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On July 16, 1997, Steve Phillips became the ninth general manager in Mets history when he succeeded his former boss, Joe McIlvaine. The timing was rather surprising because the Mets had a surprisingly successful season in 1997, but it was clear that the Mets wanted someone else making the critical personnel decisions.
Almost a month later, on August 8, Phillips made his first major trade by dealing popular center fielder Lance Johnson, middle infielder Manny Alexander and dependable starter Mark Clark to the Cubs for centerfielder Brian McRae and relievers Mel Rojas and Turk Wendell.
After having a career season with a .333 average, 117 runs scored, 227 hits, 31 doubles, 21 triples, nine home runs, 69 RBI and 50 stolen bases in 1996, Lance Johnson immediately became one of the most popular Mets. He made the All-Star team that year and got off to another solid start in 1997 before shin splints caused him to miss over a month of the season.
With a crowded outfield, plus Johnson being 34 at the time, the Mets decided they would be better off parting ways with the "One Dog." Mets fans may have been disappointed at the time, but eventually, it turned out rather good for the Mets. Johnson did not play to the same level as before with the Cubs, whom he played for through 1999. He signed with the Yankees in 2000 and spent a brief appearance on the major league squad before getting sent to the minor leagues. He subsequently retired after that season.
Alexander was a journeyman middle infielder, who filled in for the Mets in 1997 at second base when Carlos Baerga was slumping and at shortstop when Rey Ordonez got injured. His numbers though were not too impressive. He batted .248 with two home runs and 15 RBI in 54 games. After getting traded to the Cubs, whom he stayed with through 1999, Alexander continued his journeyman career by spending time later with the Red Sox, Rangers and Padres.
After a solid 1996 season of his own, in which he led all Mets starters with 14 wins, Mark Clark's 1997 numbers (8-7, 4.25 ERA) were not exactly up to par and the Mets decided to include him in the trade. After the deal, Clark made nine starts for the Cubs and went 6-1 with a 2.86 ERA as he finished the season with a combined 14-8 record and a 3.82 ERA.
It would be Clark's last great season in his career. He went 9-14 with a 4.84 with the Cubs in 1998 before moving onto the Rangers and having two terrible seasons there in 1999 and 2000. He retired after the 2000 season.
The main reason for this trade though from the Mets' perspective was because the Mets needed more bullpen depth to help bridge the game between the starters and longtime closer John Franco. Rojas, a former Expos closer was the centerpiece of the trade for the Mets. Ironically, he turned out to be by far the least useful of the new Mets.
Rojas was 0-2 with a 5.23 ERA in 23 appearance in 1997 following the trade. He was even worse in 1998 with a horrendous 6.05 ERA in 50 appearances despite a 5-2 record. Rojas ended up being traded for an even bigger headache in Bobby Bonilla after the 1998 season.
As it turned out, the steal of this trade for the Mets was Turk Wendell, who became one of the Mets' most dependable relievers from 1997-2001 and one of the best setup men in team history. Wendell turned in a 5-1 record and a 2.93 ERA as the Mets' primary right-handed set-up man in 1998. He went 5-4 with a 3.05 ERA in 1999 while setting a then-Mets single season record 80 appearances out of the bullpen, followed by an 8-6 record and a 3.59 ERA in 2000 as he helped the Mets get to the 2000 World Series.
Wendell had a 4-3 record and a 3.51 ERA in 2001 before getting traded to the Phillies with his left-handed counterpart Dennis Cook. Wendell spent the rest of 2001-2003 with the Phillies and 2004 with the Rockies before retiring.
Last but not least, McRae became a decent center field replacement for Johnson. After the trade, the switch-hitter batted .248 with five home runs and 15 RBI. However, he bounced back in 1998 with a career season that included a .264 average, 36 doubles, 21 home runs, 79 RBI and 20 stolen bases.
In 1999, though, he regressed and was batting just .221 with eight home runs and 36 RBI before getting traded to the Rockies at the trade deadline. It turned out to be the final season of his career, as the Rockies traded him to the Blue Jays a week later. He struggled with his new team and retired after that season.
There are many different ways to assess this trade. Between the two centerfielders, the Mets and Cubs pretty much evened out, as both Johnson and McRae did not play particularly well after the trade and both retired a few years later.
Alexander and Clark did not contribute that much in particular to the Cubs during their respective tenures there, while Rojas was a disaster for the Mets and Wendell became a revelation.
Thus, the trade overall did not give either team a significant advantage in the long run, but Wendell's dominance in the Mets bullpen was what put the Mets over the top as the winners of this trade.