Scott Boras client, which posed a problem for the Mets for two reasons.

  • Damon was about to become a free agent, and Boras had made it clear that Damon would not sign an extension with any team under he first dipped his feet in the free-agent waters.
  • A month prior to the acquisition of Donne Wall, the Mets had strained their relationship with Boras because of a botched attempt by Phillips to sign another of Boras' clients - free agent shortstop Alex Rodriguez.

Eventually, the Royals did trade Damon to Oakland, as part of a three-team deal that also included the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.  The Mets were left with Payton in center and Wall in the bullpen.  Payton failed to approach his 2000 numbers again as a Met, and within two years, he had been traded to Colorado, where he had a tremendous season (.302, 28 HR, 89 RBI) for the Rockies in 2003.

Wall, on the other hand, was horrible in his one season in New York, losing all four of his decisions and posting a 4.85 ERA and 1.59 WHIP.  Wall allowed multiple runs in a quarter of his 32 appearances and became a part of major league history on August 23, when he allowed a home run to Rockies' starting pitcher Jason Jennings in the ninth inning of a 10-0 loss.  Jennings was making his major league debut in the game, making him the first pitcher in modern major league history (since 1900) to pitch a complete-game shutout and hit a home run in his first big league appearance.

It's no wonder a certain Mets blogger who attended that game will never forget what he witnessed on that infamous night at Shea Stadium when Jennings took Donne "over the" Wall.

Jason Jennings - #NeverForget

Like Donne Wall, Johnny Damon also had an off-year for his new team in 2001.  But for Damon, his off-year in Oakland still produced 108 runs scored and 27 stolen bases, even though his batting average dropped to .256.  However, unlike the Mets, Oakland reached the postseason in 2001, and Damon was outstanding in his first playoff experience (.409 batting average, .591 slugging percentage).  Damon parlayed his October brilliance into a free-agent contract with the Red Sox and became a legend in Boston.  Wall became an ex-Met following the 2001 season and an ex-baseball player by June 2002.

Imagine how things could have turned out different for the Mets had they actually acquired Johnny Damon for Donne Wall and friends.  Steve Trachsel might never have been a candidate for "The Best On The Worst" because the Mets might never have become a last-place team.  It's a non-trade Mets fans will never forget.

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