This is my second article in an occasional series in which I will look at the way that a single franchise has filled a single position over the course of time: stars and stopgaps, free agents and trades, hot prospects and positional conversions. Last time, I examined Atlanta Braves centerfielders. This week, I will look at another up-the-middle position for another National League team, as I take a look at the way that the New York Mets have filled their keystone, second base.
The difference between the two teams is stark. The Braves filled center field with brilliant draftees like Dale Murphy and Andruw Jones and a succession of mostly successful trades, but the Mets’ second base has been a 30-year revolving door. Here’s how it looks:
1983: Brian Giles (a different one)
1984-1985: mostly Wally Backman
1986-1988: Wally Backman/Tim Teufel
1989: mostly Gregg Jefferies, some Tim Teufel
1990: mostly Gregg Jefferies, some Tim Teufel and Tom Herr
1991: Gregg Jefferies, Tom Herr, Keith Miller
1992: mostly Willie Randolph, some Jeff Kent and Bill Pecota
1993-95: Jeff Kent
1996: Jose Vizcaino, Edgardo Alfonzo
1997-98: Carlos Baerga
1999-2000: Edgardo Alfonzo
2001: Edgardo Alfonzo, some Desi Relaford
2002: Roberto Alomar
2003: Roberto Alomar, Joe McEwing
2004: Jose Reyes, Daniel Garcia, Jeff Keppinger, Ty Wigginton, Joe McEwing, Ricky Gutierrez
2005: Miguel Cairo, Kaz Matsui, Marlon Anderson
2006: Jose Valentin, Chris Woodward, Kaz Matsui
2007: Luis Castillo, Jose Valentin, Damion Easley, Ruben Gotay
2008: Luis Castillo, Damion Easley, Argenis Reyes
2009: Luis Castillo
2010: Luis Castillo, Ruben Tejada, Alex Cora
2011: Justin Tuner, Ruben Tejada, Daniel Murphy, Brad Emaus
2012-2013: Daniel Murphy
That isn’t every player who played an inning at 2B for the Mets; it’s just the players who played significant innings in at least one season. I generally defined that as at least 10 games in a year in which no one played 100 games at 2B, or at least 20 games in a year in which one player played 100 games at 2B.
The Mets shifted players around constantly, and often used second base as a temporary holding station for utility infielders. Teufel played second and first; Jefferies and Alfonzo played second and third; Backman, Vizcaino, Matsui, Ruben Tejada, and Jose Reyes played second and short; Justin Turner played every infield position; stone-gloved Daniel Murphy was shifted from left field to second base; and Pecota, Miller, McEwing, Woodward, Wigginton, Valentin, Easley, and Cairo played everywhere.
Generally speaking, it is fair to say that the Mets did not treat second base as a keystone to build around. Rather, they viewed it as a solution to positional surplus elsewhere. For example:
1996: They played Jeff Kent as their regular second baseman for three and a half years, 1992-1995, and in 1994-95 their regular shortstop was Jose Vizcaino. But in 1996 they brought up the slick-fielding no-hit shortstop Rey Ordonez, so they shifted Kent to third so that they could move Vizcaino to second.
1999: Edgardo Alfonzo had been the regular third baseman for two years. However, in 1999, the Mets traded for third baseman Robin Ventura, so they shifted Alfonzo to second base to replace the departed, unproductive Carlos Baerga.
2002: Alfonzo had been the regular second baseman for three years, and had been an All-Star in 2000, but the Mets traded for Roberto Alomar, so they shifted Alfonzo to third base, to replace the departed Ventura. (The Braves did something very similar when they traded for Dan Uggla and displaced their All-Star second baseman, Martin Prado, shifting him to left field.)
2004: The Mets signed shortstop Kazuo Matsui, seen as one of the top position players in Japan, but they already had a superstar shortstop prospect, Jose Reyes, who had debuted the previous year. So they switched Reyes to second base to allow Matsui to continue to play shortstop, as he had in Japan.
2005: In 2004, Reyes and Matsui had both suffered injuries. Matsui only played 114 games in 2004, and Reyes played only 53. In the final three games of the season, Reyes played shortstop and Matsui played second base. That was how it would be in 2005, as Reyes and Matsui switched positions. In mid-2006, the Mets traded away the disappointing Matsui.
