Gentle Reader: The topical hook of this column is incredibly outdated, but the historical stuff is still keen!
Michael Bourn. Not a Met. Not yet. Maybe never. Maybe soon. It’s not a story that seems to include resolution. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Resolution came.) But if Bourn is gonna be one of ours soon, he’s gonna start his Met life inside a mixed bag, historically speaking. That’s because if we can get Bourn in a Mets uniform between now and the end of this month, he’ll be a relative rarity: a February Find…a Met who is signed, sealed and delivered in February and plays for the Mets during the succeeding regular season.
Baseball’s clock is already wound in February and the ticking resonates northward. Players can hear it. Agents can hear it. General managers can hear it. It gets late early at camp. Pitchers, catchers and everybody else should be mostly squared away by February. They have to learn the signals. They have to meet their teammates. They have to pose for publicity shots, lest the Official Yearbook be forced to do some ugly airbrushing. Uncertainty is traditionally for November, December and January. February’s for inspection of what was gathered during winter’s hunt. March is for coalescing. April is for delusion, delight, despair, whatever.
Yet sometimes February is for signing on a dotted line. Not that often, but sometimes. There haven’t been many Mets who’ve come on board the month Spring Training commences and been on the team that same year, and not a lot of them left behind distinguished Met tenures (though I’m sure they’re all upstanding citizens with wonderful families). Intuitively, you wouldn’t expect great players to suddenly appear in Mets camp just when the hits are getting real. If a player is available to become a Met anywhere from on the eve of Pitchers & Catchers to the cusp of exhibition games, it can be inferred his pre-Met situation wasn’t ideal. Nobody wanted the guy all winter. Or somebody wanted to be rid of him before he had to be fed and clothed on a per diem basis. Or, as seems to be the case for Bourn (and Kyle Lohse), the entire industry appears flummoxed by new compensation rules where top-notch free agents are concerned. If a fella’s still out there in an acquisition position as February dawns, the reflexive reaction is to ask how good could he be?
Sometimes very good. Most of the time not that great. And what does it say about the Mets through the years if they’re still shopping around as the grounds start getting tended in earnest in St. Lucie or, before that, St. Petersburg?
You might think the Original Mets would’ve had such a revolving door in Camp No. 1 that the Mets would’ve been picking people up off the street, fitting them for uniforms and sending them north after making their February acquaintance. Their legend, after all, includes would-be pitcher John Pappas, the man who paid his own freight down from New York in February of 1962, swore he’d been throwing under the 59th Street Bridge to get in shape and begged Johnny Murphy for a tryout. The press took up Pappas’s cause, so head scout Murphy relented. He watched the kid for less than 20 minutes. His assessment: “I don’t think he could play pro ball in any league.”
Perhaps it’s enough to know a rank amateur could be taken fleetingly seriously to gauge what kind of shape the Mets were in during their first February. Yet the Mets were actually pretty well-stocked numerically if not artistically from the previous October’s expansion draft and weren’t casting about for February refugees. Thus, the only 1962 Met who arrived to stay in February was 35-year-old free agent Clem Labine, more lovingly recalled as an old Brooklyn Dodger, owner of a win apiece from the 1955 and 1956 World Series. Alas, three April 1962 outings pitched to the tune of an 11.25 ERA dictated a change of seasons for this Boy of Summer, who was release and, like Pappas, faced a future devoid of pro ball.
In the early 1960s, there was a first baseman whose defense was notoriously dangerous to his and his teammates’ well-being, yet he had somehow avoided being a Met for the first four seasons there were Mets. Dick Stuart — known as Dr. Strangeglove — somehow seemed destined to fill the spikes once worn by Marv Throneberry and other, less celebrated ball-wranglers around the lukewarm corner. In February of 1966, the Mets sent three players to the Phillies to get Stuart, who was immediately labeled by his suddenly erstwhile employers as “superfluous”.
The Mets didn’t make the deal to add another mitt. Dick once hit 66 home runs in a minor league campaign and had belted as many as 42 for the Red Sox. So what did Stuart give the Mets? Four home runs. And six errors. He was gone by the middle of June, validating the Phillies’ scouting report as they filed the paperwork for his release.
