TRADES REVISITED: THE COST OF J.J. PUTZ

One season, one trade, a big price to pay

“You’re not going to just trade people for the sake of trading people … It’s not that easy. It’s got to make sense.”

— Mets general manager Omar Minaya (November of 2008)

It’s got to make sense — and if a trade was ever going to make complete sense — it was following the New York Mets second straight pitching meltdown of 2008, this time courtesy of the bullpen. After coming alive in July and August, going a combined 36-19, the Mets bullpen was dealt a hand for future disaster. Billy Wagner was lost in early August and Duaner Sanchez was failing to recapture his 2006 magic. With Sanchez struggling with velocity, the Mets were left to feature the likes of Aaron Heilman, Scott Schoeneweis, Brian Stokes, an untested Bobby Parnell and former National Luis Ayala to close out the season’s most important stretch.

The Mets lost nine of their final 15 games in 2008, failing to qualify for a one-game “win-and-you’re-in” scenario against the Milwaukee Brewers, and reopening the painful wound of the 2007 collapse for the Mets and their fan base. Another year removed from the ‘06 run, but still with cornerstones Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, David Wright and Jose Reyes and with Johan Santana heading the rotation, Minaya had almost no choice but to act, even citing the concerns of Mets fans to address the bullpen at all costs. Following the signing of closer Francisco Rodriguez following his record-setting 62-save season with the Anaheim Angels on December 9, the Mets continued the refortification of their bullpen by trading for the Seattle Mariners’ All-Star closer J.J. Putz two days later.

Putz finished the 2008 season with a 3.88 ERA, but a more respectable 3.78 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) and double-digit strikeouts per 9 innings, leaving hope for a return to his stellar 2007 season pedigree where he featured a 2.67 FIP, an incredible 0.698 WHIP and 40 saves as one of the top closers in the American League.

To acquire Putz from Seattle (along with reliever Sean Green and outfielder Jeremy Reed) in a three-team deal, the Mets parted with Heilman, outfielder Endy Chavez and four minor leaguers: first baseman Mike Carp, outfielder Ezequiel Carrera and pitchers Maikel Cleto and Jason Vargas while Joe Smith, a bright spot in the bleak 2008 bullpen, went to the Cleveland Indians.

It was the epitome of a dream scenario for the Mets going into the 2009 season. Santana would pitch seven innings (with run support from a very capable offense) and Putz and K-Rod would come in and shut the door to rack up the wins. But Beltran, Delgado and Reyes suffered injuries, the starting pitching outside of Johan was disastrous, Omir Santos played in 96 games, Daniel Murphy lead the team with a whopping 12 home runs and Putz would make only 29 appearances before going down with arm injuries. Suffering a record of 70-92 and with many problems to solve, Minaya decided to cut his losses with Putz and paid him a $1 million buyout to end his tenure as a Met.

The 2009 season, and subsequent few years, were filled with middling success. The Mets never finished above .500, but also didn’t perform poorly enough to warrant a full-blown rebuild effort. While Putz was long gone from the Mets and re-establishing himself as a dominant late-inning reliever with the White Sox and D-Backs, the Mets were left with a scar from the trade, watching the prospects they traded away develop into serviceable to very-good major-leaguers. Minaya was known for many trade and free agent signing blunders, but was the Putz trade one of the most impactful not just on the 2009 season, but for the future of the organization? Looking back on the development of the prospects given up by Minaya, the Putz trade robbed the organization of some much-needed talent.

Ezequiel Carrera

Followers of the MLB Waiver Wire will recognize Ezequiel Carrera’s name as a frequent flyer between different organizations, and despite not being able to establish himself as an everyday player, he has graded out well as a fourth or fifth outfielder. Using On-Base Percentage (OBP) and Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) which assigns weights to larger base hits, along with factoring in defensive prowess and base running ability, the stats show Carrera would have been a welcomed younger presence on the Mets in 2011-12.

Despite patrolling the likes of Carlos Beltran, Angel Pagan, Andres Torres, Lucas Duda and Jason Bay between the 2011 and ‘12 seasons, the Mets still had plenty of playing time to hand out to their additional outfielders. With Scott Hairston, Jason Pridie and Willie Harris getting time in 2011 and Hairston, Mike Baxter and Kirk Nieuwenhuis in 2012, Carrera would have served as a younger, higher ceiling player than all of the other options except for Nieuwenhuis who also held prospect status.

