Worst trades in Mets history, #3: Jeff Keppinger for Ruben Gotay

Ruben Gotay spent just one year in New York. (Wikipedia)

Not many players have been on both sides of bad trades in Mets history, but Jeff Keppinger was.

By July 19, 2006, New York was running away with the National League East. The team was firing on all cylinders, but anything can happen in the second half of the season. It was still necessary to bolster the ranks—and, to do so, Keppinger was found expendable. He was shipped to the Royals for 23-year-old prospect Ruben Gotay.

A 26-year-old utility infielder for a decent prospect. Sounded like a decent move.

Except Gotay didn’t play for New York at all in 2006, after spending 86 games with Kansas City the year before. He spent the whole season at Triple A, batting .265 with 12 home runs and 64 RBI.

And when he did arrive in New York, Gotay proved to be a temporary lodger. He was a serviceable utility player in 2007, and had the best year of his big league career, slashing .290/.351/.421.

But that was it. Whether the Mets should have brought him back for another campaign is up for debate—I, for one, think they should have—but they didn’t. He went to the Braves, struggled, and was out of the majors after 2008.

Jeff Keppinger forged a nine-year career in the majors. (Wikipedia)

As for Keppinger.

He didn’t have home run power or drive in many runs, but the defensively versatile utilityman hit for average, had decent extra base prowess (career high 34 doubles in 2010) and could play all over the field. He was one of the hardest batsmen to strike out, leading the National League in at-bats-per-strikeout ratio in 2008 and 2010.

While Gotay was one-and-done in New York, Keppinger forged a nine-year big league career. He earned significant starting time for much of it and batted as high as .332, with another season of .325. Though he never stuck with any one team for more than a couple seasons—he was traded three more times after 2006—Keppinger proved to be a valuable asset wherever he went.

But this deal wasn’t even the most egregious involving Keppinger and the Mets. A couple years earlier, on July 30, 2004, he was traded from Pittsburgh as part of the return package for future star outfielder Jose Bautista and 2010 All-Star Ty Wigginton.

His departure from the Mets was a bad one. But the conditions of his of arrival made that pretty horrid, too.

But that’s an article for another time.

Worst trades in Mets history, #2: Kazuo Matsui for Eli Marrero

Kaz Matsui hit well after joining the Rockies. (Wikipedia)

This one is not so bad because of what the Mets lost, but because of what they received in return. Addition by subtraction only works when what is gained isn’t, itself, a subtraction.

Joining the Mets in 2004, Kazuo “Kaz” Matsui was nothing less than a disappointment in his two-plus years in New York. He was a star in Japan, batting as high as .322 and stealing as many as 62 bases in a season, but that success didn’t translate to the major league stage.

The middle infielder spent time at second base and shortstop and found little success at either position, struggling offensively and defensively. In his first campaign, he hit .272 with 32 doubles and 14 stolen bases in 114 games — which earned him some support in Rookie of the Year voting. In the field, however, he finished second in the league in errors committed.

Any promise his 2004 season held was dashed in 2005, as his batting average fell to .255 and his on-base percentage slumped to a meager .300 in just 87 games. By 2006, he was slashing .200/.235/.269 and the Mets decided the Matsui experiment had to come to an end.

Having all but lost his starting job to Jose Valentin, Matsui was shipped off to the Rockies for Cuban catcher/outfielder Eli Marrero on June 9.

Matsui went on to hit .345 for Colorado that year, then hammered out two decent campaigns in 2007 and 2008, averaging 26 stolen bases and 25 doubles per season, while hitting .290.

Marrero — who was batting just .217 at the time of the trade and was a .245 career hitter prior to 2006 — lasted 25 games with New York. He hit .182 in 33 at-bats and was released on August 9, ending his Mets, and major league, career.

Escaping the Big Apple helped Matsui turn a corner in his career. Adding Marrero helped nothing. Though Matsui was struggling, trading him, it seems, was a worse deal than doing nothing at all.

Hello, Chance Sisco; See ya later, Albert Almora

Chance Sisco was a top prospect with the Orioles. (Wikipedia)

The Mets recently welcomed catcher Chance Sisco to the big league roster and bid adieu to struggling outfielder Albert Almora.

Both were once top prospects who have yet to live up to their promise.

Sisco has been in the majors since 2016, slashing .199/.319/.339 in 191 career games. With the Orioles this season, he hit just .154/.247/.185 in 23 games before being selected off waivers by the Mets in June.

