Inarguably, the worst trade in New York Mets history grew out of the Amazin’s need for more offense out of their third baseman and their ability to trade from the strength of surplus young starting pitching. It was the winter of 1971. Then General Manager Bob Scheffing surveyed the trade market and set his sights on Angels All-Star Shortstop, Jim Fregosi. The Mets already had an All-Star Shortstop in Bud Harrelson, so moving Fregosi to third, the theory went, would save the then 29 year old’s body the wear and tear of the regular season and result in a boost in his production at the hot corner. Scheffing ignored the decline in offense in Fregosi’s 1971 season, attributing it to an injury plagued year from which Fregosi would certainly bounce back.
He didn’t, of course. In two injury shortened seasons for the Mets, he produced very little and eventually lost the third base job to Wayne Garrett – whose most famous contribution in Mets lore was that his relay throw to Ron Hodges nailed Richie Zisk at home plate in the Ball-off-the-Wall Miracle in the closing days of the 1973 season. (Bonus trivia points if you know the name of the Left Fielder who caught the ball and threw it to Garrett.)
Fregosi was awful for the Mets. In two injury riddled seasons he hit a total of five home runs. He batted .233 and his OPS was under .675 – bad even for a league dominated by great pitchers. Much of his lack of production went unnoticed in the early part of the 1972 season. The Mets got off to a blistering start: they were 25-7 on May 21 and 30-11 on June 1. Then injuries started piling up (including Fregosi’s broken thumb) and the team finished third with an 83-73 record – a strike shortened 156 game schedule.
Nolan Ryan, on the other hand, blossomed overnight into – well – the one of the best pitchers in the American League. In 1972 in 39 starts he recorded a 19-16 record over 284 innings with a 2.28 ERA and 329 strikeouts. For the first time in his career, he received Cy Young consideration. He walked too many batters, 157, but his nine shutouts led the AL.
Scheffing could hardly be blamed at the time. The Mets had Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and a can’t miss prospect in left hander, Jon Matlack. (Matlack won the 1972 Rookie of the Year.) They also had Jim McAndrew as their fifth starter/swingman and righty Gary Gentry as either their three or four – depending upon how long Matlack took to mature. Gentry pitched well enough in 1971 to warrant confidence that he would slot nicely into this Mets rotation. He threw 200+ innings with an ERA of 3.23. Not to be forgotten were his heroics in the 1969 World Series where he took a shutout into the seventh inning before tiring and leaving the bases loaded with no outs. The win was preserved by none other than . . . Nolan Ryan (and Tommie Agee’s second great catch of the game).
So, when the Mets called on the Angels to inquire about Fregosi, it wasn’t without rational basis. Scheffing fully believed the Mets could get back to the playoffs and, with their pitching, make another run at a title. The Mets finished the 1971 season with an 83-79 record, but the rest of the NL East looked weak – only the Pirates had a good enough lineup, but their pitching was suspect. The Phillies were awful and the Cubs were rapidly aging. The Cardinals hadn’t been very good since their last World Series run in 1968. With just a little more offense, the Mets hoped, they could squeeze out another dozen wins and be the class of the division. In the Western Division, the Big Red Machine looked formidable as a lineup – but they didn’t have the pitching staff. The rest of the West was either too old (like the Giants and Braves), too young (like the Dodgers) or terrible (like the Padres). The Mets felt good about their squad and they were looking for just a little more run production to put them over the top. Fregosi looked like a decent part of the answer.
At the time of the trade for Fregosi, the Mets had not yet landed what was the biggest part of their offensive overhaul that off-season. That wouldn’t happen until late Spring Training – when the Mets traded for Rusty Staub and in exchange dealt Tim Foli, Ken Singleton and Mike Jorgenson to the Montreal Expos. 1972 was shaping up to be their year.
Here’s what would have made 1972 (and their World Series run in 1973) even more spectacular. When the Mets asked the Angels about Fregosi, the Angels said they wanted starting pitching. Their first choice:
The Mets said no, and the Angels “settled” for future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan.
All Scheffing had to do was say, “yes,” to Gentry and we would have had Seaver, Koosman, Matlack and Nolan Ryan as a staring four from at least 1972-1976.
(Bonus trivia answer: Cleon Jones).