Five Mets who were never the shiniest available objects glistening in the display case of a given free agent market stopped being Mets altogether this week. Non-tendered as possible prelude to a purposeful pursuit of Curtis Granderson — or whoever can be lured for a lesser price and/or fewer years — were Justin Turner, Jeremy Hefner, Jordany Valdespin, Omar Quintanilla and Scott Atchison. With Granderson’s strengths, weaknesses and fondness for fish coming under the Metroscope for incisive examination, we’ve probably forgotten about the lot of them already. Maybe one or two will circle back and thus give us reason to forget they were ever not with us. Maybe one or two will land elsewhere and make us regret the Mets’ decision to not retain their services. Probably not, I’m guessing, but one never knows.
Every personnel move of this nature is fraught with frightening implications for the team giving up on the player(s). All the Mets were doing with this quintet was creating 40-man roster space and maybe looking to save a few bucks. They receive no players in exchange, so the best they can hope for is it won’t look bad in a vague sense, never mind tangibly backfire on them. If Hefner, for example, recovers fully from Tommy John surgery, winds up in the American League and wins 15 games with the Rangers, that looks bad. If, say, Valdespin becomes the Braves’ everyday second baseman, hits .480 versus the Mets and wins three World Series, that’s tangible backfire.
If you’re the Mets, the best you can hope for from players you nurtured, encouraged and blessed as worth coming out to see is that they’ll quietly fade away. You wish them well, but you mean it more in a human then a professional sense, I imagine. “Best of luck, Justin,” means keep being a “great presence in the clubhouse” somewhere else, not “hey, you be sure to morph into superstardom now that you’ve pied your last peer.”
Mets fans don’t need much to set their insecurities aflame, so it wouldn’t take much Atchisonian success to have us slapping our foreheads yet again, convinced this always happens to us. It’s not too many steps from Omar Quintanilla telling Kevin Burkhardt, “Oh, definitely it’s sweeter to get a big hit like that against an organization that let you go” to invoking Ryan-for-Fregosi, Otis-for-Foy and both ends of Jeff Kent, coming and going.
There is another possible outcome, however. There’s the lightly considered Mets castoff who, by dint of change of scenery, attitude or instruction, transforms himself into an instant avatar of regret — but not necessarily an enduring one. He’s hitting or pitching at a fantastic pace, the Mets appear idiotic to have so carelessly abandoned him, he’s the toast of his new town…and then the guy’s luck or skill runs out. He’s injured. Or he wasn’t that good to begin with, just hot. The Mets stop seeming like idiots, at least on this count.
Let’s call this recurring phenomenon of Mets who got away but didn’t get all that far in the end our Momentary Lapse of Season Mets. To qualify for this status, the players in question had to have:
a) played mostly unspectacularly for the Mets and not for very long;
b) been deemed so superfluous that the Mets bounced them for little or nothing in return;
c) excelled so much in their new surroundings that Met brass had to answer for why they were so quick to give up on that fellow;
d) and receded from their newfound stardom almost as soon as they achieved it.
These are the kinds of situations that pain you acutely, but not endlessly. By the time the player has had his moment, you’ve moved on to stewing over some new Met-inflicted indignity — or back to interminably cursing Ryan-for-Fregosi.
MOMENTARY LAPSE OF SEASON: 1974
In the age when Tom Seaver, Jon Matlack and Jerry Koosman represented a triad of unwelcome challenge to opposing batters, it wasn’t surprising that one of the pitchers who helped the Mets win a pennant in 1973 would lead the National League in ERA the following year. It was, however, stunning that the pitcher who took the title was neither Seaver, Matlack, Koosman nor anyone else wearing a Mets uniform in 1974. The man of the hour instead found himself having a wonderful life well south of Shea Stadium. You might even call his season Capraesque.
Bob Scheffing had to sort through a slew of talented arms, both established and promising, the spring after his club’s surprise appearance in the Fall Classic. The GM solved his numbers problem when he sold the man who wore No. 38 to Atlanta. The Mets received cash. The Braves uncovered a gem.
For $30,000, Atlanta took professional possession of Buzz Capra and boy did they take that deal to the bank.
