By Mike Steffanos
In the 1983 season, the Mets finished last in the National League east with a 68-94 record. It was the seventh consecutive brutal season in Queens. Fans and local sportswriters were calling for the head of GM Frank Cashen, who was hired in 1980 by the Mets new ownership with a mandate to turn things around. The Mets had trotted out a new slogan for that 1980 season -- "The Magic is Back." That was good for snickers around the league, but had little basis in reality.
What the fans and columnists didn't see heading into the 1984 season was the quality young pitching that was about to emerge for the Mets. There was Doc Gooden, 19 years old and already so good that Davey Johnson was pushing Cashen to let him pitch for the major-league club. There was 23-year-old former Yalie Ron Darling, who had been acquired by Cashen in 1982 along with another solid young pitcher named Walt Terrell, who had already established himself in the Mets rotation. There was also 21-year-old Sid Fernandez, stolen from the Dodgers for a reliever and a utility player. That silly slogan would actually start to mean something once these young pitchers started plying their trade at the major-league level, and that happened for the first time in 1984.
Johnson won the argument to promote Gooden, and the 19-year-old became the ace of the staff with 17 wins, a 2.60 ERA and an astounding 276 strikeouts with only 73 walks in 218 innings. Darling was not as impressive with his control -- as he often jokingly refers to during telecasts -- walking 104 batters in 205 innings. Still, he pitched to a decent 3.81 ERA and had a 12-9 record. The 21-year-old Fernandez came up to make 15 starts for the club that year and displayed the gifts that would make him a 16-game winner two years later during the magical 1986 championship season.
Behind their emerging young arms, the Mets virtually turned their record upside down, going 90-72 and staying in the pennant race until the end of the season. Equally as important, they laid the groundwork with their young pitching that would carry them through what was truly the golden era of the franchise.
Twenty-two years later, the Mets are in a much different place than they were heading into that season. That team had zero expectations to live up to, this one has nothing but expectations. The one interesting parallel to me in the confluence of intriguing young pitching that has come together, seemingly from nowhere. Mike Pelfrey has proven that he has what it takes to be a top-notch major-league pitcher, if not quite yet than certainly soon. John Maine has threatened to shrug off the label of "throw-in" and reclaim the mantle of genuine prospect. Brian Bannister is rehabbing and hoping to get another chance to force his way back into the Mets thinking. Phil Humber has bounced back from last year's Tommy John surgery and has certainly inserted himself back into the picture for next year. Henry Owens and Matt Lindstrom are intriguing relief prospects, both bringing blazing heat as their chief weapons.
Despite having a reputation as an organization that develops pitching, the team's record in the intervening years since the class of 1984 showed their stuff has been far from impressive. They've had some bad luck (Generation K), but they've also made a lot of bad draft picks and dealt away most of their promising arms (another K word). Thanks to a couple of good draft picks and a smart deal, all of a sudden the Mets have the look of an organization that develops pitching again.
I don't pretend there is an "all-time great" caliber of pitcher in this group to equate with Gooden, but Pelfrey seems to have top-of-the-rotation potential, and Maine is looking less and less like the five starter/middle relief guy that pundits had labeled him and more like a potentially solid mid-rotation starter. I still hope to see Bannister have a chance to relax and show what could do, and Humber is pitching like the kid who wowed everyone in spring training of 2005.
This team doesn't have the luxury of no expectations where they can just throw everyone out there and let them learn on the job, but they do have veterans like Glavine and Pedro who seem to genuinely enjoy helping young pitchers. They have a pitching coach who, despite his odd quirks, has an excellent track record in developing young pitching. Therefore, while many are putting together their trade deadline shopping list, I'm more interested in seeing what can come out of what we already have. Maybe rather than just trying to win a single championship we can position ourselves to compete for years to come.
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