Not every February Met who stuck in the ’60s was on the fast track to retirement. One would eventually contribute to a championship. Ron Taylor didn’t hold much appeal to the Astros, who let him go after two years in Houston and sold him, in February of 1967, to the Mets. Taylor had won a World Series ring as a Cardinal in 1964. Only the dreamiest of dreamers would have projected he’d add a second…as a Met, of all things. It was tough to see in 1967 as the Mets lost 101 games, but Taylor brought the bullpen a touch of professionalism, leading all comers with eight saves and posting impressive WHIP and ERA+ numbers that would’ve been eye-popping had they been calculated during his career.
Two years later, as the Mets won 100 games, Taylor saved 13 of them and established himself as a pioneer of sorts. Not only was Ron the fireman on a world championship club, he was making 59 of what would become 269 relief appearances between 1967 and 1971 — yet he never started a game as a Met, which was a revolution unto itself. Ron Taylor was the first pitcher in Mets history to work exclusively out of the pen for a significant, extended period.
Up until Taylor, no Met kept relieving simply because he was good at it. In the franchise’s first decade, no Met pitcher came within 200 relief appearances of Taylor without making a start. (Runner-up: Don Shaw’s 47 appearances in 1967 and ’68.) Even as baseball entered an age of specialization, Taylor’s place in Mets history held. His franchise record for most games by a 100% reliever stood until John Franco topped it in the mid-’90s. Only Franco, Pedro Feliciano, Armando Benitez and Turk Wendell have put in more relief appearances as a Met without ever starting than Taylor.
But Taylor’s the only one in that group to win a World Series as a Met. No other February-signed, sealed and delivered Met has won one, either.
If you want a more glamorous record, one that requires minimal explanation, you can’t beat what the Mets came up with at the end of February 1975: Dave Kingman. The cash-strapped Giants sold him, the Mets bought him and he shattered Frank Thomas’s single-season home run mark of 34 right away, slugging 36 in ’75, then 37 in ’76. The Mets traded him anyway in 1977 when they were on a star-deletion kick.
Because acquiring Kingman in February worked so well, the Mets did it again six years later. On the very same date in 1981 — February 28 — the Mets went out and bagged themselves Sky King once more. This time it took Steve Henderson plus cash to the Cubs (who, like the Mets of ’77, did not share Dave’s interest in renegotiating his contract) to get it done. Once again, Kingman clouted voluminously. Once again, Kingman was elsewhere three Februarys later.
In between crowning a pair of Februarys with Kingman, the Mets snuck in Luis Alvarado in February 1977. He played four innings in one game that April. Soon he was a Tiger. Soon after that, he was done. Clem Labine could have warned him about how that goes.
When the Mets made their next non-Kingman February deal, it appeared they were just getting started on something big. In February of 1982, they shipped useful if power-deprived catcher Alex Treviño, ambidextrous pitcher Greg Harris and paper Met Jim Kern (obtained in December for Doug Flynn) to Cincinnati for one of the best players baseball had seen over the previous half-decade, George Foster.
That was the kind of February trade that didn’t happen every year. But the Reds were facing Foster’s walk year, the Mets were in dire need of a splash and a swap was born. The Mets didn’t blink at the five-year commitment and many millions of dollars it would take. They were thrilled to have a slugger of Foster’s ilk to pair with a slugger of Kingman’s ilk. True, the ilk went sour pretty quickly (Foster’s 1982: 13 HR, 70 RBI, .247 BA), but it stands as the most stunning move the Mets ever made in a given February…no offense to the February 1987 return of bad-timing king Clint Hurdle (a Met in ’85 but not ’86) or the February 1989 signing of Don Aase, the reliever who ousted Tommie Agee from the top of the franchise’s alphabetical chart.
Mets personnel was relatively stable most Februarys in the 1990s, a touch ironic given the franchise’s general state of flux in those days, but their one February acquisition during the decade proved as important as any in building a playoff team. In February 1998, the Mets took off the hands of the Florida Marlins Al Leiter, a vital component of the Fish’s 1997 world championship, which made him, of course, priced to move during Marlin owner Wayne Huizenga’s instantly executed fire sale. Leiter cost the Mets three minor leaguers, only one of whom — A.J. Burnett — truly blossomed. Leiter won 95 games in seven Met seasons, helmed a series of aceless pitching staffs and grimaced a thousand soulful grimaces during the gut-wrenching playoff-laden autumns of 1999 and 2000.
