The way things have always been aren’t far from changing. It will be strange, but in the long run, we will benefit.
I’m talking about the at-any-given-moment consensus all-time Mets team. You know, best Met at every position over the history of the franchise. We’ve never done one up here because it’s like ranking an all-Solar System lineup of planets. Mercury bats first, Venus bunts him over, Earth gets the ribby opportunities and you can’t pitch around Mars because Jupiter is very dangerous in the fifth hole. Every now and then somebody screws around and the nine-hitter is demoted to another galaxy, but you more or less know how it’s going to turn out.
I’ve seen Mets experts, Mets fans, Mets writers, Mets polls and Mets propaganda proffer all-time Mets teams intermittently for more than a quarter of a century. I’m not here to argue with anything that’s been said before; for the most part, they all conform to a certain conventional wisdom, one for which I bear no great iconoclasm. What I’d like to do is consider which elements of the all-time Mets team are due for revision and how soon we can anticipate changings of the respective guards.
Incumbent All-Timer: Mike Piazza
Since: No later than 2000
Prior: Your traditionalists would argue for Jerry Grote’s defense and longevity from 1969 until Piazza. Your modernists might nod toward Gary Carter given the offensive impact he brought to bear in 1985 and ’86. Todd Hundley made an impressive run for a season or two, but pre-Piazza, consensus formed around Grote or Carter.
After: Piazza’s only gone one year.
Current Catcher: Paul Lo Duca
His Prospects: This is a position that has enjoyed some serious starpower, so even though Lo Duca put in a heckuva season in 2006, it’s unlikely he’ll break into the top three given his advanced age.
Anybody’s Prospects: Eight seasons, fortune-changer, great numbers, legend…it will take a homegrown Mike Piazza to top the one for whom we traded. Mike has a lock on this spot for at least a decade, likely longer.
Incumbent All-Timer: Keith Hernandez
Since: No later than 1986
Prior: Ed Kranepool was the default candidate by the mid-’60s. As more productive first basemen — Clendenon, Milner, Montañez — came along, Eddie (albeit from a pinch-hitting perch) had them beat on longevity. He always will. It took Hernandez’s all-around excellence and obvious impact on the state of things to dislodge Krane.
After: John Olerud squeezed himself between Mex and Kranepool with three fabulous seasons. Perhaps a few more would have made him a serious contender for the top spot.
Current First Baseman: Carlos Delgado
His Prospects: Not unlike Lo Duca, his first year as a Met could not have gone much better. He ingrained himself into club lore by making a difference on a team that jumped from also-ran to division champ. But also like Lo Duca, Delgado joined the Mets late in his career. Two more slam-bang offensive seasons might get him mentioned in the same breath with Olerud and Kranepool as best of the rest, but he’s no threat to Keith.
Anybody’s Prospects: Though they were far from the same player, the Met trajectories of Piazza and Hernandez were fairly similar. Hernandez is every bit the legend for his tenure that Piazza was for his, so it is hard to imagine first base gets a new leading man. Caveat, though: Keith’s brilliance came without dominating power stats, traditionally the province of corner infielders. Get a Delgado-type in his prime and it could become competitive. But then again, there’s only one Keith Hernandez.
Incumbent All-Timer: Edgardo Alfonzo
Since: No later than 2000
Prior: For Fonzie, there’s a bit of lifetime achievement award to this designation as he shifted between third and second for six seasons as a starter. He gained notice at third but really made jaws drop at second. His two best years were in the middle of the diamond. They were so good it’s hard to remember who came before, but there is a lineage: Ron Hunt from ’63 to as late as ’75 when Felix Millan took over for good (depending on how highly you valued Ken Boswell’s relative longevity in between). Millan played every day, so he could be your all-timer until the late ’90s unless you didn’t mind Wally Backman’s platoon status. Backman was such a force on those mid-’80s Mets that he made a strong case for himself. Jeff Kent’s numbers in ’93 and ’94 were promising but they dipped dramatically in ’95 and he was at third then gone by ’96, thus only partially breaching the conversation. Fonzie’s ’99 and ’00 made the whole lot of his predecessors rather moot.
After: Roberto Alomar was the exact opposite of Lo Duca and Delgado and his breakdown left a sizable hole at second that nobody since Alfonzo has filled.