After three years of splitting his time between Flushing and Tidewater, Capra — whose most memorable Met moment involved Pedro Borbon taking a big, juicy bite out of his cap during the NLCS brawl of the previous October — was still fighting for a slot in St. Petersburg in the spring of ’74. When his contract was sold, his prevailing emotion was happiness. Buzz was finally going to get a chance to pitch regularly. “Every year,” he said upon the news of the sale, “I came here and I had to pitch my way onto the team. There were times I thought I should have been given the chance to have to pitch my way off the team.”
Planted like one of Joe Pignatano’s tomato plants in the bullpen as a Met, Capra parlayed a successful long-reflief effort into his first Brave start on May 19. He won a complete game. Atlanta manager Eddie Mathews gave him another chance. He threw a shutout, the second of five consecutive starts of nine innings.
On the same team as recently crowned home run king Henry Aaron and knuckleball master Phil Niekro, Buzz Capra was the one creating a stir just in time for the Mets’ mid-June visit to Atlanta Stadium. His earned run average was down to 1.18, best in the N.L. His opponent was to be none other than Tom Seaver, who was mired in the worst year of his career, toting around an ERA three times as high as Capra’s. The optics, as they’d say in the 21st century, did not favor the Mets’ ace. Tom made himself scarce for what was supposed to be a joint press conference of aces. Capra, despite expressing a twinge of retrospective disappointment about not getting enough of an opportunity on his old team, couldn’t have exuded any more happiness over his new surroundings.
“Sometimes,” he admitted, “I say, ‘What am I doing? Whatever it is, I want to keep doing it.’”
So he did.
The matchup wasn’t a great game for either pitcher (the Braves won in extras), but Capra kept on trucking from there. Yogi Berra named him to the first National League All-Star team to not include Seaver since 1966, though his old skipper did call on him to pitch in the N.L.’s traditional Midsummer Classic victory. His ERA didn’t remain microscopic, but at 2.28, it did wind up leading the league. Buzz even attracted a Cy Young vote…or one more vote than all the pitchers on the Mets’ vaunted pitching staff combined.
Thanks in great part to William Lee Capra’s 16-8 effort, the Braves enjoyed their first winning season since 1969. And without him — and with Tom Terrific going a plebian 11-11 — the Mets finished with their first losing record since 1968.
In 1975, Capra was undercut by an arm injury. He was through pitching in the majors by 1977. By then, the Mets’ lack of Tom Seaver more than obscured any stray recriminations regarding the Buzz who got away.
MOMENTARY LAPSE OF SEASON: 1994
Twenty-four years old. Lefthanded. A complete game, one-hit shutout in his fourth major league start. If you ran a major league team in dire need of hope and improvement, what would you do with someone like that?
If you were the 1994 Mets, you’d put him on waivers and heartily waive him goodbye when somebody picked him up. Sounds ridiculous nearly two decades later, but in the context of the moment, it seemed…nah, it didn’t seem like that swell a move then, either.
But you have to understand the context of the Mets’ decision to jettison a pitcher who on paper was still plethoric with promise to grasp why it wasn’t surprising to see them send Pete Schourek packing when the ’94 season was less than a week old. As with Capra, the official reason for the move was an excess of pitchers for a finite quantity of spots. There were a couple of fallen stars (Dwight Gooden and Bret Saberhagen) at the head of the rotation and a couple of guys named Smith and Jones (Pete and Bobby) behind them. GM Joe McIlvaine’s fifth-starter choice thus came down to Schourek or another lefty, Eric Hillman.
At the time, which was directly after the fetid 1993 campaign, the impulse of the haggard Mets fan was to suggest, “Take them both…hell, take everybody.” The x-factor, though, was the manager, Dallas Green, and his intense distaste for Schourek. He didn’t exude much in the way of enthusiasm for many of his players, but the self-styled Mouth That Roared really didn’t seem to care for Pete. If Schourek had a bad outing, Green did not withhold his criticism in his postgame remarks. For example, when Schourek gave up four runs in the first third of an inning of a 5-2 loss at Atlanta, the manager reared back and flung his starter beneath the nearest Greyhound:
• “It looked like he forgot every lesson he learned in his last start.”
• “We’re down to about one guy a day not doing his job.”
• “If I don’t start Schourek, we have a 2-1 game.”
