Just like us regular folk, Major League Baseball teams look towards the winter months for something special. The only difference is your mother would be happy with a $50 sweater and the Red Sox spent $20.3 million a year for Carl Crawford.
Now it’s common knowledge the New York Mets don’t have much financial flexibility for 2011. Despite some claims of owner Fred Wilpon being “cheap,” the team payroll is expected to be around $140 million – greater than last year. That leaves less than $10 million to obtain a starting pitcher, lefty reliever, second baseman and fourth outfielder.
Sure some of those moves could be made internally or via trade, the Mets are in this predicament in part due to former General Manager Omar Minaya’s generous 3-year/$36 million deal to Oliver Perez. But how does Perez’ $12 million debacle stack up against some of the Mets other worst moves: Luis Castillo signing, Scott Kazmir trade or Tom Seaver trade?
Perez came over to New York in a trade from Pittsburgh in 2006. Then a 25-year-old hard tossing lefty with a history of unrefined talent, Perez succeeded early with the Mets. During the 2007 and 2008 seasons, he finished 25-17 with a 3.90 ERA, nearly 2:1 strikeout to walk ratio and WHIP under 1.500 in 371 innings.
When the Mets needed to sign a starting pitcher in February 2009, the choice was between the lefty in his prime with signs of promise or Derek Lowe – an established righty with a lower ceiling and fewer years left. The Mets signed Perez for $36 million while Lowe went to the Braves for $60 million over four years.
That deal ended up an epic mistake as Perez sank to unheralded lows. He pitched just 66 innings in 2009 with a 6.82 ERA and 1.924 WHIP and was relegated to mop-up duty in 2010 after he pitched to a 6.80 ERA and 0.8:1 strikeout ratio through 46.1 innings. Lowe turned out to be overpaid as well, but has been an innings eater with a mid-4 ERA and nearly 200 innings each of the last two seasons.
Castillo joined the Mets via trade in July 2007 when the team was in contention for the division. New York packaged catcher Drew Butera and minor league outfielder Dustin Martin to the Minnesota Twins for Castillo; neither has had more than a cup of coffee with a major league club. The trade worked out well as Castillo hit .296 and scored 37 runs in 199 plate appearances.
Minaya signed him to a 4-year/$25 million deal that November, which immediately went south. The soft-hitting infielder hit just .245, scored 46 runs and stole 17 bases in 298 PA, hampered by ongoing injuries. The younger Castillo returned in 2009 with a .302 average, 77 runs and 22 stolen bases through 486 at-bats, although old Castillo came back in 2010. He finished last season with a paltry .235 average in 247 ABs, scoring just 28 runs and stealing 8 bases.
His fielding percentage has never dipped below .982 in his tenure with the Mets, but his range is obviously worse than 2007. His range factor (putouts and assists per nine innings) was near or above 5 during his tenure with the Marlins; it dropped to 4.63 in 2006 with Minnesota, mid 4’s in 2007 and 2008, 4.79 in 2009 and 4.03 in 2010. But errors were apparent even in 2009, when he dropped a pop fly in the ninth inning against the Yankees to give away a win.
Kazmir, a two-sport star in high school, was drafted by the Mets in 2002. He boasted a great fastball in the mid-90s, a hard-breaking 10-4 curve, a mediocre changeup and an 11-5 slider that needed to be slowed down. Long considered the team’s best prospect and a future ace, former General Manager Jim Duquette traded Kazmir and forgettable reliever Jose Diaz to Tampa Bay for starter Victor Zambrano and reliever Bartolome Fortunato.
Kazmir broke into the majors in 2004 as a 20-year-old. He looked good his first four full seasons with each ERA never higher than 3.77, a strikeout to walk ratio well above 2 in all but 2005 and at least 144 innings in each season. The wheels started to fall off in 2009, when he started the season with elbow injuries. Later dealing with a leg strain, Kazmir sported a 5.92 ERA in 111 innings before being traded to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. He finished that season very strong in 36.1 innings, but sported a 5.94 ERA in 150 innings with a strike to walk ratio barely over 1. He continues to suffer from various strains, ailments and fatigue, but will make $12 million in 2011 and $13.5 million in 2012.
The other major cog in the deal, Zambrano looked mediocre as a major league starter in his first three-and-a-half years with Tampa, sporting a 4.47 ERA. He looked solid in 2005, his first full season as a Met, earning a 4.17 ERA and 1.48 WHIP in 166 innings. Unfortunately, 2006 brought a 6.75 ERA and near 1.70 WHIP in 27.1 innings, earning Zambrano his free agency. He signed with Toronto and Baltimore in 2007, but exploded quickly and was out of the league before the season ended. The starter was paid $5.1 million from New York for 2005 and 2006.
One of the most infamous moves in Met history is known as “the Midnight Massacre” – when Hall of Fame starting pitcher Tom Seaver was traded to Cincinnati in 1977. Seaver broke into the league in 1967 and immediately was a star. He pitched to a 2.76 ERA in 251 innings that season. Seaver never sported an ERA above 2.82 in his first 10 full seasons with New York and always through more than 200 innings.
His ERA was around 3.00 come mid-season in 1977 when Seaver approached Board Chairman M. Donald Grant for a raise. Grant was reluctant to buy into the new free agency trend, but an unfounded story by Daily News columnist Dick Young claiming that Seaver’s wife wanted a raise because she was jealous of Nolan Ryan’s wife caused the star to break off all negotiations and demand a trade.
He was shipped off to the Reds for infielder Doug Flynn, outfielder Steve Henderson, outfielder Dan Norman and starter Pat Zachry. While all four went on to have major league careers, everyone but Norman lasted more than 10 seasons, Seaver was a solid pitcher for the Reds. He racked up a combined 3.34 ERA in five seasons, although his WHIP was always over 1.
Seaver returned to the Mets in 1983, clearly no longer an ace, finishing with a 3.55 ERA in 231 innings. The righty stayed in major league baseball for three more years, putting up middle-of-the-order numbers for Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox. He pitched for Mets Triple-A affiliate Tidewater Tides in 1987 despite never signing a deal, but left after getting rocked in three outings. The new Chicago White Sox took him in the 1984 free agent compensation draft. He finished his career in Chicago and Boston, earning $2.3 million in 1984-1985.
Nicknamed “The Franchise,” Seaver was a 12-time All-Star and three time Cy Young winner who retired with 311 wins. His number, 41, was retired by the Mets 1988.
None of these moves ended favorably for New York, but one stands out as a worst than the others at the time – the Kazmir trade. In both the Perez and Castillo deals, the players put up solid numbers with the ball club for at least half a season before accepting their excessive free agent signings. With the Seaver trade, an external agent in Young added an unsolvable wrinkle to an ongoing dilemma. The move also introduced major league talent to New York, even if it wasn’t the caliber of their former ace.
Duquette’s trade, however, was the worst of both worlds. He traded away a top pitching prospect for a pitcher who would be out of baseball in less than three years with the Mets. Kazmir displayed potential to be a franchise legend who could be cheap and under contract of years, while Zambrano looked to be an average pitcher poised to break the $1 million mark. Despite the fact that Kazmir has turned into an expensive injury risk in the majors, Duquette should have netted a better quality pitcher with that one trade chip.