The deal that made the Mets

The trade dead­line ac­qui­si­tion of Yoe­nis Ce­s­pedes launched a pen­nant drive.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY BARRY SVR­LUGA barry.svr­luga@wash­post.com

The ball came off the bat of San Diego’s Justin Up­ton, and the New York Mets’ sea­son was sunk. It was just July 30, and the Mets only trailed the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als by three games in the Na­tional League East stand­ings. But Up­ton’s two-out, three-run homer off Mets closer Jeurys Fa­milia came in the ninth in­ning and com­pleted a come­back from a 7-1 deficit. The Padres cel­e­brated in the rain at Citi Field in New York. The Mets slunk back to their own club­house, their prospects hazy.

At that mo­ment, they had scored the fewest runs in the Na­tional League. Worse, their front of­fice’s ef­fort to al­ter that per­for­mance— at rade the pre­vi­ous day for Mil­wau­kee out­fielder Car­los Gomez — had fallen through be­cause the Mets be­came con­cerned about Gomez’s med­i­cal re­ports. Yet the deal be­came pub­lic midgame. Short­stop Wilmer Flo­res, who would have gone to the Brew­ers, be­came teary-eyed-on the field at the thought of leav­ing the only or­ga­ni­za­tion he had ever known.

So that night, af­ter Up­ton’s home run de­liv­ered a gut punch of an 8-7 loss, Mets ex­ec­u­tives met. The trade dead­line was the next day, the day the first-place Na­tion­als ar­rived in Queens for a three­game se­ries. The Mets had al­ready up­graded their bench by trad­ing for vet­er­ans Juan Uribe and Kelly John­son. They had ac­quired setup man Tyler Clip­pard. Vet­eran third base­man David Wright still wasn’t back from a back prob­lem.

Was it worth it to make an­other move?

“There were a lot of signs point­ing to­ward not do­ing some­thing,” Mets as­sis­tant gen­eral man­ager John Ricco said. “The Na­tion­als were get­ting healthy. We had in­nings lim­its for a bunch of our young pitch­ers. We didn’t know what David was go­ing to be.

“Then we lost that game to the Padres, and that was a mo­ment where you could re­ally say, ‘You know what? It’s been a good year. We’re kind of right there. Let’s just let this play out. Wash­ing­ton’s go­ing to come back healthy. They may run away on us.’”

With the Mets pre­par­ing for Game 1 of the World Se­ries on Tues­day, such think­ing seems like folly. When they roll out their lineup to face either Toronto or Kansas City, slug­ging out­fielder Yoe­nis Ce­s­pedes will hit right in the cen­ter of it. While sec­ond base­man Daniel Mur­phy has de­fined the Mets’ post­sea­son charge by hit­ting home runs in New York’s last six games, Ce­s­pedes de­fined their charge to the Na­tional League East ti­tle by hit­ting 17 home runs af­ter his ac­qui­si­tion on the af­ter­noon of July 31.

That ac­qui­si­tion, though, would not have hap­pened if not for the calm, me­thod­i­cal pur­suit of an im­prove­ment by Mets Gen­eral Man­ager Sandy Alder­son. The 67-year-old, Dart­mouth-ed­u­cated at­tor­ney took over the Mets’ base­ball op­er­a­tions depart­ment fol­low­ing the 2010 sea­son, by which point he had nearly three decades in the game as the gen­eral man­ager of the Oak­land Ath­let­ics, then an ex­ec­u­tive with Ma­jor League Base­ball, then the CEO of the San Diego Padres.

Dur­ing those years, Alder­son had pulled off ma­jor deals at the trade dead­line be­fore — send­ing Jose Canseco to Texas for Ruben Sierra in 1992, ac­quir­ing im­pact hit­ters Wil­lie McGee and Harold Baines in 1990, bring­ing back Rickey Hen­der­son to Oak­land in 1989. Those deals in­volved all-stars and bat­ting cham­pi­ons, fu­ture Hall of Famers and home run kings. Yet Ce­s­pedes’s ac­qui­si­tion from Detroit might have trumped them all.

“I don’t know that any of those deals have had as big an im­pact im­me­di­ately,” Alder­son said. “It just worked out.”

The foundation for such a move, though, was laid long be­fore July. The Mets came to spring train­ing with per­haps the best col­lec­tion of young pitch­ing in the game. The top end was ob­vi­ous: Matt Harvey, 26, had been an all­star and was healthy af­ter miss­ing 2014 fol­low­ing Tommy John surgery. Ja­cob de Grom was the 2014 rookie of the year. Noah Syn­der­gaard was a former first-round draft choice who hadn’t made his ma­jor league de­but. Steven Matz hadn’t pitched above Class AA but had ex­celled at each level at which he ap­peared.

There were, too, other names at the lower lev­els of the mi­nors. “I felt like we had the in­ven­tory,” Alder­son said. So even as the Mets en­dured in­juries in the first half to Wright and catcher Travis d’Ar­naud and vet­eran out­fielder Michael Cud­dyer, the front of­fice knew that if the club could just hang in there, it was in po­si­tion to make deals at the dead­line.

“Es­pe­cially on the pitch­ing side, we were al­most backed up in a lot of ar­eas,” Ricco said. “It’s not that it’s burn­ing a hole in your pocket, but you’ve got that in the back of your mind: We can be ag­gres­sive.”

On July 24, a week be­fore the dead­line, the Mets sent 22-yearold Class AA pitcher John Gant and 21-year-old Class A pitcher Robert Whalen to At­lanta for Uribe and John­son in what Alder­son con­sid­ered “a gen­eral up­grade to the ros­ter.” Three days later, they sent 20-year-old Class A pitcher Casey Meis­ner to Oak­land for Clip­pard, an ac­com­plished setup man who ad­dressed a spe­cific need.