Come the turn of the century, February went wild, with the Mets bringing in a series of fringe players who made the team nonetheless. Leiter’s pennant-winners of 2000, for example, were fortified by four February signings: Dennis Springer, David Lamb, Mark Johnson and the irredeemable Rich Rodriguez. None of them was on the roster by October, but they all contributed to (or, in Rodriguez’s case, detracted from) the greater cause.
The Art Howe years were ripe for February flotsam to float ashore the Gold Coast beaches of Florida, indicating perhaps that much was up for grabs in the glow of the manager lighting up St. Lucie’s various rooms. Those who made the team at some point in 2003 were a Recidivist Met (David Cone), a veteran finishing up (Jay Bell), a middle reliever just establishing his value (Dan Wheeler) and a galling case of nepotism (Mike Glavine). One February later, there’d be no nepotism, but a touch of recidivism (Todd Zeile) and out-and-out decrepitude (Scott Erickson, Ricky Bottalico and James Baldwin). With that assortment of talent flickering on and off through the Howe epoch, it’s no wonder the lights went out on it after two seasons.
From 2006, when times were good, through 2011, when things were markedly less so, a stream of placeholders jumped aboard the Mets express as it alternately chugged and crawled on its appointed rounds. Late-winter/early-spring uncertainty yielded the likes of Jose Lima in ’06; Chan Ho Park in ’07; Chris Aguila, Ricardo Rincon and the second coming of Brady Clark in ’08; Elmer Dessens in ’09; Luis Hernandez, Jason Pridie and Mike Jacobs II in ’10; and Dale Thayer in ’11.
But there were some finds amid the debris in the era that saw the Mets slide from contenders to dead-enders.
• Pedro Feliciano returned from Japan in February 2006 and stayed like crazy through 2010 before harmlessly detouring through some other uniform for a couple of inactive yet nicely remunerated years. Like a faithful LOOGY, he has come romping home once more.
• Nelson Figueroa wrote a touching story as a Brooklyn boy doing his best in Queens by pitching his way back to his first organization, never mind his childhood team, in February 2008. It didn’t end well (does it ever with the Mets?), but it was a February investment that paid off in the short-term.
• Liván Hernandez, who always seemed like someone the Mets were on the verge of acquiring, did, in fact, sign with the Mets in February of 2009. He’d be gone by August, but not before throwing the first (albeit exhibition) Met pitch in Citi Field history.
• Hisanori Takahashi alighted in camp in February 2010 and gave the Mets as much bang for their buck as any starter/reliever had since maybe Terry Leach: a dozen starts, eight saves, ten wins overall.
• Rod Barajas was a last-minute, last-resort signing in February of 2010 (as the starting catcher responsible for handling a dozen different arms), and if only the season had ended in June, he might have vied for National League MVP. He was a Dodger by August.
• Jason Isringhausen proved like so many prodigal Mets before him that it paid to have a track record somewhere when reporting date was bearing down. Izzy was welcomed back to the Mets bullpen in February 2011 and hung in there long enough to record his 300th save six months later.
Oh, and one more February transaction during this period that bears noting: four youngsters dispatched to Minnesota for Johan Santana in early February of 2008. The mega-megabucks deal that brought him to New York at least matched Foster’s for generating immediate enthusiasm and the output — 46 wins as a Met, two of them (the last at Shea; the first with no hits) transcendent — made it as good a deal as any finalized in February. Taylor was a part of something bigger, Leiter did more heavy lifting and Kingman may have been more mythic at his specialty, but Johan Santana three-hit the Marlins when it mattered most and no-hit the Cardinals, which will matter forever. Johan Santana is the emperor of February arrivals.
It’s hard to imagine any Met to launch in February could match those singular accomplishments (Johan’s expensive injury-wracked voids notwithstanding) he could Santana be surpassed by this month’s signature finds? By a Marlon Byrd…or a Brandon Lyon…or a Michael Bourn maybe?
It’s hard to tell right now. After all, it’s only February.
UPDATE: Bourn signs with Cleveland. But we’ll always have Luis Alvarado.