Like both his predecessor, Joe McIlvaine, and his assistant, Omar Minaya, Steve Phillips was another Mets GM that was very aggressive throughout his tenure. His aggressiveness certainly paid off when the Mets were one of baseball's best teams in 1999 and 2000. However, that same aggressiveness led to the Mets underachieving, and ultimately his firing midway through 2003.
Phillips had been in the Mets' front office throughout the 1990s as an assistant, primarily for Joe McIlvaine. He was always involved in McIlvaine's moves, but after some poor decisions made by his boss, Phillips was promoted to be the new GM on July 16, 1997, while McIlvaine became a talent evaluator, a position that better suited him.
The first major decision Phillips made as GM occurred slightly after the trade deadline on August 8. That day, Phillips his first of many large trades by sending center fielder/1996 sensation Lance Johnson, along with dependable starter Mark Clark and backup infielder Manny Alexander to the Cubs.
In return, the Mets got another center fielder in Brian McRae, a proven reliever in Mel Rojas and another soon-to-be proven reliever, Turk Wendell. Despite missing a month with shin splints, Johnson was batting .309 with the Mets that year. However, this move ended up giving a lot more freedom for Carl Everett to play every day in what was a crowded outfield. Nonetheless, Johnson was a popular player and fans were disappointed to see him go.
Despite a down year in 1997, McRae emerged as one of the Mets' best hitters in 1998 with 21 home runs and 20 stolen bases. Johnson's career, meanwhile, was never the same afterward. Regardless, Phillips made this move in an attempt to improve an underachieving bullpen. His main focus at the time was Rojas, a former Expos closer, but Rojas struggled mightily with the Mets through the 1998 season and was booed mercilessly. Wendell, in fact, turned out to be the big steal as a dependable set-up man for the next few seasons.
In the end, this deal definitely benefited the Mets.
At the end of the month, Phillips also sent the depressed Pete Harnisch to the Brewers. Somehow tabbed as the 1997 Opening Day starter, Harnisch battled depression starting soon after his first start and lasting until August, but he was ineffective when he returned. Feuding with Bobby Valentine in a Baltimore hotel did not help either. He went on to pitch much better for the Reds the following year.
At the end of the season, Phillips had a lot of work to do. The Mets' star catcher Todd Hundley was expected to miss at least most of the 1998 season while recovering from elbow surgery and the Mets needed another proven catcher to fill the void until his return. Phillips though failed to sign a proven catcher throughout the offseason, as he ended up settling for Tim Spehr, but that did not stop him from making other moves.
After losing reliever Cory Lidle to the expansion draft, Phillips began the offseason by trading away the disappointing Alex Ochoa to the Twins for another short-lived disappointment in Rich Becker. Becker ended up getting released two months into the season. A week later, Phillips made a solid trade by acquiring lefty Dennis Cook from the Marlins for two minor leaguers. Cook would team up with Wendell to become a dominant tandem of set-up men in the years to come.
Four days later, in one of Phillips' more disappointing trades, he sent the volatile Carl Everett to the Astros for overrated reliever John Hudek. Hudek ended up getting traded again midway through the season for Lenny Harris, while Everett's production (and temper) reached new heights while with the Astros, and later the Red Sox.
After his infamous child abuse case, Phillips knew Everett had become a distraction and had to go, even though he publicly denied that claim. Nonetheless, he could have gotten better talent in return than just Hudek.
In January 1998, Phillips signed Japanese import Masato Yoshii, who emerged as one of the more dependable Mets starters in 1998 and 1999. A month later, he made his first big splash by acquiring Al Leiter from the World Champion Marlins. Leiter ended up becoming the Mets' ace during his tenure and gave the Mets a dependable lefty starter that they did not have since the Bob Ojeda and Sid Fernandez days. One of the minor leaguers that the Mets traded for Leiter turned out to be current Yankee A.J. Burnett.
After Opening Day catcher Tim Spehr got hurt at the beginning of May, Phillips knew that he had to do something to improve the position. Then, the Dodgers' premier catcher Mike Piazza declined a contract extension and was traded to the Marlins. Phillips then made every effort to get him to the Mets, even though at one point he claimed he was not pursuing Piazza. But on May 23, Phillips came through and delivered a Piazza that elevated the Mets to another level.
During the season, Phillips took about week-long leave of absence from the Mets to deal with a sexual harassment claim that was filed against him. The Mets publicly defended Phillips throughout this issue.
