For me, the reminders are everywhere. Some are subtle, like the background picture on my laptop. It’s a photo of my golden retriever and me celebrating my 21st birthday in August of 2007. We’re both so happy, because the Mets were marching towards their second straight divisional title.
Then there’s the 2007 Mets media guide that is in my bathroom. Every time I use the toilet, shower, or brush my teeth I see it. The 3 x 2 photo grid on the cover is saddening. There’s Carlos Beltran, holding his pointer finger in the air. There’s Tom Glavine, wearing a 2006 NL East Division Champs shirt and cap, with a smile that says, “Yeah, I’ve done this 15 times before but it never gets old.” There’s Carlos Delgado, wearing the same attire, though looking even happier since he was in his 14th season and about to play in his first playoff series.
There’s Billy Wagner and Paul Lo Duca, the spokesmen of the team, embracing near the mound with the unbridled joy of a couple of little leaguers. There’s David Wright and Jose Reyes, looking a bit more serious as they perform a choreographed handshake. And there’s Willie Randolph, displaying the biggest smile of them all, most likely after one of the Mets’ 103 total victories that season.
Oh, how I miss the joy of 2006 and the optimism that lasted through August of 2007. The joy and optimism that beams from the media guide. The joy and optimism that, like many of the characters on the guide’s cover, are no longer associated with the Mets organization.
It’s hard to imagine how far the franchise has fallen since that magical year, a year which could’ve been even sweeter. The Mets were one game away from a trip to the World Series. It’s pointless to play this game, but given how poorly the Detroit Tigers played against the St. Louis Cardinals, the Mets would have likely won the franchise’s third World Series title.1
While the starters were nothing spectacular that year, the Mets rarely blew leads. Unlike more recent seasons, the ’06 team had a tremendous bullpen. Of the five relievers used most often, only Aaron Heilman (it still annoys me just to type his name) had an ERA over 3. Wagner was awesome, converting 40/45 save opportunities, but it was the bridge to him that defined this bullpen.
(Here are some numbers to prove my point: In 2006, when the Mets were leading entering the sixth inning, they lost a total of 18 games. In 2007, this number jumped to 31. In 2008, the year in which the Mets operated with the worst bullpen I have ever seen, they blew 52 of these leads. In fact, they blew 20 leads just from the eighth inning on.)
Chad Bradford was the submarining righty specialist who, get this, could actually pitch to lefties as well. Pedro Feliciano, the only reliever still with the team, was the phenomenal lefty specialist. Darren Oliver was the long man, and the best in baseball that season in my opinion. And of course there was Duaner Sanchez, who kept getting more and more responsibility until Willie realized he was the second best arm in the ’pen and made him the set-up guy.
Duaner was a fan favorite in ’06. People loved his energy, his throwing motion, his glasses, and of course, his excellent performance. My older brother went as far as requesting Duaner’s #50 jersey as a gift that summer.
The jersey wasn’t a hot commodity for very long. On a Sunday night in Florida, less than 24 hours before the trade deadline, the cab Sanchez was riding in was hit by a drunk driver. Sanchez’s shoulder was injured and it was apparent to the Mets he wasn’t going to be returning that season. Forced to replace a key component of the bullpen, Omar Minaya traded useful outfielder Xavier Nady to the Pirates for reliever Roberto Hernandez and, as a throw-in, Oliver Perez.
Hernandez was decent, pitching to a 3.48 ERA in 22 appearances for the Mets, but he was not as trusted as Sanchez, unable to lock down the eighth-inning role and appearing in only three postseason games, never in an important situation.
The effect of Sanchez’s unfortunate injury was two-fold. One, I honestly believe it cost the Mets the 2006 World Series. The bullpen was perfect with Sanchez, but without him it forced Heilman into a more important role, one he couldn’t handle.
Secondly, while the trade also brought Perez—who made two critical starts for the Mets in the NLCS and won 15 games the following year—it also, well, brought Perez, who was really bad in 2008, atrocious in 2009, and a financial drain this year and next. Someone else could’ve started those playoff games. Someone else could’ve helped the Mets not make the playoffs in ’07 and ’08. Ask anybody who follows the Mets and they’ll tell you know that the franchise would be far better off had Perez never joined the team.2
|Even without words, Mr. Met says so much. Shown here during the Mets’ 70-win 2009 season. (Credit: Andrew Kahn)|
Perez alone was not responsible for the Mets’ collapses in ’07 and ’08. Remember, the offense and bullpen were so good during that incredible ’06 season. So what happened? To make a long story short, many of the hitters simply had a worse season.3
One player who was a pleasant surprise, though, was 37-year-old Jose Valentin. Valentin took over the starting job at second base in the summer of ’06 and never looked back, providing more offense than anyone expected from the position. He was also said to be a clubhouse leader. I don’t doubt this, because another turning point of the Mets franchise—and this one is not mentioned nearly enough—is Valentin’s injury in late July.
