The deal that made the Mets
The trade deadline acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes launched a pennant drive.
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.
Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes hit 17 home runs in 57 games after he was traded from Detroit in July.