In June, Phillips was able to send Dave Mlicki and Greg McMichael to the Dodgers for All-Star Hideo Nomo. However, Nomo did not pitch as well in his brief stint with the Mets. Phillips meanwhile ended up getting McMichael back to the Mets a month later to improve the bullpen in exchange for big lefty Brian Bohanon. McMichael's two trades was something only Phillips could have come up with.
At the 1998 deadline, Phillips finally sent a declining Bernard Gilkey to the Diamondbacks for Willie Blair and Jorge Fabregas. Both Blair and Fabregas contributed minimally to the Mets, but Gilkey's hitting had only gotten worse and worse since his career season in 1996.
To fill his void, Phillips also acquired Tony Phillips from the Blue Jays, who did not do much better than Gilkey and was gone after the season. On the same day as the Gilkey trade, Phillips sent the once promising lefty Bill Pulsipher to the Brewers. Pulsipher had a lot of talent, but spent a lot time on the disabled list and like the rest of Generation K, was never able to show a full season's worth of pitching.
The 1998-1999 offseason was one of the busiest for Phillips. He replaced the declining Carlos Baerga with Gold Glove third baseman Robin Ventura, while Edgardo Alfonzo moving to second base. Right fielder Butch Huskey, who outside of 1997 had failed to put together a strong full season of hitting and was sent to the Mariners, while Mel Rojas was traded for Huskey's original replacement, the one and only Bobby Bonilla.
This Bonilla was much worse, feuded with Bobby Valentine, played sparingly as the 1999 season went on and was caught playing cards at the end of the NLCS that year. Phillips though agreed to release Bonilla before the 2000 season and not pay him the $5.9 million he was owed. As a result, beginning this year, the Mets will be paying Bonilla almost $30 million between 2011-2035.
The biggest signing of the Phillips era turned out to be the seven-year contract Piazza signed to stay with the Mets for a then-record $91 million. As a result, Todd Hundley was the odd man out and was shipped to the Dodgers for Roger Cedeno and Charles Johnson. Johnson was then swapped to the Orioles for the hard-throwing Armando Benitez, who would soon become the Mets' new closer following a John Franco injury.
Phillips was also able to sign the legendary Rickey Henderson to become the new left fielder and Henderson played well throughout 1999 as he continued his legacy as the greatest base stealer ever.
Right before spring training, Phillips signed the veteran and former Cy Young winner Orel Hershiser, who became dependable in the back end of the rotation that year. He was also a good mentor towards the younger pitchers.
At the 1999 trade deadline, Phillips was busy once again as he first acquired Kenny Rogers from the A's. Rogers did well as a rental pitcher, but ended up giving up the walk that cost the Mets the pennant. A week later, Phillips made one of his worst trades by sending Greg McMichael and heralded, but unproven phenom Jason Isringhausen to the A's for Billy Taylor.
Taylor was expected to help the Mets' bullpen, but in the end became a mere afterthought as his ERA ballooned to over 8.00 in his brief stint. Meanwhile, Isringhausen developed into a strong closer with the A's and got even better with the Cardinals. That same day saw Brian McRae, who had failed to repeat his 1998 numbers, to the Rockies for Darryl Hamilton and Chuck McElroy. Hamilton was certainly an upgrade at center field and hit well the rest of the season.
In September, Phillips made yet another deal to get Glendon Rusch from the Royals. Rusch ended up being a good No. 5 starter for the 2000 Mets.
In the offseason, the Mets lost John Olerud, as he signed with the Mariners to be closer to home. Replacing him was Todd Zeile, who had a good season in 2000. But the big trade of this offseason was when Phillips sent Roger Cedeno, who had played well in 1999, along with Octavio Dotel to the Astros for ace Mike Hampton and right fielder Derek Bell. Hampton pitched well once again in 2000 and won the game that sent the Mets to the 2000 World Series.
However, he joined the Rockies after the season. Bell also played well, but got hurt in Game 1 of the NLDS in what became his final game as a Met.
The only other significant signing at the end of the 1999-2000 offseason was the signing of Timo Perez, who would eventually become an important outfielder in the 2000 playoffs after Derek Bell got hurt.