But there is a glimmer of hope for Sisco. Despite his offensive struggles, he usually performs well in the minors (never mind his .207 average this year) and was twice selected to the Futures Game.

Encouragingly, he knows how to get on base, posting a career .383 on-base percentage on the farm and, as recently as last season, a .364 mark in the majors.

That bodes well for the 26-year-old, who has yet to enter his prime and who arrives in New York with three .300 seasons in the professional ranks under his belt.

At the very least, he shores up a team’s catching contingent that is in disarray, with starter James McCann batting .240 with an OBP barely over .300, backup Tomas Nido – currently on the Injured List – hitting .231 and career minor leaguer Patrick Mazeika managing a .276 average that is bound to regress.

Albert Almora disappointed with the Mets. (Wikipedia)

Optimally the Mets have caught lightning in a bottle – again, as Brandon Drury certainly fits that description, as well – and perhaps they did. Sisco collected a hit and RBI in his first Mets at-bat.

As for Almora, his tenure with the Mets has been nothing but a complete failure.

Once a sixth overall pick, he was once a wunderkind, making Baseball Prospectus’ and Major League Baseball’s top prospect lists five years in a row – peaking at number 18 on both – and Baseball America’s list thrice, peaking at number 33 there.

And it almost seemed like he’d live up to the hype. In his second big league season, 2017, he hit .298 in 299 at-bats and the next year – his first with significant starting time – he batted .286.

But the wheels fell off the cart.

Then Almora arrived in New York.

And the cart fell apart.

In 47 at-bats with the Mets, he’s batted just .128. His longest hitting streak is one game. He’s gotten a hit in just three of the 39 games he’s played.

Each year, New York keeps at least one struggling outfielder around way too long. In 2020, they let Billy Hamilton, who hit .045, steal 17 games and 22 at-bats from a more deserving player. In 2019, they had Carlos Gomez (89 AB, .198 BA), Keon Broxton (49 AB, .143 BA) and Aaron Altherr (31 AB, .129 BA). In 2018, they brought back former prospect Matt den Dekker and gave him 18 at-bats, just to hit .000. And this year, in addition to Almora, they had Cameron Maybin, who went 1-for-28 (.036 BA).

Trotting the same mediocrity out day after day just breeds the same mediocre results.

New York threw Almora at the wall. He didn’t stick. Time to try something new.

Hey, Mark Payton’s hitting .317 at Syracuse. Give him a shot.

Worst trades in Mets history #1: Mike Cameron for Xavier Nady

Mike Cameron, toward the end of his career. (Wikipedia)

Don’t get me wrong, at the time this wasn’t a terrible deal. Only in retrospect can we see how much the Mets lost.

Outfielder Mike Cameron, he of great defense, good pop and even better speed, joined the Mets in 2004 and hit 30 home runs that season. In 2005, he was on pace for one of the best years of his career, hitting 12 home runs with 39 RBI and an elevated batting average through 79 games.

Partway through the year, however, he was involved in a terrible outfield collision with Carlos Beltran, forcing him to miss the rest of the season. It was a matter of two center fielders trying for the ball at the same time—Cameron had shifted to right field to accommodate the newly arrived Beltran, but he was a center fielder by trade.

In Cameron, the Mets had damaged goods who might or might not fully recover and a guy who was forced to play out of his natural position. Trading him, and his pretty large contract, seemed like a good idea.

On November 18, 2005, he was sent to the San Diego Padres for outfielder Xavier Nady.

Nady spent less than a full season in New York, hitting .264 with 14 home runs and 40 RBI in 75 games before himself being sent to the Pirates. Granted, he was a big reason the Mets got off to a hot start in 2006—they were 46-29 in games he played—but the brevity of his stay negated much of the impact he had on the club.

Upon leaving the Mets, Cameron averaged 23 home runs, 75 RBI, 81 runs scored and 17 stolen bases per year from 2006 to 2009. He was superior to Nady on defense, quicker on the base paths and possessed greater power. Nady, never a slugger, averaged only 10 home runs and 42 RBI per season from 2007 to 2012.

The Mets traded Cameron, a former All Star centerfielder, for Nady, a marginal starting outfielder, at best. At the time, it seemed like it made sense. But the power of hindsight suggests it didn’t.

Jacob deGrom’s downfall was predictable.

Jacob deGrom’s bout with injuries should come as no surprise. (Wikipedia)

I’m a Mets fan, so you’ll see random posts opining on various Mets minutiae.

