Sunday, June 21, 2020

A Not So Very Big Deal

Yesterday I wrote a piece about one of the most significant trades the Mets ever made. When the Mets acquired Walt Terrell and Ron Darling in 1982, it would take a couple of years for most fans to realize what an important deal it truly was. It brought to mind another trade that was somewhat a mirror opposite of that deal, one that seemed important when it happened but, over time, proved to be much ado about nothing.

It was January of 2006. The New York Mets had completed their first season under Omar Minaya. The team had been able to compete until a disastrous 3-15 stretch late in the year emphatically stomped out all hope. The club struggled offensively at times, and the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation were weak for most of the year. However, the biggest weakness by far in 2005 was the bullpen.

Minaya's late November trade for Carlos Delgado had fortified the offense, then a few days later he signed closer Billy Wagner. That gave the Mets a legitimate closer for 2006, but a bigger overhaul was required for the bullpen. Minaya signed veteran sidearm reliever Chad Bradford just after Christmas. As the New Year began Minaya was still trying to find bullpen pieces.

Just after New Year's, Minaya reached a deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. In exchange for starting pitcher Jae Weong Seo and Loogy Tim Hamulack, the Mets acquired reliever Duaner Sanchez and minor leaguer Steve Schmoll.

As I recall, the Mets took some criticism by trading a starting pitcher for a bullpen piece. That seemed silly to me at the time and certainly proved to be quite silly. Jae Seo had been a nice story at the end of 2005. When the Mets finally removed Kaz Ishii from the rotation, Seo had filled in admirably. Still, Seo had yet to prove that he could be an effective major league starting pitcher for more than a short stretch.

When the Mets first signed Seo, he threw a mid-90s fastball complemented by an excellent changeup. Then he hurt his arm, requiring Tommy John surgery, and after his return his fastball topped out at 90 mph. Seo was very stubborn in developing and using a breaking ball to complement his other pitches, but the drop in velocity made that an imperative. The changeup was a very good pitch, but it simply wasn't enough. The Mets sent Seo down to the minors early in 2005, and he was told to work on his secondary pitches.

When Seo came back up in August to take Ishii's rotation spot, he was a different pitcher. He came back with a cutter, a splitter and a breaking ball to complement his fastball and changeup, and the work paid immediate dividends. Over 14 starts through the end of the season, Jae Seo went 8-2 with a 2.59 ERA. If there was a red flag, it was a low strikeout rate of 5.9 K/9. Still, Seo certainly seemed like a candidate for the rotation in 2006 up until the deal.

I remember criticizing a review of the trade that scored it as a big win for the Dodgers because starting pitchers were more valuable than relievers, and the reviewer was convinced Jae Seo had turned a corner in his career. I pointed out the quote from the piece was from a Dodgers blogger who hadn't really seen Seo pitch much, and the jury was still out as to whether he could sustain success. For some reason the Dodgers blogger, who was much more important than I was, felt the need to respond to my piece. He thought I was being unfair, and that he had seen enough of Seo to give expert opinion on him.

I remember a back in forth in the comments that I finally gave up on. My point was that Seo had taken the league by surprise a bit when he came back with the new pitches, and that winning with a fastball the often topped out in the high 80s required a level of precision that Jae Weong Seo had yet to demonstrate. I'm certainly not always right, but I was that time.

Seo only made 10 starts and 9 relief appearances for the Dodgers. He pitched 67 innings, allowing 75 hits, 25 walks and 14 home runs. He was 2-4 with a 5.78 ERA, pitching in one of the best home parks for pitchers in baseball. The Dodgers traded Seo to Tampa that June, but it went no better there. The 30-year-old Seo went back to Korea to finish his career after the 2007 season.

I'm not sure why it went quite so bad for Jae Seo after leaving the Mets, but it's really hard to win at the major league level with a below average fastball. It takes a level of precision and an ability to outthink hitters that Seo never had to develop when he was throwing the ball very hard. Seo pitched in Korea until he was 38, but for the most part didn't do all that well there, either.

The other pitcher that the Mets traded to the Dodgers, lefty Tim Hamulack, was a 29-year-old career minor leaguer who pitching coach Rick Peterson convinced to drop down to sidearm and become a lefty specialist. He had a cup of coffee with the Mets at the end of 2005, and managed to stick in the Dodgers bullpen for a good chunk of 2006. He wasn't very good. In 33 games he pitched 34 innings, allowed 24 ER, 36 H, 7 HR and an astounding 22 BB. He spent the rest of his career in the minors and independent ball.

The key part of the trade for the Mets was righty reliever Duaner Sanchez. The 25-year-old had two years experience in the Dodgers bullpen and even had some closing experience when Éric Gagné got hurt late in 2005. He became an instant hit in New York for the prescription goggles that he wore and his animated manner on the mound. It also didn't hurt that Sanchez opened the season with 18 scoreless innings while sharing setup duties with Aaron Heilman.

Sanchez had some rough outings in May and June, but seemed back on track in July, giving up runs only once in 12 appearances. Then, on July 30, only hours before the trade deadline, Sanchez was injured in an early morning taxi accident caused by a drunk driver. Duaner suffered a separated shoulder that required season-ending surgery, and Minaya was forced into a quick deal with the Pirates where he had to give up starting RF Xavier Nady for 2005 Met Roberto Hernández and perennial project Óliver Pérez. Nady was having a solid year, and was quite popular with the fans.

Sanchez tried to come back in 2007 but suffered a broken bone in the shoulder in spring training. The injury was likely related to the original injury, and forced Sanchez to miss all of 2007. He returned in 2008 with diminished velocity and mediocre results. The Mets released him in March of 2009. There were rumors that the club didn't feel he was working hard enough. Sanchez was picked up by the Padres and pitched briefly in their bullpen, then spent the remainder of his career in the minors, Mexico and Independent ball.

The final piece of that deal was sidearm right hander Steve Schmoll. I remember the Mets were high on him when they first saw him in spring training. His pitches had a lot of movement. Unfortunately, they seldom made it over the plate. Schmoll had pitched briefly for the Dodgers in 2005, but would never make it out of the minors for the Mets. They finally cut him loose after the 2007 season. He had cut down on his walks in his 2 years in the Mets system but was giving up a lot more hits. Schmoll was picked by Washington and pitched for their Double-A Harrisburg club in 2008, then packed it in. He hasn't pitched since.

So, while the trade I wrote about yesterday played a big part in shaping the 1986 World Champion Mets, this 2006 trade seemed like a big deal at the time and turned out to be not much of anything. Of the four men involved, only Sanchez contributed any value, and his season was cut short 2/3 of the way through. At least he pitched in the majors beyond the 2007 season, unlike the other three pitchers in the deal. My feelings from observing Sanchez in 2006 was that he was a solid reliever, maybe a little lucky in 2006 but, if he stayed healthy, could have been a badly needed contributor in those fateful years of 2007 and 2008. Too bad he didn't order room service that night.

As for Jae Weong Seo, it's hard to say why it went so bad for him after leaving New York. He looked really sharp after coming back from the minors in 2005. There didn't seem to be any reason why he crashed so badly in 2006. Maybe the expectations were too high after the trade, or maybe those last two months of 2005 were an illusion. Maybe there was an injury that he didn't tell anyone about, or maybe he just got tired of pitching so far from home.

That's it for me today. Hope you enjoyed another look backwards. I know I enjoyed a weekend off from writing about proposals and counterproposals between men too stubborn to overcome seemingly modest differences. Thanks for some of your time today. Please stay safe, stay well and take care.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

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