There are three main ways to improve your team. You can draft amateurs; you can trade for players and you can sign free agents. The Mets of the late 70s were terrible because they weren’t good in any of these three areas. The farm system that once cranked out players slowed to a trickle once Whitey Herzog left. The trades were so bad that there was an article published here that wished that the club had gone a dozen years without making a deal. And then the team was thrown a lifeline with the advent of free agency and chose, essentially, to ignore it.
Those who decry the cheapness of the Wilpons are better off not knowing the history of M. Donald Grant and Linda de Roulet. The first free agent class became available following the 1976 season. A star-studded class that included major talents like Don Baylor, Rollie Fingers and Reggie Jackson and the Mets signed … nobody. Technically, that’s not true. Baseball-Reference lists the Mets signing Ray Sadecki from that free agent class. But Sadecki was a free agent because he was released, rather than a guy who played the ’76 season without a contract. Sadecki appeared in four games and had a 6.00 ERA before being released by the Mets in early May of 1977.
When free agency first started, they had what was termed a “re entry draft,” where clubs would draft players that they were interested in signing. It was a ploy by the owners to limit the market for the players but it didn’t really work the way they intended. My hope was to look at the players the Mets drafted, but a quick online search did not give that information. If you can find it – please leave a link in the comments section.
Anyway, the Mets fell from 86 wins in ’76 to 64 wins in ’77. While the team’s fortunes didn’t look particularly rosy, there were enough interesting guys on the right side of 30 that an impact free agent or two wouldn’t have been the worst thing to acquire. Steve Henderson (25), Lee Mazzilli (23) and John Stearns (26) wasn’t a bad start. The second free agent class included Lyman Bostock, Rich Gossage, Larry Hisle and Richie Zisk. Who did the Mets pick up? The Mets made their big splash with Elliott Maddox (who hadn’t played a full season since 1974) and Tom Hausman.
The 1978 Mets went 66-96 and there didn’t seem to be any help on the way from the minors or the trade front. The third free agent class didn’t have the star power of the first two classes but did include Pete Rose. My recollection is that the Mets drafted Rose and had him in for a pitch but didn’t offer him anything close to what he ended up getting with the Phillies. Instead the Mets signed … nobody from the class.
In 1979, the Mets were once again lousy, with a 63-99 record. At least the farm system was contributing something, as Neil Allen, Jeff Reardon and Mike Scott all made their debuts. But here was a team screaming out for offense. Available free agent hitters included Joe Morgan, Tony Perez and Bob Watson. Sure, all of these guys were older than you would have preferred but they would have been nice upgrades from the hopeless Doug Flynn and the barely better Willie Montanez that held down their positions for the Mets in ’79. But once again the Mets avoided the high end of the free agent market, singing just Rob Andrews, who never played a game in either the majors or minors for the Mets.
Stop me if you heard this before but the 1980 Mets were once again lousy, posting a 67-95 record. Still needing desperately to add offense, this year’s free agent class included Ron LeFlore, Darrell Porter and Dave Winfield. The Mets made their biggest splash into free agency yet, signing Mike Cubbage, Dave Roberts and Rusty Staub. Cubbage totaled all of 90 PA for the Mets but that looked bold compared to the 15.1 innings that Roberts gave the club. Staub did well, putting up a 147 OPS+, albeit in only 186 PA.
In the first five years of free agency, the biggest signings by the Mets were an injury-reclamation project in Maddox and a part-time player in Staub. Their combined record in those five years was 301-450 (.401). They were refusing to be players in the free agent market, their drafting was nothing to get excited about and their trades didn’t move the needle any, either.
In 1980, the Mets got new ownership and they started to draft better and actively looked to make big trades. But they still weren’t major players in the free agent market. It wasn’t until signing Vince Coleman in 1991 that they signed a significant free agent. Coleman didn’t work out but the Mets did end up with some short-term wins with name free agents throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. But it wasn’t until signing Carlos Beltran that the Mets hit it big with a free agent. For a process that began in 1976, it sure took awhile for Beltran and 2005 to arrive.
Free agency is far from a guaranteed thing and everyone can point to multiple signings throughout the years that blew up on the acquiring team. But if you’re going to ignore free agency completely, you better hit it big with your draft picks and your trades. The Mets of the mid 1980s showed how that could work. Unfortunately, the Mets of the late 70s-early 80s showed what happened when you essentially ignored all three paths to success.