By 2002, the bottom had fallen out for the New York Mets as they finished with a losing record for the first time since 1996. It marked the beginning of a long and depressing stretch of seasons that saw them go through multiple managers and even more washed up baseball players.
And to think, just a couple years earlier, the team was in the World Series.
Indeed, 2000 was a year of extreme highs for the Mets—they won 94 games and the Wild Card, beating out the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds for the final spot. After going a combined 7-2 in the National League Division Series and the Championship Series, they made it to the Fall Classic for the first time since 1986. Sure, they lost to the New York Yankees, but they still made it.
2001 was a year of highs and lows, ups and downs. Though they finished over .500, it was just barely—they won 82 games and lost 80. They spent most of the year with a losing record, but toward the end of the campaign, the squad entered a hot streak and became aggregate winners.
Bad play is often the product of poor decisions by the front office, however, and the Mets certainly made some—well, curious—moves during the 2002 offseason and regular season that no doubt sealed their fate for that campaign—and for years to come.
Here’s a look at some of the most atrocious trades the team made during that time.
Kevin Appier for Mo Vaughn
The man they called “Ape,” starting pitcher Kevin Appier, was only a Met for one season, 2001, but it was a solid season nonetheless—in 33 starts, he won 11 games while striking out 172 batters and posting a 3.57 ERA.
After his brief stay with New York, he was traded to the Anaheim Angels for “Hit Dog,” and one-time super slugger, first baseman Mo Vaughn.
Granted, it seemed like a good deal at the time—Vaughn, after all, hit 36 home runs in 2000 and won the American League MVP Award in 1995. He was a real star throughout the 1990s and was a guy who could help the Mets return to winning for years to come.
By 2002, however, his star had faded. He was damaged goods when he arrived with the Mets, as he missed the entire 2001 season to injury.
In his first year with his new team, he proved he was not the Mo Vaughn of old, as he hit only .259 (to that point, he’d been a .298 career hitter) with 26 home runs (his lowest total since 1994, excluding 2001) and 72 RBI (his lowest mark since 1992, save for 2001).
He played in only 27 games for the Mets in 2003 and hit only .190, unceremoniously wrapping up a once great career. He didn’t play in the big leagues after that terrible season.
The worst part is, he did all this while earning a superstar’s salary. In 2002, he commanded over $12 million and the next year, the mark was over $17 million. He even earned more than $17 million in 2004, despite not playing a single game!
Vaughn, a player who was supposed to help break the Mets out of their 2001 doldrums and restore their winning ways, played all of 166 games for the team. He hit only .249 with 29 home runs and 87 RBI.
Appier, on the other hand, performed in his typical fashion in 2002, winning 14 games in 32 starts for the Angels. He declined after that season.
Saul Rivera and Dicky Gonzalez for Scott Strickland
This was actually a seven player trade involving a lot of non-factors—to simplify things, let’s remove the riff-raff and focus on the main ingredients: relief pitchers Saul Rivera and Scott Strickland, and young starting pitcher Dicky Gonzalez.
On April 5, 2002, the Mets sent three players, including Gonzalez, plus a player to be named later, to the Montreal Expos for Scott Strickland and two others. The player to be named later would be Saul Rivera.
Strickland’s time with the Mets, though decent, was stunted by injury and an unfortunate ability to lose games in which he pitched. In his first season with the team, 2002, he appeared in 68 games and posted a 3.59 ERA while averaging more than a strikeout per inning. Not too shabby.
But he also lost nine games, walked too many batters (33) and gave up his share of home runs (seven). He returned to the club in 2003 but pitched in only 19 games, posting a 2.25 ERA in his injury-shortened season.
Compare him to Rivera. A bullpen workhorse who from 2006 to 2008 showed that he, had the Mets not traded him away, could have been the right-handed version of Pedro Feliciano.
During that three-year span with Washington (formerly Montreal), he averaged 72 appearances a season. He allowed only eight home runs total while averaging fewer walks per nine innings than Strickland did in his time in New York.
