By Mike Steffanos
It was somewhat of a surprise when the Mets released Alay Soler a couple of days ago. Not that Soler was pitching all that well, but given the numbers game the club was playing with the pitching staff I thought Soler would at least spend the year in New Orleans. The Mets saved a few bucks by releasing him, but there still has to be more to it than just money. In any case, Soler is yet another of the major personnel moves made during the brief Jim Duquette era that didn't quite work out.
When Steve Phillips was handed his walking papers in June of 2003, Duquette was made the acting GM and given the responsibility of ridding the franchise of Roberto Alomar and Jeromy Burnitz with the idea of receiving something of value in return.
Alomar, who still had some value, was traded to the White Sox for Edwin Almonte, Royce Ring, and Andrew Salvo. Both Salvo and Almonte moved on after that season and Ring, who was at one time considered to be a potential major league closer, was traded away this winter to the Padres. Considered the major piece of the deal for the Mets, Ring was a disappointment from day one. His velocity was down quite a bit from his college heyday and his control was always a problem.
Burnitz was dealt to the Dodgers for Victor Diaz, Joselo Diaz, and Kole Strayhorn. For a while it seemed that Diaz' bat would offset his defensive liabilities, but the Mets finally grew frustrated with Victor's attitude and lack of self-motivation and sent him off to the Texas Rangers for a catching prospect. Strayhorn, a hard-throwing reliever prospect, suffered from injuries and is no longer in the Mets system. The other Diaz was included in the Kazmir deal the following year.
After the season Jim Duquette was made the GM in a strange top-heavy hierarchy that also featured personnel input from "super scouts" and various other shady characters. While it's hard to know exactly who to blame for various decisions made, as ringmaster of the circus the buck has to stop with Duquette. The first major decisions of the new regime were the free agent signings of Kazuo Matsui, Mike Cameron, Braden Looper, Karim Garcia, Shane Spencer, Todd Zeile. Former Yankees Garcia and Spencer had their moments but couldn't survive the season, and Zeile retired at the end of 2004. Matsui may have been one of the biggest free agent busts of all time, while Cameron struggled through injury and some inconsistent play before winning the fans over in 2005. Looper's purpose was to be a relatively low-budget closer, and the Mets got what they paid for, especially in 2004 when Looper performed fairly well.
The Mets were operating somewhat on the cheap during Duquette's tenure, so you can't compare this off-season to the following year when Omar Minaya signed Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran. The one glaring mistake was giving so much money to Kaz Matsui. In fairness, the Mets weren't the only club to rate Matsui so highly. The big problem was that the Mets saw fit to spend a lot of that winter hyping Matsui as the second coming of Ichiro, and created a high level of expectation. In hindsight, it would have been better to tone it down and allow Matsui to adjust to America and American baseball with a little less pressure.
Only Matsui, Cameron and Looper survived that first year. Matsui had some moments, but never earned a fraction of the money he was paid. Cameron took an unfair beating on sports talk radio for struggles in 2004 related to playing with an injured wrist. He became a fan favorite in 2005, and most fans were sorry to see him got the following winter in the Nady deal. Braden Looper was about as good as he could have been expected to be, but suffered some spectacular meltdown losses -- particularly in 2005 when he was pitching with a bad shoulder.
Matsui was the last of the Duquette era free agents to leave town, with the Mets basically paying Colorado to take him off their hands last summer when Jose Valentin's fine play at second finally made Kaz irretrievably irrelevant.
No discussion of Jim Duquette's tenure would be complete without mention of the deadline deals that ultimately sealed his fate. Again, there is little doubt that others in the Mets bloated hierarchy pushed for the trades, but in the end Duquette signed off on them. After trading Aussie C/1B prospect Justin Huber to the Royals for Jose Bautista, Duquette packaged Bautista, Ty Wiggington and pitching prospect Matt Peterson to the Pirates for Kris Benson and Jeff Keppinger. Next he shocked the baseball world by trading uberprospect Scott Kazmir to the D-Rays for Victor Zambrano. Ostensibly, these moves were made because the Mets were in a pennant race, but it was obvious to even the die-hard fans that the team was falling out of the race before the deal was done.
In hindsight, the Mets didn't give up all that much for Benson, but he didn't really endear himself to Mets fans, either. As for Zambrano, his travails have been well documented. With the Mets' decision not to re-sign Victor, combined with the release of Soler, it seems that the page has been almost fully turned on Duquettes short time at the helm. The Duke has moved on to another oddly crowded front office in Baltimore. His decision to acquire Kris Benson a second time seems to have backfired again. With Zambrano now pitching for Toronto and Scott Kazmir in Tampa Bay, Duquette's Orioles will see a lot of the pitchers who were instrumental in sealing his fate. Benson will spend at least a year on the sidelines recovering from rotator cuff surgery.
In retrospect, the situation that Jim Duquette found himself in with the Mets was your prototypical no-win deal. Running a ballclub by committee is not a blueprint for success. There also seemed to be a bit of a dark cloud following Duquette around during his tenure in New York. Even Duquette's first round pick Phil Humber, who looks like he could turn out to be a good one, needed Tommy John surgery after only a couple of months into his pro career. Things always seemed to find a way to go as bad as they possibly could. If Zambrano hadn't been damaged goods the deal wouldn't have looked quite so bad. But it was a bad deal nonetheless, and it was, in the end, Duquette who signed off on it. He seems like a decent man, but I'm glad he's in Baltimore and not here.