Making his debut in 2011 at age 24 with the Cleveland Indians (after a trade from Seattle), Carrera put forth an OBP of .301 along with a wOBA of .277 in 68 games, while grading out with great base running and defense per Fangraphs.com. Harris, Pridie and Hairston combined to make 664 plate appearances for the Mets, each with flaws in their production. Harris (33) put forward a strong OBP of .351 and an average wOBA of .304 in 283 plate appearances, but had luck on his side with a high BABIP, and graded out as the poorest defensive and base running outfielder amongst the non-starters. Pridie (27) and Hairston (31) meanwhile struggled with their OBP, stashing .309 and .303 respectively, while Pridie posted a wOBA of .299 and Hairston a .332, with both also grading out as negative defensive players. With Carrera batting a .371 OBP and .334 wOBA in 82 games for AAA Columbus, he was proving he was ready to contribute at the MLB level. Known for speed and strong defense, Carrera could have served the Mets in a very productive role as an up and coming prospect, rather than the known-ceiling reserve players of Harris, Pridie and Hairston.

In 2012, with an outfield of Torres, Bay and Duda, there were plenty of opportunities for the team’s extra outfielders to start and to serve as late defensive replacements. Hairston had a career year power-wise hitting 20 home runs, yet only producing a .299 OBP and .342 wOBA while Baxter provided a strong OBP of .365 (wOBA .337) and Nieuwenhuis debuted with a quality .315 OBP and .305 wOBA. Carrera meanwhile improved his OBP from ‘11 to a .312 and wOBA to a .305, while also posting strong numbers at AAA. With only Nieuwenhuis as a potential future piece, the next best outfield prospect close to appearing with the team being Matt den Dekker who struggled in AAA, Carrera again had the potential to play an important role for a rebuilding team, rather than giving at-bats to players who did not have a future with the team in Hairston and Baxter.

Mike Carp

The other offensive prospect lost by the Mets was 2013 World Series Champion Mike Carp. Once a top prospect in the Mets system, Carp put up strong numbers for AA Binghamton in 2008 with 17 home runs, 72 RBIs, and OBP of .403 and a wOBA of .393. The future looked bright for Carp as he moved to Seattle’s AAA affiliate in 2009, yet the narrative would be that he lacked a clear path to regular major league playing time. In 2009, the Mariners were fighting for a postseason berth, with one of their offensive leaders being first baseman Russell Branyan who hit 30 home runs along with an OBP of .347 and wOBA of .368. With Branyan’s play leaving little time for Carp, just 21 games, Carp still produced 1 home run, 5 RBIs and a wOBA of .388 despite only 65 plate appearances. By 2010, the Mariners added Casey Kotchman to man first base and added top prospect Justin Smoak from the Texas Rangers in a deal for Cliff Lee, leaving Carp to only appear in 14 games.

Meanwhile in Flushing, Carp could have been just what the doctor ordered for a team in need of first base depth. In 2009, Carlos Delgado was off to a fast start with four home runs and 24 RBI in 26 games before being lost for the season due to injury, after which Daniel Murphy and Fernando Tatis served as the regular first base options. While Murphy did lead the Mets that season with 12 home runs, a player like Carp with power potential would have been a welcome addition, allowing the Mets to potentially deploy Murphy elsewhere. Next came 2010 and this time it was Murphy hitting the shelf with a right knee sprain, leading the legendary Mike Jacobs to return to the Mets…but only for 7 games before being cut.

Next up came Ike Davis who flashed tons of potential in’10 despite only 10 games above AA, yet the injury bug would hit him next in 2011 and suddenly Murphy was back at first base. Meanwhile Carp was buried in Seattle’s AAA team under the likes of Branyan in ‘09, and an underperforming Kotchman and top prospect Smoak in ‘10. At a time when the Mets prospect pool was shallow, a power-hitting first baseman like Carp would have been a great asset to the Mets, with the potential to fill the first base spot for a few seasons and at minimum providing a player to push Murphy/Davis or as a platoon partner for Davis against lefties, as Carp has no significant career splits with a .332 OBP and .329 wOBA against RHP and a .323 OBP and .325 wOBA against LHP.

Carp would go on to prove his worthiness with the Boston Red Sox in 2013, winning the World Series as an important bench and platoon player. While he has bounced around in AAA since ‘13, the Mets missed out on having a capable power threat on the roster to man first base from ‘09-’13 when they needed it the most.

Jason Vargas

Within the framework of the Putz trade, Jason Vargas’ Mets tenure becomes the epitome of a “what could have been” scenario. Acquired on November 20, 2006 along with LHP Adam Bostick from the Florida Marlins for relievers Matt Lindstrom and Henry Owens, Vargas came to the Mets after a disastrous ‘06 season in the Marlins organization. Upon his arrival, Vargas went to AAA where he put up pedestrian numbers, before a small cup of coffee with the big club, leaving much to be desired from the pitching prospect. After a missed ‘08 season with a torn labrum in his left hip, the organization never fully realized the potential of Vargas, yet they would soon find out how crucial of a piece he could have been in the following years’ rotations. Using the statistics of FIP, which is similar to ERA but uses a constant fielding variable, WHIP, K/9 and BB/9, it can be seen that there was a huge gap between Vargas and the cast of characters the Mets used to start games.