Consider also that the Mets threw in 22-year-old Gonzalez, a Baseball America top prospect in both 2000 and 2001, who had shown flashes of dominance in a 16-game big league stint in 2001.
The deal basically shuttered Gonzalez’s promising career, as the Expos buried him in the minor leagues, where he would remain until his next—and last—big league cup of coffee with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2004.
One can only begin to wonder what he could have done had the Mets kept and developed him.
The other players in the deal include Luis Figueroa and Bruce Chen, who the Mets sent to the Expos, and Phil Siebel and Matt Watson, who the Expos sent to the Mets.
Jason Bay for Jason Middlebrook and Steve Reed
“Jason Bay” is kind of a bad word in New York now, as he has underperformed since signing a big free-agent contract a few years ago.
But what if the Mets had had him when he was still young, when he was still in his prime and when he still had a bunch of 30-home run seasons in him?
They did have him—for four months in 2002.
After acquiring him from the Expos for peanuts in March, the Mets sent Bay to Double-A and Triple-A, performing at both levels with aplomb—combined, he hit 13 home runs and drove in 73, while stealing 35 bases.
At that year’s trading deadline, as the Mets were looking to shore up weak spots on the team, they sent Bay, career minor leaguer Josh Reynolds and pitcher Bobby M. Jones to the San Diego Padres for pitchers Jason Middlebrook and Steve Reed.
And all the Mets received in return was a temporary lodger in Reed and a thoroughly mediocre pitcher in Middlebrook.
Reed spent the rest of 2002 with the Mets, appearing in only 24 games, but left following the season as a free-agent.
Middlebrook pitched eight games for the Mets between 2002 and 2003, posting a 5.87 ERA in 23 innings of work.
Did I mention Bay went on to become one of the best hitters in the league?
Jay Payton for John Thomson
Jay Payton was an oft-injured, but incredibly talented outfielder who played for the Mets from 1998 to 2002.
In his official rookie season, 2000, he finished third in the balloting for National League Rookie of the Year by hitting .291 with 17 home runs. He later shined in that year’s World Series, hitting .333.
2001 was an off-year, but by 2002 he was on the rebound. The Mets—and Rockies—saw his stock going up-up-up, so in another abominable deadline-day trade, the Mets sent Payton, who was hitting .284 with eight home runs and 31 RBI, pitcher Mark Corey and minor leaguer Robert Stratton to the Rockies for starting pitcher John Thomson and outfielder Mark Little.
The deal, unfortunately for the Mets, comes down to Payton for Thomson.
While Payton hit .335 with the Rockies to finish out the year, and in 2003 hit 29 home runs in an All-Star quality season, Thomson tanked.
A cog brought in to patch up the Mets weak starting rotation, Thomson went only 2-6 with a 4.31 ERA in nine starts for New York before departing following the season for free-agency.
Egad, that was a bad deal.
Rey Ordonez for Russ Johnson and Josh Pressley
Sure, after shortstop Rey Ordonez broke his arm making a play a couple months into the 2000 season, he was never the same whiz defensively. After committing only four errors in 1999, he made 12 miscues in 2001 and 19 in 2002.
But to trade him away for what amounted to nothing seems like an injustice, even if they had to make room for top prospect Jose Reyes, who was waiting in the wings.
Alas, nothing is what they got for him. While there were technically other players involved, neither of them played a single game in a Mets uniform, nor did either of them net the Mets anyone via trade on their way out of the organization.
On December 15, 2002, Ordonez was sent to the Tampa Bay Rays for a couple players to be named later—eventually Russ Johnson and minor leaguer Josh Pressley.
Johnson was released by the Mets at the end of 2003, after playing for their Triple-A team the entire season. Pressley, too, spent his time as a Met on the farm, never seeing a day in the big leagues (not with the Mets, or anybody, for that matter).
While Ordonez didn’t do much after leaving the Mets, this was still a nothing-for-something deal that did not work in the team’s favor. The Mets lost a fan favorite for…who?