The similarities between Valentin’s and Sanchez’s injuries are apparent. Much like after Sanchez got hurt, Minaya was forced to act shortly before the deadline to acquire a replacement for the inevitable playoff push. He traded two minor leaguers for Minnesota’s Luis Castillo.
In the short term, Castillo was a great pick-up, bringing stability to the middle of the infield in place of Valentin. In his 50 games with the Mets that season, he hit nearly .300, scored 37 runs, stole 10 bases, and hardly ever struck out. Much like the Sanchez deal, this was a savvy move by Minaya. Castillo played well and, as a bonus, the prospects the Mets parted with turned out to be low-impact players.
The problem, of course, was the contract Minaya offered at season’s end. Castillo was a player who had always relied on speed and scrappiness, but he was 32 at the end of the ’07 season. This didn’t stop Minaya from overbidding for Castillo, giving him a four-year, $25 million deal. That is unconscionable, given that Castillo would be 36 at the end of the contract. His speed (and defensive range) faded, and for whatever reason (the big contract, maybe?) his scrappiness was gone, too.
Watching the 2008 version of Castillo induced Little League flashbacks. Castillo was like the worst kid on your team, the kid who knows he can’t get a hit so he enters the batter’s box praying for a walk. That’s what Castillo did for 87 games in 2008. His batting average was a career low .245. He still managed to walk 50 times despite showing an inability to hit the ball out of the infield. He was overweight, out of shape, and useless both offensively and defensively.
In his defense, Castillo did have a bounce-back year in ’09. In a season where seemingly every other Met missed considerable time, Castillo played in over 140 games and hit over .300. Of course by July nobody was watching. We were watching at the start of this season, only to discover Castillo had returned to 2008 form.
Perez, as I mentioned before, seemed to carry the momentum from that memorable NLCS Game 7 start into the following season. He struck out a batter per inning and reduced his walks. His 15 wins and 3.56 ERA were very respectable for someone the Mets anticipated to be a back-of-the-rotation pitcher.
Perez won arbitration in the offseason and raked in $6.5 million for a season in which he had a 4.22 ERA and walked over 100 batters. By midseason, Mets fans were very uncomfortable when Perez took the mound. They never knew whether “good Ollie” or “bad Ollie” would show up. His middle name was Inconsistent.
How did Minaya reward this erraticism? With a multi-year mega-deal. The exact numbers: three years, $36 million.
Perez rewarded the Mets faith by showing up to Spring Training in terrible shape, then not using that period to get in shape. He was overweight and had lost considerable velocity on his fastball. His control had somehow gotten even worse.4
In 14 starts in 2008, Perez’s ERA was 6.82. He walked nearly eight batters per nine innings, though he never made it anywhere close to the ninth inning of a game. Only twice did he pitch into the seventh. In eight starts he did not make it past the fifth. Keep in mind that like ’07, the Mets missed the playoffs by one game this season. A minor league starter chosen at random from the Mets’ farm system could have helped the team more in 14 starts than Perez did.
The light at the end of the tunnel is that these two unfathomable contracts expire after next season. If the Mets can somehow find a taker for either one (I actually think a team might bite on Castillo this winter; no chance Perez gets dealt), then 2010 could be the last time they appear in a Mets uniform.
The fact that either was allowed to don the orange and blue for this long should ensure that the man who made it happen is sent packing at season’s end.
1(2006) The consolation prize was not too shabby: The Mets ended the Atlanta Braves’ 14-year run atop the division, winning their first title since 1988, and advancing to the NLCS before losing that epic seventh game to St. Louis.
The offense that season was off the charts: Beltran hit 41 home runs; Delgado blasted 38. Three players accumulated at least 100 RBI. Two Mets finished in the top 10 in the league in batting (Lo Duca and Wright). Reyes led all of baseball in triples and stolen bases. The core—Beltran, Wright, and Reyes—and the only three hitters who are still with the team today, all finished in the top 10 for the league MVP.
