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Key New York Mets Free Agents and Trades (1996-2000)

Mike SteffanosThursday, November 3, 2005
By Mike Steffanos

We continue our look back at important free agent signings and trades from the last 15 years with the 5 year period from 1996-2000. Once again, the information I used to compile this was primarily obtained from the Retrosheet web site. Please note that this is not a comprehensive list, but rather a highlight of the more important trades and signings.

Today we will cover the years from 1996-2000.

GM: Joe McIlvaine
1996 Record: 71-91 (4th Place)

Free Agents: Lance Johnson

Off-season Trades:
Jan. 22, 1996 -- Traded Erik Hiljus, Eric Ludwick, and Yudith Orozio to the Cardinals for Bernard Gilkey.

In-season Trades:
July 29, 1996 -- Traded Jeff Kent and Jose Vizcaino to the Indians for Carlos Baerga and Alvaro Espinoza.

The 1996 season featured all 3 members of "Generation K" -- Bill Pulsipher, Jason Isringhausen and Paul Wilson -- pitching in New York. Unfortunately, all 3 would go down with season-ending arm injuries. Isringhausen would only pitch 69 innings for the Mets in the next 3 years. Pulsipher, who had looked good as a 21 year old in '95, got hurt before the season started and didn't pitch again in New York until 1998. Wilson, who never pitched for the Mets again, didn't throw another pitch in the majors until 2000 with the Devil Rays.

This bad luck was significant for the future, because the team really turned away from their farm system as a source of talent after 1996. Steve Phillips, who would take over as GM in 1997, said that all prospects did was get you fired. (Yeah, that and Mo Vaughn, buddy...)

Two other significant happenings in 1996 was Bobby Valentine replacing Dallas Green as manager in August and Todd Hundley having his breakout year with 41 HRs and 112 RBIs.

Lance Johnson, the lone significant free agent, was a solid major league outfielder who gave the Mets both a dependable CF and lead-off hitter. He made the All-star team in 1996, his only full year with the Mets. He held the Mets record with 682 ABs until Jose Reyes broke it this year, stole 50 bases, batted .333 and scored 117 runs.

The 29 year old Bernard Gilkey had a great first year with the Mets, batting .317 with 30 HRs and 117 RBIs, numbers that were far superior to anything he did before or after 1996. None of the players the Mets gave up had any significant career.

The Kent trade ranks as one of the true stinkers in Mets history. The overweight Baerga was a shadow of the all-star he had been with the Indians, and it would probably have been a bad trade if the Mets had only given up the versatile Vizcaino. Kent went on to become the best offensive second baseman in baseball. Joe McIlvaine's days as GM were numbered.

GM: Joe McIlvaine, Steve Phillips (July '97)
1997 Record: 88-74 (3rd Place)

Free Agents: Todd Pratt, Brian Bohanon

Off-season Trades:
Dec. 20, 1996 -- Traded Robert Person to the Blue Jays for John Olerud and cash.

In-season Trades:
July 29, 1996 -- Traded Lance Johnson and 2 players to be named later to the Cubs for Brian McRae, Mel Rojas, and Turk Wendell.

In 1997 under Bobby V., the Mets had their first winning season since 1990, challenging for the wildcard before falling short. In July, Steve Phillips took over as the team's GM. There were no big name free agent signings. I guess I'm stretching it to identify Todd Pratt as a key free agent pickup, but he did have some important moments for the Mets. Brian Bohanon gave the Mets a decent year in 14 starts.

The Olerud pickup was one of the best Met trades of the decade, as he gave the Mets a true number 3 hitter for the lineup and a gold glove caliber 1B. Meanwhile Person was never more than just a bottom of the rotation starter. The Lance Johnson trade was a decent one for the Mets. Johnson was 33 and on the decline, both McRae and Rojas were serviceable as Mets and Wendell became a mainstay of the bullpen and fan favorite in New York.

GM: Steve Phillips
1998 Record: 88-74 (2nd Place)

Free Agents: Masato Yoshii

Off-season Trades:
Dec. 22, 1997 -- Traded Carl Everett to the Astros for pitcher John Hudek.