And then they came to an agree­ment with Mil­wau­kee: Flo­res, a ma­jor league short­stop, and righthan der Zack Wheeler for Gomez, a high-en­ergy out­fielder who might spark a lack­lus­ter lineup. But given that Wheeler was out for the year fol­low­ing Tommy John surgery, the phys­i­cal ex­ams were key.

“Some­times you know the med­i­cal’s go­ing to be an is­sue,” Ricco said. “We thought the med­i­cal was go­ing to be an is­sue go­ing the other way on Wheeler. I don’t think we were ever all in men­tally say­ing, ‘This is a done deal.’”

Still, me­dia re­ports of the agree­ment leaked out as the Mets faced the Padres that night. Nor­mally, a team would pull a traded player from a game. The Mets, though, kept Flo­res in, and fans at Citi Field — with news of the deal pop­ping up on smart­phones — re­layed the in­for­ma­tion to him as he stood in the on-deck cir­cle. When he went out to short­stop, his eyes welled up.

“I re­ally didn’t want to show my emo­tions out there,” Flo­res said. “But it hap­pened.”

In the mean­time, the Mets iden­ti­fied a prob­lem with Gomez’ s hip. They de­cided to back out. (Gomez was sub­se­quently traded to Hous­ton, where he played just 41 reg­u­lar sea­son games while bat­tling strained mus­cles in his rib cage.) The club’s brain trust moved on quickly.

“In this game, you have to an­tic­i­pate the un­ex­pected,” Alder­son said. “So when the un­ex­pected hap­pens — when you blow a tworun lead in the ninth, which hap­pened the next day, or a deal falls through — it’s like, ‘Hey, back at it.’ ”

The New York fan base, too, was a fac­tor. “In our city, the noise gets very loud,” Ricco said. The Mets had en­dured six straight los­ing sea­sons and hadn’t been to the play­offs since 2006. Alder­son’s team had ar­gued that the or­ga­ni­za­tion, as a whole, was im­prov­ing. But the win to­tals in his four sea­sons at the helm: 77, 74, 74 and 79.

“We felt like we were get­ting much, much closer each and ev­ery year, but we had noth­ing to show for it at the ma­jor league level, and ul­ti­mately that’s what peo­ple care about,” said Paul DePodesta, the Mets’ vice pres­i­dent of player de­vel­op­ment and am­a­teur scout­ing. “We could show them all sorts of mi­nor league cham­pi­onships and prospect lists and rank­ings, and it doesn’t mat­ter un­less you win at the ma­jor league level.”

Still, as July 30 be­came July 31, and now hours — not days — re­mained to make a move, the Mets con­sid­ered their op­tions. While they pur­sued Gomez, they had done work on other out­field­ers who might be avail­able, in­clud­ing Up­ton and Ce­s­pedes, play­ing his first sea­son in Detroit.

The Tigers, in the week be­fore the dead­line, were weigh­ing whether to buy or sell. But for the right piece — a young pitcher with a very high up-side — Ce­s­pedes seemed to be there for the tak­ing. And Alder­son had word from own­er­ship: If the right deal pre­sented it­self, go for it.

“The sense at that point was, ‘Hey, you can’t be half-preg­nant,’ ” DePodesta said. “‘We’re in­vested in this. Let’s see what we can do.’”

What they could do was dip fur­ther into their deep pitch­ing pool and come up with Michael Ful­mer, a 22-year-old with a 1.88 ERA at prospect-rich Class AA. The Tigers also would get 23- year old Luis C essa, a con­verted in­fielder who was now pitch­ing. The Mets were re­luc­tant to part with Ful­mer. The clock ticked.

“There were still a lot of de­lib­er­a­tions go­ing all the way up to 15 min­utes be­fore the dead­line, ‘Are th­ese the right things to be do­ing?’” DePodesta said. “But I think there was al­ways a sense in the room that, ‘Let’s do some­thing to fin­ish this off.’ ”

So they fin­ished it off, land­ing Ce­s­pedes. The ex­ec­u­tives got to take that news to the club house, to Man­ager Terry Collins and the play­ers. They got to broad­cast a clear mes­sage to the fan base: It’s 2015, and we’re go­ing for it.

“It was like a switch got flipped,” Cud­dyer said. “It be­came a to­tally dif­fer­ent team.”

That night, Flo­res, still a Met, hit a 12th-in­ning, walk-off homer against the Na­tion­als. New York swept the se­ries to pull into a tie for first.

“It wasn’t a mat­ter of say­ing, ‘Okay, now we’re bet­ter than they are,’ ” Alder­son said. “But I knew we were bet­ter than we had been.”

Ce­s­pedes’s first homer as a Met didn’t come un­til Aug. 12. But from that point for­ward, there was no more valu­able player in the Na­tional League. In three games against the Na­tion­als in early Septem­ber in Wash­ing­ton, Ce­s­pedes went 6 for 14, drove in seven runs, scored four and hit two homers. The Mets swept again, and the divi­sion race was over.

“It changed the whole out­look on our team,” Clip­pard said. “It pro­tected all the guys in our lineup. It just fell into place.”

It fell into place be­cause the Mets had the pitch­ing from which to deal and be­cause an­other deal went awry. Now that loss in the rain to the Padres feels long ago, and only the World Se­ries awaits.

DREW HAL­LOW­ELL/GETTY IMAGES

Mets out­fielder Yoe­nis Ce­s­pedes hit 17 home runs in 57 games af­ter he was traded from Detroit in July.

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