The off season is chugging along at a pace. Here we are post-Holidays, still the first week of January, spring training a little more than a month away already. Heck, the Nationals’ victory champagne is barely dried on the carpet. The Mets, as we know, have made a few moves, mainly revamping their beleaguered bullpen. There are still adjustments to be made – very little has been done to shore up their porous defense, for instance. It is somewhat ironic, considering that catching the ball and throwing it properly used to be as much a hallmark of this franchise as starting pitching; the two go pretty much hand-in-hand, anyway. Yes, the contending Mets of 1969-76 boasted pitchers like Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Nolan Ryan, Jon Matlack and Gary Gentry. But they were helped out – and their stats burnished accordingly – by the likes of Bud Harrelson, Al Weis, Tommy Agee, Wayne Garrett, Jerry Grote and Felix Millan, staunch defenders, all. As the fortunes of the team plummeted in the late-‘70s, the first thing to go was that proud, famous defense.
It’s no coincidence that when the team revived itself in the ‘80s, it was again on the back of pitching and defense. Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez, Lenny Dykstra, Rafael Santana, Kevin Elster, Tim Teufel and Howard Johnson ably supported Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Bob Ojeda, Frank Viola and the rest of the vaunted staff of 1984-90. These guys knew their roles, knew their positions inside and out and played them nearly flawlessly. After that, though, the team decided to get…umm… “creative” when it came to the defense. It started to become less and less a priority, even as the team was winning. And so, in that 1990 season, the Mets decided to go full-on experimental. In fact, since the early-‘90s, the Mets have had a dubious history of playing people out of position.
Keith Miller was signed by the Mets as an amateur free agent in September, 1984. He rose quickly through the farm system, a mere two seasons, and reached the majors in 1987, making his debut in mid-June. He was a lifelong infielder, a second baseman, specifically. In 404 games in the majors and minors between 1985 and 1989, he played 310 games at second, 25 in the outfield. So naturally, he opened the 1990 season as the starting centerfielder. For an organization that prided itself on its intelligence – the brain trust was still Frank Cashen and Davey Johnson, even at this late stage — a move like this was a head-scratcher. The folly of the play was exposed right away, on Opening Day at Shea against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Trailing 5-3 in the top of the sixth, Miller committed absolute butchery on a fly ball by Wally Backman – of the Pirates!!! – that was scored a triple and led to another run in an eventual 12-3 loss. The experiment ultimately lasted all of 13 games before Miller was replaced.
Undaunted, the Mets tried it again two years later, with Johnson the centerfield guinea pig this time. He made it through half a season before the odious Vince Coleman returned from injury. Fast-forwarding to 1998, the Mets tried to play erstwhile catcher Todd Hundley in left field upon the arrival of Mike Piazza. That attempt to squeeze two potent bats into the lineup was comically unsuccessful and mercifully brief. Then there was the trial of Piazza himself at first base in the latter stages of his tenure.
Some fresher memories include left fielder Daniel Murphy, right fielder Lucas Duda and shortstop Wilmer Flores. All of which leads us right back to this offseason and the neglect of defense. Despite the acquisition of outfielder Jake Marisnick, there isn’t really a true centerfielder on this team, Juan Lagares having previously been jettisoned. There is brave talk of the return of Yoenis Cespedes, who – it was proven spectacularly in the 2015 World Series – is no centerfielder. Neither is Michael Conforto, neither is Brandon Nimmo. J.D. Davis is a next-gen Murphy, a solid/could-be-great bat with no position to play and nowhere to hide. And then there’s Dominic Smith, a slick fielding first baseman, in the Hernandez or George Scott mold, who played a lot of games in left field, due to the emergence of the slugging Pete Alonso at first. Smith’s name has been bandied about as a trade candidate, perhaps piggy-backed with a Jed Lowrie salary dump.
Maybe, sometime in the next month, GM Brodie Van Wagenen will get around to addressing this kind of stuff. But I doubt it.