Current Second Baseman: Jose Valentin
His Prospects: In relatively limited duty, Valentin had one of the better power years by any Met second baseman in 2006 and he acquitted himself fine defensively. But at this late stage of his career (a hauntingly familiar refrain when discussing the current Mets thus far), it’s hard to imagine he’ll a) duplicate 2006 in 2007 and b) triplicate it in 2008 which is what it would take to catapult him into the upper echelon of all-time Mets second basemen.
Anybody’s Prospects: If you judge the position by defense (and defense usually lags in all-time team talk, otherwise Doug Flynn would be a major topic of conversation here), Anderson Hernandez could conceivably make a run if he starts to hit and sticks around. In the more generic sense, it would take about five very good seasons to unseat Alfonzo. It doesn’t sound impossible, but in the 45-year history of the Mets, how many players have put up five very good seasons at any position?
Incumbent All-Timer: Bud Harrelson
Since: No later than 1969
Prior: Roy McMillan got high marks for his uncommon professionalism as the Mets were wearing out their training wheels, but the shortstop story on this team really begins with Buddy Harrelson.
After: For a quarter-century it ended with Harrelson, too. There were pretenders, those who could flash speed (Taveras), show steadiness (Santana), offer promise (Elster), spread leather (Schofield) and hit surprisingly well (Vizcaino), but none was a keeper in the long-term. Though time has not burnished his credentials, Rey Ordoñez’s glove was a magical entity and, given his role on a winning team, made him the de facto runnerup at short through the end of his stormy stay. If he had hit a little and shut up a little more, he might have taken a serious run at Harrelson, but Buddy’s longevity and presence were hard to beat.
Current Shortstop: Jose Reyes
His Prospects: Jose Reyes, as Bob Murphy might have said, is why they put erasers on pencils. It takes all the restraint one can muster to not change for the first time since the late 1960s the identity of the all-time Mets shortstop. He followed an encouraging 2005 with a stellar 2006. Not stellar for a Met, but stellar as in one of the brightest stars in the game at any position. His four seasons — two partial, two complete — are not quite enough to bump Buddy’s thirteen, but Buddy would be the first to tell you Jose’s ’06 was the offensive equal of any three he put up in his prime.
Anybody’s Prospects: Even if he never has another season quite on the level of 2006, it will take no more than three years in the general vicinity of what he did last season to cement Jose Reyes’ spot as the all-time Mets shortstop. Barring injury, look for the change to be indisputable by 2009, 2010 at the latest.
Incumbent All-Timer: Howard Johnson
Since: No later than 1991
Prior: The steaming baked potato of all Mets positions, it would be reasonable to term it vacant on an all-time team for the first decade of Met existence. By the end of the ’70s, Wayne Garrett had earned it through dutiful service. The first impressive all-around Met third baseman was Hubie Brooks, 1980-1984. It took three astounding offensive seasons from HoJo to nail down his claim to the hot corner…just in time for him to be shifted to the outfield.
After: Johnson’s supremacy was seriously challenged in the late ’90s, first by Alfonzo then Robin Ventura. Neither lasted long enough at the position to knock off HoJo, though Ventura’s 1999 was as spectacular as anything as Johnson accomplished in ’87, ’89 or ’91.
Current Third Baseman: David Wright
His Prospects: HoJo’s elevation to the big-league coaching staff in 2007 will give him a front-row seat from which to watch his place in Mets history pushed back a notch. David Wright’s brief career has been possibly the best out of the gate by any homegrown Met. Power, average, defense (the throwing yips notwithstanding)…it’s David’s world.
Anybody’s Prospects: For karma’s sake, let’s use the “barring injury” qualifier. Barring injury, David Wright should arrive on the all-time team by the time Shea Stadium gives way to Citi Field. It’s only in deference to HoJo’s longevity (not quite as imposing as Harrelson’s) that we don’t make the switch now. Like Reyes, Wright demonstrates every indication that he will own his spot in this lineup well into the future.
Incumbent All-Timer: Cleon Jones
Prior: Frank Thomas did hit 34 homers in 1962, but Cleon was the best player the Mets developed in their first two decades. His .340 average coming when it did sealed his spot in left for generations to come. His wonderful 1969 highlighted a 12-year run unmatched to date in left.