Toughlove, if that’s what it was, didn’t do Schourek any good as his 1993 concluded at 5-12 with an ERA nearly scraping six. Given those results and his skipper’s temperament, it’s little wonder Green once “sarcastically offered Schourek as a Christmas present to a group of reporters in his office,” according to the New York Times’s Jennifer Frey. Nevertheless, the Schourek-Green relationship was the gift that threatened to keep on giving as Spring Training 1994 got underway. The right things were said. Schourek, who was out of options, insisted he knew he had to do better to maintain his Mets affiliation. Green claimed the lefty had a clean slate. Pete was indeed part of the team when it arrived in Chicago to start the season.
By the time the Mets flew to Houston, however, he was off it. Before he could throw a single pitch, McIlvaine — without any objections from Green — placed Schourek on waivers to make room for reliever Doug Linton. Hillman had won Schourek’s old rotation spot and there was no desire to use the deposed starter out of the bullpen. The Reds snapped him up.
Shifted to Cincinnati, Pete Schourek flourished. Between Reds coaches revising his motion and Schourek shunning alcohol, the kid found both success and maturity: 7-2 in strike-truncated 1994 and a startling 18-7 in the 144-game 1995 season, when Pete finished second to Greg Maddux in National League Cy Young voting and 20th in MVP balloting for his role in propelling the Reds to the N.L. Central title. A WHIP that had soared to 1.660 in 1993 was down to 1.067 two years later, a figure that trailed only Atlanta’s Maddux and L.A. rookie sensation Hideo Nomo.
In the midst of his run of redemption, the onetime would-be “Christmas present” left a little something under the tabloid tree, informing the Daily News in June of ’95 that Dallas Green shouldn’t expect a holiday card from him after he was done pitching in that fall’s postseason.
“He’s an ass,” Schourek said. “You can write it. What do I care? He’s taken enough potshots at me. If you want to call him an asshole, that’s fine with me. I still don’t know why he singled me out. Maybe because I was young and I couldn’t do anything about it. [...] The guy buries me in the paper and he won’t even say ‘hi’ to me in the clubhouse. Then I’m put on waivers and it must have been the happiest day of his life because he comes over to me, and he’s smiling, shaking my hand, wishing me well.”
Guiding the Phillies to the 1980 world championship probably rated a bit higher among Dallas’s Best Days, but Schourek’s point was made. He left Green’s Mets and became one of the best pitchers in the league, while the mediocre Mets basically maintained their mediocrity through the end of Green’s tenure in August of 1996. The trajectory Pete’s career took might be better remembered as a greater Met embarrassment if 1995 was the harbinger of a career arc to come.
Unfortunately for Schourek, not only did it never get any better after he won those 18 games, it never came close to being nearly as good. Injuries hampered him to such an extent that over the next six seasons, Schourek won all of 25 games for four different teams. His final appearance came in a Red Sox uniform in 2001 at the age of 32. By decade’s end, though, he was back in Mets gear, not tutoring minor leaguers (as Capra eventually did) but suiting up as a fantasy camp coach. Not seen anywhere near St. Lucie at the time: Dallas Green.
Which was probably Schourek’s fantasy in the spring of 1994.
MOMENTARY LAPSE OF SEASON: 2001
The Mets harbored a surfeit of outfielders following their 2000 National League pennant, which wasn’t exactly the same thing as having a bounty of them. The fellows the Mets featured that October certainly got the job done under pressure, but a dispassionate reading of the Shea pasture might have indicated Benny Agbayani, Jay Payton and Timo Perez could stand to be supplemented by a reasonably proven-veteran type, one who had played an understated role in the club’s most recent autumnal activities, no less.
But with Agbayani, Payton and Perez on board, Darryl Hamilton continuing to recover from injury, super-versatile Joe McEwing and Lenny Harris hanging around and exotic import Tsuyoshi Shinjo attracting their roving eye, the Mets forgot all about Bubba Trammell. Almost as an afterthought to the December wheelings and dealings that brought them Shinjo, Kevin Appier and Steve Trachsel, they shipped Trammel — whose seventh-inning pinch-single tied the opening game of the 2000 World Series — to San Diego for the commodity GM Steve Phillips seemed to value above all others: bullpen inventory.
