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There may or there may not be mad money to spend now that Steve Cohen is the man writing the checks at Citi Field. But what the Mets did Thursday in making a blockbuster trade for Francisco Lindor is well in keeping with a half-century team tradition.
When the Mets make a franchise- and destiny-altering move that lands them at the sport’s highest plane, it has always been of the old-school variety: our-guys-for-your-guys, let’s see who gets the better of the deal. Free agents have helped bring the Yankees multiple titles — start with Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson back in the day, CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett in 2009.
The Mets? They go to the war room. They work the phones. They have been to five World Series. All five were set up the old-fashioned way. It started on June 15, 1969, when, at the old trade-deadline 11th hour GM Johnny Murphy sent five players (the most notable future big-leaguer Steve Renko) to Montreal for Donn Clendenon.
“At the time we didn’t realize what that meant because none of us had ever been in a pennant race and it was too early to say we were in one then,” ’69 stalwart Ron Swoboda recalled a few years ago. “But when we got into September and October and every time you look up Clendenon’s getting a monster hit … well, that’s when we knew.”
When the core of that team returned to the Series four years later, the biggest reason why was the acquisition of Rusty Staub by GM Bob Scheffing, a deal completed on the day Gil Hodges died — April 2, 1972 (though not announced until three days later). It was actually a costly trade — Ken Singleton was a borderline Hall of Famer, Tim Foli and Mike Jorgenson productive major leaguers — but Rusty was one of the main reasons the ’73 Mets could do more than simply believe.
Even the first powerful team the Mets constructed in the free-agency era wasn’t built on even one big-ticket offseason acquisition but a series of smart deals (Ron Darling/Walt Terrell for Lee Mazzilli, Terrell for Howard Johnson, Ray Knight for three players — most notably Gerald Young). And, of course, two blockbusters.
The first was June 15, 1983, and it delivered Keith Hernandez in exchange for Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey, and that was about as one-sided as the law allows. And the one that put the ’86 Mets over the top came almost 18 months later, Dec. 10, 1984, when Gary Carter was acquired for four eventual big-leaguers (Hubie Brooks the most prominent).
“That’s a classic example of team-building,” Hernandez said in 2016. “You look at what Frank Cashen knew he had in the farm system, he went about acquiring exactly the players he needed to put around them. It really was quite something.”
The Mets’ two most recent appearances in the Fall Classic were also the direct result of monstrous transactions. Free agent Robin Ventura was a key member of the 2000 team, but it was the Mets’ prior acquisition of two transient Marlins — Al Leiter first, then Mike Piazza — then a top-of-the-rotation pickup from the Astros (Mike Hampton) that ultimately bought them a ticket to the 2000 World Series.
Fifteen years later, the Mets were languishing near .500, unable to make a push in the NL East until, a few minutes before the July 31, 2015, deadline, Sandy Alderson stunned most of baseball and almost the entirety of his fan base by pulling off a head-spinning deal: Yoenis Cespedes in exchange for one eventually serviceable big-league pitcher (Luis Cessa) and one could-be star sidetracked by Tommy John (Michael Fulmer).
As poorly as the Cespedes/Mets trade ended up, it’s still impossible for any Mets fan not to fondly recall August and September of ’15 when Cespedes hammered his way to a .942 OPS and 155 OPS+ and ignited the Mets to an improbable pennant.
“In my first tenure with the Mets we had a little better success with trades than with free agents,” Alderson said, laughing, Thursday afternoon. “Maybe that’s a good sign for this deal.”
He was asked what brings a GM more satisfaction: A big-ticket free-agent signing that works out or a trade that yields dividends?
“There’s a little more investment in time and effort and thought in a trade scenario,” Alderson said, though he added with a smile: “As long as the player turn out well, it really doesn’t matter how they were acquired.”
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