Feb. 6, 1998 -- Traded A.J. Burnett, Jesus Sanchez, and Robert Stratton to the Marlins for Al Leiter and Ralph Milliard.

In-season Trades:
May 22, 1998 -- Traded Preston Wilson, Ed Yarnall, and Geoff Goetz to the Marlins for Mike Piazza.

June 4, 1998 -- Traded Greg McMichael and Dave Mlicki to the Dodgers for Brad Clontz and Hideo Nomo.

July 3, 1998 -- Traded John Hudek to the Reds for Lenny Harris.

July 31, 1998 -- Traded Nelson Figueroa and Bernard Gilkey to the Diamondbacks for Willie Blair and Jorge Fabregas.

Steve Phillips, in his first full season as GM, began to show what would be a maddening pattern of incessant trades -- often picking up a player just to deal him again in a short period of time. Meanwhile, the team suffered a huge loss as Hundley was out after elbow surgery. The only impact free agent signing was Japanese pitcher Masato Yoshii. The 33 year old Yoshii gave the Mets 2 solid, unspectacular years as a starter. In 1999 he won 12 games for the Mets.

There were so many trades in Steve Phillips' first full season as GM that we only touch on some of the bigger ones. Carl Everett for Hudek was a bad one, as Everett blossomed with the Astros while Hudek wound up traded again for pinch hitting specialist Lenny Harris. Getting Al Leiter in return for A.J. Burnett gave the Mets a big game pitcher they needed in return for a top pitching prospect that became a very good major league starter. You can debate that one, especially now that Leiter is persona non grata to many Met fans, but this was really one of those trades that helped both teams.

The Piazza trade, of course, was the move that legitimized the Mets. Wilson was a steep price, putting up impressive numbers in Florida and then Colorado, but Piazza became the franchise-caliber player the Mets had lacked since Strawberry left. Hideo Nomo was pretty bad for the Mets. McMichael had the distinction of being traded and then reacquired by Steve Phillips a month later. The Gilkey trade featured a player who was 2 years removed from a remarkable season being moved for virtually nothing, in one of those "wonderful" Steve Phillips headshakers.

The team itself struggled early in 1998, but then put it together and contended for the wildcard. It was actually within their grasp until they faltered at the end -- losing their last 5 and finishing a maddening single game out of the playoffs.

GM: Steve Phillips
1999 Record: 97-66 (2nd Place -- Wildcard)

Free Agents: Robin Ventura, Rickey Henderson, Orel Hershiser

Off-season Trades:
Nov. 11, 1998 -- Traded Mel Rojas to the Dodgers for Bobby Bonilla.

Dec. 1, 1998 -- Traded Todd Hundley and Arnold Gooch to the Dodgers for Roger Cedeno and Charles Johnson.
Traded Charles Johnson to the Orioles for Armando Benitez.

In-season Trades:
July 23, 1999 -- Traded Terrence Long and Leo Vasquez to the Oakland As for Kenny Rogers.

July 31, 1999 -- Traded Rigo Beltran, Brian McRae, and Thomas Johnson to the Rockies for Darryl Hamilton and Chuck McElroy.
Traded Jason Isringhausen and Greg McMichael to the Oakland As for Billy Taylor.
Traded Craig Paquette to the Cardinals for Shawon Dunston.

Even a Met fan that holds Steve Phillips in as low regard as I do has to give him credit for signing these 3 free agents. Ventura gave them his last big offensive season with .301/32 HR/120 RBI, and played a great 3B. Henderson batted .315, stole 37 bases and scored 89 runs in 120 games with the Mets. Hershiser wasn't great, but gave the Mets some big moments and 13 wins.

The trades were a mixed bag. Rojas and Bonilla both gave their teams little. Cedeno gave the Mets a huge year as he thrived under Ricky Henderson's tutelage, while Todd Hundley struggled for the Dodgers. Benitez gave the Mets a solid year as he replaced John Franco as closer (little did we know). Terrence Long had some solid years for Oakland while "The Gambler" gave the Mets a 5-1 regular season followed by 3 playoff losses. Brian McRae was at the tail end of his career as was Darryl Hamilton, but Hamilton gave the Mets more. Taylor was a bust with the Mets while Isringhausen went on to become a very good closer. Dunston helped the Mets down the stretch while Paquette was a solid player for several more years.