The trade was Trammel, 29, for Donne Wall, 33. There was no “i” in Donne and no point to his presence on the 2001 Mets, as it turned out. The righty, who had been an effective setup man before his October 2000 shoulder surgery, pitched in 32 games as a Met. The Mets lost 28 of them, including 10 in April — 12.2 IP, 6.39 ERA — when Bobby Valentine had yet to be disabused of his confidence in the former San Diego Padre.
Reliever ERAs aren’t considered the most reliable indicators of effectiveness. Indeed, the 4.85 earned run average with which Donne finished his 2001 doesn’t begin to illustrate the full extent of his lousiness or, more charitably, his failure to truly mend from surgery. Nor does his 0-4 record. Perhaps the writing on Wall is best comprehended via his three extra-inning outings as a Met. In two of those games, he gave up the losing runs and thus took the losses. In the other, the Mets scored six in the top of the tenth at Houston and he didn’t blow it.
While Wall was helping to dig a hole from which the defending league champions would never climb out, left, center and right constituted more Mets minefield than outfield. A dozen different players shuttled in and out of three positions, none of them starting as many a hundred games. The Mets would recycle Mark Johnson, promote Darren Bragg, rush Alex Escobar and acquire Matt Lawton (for 2001 All-Star Rick Reed) to plug the holes that never quite closed…a few neon-orange moments of Shinjoy notwithstanding.
As the Flushing whirlpool swirled, Trammell was doing just fine in San Diego. He was beyond fine, actually. If he’d stayed at Shea, his season would have been the best put together by any Mets outfielder…or, really, just about anybody not named Mike Piazza. Unspectacular as a Tiger and Devil Ray and not deployed much after he was picked up by the Mets in July of 2000, Trammell started more games for the Padres than he’d ever played for anybody in a given year. Near-daily duty agreed with the soft-spoken Tennessean. His 25 home runs outpowered every Met but Piazza. His 92 RBIs were two shy of Mike’s total and 30 more than driven in by any other Met. Agbayani, Payton and Perez collected nine fewer runs batted in as a unit than Trammell did by himself.
And Steve Phillips traded him for Donne Wall.
Subtract the damage Wall did to so many late-inning Met affairs and transfer Trammell’s production back east from the Padres, and one can imagine the six games by which the Mets lost the division in 2001 dissipating in an instant. Wins Above Replacement may not work that way, but it’s difficult to not believe Bubba emerging in right and Wall remaining out of sight wouldn’t have somehow added up to a substantially better result.
No bitterness from Bubba bubbled up while he was making his former employers look like very shaky evaluators of talent. “When Steve Phillips told me I was traded,” he said that August, “he told me it would be a better fit for me this year. I’m happy he gave me the opportunity to get to play. Maybe I wasn’t going to get the opportunity there.”
Everybody else did, so, yeah, he probably would have. The man who joked he’d play for free if he was guaranteed 500 at-bats translated his 546 plate appearances in 2001 into an enormous raise for 2002. Alas, with a starting job locked up, Bubba took the field for San Diego the next April and slumped. While Mets fans sorted through the accumulating wreckage of their team’s first last-place season in nine years, Trammell hit eight fewer homers and drove in 36 fewer runs. His major league journey took him back to New York by the spring of 2003, traded by the Padres to the Yankees for Rondell White. He DH’d briefly to no great effect before leaving the team without warning after complaining Joe Torre wasn’t playing him enough.
Trammell eventually acknowledged a battle with depression. He bounced among a few different organizations between 2004 and 2007, but never made it back to the big leagues. This past September, he reappeared in the news following an allegedly nasty “domestic incident” in Tennessee.
MOMENTARY LAPSE OF SEASON: 2007
The New York Mets who were about to take the National League East by storm in 2006 were 1-0 when Willie Randolph handed the ball to a rookie righthander about to make the first appearance of his major league career. Soon enough, the Mets would be rolling toward their first division title in 18 years and the rookie would be holding down a spot in their rotation.
Then April ended. Things were never quite the same for Brian Bannister again.
