Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The Year of Pedro

The transition between 2004 and 2005 was a consequential time for the New York Mets. GM Steve Phillips departed in 2003, and his replacement Jim Duquette never seemed more than a placeholder. Omar Minaya was handed the keys after 2004 thudded to an end and brought some energy and a sense of optimism with his arrival.

Still, most, including myself, thought Minaya was brought on to oversee a slow rebuild, restocking what had become a low-rated farm system. Top prospect Scott Kazmir had been traded for Victor Zambrano the previous July, and there wasn't much behind him. Omar had a history in player development so that seemed to be where they were headed.

I and everyone else who made that assumption was proven quite wrong when Minaya came to an agreement with 33-year-old free agent Pedro Martinez the week before Christmas 2004. It was clearly a win-now move that didn't seem to make a lot of sense.

The starting rotation behind Pedro included an aging Tom Glavine, along with 2004 acquisitions  Kris Benson and Victor Zambrano. Benson had lost his best fastball from his top prospect days and looked fairly meh, while Zambrano was erratic and seemed unlikely to ever overcome the stigma of being the guy who was traded for Scott Kazmir.

If the rotation was a big question mark, the bullpen was just plain horrible. Braden Looper was miscast as a closer, and the rest of the guys behind him were some combination of hopelessly over the hill and just plain bad.

As for the regulars, an aging Mike Piazza was moving back behind the plate after a disastrous attempt to make him a first baseman in 2004. Cliff Floyd was an established veteran with injury issues. Jose Reyes still showed a lot of rough edges on his game on both sides of the ball. David Wright looked like the only sure thing in the line-up, but even he only had one partial season of major league experience under his belt.

You knew that once Pedro was on board, something else had to happen if the Mets were serious about contending, but everything dragged on until mid-January while Minaya pursued Carlos Beltran, who clearly was hoping to be signed by the Yankees. Beltran finally did sign with the Mets, though, and they did, indeed, become contenders for the playoffs in 2005.

The 2005 season proved to be quite a roller coaster ride. The club would have good stretches followed by struggles. They'd have an amazing win on one day, and then the next, the momentum would bleed away with a dreary loss. Beltran had a rough first season, Tom Glavine and Kris Benson were up and down, and Zambrano was erratic and miscast in the big city. Kaz Matsui had a lousy season after being shuffled to second base. He spent a lot of the season disabled and looked quite defective when he did play. There were way too many ABs given to the likes of Doug Mientkiewicz, Miguel Cairo, Jose Offerman, Eric Valent, Brian Daubach, and Gerald Williams. At times the team could be unwatchable on both sides of the ball.

But every fifth day was special, because that was Pedro Day. Martinez no longer went into battle with the fastball that made him an all-time great, but he could still dial it up when he had to and possessed the uncanny ability to make batters look awful. With his acumen for changing speeds on his fastball, slider, curveball, and changeup, Pedro seemed to possess 100 different weapons in his arsenal.

While Carlos Beltran, the winter's other big signing, struggled initially in the bright spotlight of expectations in the Big Apple, Martinez embraced it and thrived. Pedro was an extremely intelligent man with a big personality. He seemed to grasp how badly Mets fans needed him to be extraordinary. Watching him work was a delight.

My Lisa always tolerated my love of baseball, but never embraced the sport personally. She almost never watches a full game with me, but in 2005 if Pedro was pitching, she was all in. I loved watching Pedro pitch as someone who appreciated the nuance and subtlety of the experience. Lisa could care less about all of that. She just enjoyed the show.

Pedro only managed 15 wins that season, constantly betrayed by his offense, defense, and a notoriously leaky bullpen. It started on opening day, when Braden Looper blew the save and lost the game. The numbers that Pedro put up tell the story of how good he was: 31 starts, 217 IP. He allowed only 6.6 hits per 9 innings pitched in the heart of the steroid era, while striking out 8.6 and only walking 1.9. It was up there with any pitcher's seasons I've witnessed in more than 5 decades of watching this club, being privileged to see greats named Seaver, Koosman, Golden, Matlack, and deGrom ply their trades.

Sadly, those 217 innings were more than Martinez would manage during his final 3 seasons with the Mets combined. Pedro's star burned brightly for only that one magical season in New York before his body broke down. You really can't defend his signing from the standpoint of the value he provided for all the money spent over those four seasons. You could also argue that the Mets would have been better served in the long run had Minaya not signed Martinez and Beltran and elected to rebuild the farm system for more sustained success.

For all of that, I'm grateful that I had the opportunity as a fan to enjoy that season and the joyful spectacle that Pedro provided every fifth day. I'm just sorry that the party ended much too soon.

My Series on the 2005 Season:

I'm not sure if anyone who read the old blog will find their way here after all these many years, but if you do please drop me an email or comment if you'd prefer. I'd honestly love to hear from you. Also, I will be posting here regularly if you're inclined to come back.

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