From a similar perspective, the Mets viewed second base as a bat-first position. There were a lot of players that they wanted to get into the lineup, and they often accomplished this goal by moving someone to second base, even if the player didn’t have much of a glove. That was certainly true for Daniel Murphy, a player who came up as a first baseman but whom the Mets converted to play second base after Rule 5 draftee Brad Emaus simply failed to hit. Neither Wally Backman nor Tim Teufel had much of a glove; neither did Jeff Kent; and Gregg Jefferies was simply awful. By the time they came over to the Mets, Luis Castillo and Roberto Alomar had lost much of their range.
Over the period, the Mets farm system was reasonably productive, turning out Backman, Jefferies, Alfonzo, Wigginton, Reyes, Tejada, and Murphy. Jefferies didn’t really fulfill his promise until he got to St. Louis, and Wigginton wasn’t much of a player until Houston, but the farm system did a pretty good job of producing warm bodies, with Reyes and Alfonzo becoming All-Stars with the Mets. The Mets just couldn’t make up their mind to keep a player at a single position.
Part of the problem for the Mets is that several high-profile deals simply didn’t work out as planned, particularly the Kaz Matsui free agent deal and the Carlos Baerga and Roberto Alomar trades.
Baerga and Alomar both came over from the Indians, and both instantly flopped in Shea Stadium as they turned out to be past their prime far earlier than anyone would have expected, as Baerga came when he was 27, and Alomar when he was 34. The Baerga deal nullified one of the Mets’ bolder trades of the period, in which they flipped David Cone for Jeff Kent. Cone would win the Cy Young two years later, and Kent was good, but had not yet transformed into the MVP candidate he later became in San Francisco. In 1996, the Mets gave up on Kent and traded him to Cleveland — but Baerga had peaked at age 23 and was near-replacement level in New York.
Alomar’s decline was even more precipitous. At the time he came over to the Mets, he had played in 12 straight All-Star games and had been a top-four MVP candidate in two of the previous three seasons. But he too turned into a replacement-level player as soon as he came to New York. The Alomar trade arguably cost the Mets less: the best Mets gave up six players in the Alomar deal, but the best player they gave up was Matt Lawton, whose post-Mets career was nowhere near as good as that of Jeff Kent.
Here are two ways of stating the bottom line:
A past-his-prime Luis Castillo, who manned the keystone in New York for three and a half seasons, gave the Mets some of the most consistency at the position that they have had in the last 30 years. (Edgardo Alfonzo and Jeff Kent also played three plus years at second, but the Mets shifted them both to third before letting go of them. Willie Randolph, Roberto Alomar, and Luis Castillo were the only pure second basemen on the list, starting 2Bs who never played another position in a Mets uniform.)
Over the past 30 years, 11 All-Stars have logged significant innings for the Mets at second base: Willie Randolph, Gregg Jefferies, Tom Herr, Jeff Kent, Edgardo Alfonzo, Carlos Baerga, Roberto Alomar, Damion Easley, Ty Wigginton, Luis Castillo, and Jose Reyes. Only one of those players, Edgardo Alfonzo, was actually named to the All-Star team while playing second base for the New York Mets. All of the rest played the best years of their career before arriving or after leaving, with the exception of Reyes, who became an All-Star after the Mets moved him from second base to shortstop.
I am not criticizing the Mets for shifting players around. It is completely fair to say that second base is not the most important position on the diamond. For most teams, it makes sense to build around center field, shortstop, or the starting rotation, unless you happen to employ a transcendent player like Chase Utley or Robinson Cano. It may be perfectly appropriate to move a versatile player like Edgardo Alfonzo from second to third and back, based on his talents and roster need.
The problem is not that the Mets were willing to treat second base as a relative afterthought. The problem is that they compounded it with poor talent evaluation. Not only were they willing to acquire a 27-year old Carlos Baerga who would never have another good season, they were willing to trade away a 28-year old Jeff Kent who would have another good decade. Not only were they willing to switch the position of Jose Reyes, who later became one of the best shortstops of his generation, but they did it in order to accommodate Kaz Matsui, a player both offensively and defensively inferior to Reyes. And so on.
In the past 30 years, the Mets have not had a single player as their primary second baseman for four straight years. That is not enough to damn them. But it is representative of the team’s strategic incoherence, which has often been remarked on: regardless of who happens to be the general manager, player acquisitions often seem to be motivated more by the urgings of the back page of the tabloids than by long-term planning. Strategic incoherence is what damns them, not instability at second base. And that is what needs to change.