Four starts in, Bannister — the son of a major leaguer himself — had collected two victories and looked progressively sharper, earning his place among Pedro Martinez and T#m Gl@v!ne on the team that took control of first place the first week of the season and never let it go. The fifth start, however, was the bad-luck charm in Bannister’s Met tenure. In the top of the sixth of a 3-3 game at San Francisco, Brian helped his own cause, doubling with one out (it was his fourth hit of the young season). One out later, Kaz Matsui doubled, too, but Bannister’s trip home was no jog in AT&T Park. As he carried the tiebreaking run around third, the pitcher pulled his right hamstring and left the game after scoring.
The next time he pitched for the Mets was almost exactly four months later. By then, the team had all but sewn up its division flag and Bannister had been surpassed on the pitching depth chart by just about everybody in creation. Two token relief appearance were all he’d muster in September and he wouldn’t see the postseason roster.
That December, perhaps taking a cue from his mentor Phillips, GM Omar Minaya sought to shore up the never quite stable Mets bullpen by sending the cerebral 25-year-old to Kansas City for Ambiorix Burgos, the possessor of a promising 22-year-old power arm. Minaya envisioned Burgos, who definitely threw harder than Bannister, as a potentially devastating member of the army of setup men who would construct a sturdy bridge from the starting pitcher to closer Billy Wagner.
Burgos pitched in 17 games for the 2007 Mets, none after May 26. He was sent down to New Orleans to make room for Guillermo Mota, who was returning from a PED-related suspension. The youngster eventually went in for Tommy John surgery that kept him from the majors in 2008. While not pitching for the Mets that September, Burgos was arrested for assaulting his girlfriend. There’d be more legal troubles ahead, culminating in charges of kidnapping and attempted murder in his native Dominican Republic in 2010. His pitching career was over.
Bannister, meanwhile, joined the Royals’ rotation in late April of 2007 and seemed to pick up where he left off that fateful day in San Francisco one year earlier. By early September of ’07, when the Mets were on their way nailing down their second consecutive division crown, he sported a 12-7 record for also-ran Kansas City, his ERA bottoming out at 3.16. By year’s end, he had impressed American League beat writers enough to finish third in A.L. Rookie of the Year balloting…an honor for which he still qualified given that his shot on the 2006 Mets had been so drastically abbreviated by injury.
From the East Coast, Bannister’s breakout campaign in the middle of the country looked awfully useful as the Mets found themselves juggling starting pitchers through the late summer and early fall. As they resorted to the likes of journeyman Brian Lawrence and unready rookie Phil Humber, the Mets discovered their October plans were far more wobbly than they could have dreamed. In what became known instantly as The Greatest Collapse In Baseball History, the 2007 Mets leaked a seven-game lead with seventeen to play and missed the playoffs completely. They have yet to return.
Bannister was good for a 2.8 WAR in 2007. Burgos’s two months produced a 0.2 in this advanced statistical metric, though it is far more tempting and probably just as accurate to say his time as a Met was good for nothing. The Mets finished one game behind the Phillies. Maybe an untraded Bannister would have made the difference between a close but successful finish and The Greatest Collapse In Baseball History.
Brian Bannister didn’t go down in the upper tier of “what were they thinking?” annals probably because his 2007 was never equaled. The Royals thought they had finally avenged Cone-for-Hearn when Brian spurted to a 3-0 start (0.86 ERA) in April of 2008. By year’s end, however, that sparkle had faded. Bannister concluded his second season in Kansas City 9-16, allowing 5.76 earned runs per nine innings in the process. From ’08 to ’10, he was a 23-40 pitcher and his ERA of 5.58 suggested that unlike his hamstring giving out on him, his fate wasn’t the product of bad luck. He planned to try his hand with the Yomiuri Giants, but the effect of the tsunami and earthquake that struck Japan in March of 2011 changed his mind. Barely turned 30, Brian Bannister retired from baseball.
“To the world,” Bannister once told a reporter for a Christian newspaper, “we’re judged completely based on our numbers out on the field, but there’s a higher power up there looking and judging us by who we are and what we’re doing on the inside.”
In that vein, perhaps the ultimately transient sting of the transactions that rendered Capra, Schourek, Trammell and Bannister excellent ex-Mets for only a limited time is evidence of that supposed higher power’s capacity for forgiveness of general-managerial malpractice. It wouldn’t explain Foy-for-Otis, but you can’t have everything in this world.