At the 2000 trade deadline, Phillips ended making three trades. The first was one of his worst trades, which sent Melvin Mora, Mike Kinkade and two minor leaguers to the Orioles for shortstop Mike Bordick. Rey Ordonez was out for the year with an injury and Bordick was acquired to be a rental shortstop for the rest of the year. He ended up being hurt during the playoffs and went back to Baltimore the following year, while Mora ended up becoming an All-Star.
In the second deal, Phillips traded top prospect Jason Tyner, as well the injury-riddled former No. 1 overall draft pick Paul Wilson to the Devil Rays for Bubba Trammell and reliever Rick White. Tyner and Wilson never resurrected their careers, while Trammell was traded to the Padres to the off-season for the ineffective Donne Wall. White became one of the more dependable Mets relievers during the rest of 2000, as well as 2001.
The third trade did not get a lot of attention because it involved the Mets acquiring reserve infielder Jorge Velandia from the A's for a minor leaguer named Nelson Cruz. Velandia never ended up being a productive player, while Cruz is now an All-Star right fielder for the Rangers. The Mets today certainly could use his bat.
After the season, Phillips failed to re-sign Hampton and Bell as they went to the Rockies and Pirates, respectively. To replace Hampton's spot, Phillips went out and signed the best starter in a weak market, Kevin Appier. Appier pitched modestly well for the Mets in 2001 only to see himself traded again in the following offseason.
Phillips did not do much else in the 2000-2001 offseason, but was busy once again at the deadline. This time around, he made rather unpopular trades. The popular backup catcher Todd Pratt was sent to the Phillies for fellow catcher Gary Bennett.
Exactly a month later, Bennett was traded to the Rockies for a minor leaguer. The successful tandem of Dennis Cook and Turk Wendell were both sent to the Phillies as well for Bruce Chen and a minor leaguer. Chen pitched decently in his brief stint with the Mets that year. But the most puzzling trade Phillips made was sending dependable Rick Reed to the Twins for Matt Lawton. Mets pitching only got worse after Reed was traded and Lawton was gone after the season.
In the following offseason, Phillips first traded a declining Robin Ventura to the crosstown Yankees for David Justice, who in turn was traded a week later to the A's for lefty reliever Mark Guthrie and righty Tyler Yates. Guthrie had a solid scoreless streak in 2002, but outside of that, he was not particularly impressive. Phillips brought back Roger Cedeno on a three year deal, but Cedeno this time around was not the speedster he was in 1999. He had gained weight and did not hit as well.
David Weathers and Satoru Komiyama were both signed to improve the bullpen, but neither were particularly good.
The biggest trade of this offseason was when Phillips decided to acquire Hall of Fame second baseman Roberto Alomar from the Indians. To get him, they had to send Lawton, top prospect Alex Escobar, and pitcher Jerrod Riggan, as well as two minor leaguers. The Mets also got lefty Mike Bacsik in this deal, who would later become the pitcher that gave up Barry Bonds' record-breaking home run. It has since been said that Phillips at the time would not have been afraid to include Jose Reyes in the Alomar trade, which thankfully never happened.
Phillips was not done. He traded the colorful (literally) Tsuyoshi Shinjo and utility infielder Desi Relaford to the Giants for lefty starter Shawn Estes. Estes is best known for hitting a home run against Roger Clemens in a Subway Series game in 2002. The rest of his Mets resume was not as good.
Eleven days later, Phillips made another big trade by sending Appier to the Angels for former MVP Mo Vaughn. As the new first baseman, Mo Vaughn became one of the biggest busts the Mets have had in recent years. Everyone expected a monster year from him in 2002, but all they got was 26 home runs and 72 RBI from him, along with 145 strikeouts. Vaughn was in terrible shape even before he got to the Mets and was coming off an injury that caused him to miss all of 2001. Nevertheless, Phillips felt that he could be a successful cleanup hitter and give good protection to Mike Piazza.
It got even worse for Vaughn in 2003, who gained even more weight and played in just 27 games before a knee injury ultimately ended his career. Phillips however decided to keep him on the roster as an insurance dodge. Nevertheless, Vaughn became the last Met to wear No. 42.
In January 2002, Phillips signed veteran pitcher Pedro Astacio and traded Todd Zeile and Benny Agbayani to the Rockies for Alex Ochoa. That same day, Ochoa, along with Glendon Rusch and Lenny Harris were all traded to the Brewers for slugger Jeromy Burnitz, pitcher Jeff D'Amico, infielder Lou Collier and Mark Sweeney. The latter two never ended up playing for the Mets.