Beginning in 2010 Vargas took hold of a spot in the Mariners rotation with a FIP of 3.95, WHIP of 1.25, K/9 of 5.42 and BB/9 of 2.42. While not ace-like numbers, Vargas did outperform a number of Mets starters such as Jon Niese, Dillon Gee, John Maine, Oliver Perez, Ken Takahashi and Jenrry Mejia. Likewise, Vargas outperformed all Mets to start a game that season in WHIP except Santana, R.A. Dickey and Gee. Finally, Vargas was able to show his control with a good walk rate, only failing to outperform once again Santana, Dickey and Pat Misch. This continued in ‘11 as Vargas put together another strong season for the Mariners with a 4.09 FIP, ranking higher than Niese, Gee and Mike Pelfrey who all made at least 26 starts. Vargas also would have ranked better with a 1.31 WHIP for all Mets starters except Dickey, Chris Young and Miguel Batista.

After 2012 the Mariners traded Vargas to the Angels for first baseman Kendrys Morales. Vargas did not live up to his own standards, regressing to a 4.09 FIP, but still posting strong K/9 and BB/9 numbers en route to a four year, $42 million dollar contract with the Kansas City Royals. During this time when Vargas could have been a valuable third or fourth starter, the Mets were starting their greatest hits, which would include Niese, Gee, Shaun Marcum, Chris Schwinden, Aaron Laffey, Jeremy Hefner and Daisuke Matsuzaka. At a time when the rebuilding Mets were looking for stable starters, or at least good trade candidates (he did net the Mariners Morales, a very good slugging first basemen), the potential value Vargas could have given the Mets during his controllable years would have been enormous.

Joe Smith

For a season to end the way it did in 2008, it is curious to wonder why Minaya traded a young, very good controllable righthander like Joe Smith. Drafted by the Mets in the third round of the ‘06 draft, Smith quickly rose through the ranks needing only 27 minor league games between Short-Season Brooklyn and AA Binghamton before making his debut in 2007.

After making a respectable debut in ’07, Smith followed up with a complete 2008 season in which he posted a 3.97 FIP, 1.29 WHIP, 7.39 K/9 and 4.41 BB/9. Smith also posted a very strong 0.57 HR/9 showing he had the skill of keeping the ball in the ballpark, and overall he looked like he was going to be a stabilizing force in the Mets bullpen for years to come.

After the trade to the Indians, Smith proved to be just that- a stabilizing force who would develop into a great late-game option. After pedestrian seasons in ‘09 and ‘10 where Smith would rank as a good middle reliever, he would go on to post FIP stats of 2.91, 3.50 and 3.60 from ‘11-’13 and an even stronger 2.85 and 3.15 FIP in ‘14-’15 with the Angels, developing into a great late-inning reliever with strong strikeout numbers and better control than earlier in his career. In the meantime, without including Putz, the Mets patrolled Sean Green who failed to live up to the same standard as Smith as a sidearm righty reliever. In the following seasons the Mets would struggle to find a complement to K-Rod in the bullpen, using amongst others Raul Valdes, Ryota Igarashi, D.J Carrasco, Ramon Ramirez, Manny Acosta, Brandon Lyon, Kyle Farnsworth, Jose Valverde and Frank Francisco as relievers pitching important innings. While the Mets did have K-Rod and developed Parnell and Mejia into solid closers during their tenures, the presence of Smith would have been an incredible asset to have as either a complement to the Mets closers, or as a future trade piece for the rebuilding club.

Conclusion

In hindsight, the trade for Putz did not work out as planned, creating one of the greatest 1-2 punches in the game at the time. Putz’ option was declined prior to the 2010 season, leaving the Mets left with nothing but to watch as the prospects they traded away developed into major league talent of various degrees. With a shallow prospect pool and continuing injury troubles starting in the ‘09 season, Carrera and Carp would’ve had the opportunity to play and pick-up important at-bats. Vargas would have served as a quality third of fourth starter on a rotation which needed help with a lack of starting prospects in the organization while Smith would have been a great addition to a bullpen in need of young and developing talent. While the trade did make sense at the time for a team in desperate need of solidifying the back end of the bullpen, Minaya’s plan did not fire on all cylinders like it needed too, costing the Mets four young, controllable players who would have served them well during the rebuilding process.

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