As I just mentioned, the New York Mets of this period seemed to have so much depth at every position. And it also did not seem that it was all veteran players. Young position players were now in the mix such as Gregg Jefferies, Dave Magadan, and Barry Lyons. Jefferies was expected to be a regular player in 1989 pretty similar to the way Kevin Elster became the regular shortstop in 1988. The Mets decided to trade veteran second baseman Wally Backman to the Minnesota Twins to clear some room on the roster. The only semi-notable addition the Mets made in the 1988 off season was to sign former All Star reliever Don Aase as a free agent from the Baltimore Orioles.
Two things stand out about that season that I would learn later on. The first of which I did not understand until later on which led into the second lesson. The Mets seemed to have a lot of depth on a team which, for the most part, had proven to win together. Though there had been some changes from the roster from the World Series Championship team from 1986, the majority of the key contributors remained from that team. General Manager Frank Cashen made a complete shock of a trade on June 18th of that season. He dealt center fielder Lenny Dykstra and relief pitcher Roger McDowell to the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for second baseman Juan Samuel. Samuel had played center field during the 1989 season and was expected to do the same with the Mets.
Samuel had been a two time All Star with the Phillies and had a track record of being one of the better all around players in the National League. But he had come off a very down season in 1988 and had become a defensive liability at second base, leading to his move to the outfield. Of course, Dykstra and McDowell were fan favorites, but additionally, it just did not seem like Samuel was worth both of those players in return. The Mets were now down a starting outfielder and a top relief pitcher and the it was fair to question whether Samuel would ever return to the player he was a couple years earlier. This point was ascertained at the time the trade was announced.
What was not spoken about until later on was the fact that Jefferies was a player that caused a lot of tension on the team. As several veterans would later state, it was not the fact that Jefferies burst on the scene during the final month of the 1988 season. It was his attitude and the fact that he carried with him a sense of entitlement. The fact that manager Davey Johnson seemed to favor him a little bit added to the divide, a divide that started before the postseason of 1988. Later on during the 1991 season, Jefferies would write an open letter to his teammates, criticizing them for their treatment of him over the past three years. Perhaps it was just as simple as Jefferies being a polarizing player that needed to learn how to get along with his teammates.
Was Jefferies the reason Cashen traded Dykstra and McDowell? The last game of the 1990 season would later end with Jefferies grounding out to end the game against the Phillies with McDowell on the mound. McDowell said some words and Jefferies would charge the mound. Does that mean the Mets chose Jefferies over McDowell and Dykstra?
The 1989 Mets were an underachieving team, but more importantly, they were missing key players for long periods of time. First baseman Keith Hernandez was limited to 75 games and catcher Gary Carter played in just 50 games. All Star pitcher Dwight Gooden was out due to a shoulder injury. The Mets still had starting pitchers David Cone, Ron Darling, Bob Ojeda, and Sid Fernandez, but Cashen felt the need to make a trade for former Cy Young Award winner Frank Viola. Viola did not come cheap as the Mets traded away reliever Rick Aguilera as well as top pitching prospects David West and Kevin Tapani to the Twins.
As stated in his book, Mookie Wilson was fed up with his playing time situation. He thought the trade of Dykstra would allow for the opportunity to play everyday, something that never materialized. He also resented sitting on the bench in favor of Samuel, who he felt was an inferior player. And the numbers said Wilson was right. To appease Wilson, Cashen dealt him to the Toronto Blue Jays for relief pitcher Jeff Musselman.
The Mets bullpen, once considered a strength because of its depth, only essentially contained Randy Myers as McDowell and Aguilera were now traded. Flanking starting outfielders Kevin McReynolds and Darryl Strawberry was just Samuel, who by this time had shown his 1988 decline was real. Gooden, Hernandez, and Carter would all return, but the team was just not the same. The Mets would miss out on the playoffs in 1989, finishing five games behind the first place Chicago Cubs. Hernandez and Carter were given ovations in their final games at Shea Stadium, essentially meaning that neither would play another game for the team.
The next season, the Mets would look a little different after trading Samuel to the Dodgers for first baseman Mike Marshall and reliever Alejandro Pena. Cashen then traded Myers to the Reds for John Franco, a pitcher who would spent the next 14 years in New York with the Mets. The overcrowded starting rotation would result in one starter being left out. It started out being Ojeda, then became Darling after Ron got off to a slow start. It resulted in both pitchers being unhappy and later on being traded, first with Ojeda in the 1990 off season, then Darling during the 1991 season. Strawberry left as a free agent after 1990 and Jefferies, McReynolds, and Keith Miller were dealt to the Kansas City Royals after the 1991 season. The 1992 Mets would become the worst team money could buy after the signings of free agents Vince Coleman (for the 1991 season), Bobby Bonilla, and Eddie Murray. Bret Saberhagen came over in the Royals deal to replace Viola, who signed with the Boston Red Sox as a free agent.
Hindsight says Cashen should not have broken the 1989 team apart. That being said, Hernandez' career was finished and Carter would spend three seasons as a back up catcher before retiring himself. The Viola deal made them a little better, but the Samuel trade for Dykstra and McDowell was completely unnecessary. It led to the Wilson deal and the next season the Mets did not have a center fielder, with all due respect to Darryl Boston. I wonder out loud what the Mets could have been if they had not made the Samuel trade. Watching the Phillies make it to the World Series in 1993 makes he wonder what the Mets could have been if they still had Dykstra. Of course, would that have meant the trade of Jefferies, and if it did, would they have been able to keep the other players they ended up dealing and losing to free agency? I know Dykstra was on steroids, but it would have been great to see him playing his best for the Mets in the 1990's. And there will always be the wonder of how Strawberrry's Mets career would have finished out had he not left after the 1990 season to sign with the Dodgers.