Burnitz was brought over to bring more power to the lineup, but struggled in 2002 by hitting just .215 and only getting 54 RBI despite 19 home runs. After struggling at the start of 2003, Burnitz finally picked it up in the middle of the season, but ended up getting traded again to the Dodgers once the Mets were clearly out of contention.
At the very beginning of the 2002 season, Phillips traded Chen, Dicky Gonzalez and Luis Figueroa to the Expos for reliever Scott Strickland, as well as Matt Watson and Phil Seibel. Strickland was plagued with injuries from 2003-2004, but was not particularly effective in 2002. That same day, Marco Scutaro was claimed off waivers. He played occasionally in 2002 and 2003, but would be claimed off waivers by the A's, who helped him turn into an everyday shortstop.
Once again, Phillips was busy in what would become his last trade deadline. He made another poor trade by sending Bobby M. Jones (the lefty), and a young player by the name of Jason Bay to the Padres for side-armer Steve Reed and Jason Middlebrook. Reed was gone after the season, while Bay ended up getting traded again to the Pirates, which was where he thrived and became a solid power hitter.
That same day, Phillips also dealt Jay Payon and Mark Corey to the Rockies for John Thomson and Mark Little, both of whom contributed almost nothing to the Mets. Corey is best known for having a seizure after smoking pot one night with outfielder Tony Tarasco. This, along with a picture of pitcher Grant Roberts taking a bong hit were images and news that the Mets did not want to associate with. Estes was later traded as well to the Reds, most notably for Pedro Feliciano.
After a poor finish for the Mets in 2002, Phillips tried once again to improve the team. He signed veteran Cy Young lefty Tom Glavine to a four year contract, which was something the Braves did not enjoy seeing. Glavine was solid for the Mets, but never as good as he was with the Braves. Phillips let popular infielder Edgardo Alfonzo sign with the Giants, which did not turn out as bad as fans had thought due to Fonzie's lingering back problems.
Phillips also traded Ordonez to the Devil Rays for two prospects. Ordonez had lost his amazing range after his 2000 injury and was never as good ever since.
Lefty reliever Mike Stanton and outfielder Cliff Floyd were soon signed as well. Floyd was supposed to contribute heavily to the offense, but the Mets only got one healthy season from him in 2005, when he hit 34 home runs and drove in 98 RBI. Rey Sanchez was brought in to be the new shortstop, but his stay was short with the arrival of Jose Reyes. Phillips also brought Tsuyoshi Shinjo back to the Mets, but Shinjo was not as good or even exciting in his brief second stint.
Veteran David Cone was even brought back to the Mets in what became his victory lap. He pitched briefly before retiring in May 2003.
Despite the many different trades Phillips made, one thing always remained the same, and that was his relationship with manager Bobby Valentine. It became no secret by around 2000 that they did not get along. Whether it was personal or over baseball matters may be unknown, but it came to as no surprise when Valentine was fired after 2002.
Phillips only made the Mets worse when he hired Art Howe to replace Valentine. When the Mets got off to a poor start in 2003, the Mets ownership had had enough of Phillips, fired him in June and replaced him with his understudy, Jim Duquette.
Phillips was definitely one of the Mets' best General Managers when it came to drafting. The notable draftees in Phillips era include Ty Wigginton, Mike Jacobs, Angel Pagan, David Wright, Aaron Heilman, Lastings Milledge and Brian Bannister. Phillips was also the guy that signed Jose Reyes in 1999.
Phillips has since worked for years with ESPN as both a color commentator and in-studio baseball analyst. However, he was fired after news came out that he was having an affair with an ESPN intern, Brooke Hundley. His wife has since divorced him and as a result, he has recently received more unwanted media attention. Today, he works for AOL FanHouse and does radio work for WFAN and Sirius Radio. He has also contributed his voice as a color commentator on MLB 2K9-11.
Steve Phillips was as aggressive as a GM could be. He made some brilliant trades in the beginning of his tenure, but the trades he made later on, particularly the Roberto Alomar and Mo Vaughn trades ended up costing him his job, but his replacement, Duquette did not do any better. Regardless, Steve Phillips built the 1999 Wild Card winners and 2000 National League Champions and he deserves a lot of credit for their success.
Mike Piazza would not have become a Met if it wasn't for Phillips' efforts.