Everyone knows that the Mets have made some awful trades in their tenure. What’s surprising is that one that certainly should have been awful turned out slightly positive for them. In early November of 1972, the Mets sent Danny Frisella and Gary Gentry, two 26 year olds, to the Braves for Felix Millan and George Stone.
Millan, a three-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove Award winner, was the main piece for the Mets. After watching four players – Ken Boswell, Ted Martinez, Wayne Garrett and Lute Barnes – give below-average performances both offensively and defensively in ’72 at second base, Millan was expected to solidify the position both ways, while also providing a textbook number-two hitter for the lineup.
The only problem with that thinking is that Millan had been in steady decline.
In his first full season in the majors, Millan put up a 2.7 fWAR. He recorded a 2.3 mark the next two seasons. In 1971 that number dropped to 1.2 and in his final season with the Braves, Millan put up a (-0.5) fWAR. Boswell, the Mets’ primary second baseman, had a 1.5 fWAR in ’71 and a (-0.1) mark in ’72. Essentially, he had given the Mets the exact same level of production they would have received from Millan had Millan been on the club the previous two years.
Stone was the same age as the two pitchers the Mets gave up but injuries and ineffectiveness had impacted his ’71 and ’72 seasons, the latter of which he posted a (-0.2) fWAR. And to top it off, the thing most Mets fans knew/remembered about Stone is that he threw the pitch that broke Rusty Staub’s wrist, which ruined the Mets’ ’72 season.
Gentry had great stuff but there were questions about his attitude. There were times he showed up teammates in the field and there were quotes that the Arizona native didn’t particularly love New York. And to top it all off, there were arm problems that weren’t exactly handled right, leading both Gentry and the Mets to question what was really going on.
After logging 124.2 innings in the majors in 1967 & 1968, Frisella spent most of the championship year of 1969 in the minors. But while there he added a forkball to his repertoire, which helped him supplant Ron Taylor as the team’s top righty reliever. But Frisella had a down year in ’72, too, as his ERA went from 1.99 to 3.34. There were rumors of arm problems with Frisella that year, too.
Did the Mets look at it as trading two guys with arm problems to solidify 2B, along with getting a lottery ticket in return? That’s probably the most-favorable viewing of the trade you could make. Blogs didn’t exist in late 1972 and newspapers were much more likely to give just straight reporting. But here are two quotes, one from each side, expressing the trade at the time it happened:
In an AP story that appeared in the Rome News-Tribune, Braves Player Personnel Director Eddie Robinson said, “The Braves were in dire need of pitching strength. It appears this was the best deal for us. We hate to let a player like Millan go. But let me stress, we are giving up quality to quality.”
“You got to give up something in order to get something good.
“Now we’ve got a second baseman who can play second base every day. Milian can fit right into the batting order. He’s a good No. 2 hitter. He doesn’t strike out very often, and he’s a good man to play hit and run. He’ll steady the infield.”
Was this merely two guys doing PR spin about a trade? Perhaps, but when you think of Berra, being a PR whiz is hardly the first thing that jumps to mind. It seems more likely that this is how both clubs felt about the deal, that neither felt they hoodwinked the other. Instead, it was a win-win deal for both clubs.
We can debate the results of the deal from the Mets’ side but we can say without hesitation that the Braves did not win the trade. Arm troubles continued to plague Gentry, who totaled just 113.1 IP over two-plus years with Atlanta before being released early in 1975. The Mets scooped up Gentry, hoping he could make it back to the majors. But he tore the flexor muscle in his right elbow in his first tune-up appearance in the minors and never pitched again.
The Gentry story is sad enough. But it was much worse with Frisella. He bombed in two seasons in Atlanta and then bounced around after that. However, it looked like he had found a home in Milwaukee and was set to be the team’s closer in 1977. But Frisella died in a dune buggy accident on New Year’s Day in ’77.
Meanwhile, Millan had the best year of his career in 1973 and Stone was a vital member of the rotation that year, too. Mets fans who were around then still curse Berra for not starting Stone in Game 6 of the World Series. But after that glorious start, things didn’t work out too well for either player. Stone suffered a rotator cuff injury in 1974 and he retired in 1976. Millan followed up his 3.0 fWAR season in ’73 with a (-0.3) year and the final four years of his MLB career saw an 87 OPS+ and a combined 3.0 fWAR – the same total he gave in ’73 alone. And even Millan was not immune to the injury curse that struck the others in this deal. In 1977, he entered a game as a defensive replacement and got into a brawl when Pirates catcher Ed Ott barreled into him to break up a double play. Millan, never known for having a temper, felt this was a dirty play by Ott and came up and punched the guy who just ran him over. Ott retaliated with a move straight out of WWE, picking Millan up and body slamming him into the ground. Millan left on a stretcher and ended up with a broken collarbone and a dislocated shoulder. He never played another game in the majors.
You frequently find this deal on lists of the best Mets trades ever made. And the Mets ended up with the better end of things, without a doubt. But you have to judge a trade by two methods – what was thought at the time of the deal and what the final results ended up being. If this same trade happened in 2020, media and fans alike would have been disappointed when it was made. It ended up being great in 1973 and then not so hot afterwards. Could the Mets have gotten a better return if they offered Frisella and Gentry to every other club in the league, instead of being focused on getting Millan? My opinion is yes, they could have. Much like trading Justin Dunn and Jarred Kelenic because they were focused on getting Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz – the Mets could have gotten a better return by being open to other players.
The other thing about this trade is it shows the Mets’ cavalier attitude towards pitching. When you’re pumping out quality pitching prospects at a tremendous rate, it’s easy (and to a point, necessary) to trade it away. But in addition to Gentry and Frisella, the Mets dealt away Steve Renko, Nolan Ryan, Jim Bibby, Buzz Capra and Tug McGraw. It would have been a lot more fun to see those guys on the Mets than some of the starters (and relievers) who were sent out in their place.
Finally, we’ve all made the Angel of Death joke about former Mets trainer Ray Ramirez. But where is the venom directed at the medical team of the 70s? Clearly, they didn’t have surgical techniques that we have now available then. But they misdiagnosed Gentry and thought McGraw would never be able to pitch at a high level again, too. Those are some pretty high-end gaffes.