After: Truth is nobody’s come close to Cleon Jones over the long haul even if there have been seasons. Dave Kingman’s best power years were in left in ’75 and ’76 but he hit his later homers at first and didn’t do a whole lot else as a player. Steve Henderson looked like the real thing from ’77 to ’80 but never put up Cleon stats. George Foster’s Met career was a trainwreck despite a couple of good slugging seasons. Kevin McReynolds was more the rubbernecker during his stay. A good ’87 and a very, very good ’88 were followed only by deterioration from ’89 through ’91. One-year wonders Bernard Gilkey (’96), Rickey Henderson (’99) and Benny Agbayani (’00) didn’t last either. Cliff Floyd’s 2005 was classic, but the rest of his Met days were undercut by injury.
Current Leftfielder: Moises Alou.
His Prospects: If he gives us an ’07 like Lo Duca’s, Delgado’s or even Valentin’s ’06, he etches his name into our consciousness for the good. But at 40 on Opening Day, he won’t touch Cleon Jones.
Anybody’s Prospects: This was supposed to be Lastings Milledge’s job by now and Lastings Milledge was highly touted. Left doesn’t look like his bag, baby. It’s either too early or too late to figure out what we’ll get from him. As for somebody coming along and topping Jones, it’s conceivable. If McReynolds hadn’t declined or Floyd hadn’t gotten hurt (or Kingman hadn’t been traded), it could have been done by now. Outfielders, however, aren’t the Mets’ stock in trade, so until an unknown quantity puts up at least three straight power seasons worthy of a corner outfielder, there’s nobody remotely on Cleon’s heels.
Incumbent All-Timer: Mookie Wilson
Since: No later than 1986
Prior: Center used to be the Met doppelgänger of third, except further from home. The Mets couldn’t find a dependable occupant, save for the first year with Richie Ashburn, until Tommie Agee sewed it up in ’68 (a miserable season) and excelled at it in ’69. Agee probably owned it, even in the face of a stiff challenge from Lee Mazzilli in the late ’70s, into the Mookie Wilson era. Mookie’s speed and dominance of the steals and triples categories (despite not being the most awesome of flycatchers or leadoff batters) earned him CF honors for twenty-year keeps. His role in the 1986 World Series didn’t hurt either.
After: Mookie withstood a real-time ambush by Lenny Dykstra between ’85 and ’89. By August ’86, a centerfield platoon was tweaked to a rotation of sorts, getting Mookie into the lineup in left when Dykstra manned center. But Lenny never took center away from Mookie. After they were both ingeniously dispatched, it was Juan Samuel time, first literally, then figuratively. A slew of comers and goers made the exploits of Mookie, Lenny, Tommie and Mazz stand taller than they actually measured.
Current Centerfielder: Carlos Beltran
His Prospects: If we are to believe 2005 was the aberration and 2006 the genuine article, Carlos Beltran is already the best centerfielder in Mets history. Not the same as being the all-time CF, however. Carlos needs two or three more Beltranesque years to own the position beyond debate.
Anybody’s Prospects: Isn’t that what he’s being paid for? Carlos Beltran reminded us in 2006 that he’s one of the best all-around players in the game, the kind of player we’ve almost never had, certainly not in center. Assuming there isn’t some horrible hangover from that called strike three (and those nagging injuries of his are kept to a minimum), we can look forward to a Citi Field lineup by 2010 that includes three all-time Mets: Reyes, Wright and Beltran.
Incumbent All-Timer: Darryl Strawberry
Since: No later than 1986
Prior Ron Swoboda’s Game Four catch in ’69 gave him the upper hand for a while, based mostly on the stuff of legend. Rusty Staub’s four seasons after his trade from Montreal earned him right field outright. There was no better stick when it came to driving in runs, clutch or otherwise, for the first two decades of Mets history. Then Darryl showed up in ’83. Growing pains notwithstanding, he was instantly the most extraordinary talent to rise from the Mets’ system. If he wasn’t exactly Joel Youngblood with the glove, he was an authentic superstar.
After: Get serious.
Current Right Fielder: Shawn Green.
His Prospects: A nice rebound full season would be plenty to welcome from Green. Should Milledge find himself with a few more at-bats than expected in right (where he looked decidedly more comfortable than he did in left), it could be intriguing. But Darryl’s safe for now.