But not minute is the ballad of Jacob deGrom. The hurler was the least known of the Big Five that was sure to lead the Mets to years of postseason appearances and World Series victories.

Among Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler and Steven Matz, deGrom wasn’t much of a prospect, and hardly anyone predicted his eventual rise to superstardom.

Baseball works in mysterious ways, of course. Harvey crumbled and is now pitching in the baseball hinterland of Baltimore, having gone 21-36 with a 6.13 ERA since 2017. Syndergaard had one really great year, 2016, earning an All-Star selection by going 14-9, 2.60 with 218 strikeouts in 183 2/3 innings – but he’s been hurt, underwhelming or both since, and hasn’t pitched since 2019.

Wheeler wasn’t bad with New York, but he was once a 6th overall pick – yet he pitched no better than a number three starter for much of his Mets tenure. In typical Mets fashion, now that he’s with a division rival, he’s pitching like a Cy Young candidate. And Matz never quite put it all together, sometimes bubbling under greatness before pulling the rug out from underneath our expectations. His Mets career culminated in a 0-5, 9.68 ERA showing in 2020, and the club said sayonara.

Then there’s deGrom, the unassuming 9th round draft pick who didn’t reach Triple A until he was 25, who turned no heads with a middling 4.51 ERA the year before his big league debut, who was already in his age-26 season by the time he pitched for New York.

Yet, he’s the one who became a two-time Cy Young winner. He’s the one who made a bunch of All-Star teams. He’s the one who averages nearly 11 strikeouts per nine innings, who has never allowed more than 59 walks in a season, who is the envy of the league.

All that is surprising, sure. But not shocking is his sudden bout with injuries, and – I hate to say it – his impending, inglorious decline. He is a 33-year-old pitcher who throws a four-seam fastball more than any other pitch, at an average speed of nearly 99 miles per hour. The triple digit barrier doesn’t stand in his way, as 100-plus is a frequent occurrence.

All this on an elbow that already had a Tommy John surgery in 2010. All this on an arm that has been pitching professionally for more than a decade. All this on an arm – and a body – that is quickly exiting its physical peak years and entering baseball senescence.  

Jacob deGrom was 7-2 with a 1.08 ERA this season before getting hurt. (Wikipedia)

Can anyone honestly say they didn’t see this coming? Some of the greatest pitchers of our era, when their decline started, fell off rapidly. Johan Santana rattled off nearly a decade of pitching magnificence, just to get hurt, miss a year, and be out of baseball one year after that. Brandon Webb made three All-Star appearances in a row, got hurt, pitched one more game, and was done. Roy Oswalt was humming along, until he wasn’t. After his age-33 season, he was just 4-9 with a 6.80 ERA, and that was it.

Santana collapsed after his age-31 campaign; Webb after age 29, Tim Lincecum after age 27, Roy Halladay after age 33.

deGrom will be no different. His demise is forthcoming, and it won’t be pretty. It won’t be enjoyable. Mets fans will be set to wonder what could have been.

Now, he could mount a late-career comeback. That’s not an impossibility, either. Dennis Martinez had a disastrous swoon, then returned to pitch over 2,000 innings and win 134 games. Swoon, too, did Bartolo Colon, and the legend of Colon is one that will live on in baseball lore for generations. He returned from baseball’s no-man’s land to toss nearly 1,400 frames, win almost 100 more games, and endear himself to sports fans the world over. Even CC Sabathia managed the feat – saving his Hall of Fame chances by doing so – pulling himself from his career’s nadir and tossing nearly 600 more innings.

But Martinez, Colon, Sabathia – sure at points they had passable fastballs, but none of them were flamethrowers. DeGrom is. He throws – or threw, whether he’ll continue remains to be seen – smoke … and the hotter you throw, the quicker you burn out.

Therefore, a crafty deGrom redux, with his injury history, his style of pitching, his advanced age, doesn’t seem likely.*

*But there is hope, still, as Frank Tanana went from throwing fire to tossing junk. But he made the transition in his mid-20s, not his early-to-mid 30s.

What does the future hold for deGrom? We can hope for the best. But a Hall of Fame ending doesn’t seem likely – his seven-year peak from 2015 to this year pretty well mirrors Santana’s from 2002 to 2008. Assuming deGrom returns a shell of his former self, and in the long run I think he will, his fate with Cooperstown will be the same as Santana’s.

Santana received 2.4 percent of the vote in his first and only year of eligibility. A player needs 75 percent to get in.

Appreciate what you have when you have, I guess, because before you know it … it’s gone.