It was this week in the year 1999 that the New York Mets executed a trade that gave them two of the final pieces of their pennant-winning 2000 squad: acquiring NL Cy Young Award runner-up Mike Hampton and outfielder Derek Bell from the Houston Astros for Roger Cedeno, Octavio Dotel and minor league pitcher Kyle Kessel.
This is a trade that gets brought up from time-to-time in Mets lore, talking about how it helped facilitate the infamous Bobby Bonilla buyout and Hampton’s free agency departure after 2000 landing the team the draft pick used to select David Wright. But it is without a doubt one of the most consequential trades in team history.
Rather than looking at the impact of that trade on the 2000 Mets or the consequences down the road, the scope of which probably deserves its own article, let’s simply look at the mechanics of how the trade came to be and who the team sent to Houston to complete the momentous deal.
How It Happened
Typically acquiring an ace pitcher and a starting outfielder who in his best days was a 40-double, 20-homer guy is not the kind of trade that happens as a backup play, but this trade is the exception to that. After the 1999 season, Mets GM Steve Phillips was looking to gear up for another run in 2000 and wanted to bring in a superstar.
At the Winter Meetings in Anaheim that December, Phillips and Seattle Mariners GM Pat Gillick agreed to a trade that would send future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey, Jr. to the Mets for a package of Dennis Cook, Roger Cedeno and Octavio Dotel. However, since Griffey had his 10-and-5 rights, he was allowed to veto the trade, which he did – saying he only wanted to be traded to the Cincinnati Reds or stay in Seattle.
Other than being a trade that would have rocked the baseball world and could have changed the course of the early 2000s for the Mets, the deal would have gone down as one of the biggest heists in baseball history if Griffey performed close to his .271/.387/.556 mark in New York.
Once that deal was firmly off the table, Phillips turned his eyes elsewhere. The Houston Astros were looking to re-tool after a successful run in the late 1990s as one of the best teams in baseball, and wanted to shed the last year of Hampton’s contract ($5.75 million) and ditch Bell while they were at it.
Hampton was coming off of a 22-4 record with a career-best 2.90 ERA, which was good for a 155 ERA+ in the height of the Steroid Era. He finished second to Randy Johnson in the Cy Young Award voting. Meanwhile, Bell had hit .314/.364/.490 in 1998, but slipped to .236/.306/.350 in 1999, and was due to make $5 million in the final year of his contract.
Worse yet, after Manager Larry Dierker returned from a stroke suffered mid-season, Bell complained about being dropped in the lineup from second to sixth. The optics were bad, and his play on the field justified the move. Bell was an eccentric, which is great when things are good, and not tolerated when you’re not performing.
The Astros were trying hard to move Bell, and with Moises Alou returning from an ACL injury that had him miss all of 1999, and youngsters Richard Hidalgo and Lance Berkman ready to take on bigger roles, it made sense from a baseball perspective as well. When the Mets came calling for Hampton, the Astros urged them to take on Bell as well, who the Mets saw as a potential reclamation project entering his age 31 season.
What Was Given Up
This trade is very much a product of its time. Cedeno in particular had a career year in ’99, batting .313/.396/.408 (107 OPS+) with a then team record 66 stolen bases. He played mostly right field, displacing the underperforming Bonilla. In an era where a .313 batting average and 66 steals would be valued over a complete lack of power hitting, mediocre at best defense and a batted ball profile that would raise red flags now, Cedeno was a hot commodity.
Cedeno was just ok in 74 games with Houston in 2000, batting .282/.383/.398 (93 OPS+) while dealing with a broken wrist in May before being traded in a six player swap to Detroit in December. He eventually returned to the Mets for two disappointing seasons in 2002 and 2003, and was out of baseball by 2007.
Dotel was a decent young prospect, who sputtered as a starting pitcher, posting a 5.38 ERA (83 ERA+) in 19 games (14 starts) in 1999. About to enter his age 26 season and with a good fastball, it was understandable why a more patient team was willing to take him on. He went on to have a 15-year career pitching for 13 teams, and at his peak was one of the best relievers in baseball. He made 16 starts with Houston in 2000, and moved to the bullpen where he recorded 16 saves after taking over as the closer for the injured Billy Wagner.
Kessel was a 23-year-old lefty starting pitcher who was limited to 11 games in the minor leagues in 1999, and had not pitched above High-A St. Lucie. A 60th round pick of the Mets in 1994, Kessel also played basketball at Texas A&M for two years while pitching in rookie ball. He turned to baseball full-time in 1997 and turned himself into a prospect with a strong performance with the Capital City Bombers.
A lottery ticket thrown in the deal, he posted a 4.10 ERA in 26 games between High-A and Double-A in the Astros system in 2000, appeared in 16 games to the tune of a 7.90 ERA in Triple-A in 2001 and eventually returned to the Mets that year. He was traded to the Tigers in December ’01 as the player to be named later in the C.J. Nitkowski deal and then released prior to the 2002 season. He appeared in 10 games for the Long Island Ducks and a Road Warriors team in the Atlantic League in 2002 before retiring.
Ultimately, it is hard to see this trade as anything but a win for the Mets in the short- or long-term, despite the success of Dotel. While putting Griffey in center for the 2000 Mets could have made that team a juggernaut capable of ending the Yankees dynasty, things still turned out well for the team’s early millennium holiday present to fans.