Anybody’s Prospects: Even taking into account that Darryl’s eight Mets seasons did not launch him toward Cooperstown, nobody has touched what he compiled or accomplished. Sixteen seasons have not yielded any kind of challenge to the incumbent’s primacy. Right remains Strawberry’s field prohibitively to 2015 and probably then some.
STARTING RIGHTHANDED PITCHER
Incumbent All-Timer: Tom Seaver
Prior: Does it matter?
After: One name. Dwight Gooden. If he couldn’t do it (and for a while it looked he would), nobody could.
Current Starting Righthanded Pitcher: Pedro Martinez
His Prospects: Well, it would help if he were healthy. For argument’s sake, let’s say Pedro makes it back midsummer and pitches at the level he did in 2005 and early 2006 for the length of his contract. It would mark his Met tenure as a significant one, but it would leave him way short of not only Seaver but Gooden. And that’s best-case. Still, if we’re mentioning him in the same breath as Tom and Doc, then it was Pedro well spent. Heck, it was anyway.
Anybody’s Prospects: It would be unfair to the Met pitching prospects of today to invoke Tom Seaver as their ceiling. In a world in which one shouldn’t forecast too far into the future, I’m willing to say nobody besides Tom Seaver will ever be the Mets’ all-time starting RHP.
STARTING LEFTHANDED PITCHER
Incumbent All-Timer: Jerry Koosman
Prior: Al Jackson was a gutty lefthander who deserved a better fate. Wins were hard to come by on those early Mets teams yet Jackson had more than anybody in those first dark days. Kooz, however, blew all southpaws away with a 19-12 rookie season. He was ensconced from there.
After: Jon Matlack outdid Koosman for a few years in the early ’70s and Al Leiter was counted on as titular ace more than either of them, but no LHP hung in as long as Kooz did and no pitcher of either arm could be counted on quite as confidently in big game starts.
Current Starting Lefthanded Pitcher: Tom Glavine
His Prospects: Glavine, health and run support willing, will reach an exciting milestone in a Met uniform, and that will be lovely. But even a 300th win along with two very good seasons to finish up his career as a Met (with hopefully two more postseason trips and performances up to his October 2006 standard) would vault Glavine no higher than also-ran to Kooz. Jerry, after all, was here for twelve seasons, several of them historic.
Anybody’s Prospects: Like we said, Jerry was here a long time and with good reason. He is third lifetime in Met wins. He was a star who pitched behind an immortal. Despite the best efforts of Leiter, Matlack, Ojeda and Fernandez, his premier southpaw status hasn’t been approached. A Met lefty reaching Kooz territory may happen, but it will take some doing.
Incumbent All-Timer: John Franco
Since: No later than 2000
Prior: With apologies to Ron Taylor, Tug McGraw invented the modern fireman’s role on the Mets and he filled it indelibly. Jesse Orosco surpassed his saves total and was on the mound twice when it absolutely mattered in 1986. It was a matter of taste before 1990 as to who you wanted as your all-time closer. John Franco then arrived from Cincinnati and compiled saves in record numbers. It probably took the latter stages of his career to make him universally lovable like Tug and definitely required his postseason setup appearances to match his accomplishments to Jesse’s.
After: Armando Benitez is a two-word Rorschach Test to most Mets fans. Some see the most successful regular-season closer in Mets history. Others see mushroom clouds. The fact is he did unseat Franco and was at the heart of some of the most compelling baseball the franchise ever saw. The fact is he also lasted fewer than five seasons, well short of Franco’s fifteen.
Current Closer: Billy Wagner.
His Prospects: Yet another 2006 Met who alighted from elsewhere and inscribed his name into the family album with a memorable year in service to a postseason campaign. He certainly had his moments. Though he will have ample opportunity to add to his Met résumé, he too has started down the orange & blue path rather late in life.
Anybody’s Prospects: John Franco embedded himself into Met culture as few others have. His status with the front office (combined with his general record of success…not that it was unsullied or without detractors) shielded him from the several regime changes that shook Shea between Cashen and Minaya. Since longevity was intrinsic to the Franco oeuvre, and because one-team longevity among closers is almost anathema in team-building today, it will be difficult for anybody to match Franco. On the other hand, the next closer who drops to his knees and flings his glove skyward will be granted sainthood by millions of Mets fans and that might be enough.