The Mets once again got off to a slow start for the 1999 season. Then they put it together and actually battled the Braves for the division title. Unfortunately, they were swept in Atlanta, went on a 7 game losing streak and looked like they were on their way to consecutive September chokes. They were 2 games behind with 3 to go, but miraculously forced a 1 game playoff against the Reds that they won -- making the playoffs for the first time in over a decade.

In the playoffs, the Mets defeated the favored Arizona Diamondbacks 3 games to 1 on Todd Pratt's walkoff homer in game 4, and went on to face the Braves in the NLCS. They quickly spotted Atlanta a 3 games to none lead, but battled to win the next 2 before falling in 6.

GM: Steve Phillips
2000 Record: 94-68 (2nd Place -- Wildcard)

Free Agents: Todd Zeile

Off-season Trades:
Dec. 23, 1999 -- Traded Roger Cedeno, Octavio Dotel, and Kyle Kessel to the Astros for Derek Bell and Mike Hampton.

March 18, 2000 -- Traded Jesse Orosco to the Cardinals for Joe McEwing.

In-season Trades:
June 2, 2000 -- Traded Bill Pulsipher to the Diamondbacks for Lenny Harris.

July 28, 2000 -- Traded Lesli Brea, Mike Kinkade, Melvin Mora, and Pat Gorman to the Orioles for Mike Bordick.
Traded Jason Tyner and Paul Wilson to the Devil Rays for Bubba Trammell and Rick White.

The 2000 Mets again made the playoffs as a wildcard. They beat the Giants and Barry Bonds in the divisional series clinched by Bobby Jones' remarkable one-hitter. They easily defeated St. Louis for the National League pennant with Mike Hampton pitching 2 shutouts and winning MVP. They had the lead against the Yankees in game 1 of the World Series before Armando Benitez let it slip away; they went on to lose the series in 5 games.

The lone name free agent, Todd Zeile, was signed to replace the departed John Olerud at 1B, and the 34 year old gave the Mets a solid season. The trade for Mike Hampton gave the Mets a second front-line pitcher to team with Al Leiter, while Derek Bell was nothing more than a solid RF. At the time Cedeno was still a top player, but had a mediocre year for the Astros. Dotel struggled his first year in Houston, and then became one of the best setup men in the game. This would have been a better trade if Hampton had stayed with the Mets, although he did warn them in advance that he wouldn't resign with them. Citing the New York School System's problems Hampton left for Colorado after the season, but the compensatory draft pick the Mets received was used to draft David Wright in 2001.

Orosco was about 100 years old at the time of the trade. He had last pitched for the Mets in 1987. Phillips acquired him in the off-season and moved him for Super Joe McEwing in Spring Training. Bill Pulsipher for Lenny Harris was notable for being the second member of "Generation K" to move on, less than a year after Isringhausen. When Paul Wilson was traded a month-and-a-half later all 3 were gone.

The Mets traded for Bordick out of necessity, after losing SS Rey Ordonez to injury. At the time, no one anticipated Melvin Mora becoming the star that he became for the Orioles. Indeed, he batted .250 and .233 in his first two full seasons with Baltimore; his breakout year didn't come until 2003. Bottom line, though, was that this proved a bad trade for the Mets, who rented Bordick for 56 games before he resigned as a free agent with Baltimore the next year, while Mora developed into an all-star with the Orioles.

As the Mets began the new millennium they were coming off 2 consecutive playoff runs and a pennant. After several dreadful years in the '90s things were looking up. Somehow, though, I never developed a warm feeling of security watching Steve Phillips operate as GM. He seemed to me almost addicted to making trades, as players moved through at blinding speed. Meanwhile the farm system seemed full of speedy outfielders that couldn't hit, and basically there was no real stability or identifiable plan to my eyes. After watching how quickly Frank Cashen dismantled the successful mid '80s Mets, I wondered if I had a front row seat to watch Steve Phillips do the same. Even I, as skeptical as I felt, could little guess the speed at which things would come crashing down.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
George Santayana, The Life of Reason

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