The pitching was not excellent, but it was good enough. Steve Trachsel (with an ERA just a hair under 5) and Tom Glavine each won 15 games. Pedro Martinez started 5-0 but injuries derailed his season. He wasn’t the same after matching Arizona ace Brandon Webb pitch for pitch in a late May game the Mets ended up winning 1-0 in 13 innings.
Pedro was absolutely masterful that night. He pitched eight scoreless, striking out just as many and only allowing five baserunners. Webb was equally dominant, showing why he won the Cy Young that season. It was Endy Chavez, a name Mets fans will never forget, who finally won the game with a single.
I attended this game with some friends for $5. That’s right, upper deck seats for select “value” games at Shea Stadium were $5, even if the Mets were in first and it was Pedro vs. Webb. I wrote an article about this game for a very local paper, though it was never published. My dad came up with the clever headline: “38 Cents Per Inning.”
Orlando Hernandez joined the Mets from Arizona shortly before that game, and was serviceable in 20 starts, baffling hitters by drastically changing speeds. “El Duque” was stellar in September, and thus was named the starter for the Mets’ first playoff game since 2000. He tore a muscle doing some light running the day before the game, though, and was scratched from the postseason roster.
Replacing Hernandez was John Maine, who helped the Mets win the opener against the Dodgers and earned the win in Game Six of the NLCS. Oliver Perez, of course, was called on to pitch the most important (and, as it would turn out, the last) game of the season, and performed admirably, aided by Chavez’s miracle catch.
2(2010) In fact, I conducted a casual poll on Twitter asking Mets fans and bloggers which current Mets player they disliked the most. Jeff Francoeur, Luis Castillo, and Francisco Rodriguez were mentioned, but the overwhelming “winner” was Perez. Responses noted that he is selfish, unmotivated, and of course, overpaid. Interestingly, several people noted that they had wished the question included any Met employee because they disliked Minaya more than any player.
3(2007) To keep a long story long, let’s take a deeper look. The future had become the present as Reyes and Wright once again had monster years. Reyes saw drop-offs in his average (20 points), RBI, and power, but his OBP remained the same due to added plate discipline and he actually stole 14 more bases (a whopping 78). I believe it was during this season that a Sports Illustrated poll of GMs listed Reyes as the guy most likely to be taken No. 1 if all players were thrown into a draft.
Wright improved across the board as well. He hit for more power (reaching the 30-HR plateau for the first time), stole more bases (34, up 14 from ’06), and won his first Gold Glove (although people who watched Wright on a daily basis, like I did, will tell you it probably wasn’t deserved).
The homegrown boys were challenging their cross-town counterparts—Jeter and A-Rod—for the best left side of the infield in baseball.
Even at the time, at the height of his awesomeness, I remember thinking this was a bit ridiculous. Were they forgetting a certain Cardinals slugger? Through 2006 (six seasons), Albert Pujols averaged 40 homers, 123 RBI, and .332 batting average. He had already won an MVP and turned himself into a Gold Glove first baseman.
If the poll was in fact taken during that ’07 season, Pujols was only 27 years old at the time. Reyes had turned 24 that summer and had established himself as a five-tool player. Scouts thought he could hit 20 homers a season and steal 60 bases. These optimistic projections were a reality for Pujols, so it was, to say the least, premature for GMs to vote for Reyes. Even so, it shows exactly how high Reyes’ stock was at the time.
As for the rest of the lineup? Well, the term “career year” exists for a reason, and the Mets had an abundance of them in ’06. Lo Doca’s batting average and on-base percentage each dropped about 40 points in 2007. Delgado’s 38 homers and 114 RBI became 24 and 87, respectively. Beltran regressed towards his career average—his batting average remained the same but his slugging and OBP dropped significantly.
The corner outfielders were Shawn Green (acquired late in the ’06 season) and Moises Alou, an off-season acquisition. Their best years were certainly behind them, and while Alou was productive when he was in the lineup, injuries prevented him from reaching even the 90-game mark. Endy Chavez was a suitable replacement but not someone you want playing everyday.
4(2010) In case you don’t know about how Perez has fared this season, go ahead and look it up. It was hard enough writing about his ’09 campaign—I couldn’t bring myself to waste time on his seven starts in 2010.