Monday saw the passing of Frank Cashen, the architect of the 1986 Mets World Championship team, and the colorful Mets teams that only once won fewer than 90 games between 1984 and 1990. The teams Cashen built were some of the most talented (and dysfunctional) that you’ll ever see, and Lord knows I’m a sucker for any opportunity to rant about the mid-80’s Mets.
Cashen got his start in Baltimore in the ’60’s, where he helped Harry Dalton build some perennial juggernaut Oriole teams. He was instrumental in the Orioles’s acquisition of Frank Robinson, a trade that is seen as one of the most lop-sided in history (just ask Anne Savoy).
Cashen left baseball for a while in the ’70s, but was later hired to run the Mets in 1980. The Mets in the late-70’s and early ’80’s were an abysmal wreck, struggling through the post-Seaver era where the only highlights were Lee Mazzilli and Dave Kingman’s booming home runs and surly personality. Cashen’s machinations brought the franchise out of this dark age and made them relevant again.
Cashen is perhaps most famous for his role as the architect of the 1986 Mets, a juggernaut of a team that won 108 games and beat the Red Sox to win the World Series that year. That team was like the perfect model of team building, a beautiful combination of seasoned star veterans and young talent reaching their potential. Players like Darryl Strawberry, Doc Gooden, Wally Backman, Lenny Dykstra, Kevin Mitchell, Roger McDowell, and Rick Aguilera, all Mets draft picks, blossomed into either very good regulars or full-blown stars.
That team, and the 80’s Mets dynasty as a whole, couldn’t have been built, however, without the help of some truly incredible trades. Cashen proved himself an astute judge of talent and orchestrated some trades that bordered on the out and out criminal. Starting in 1982, Cashen made a series of deals that would turn the Mets from doormat to force of nature. Some of these deals merely brought in key complimentary pieces for pennies on the dollar, while others were genuine heists of All-Star players. The following is a list of the best trades made by Frank Cashen in his reign as Mets GM, every one of them essential in the franchise’s 1986 World Championship and 1988 division title.
April 1, 1982: Mets trade Lee Mazzilli to Rangers for Ron Darling and Walt Terrell
This must have seemed like a cruel April Fools joke to Mets fans, as Mazzilli was a Shea Stadium favorite and one of the few bright spots on some really abysmal late-70’s/early-80’s Mets teams. However, he hit just .228 in 1981 and would be no better than a bit player for the rest of his career (and besides, the Mets got him back for the ’86 stretch run, anyway).
Darling, of course, became an instrumental member of the Mets starting rotation, and won 86 games from 1984 to 1989. He’s probably remembered as being a bit better than he actually was (career ERA+ of 95; 101 with the Mets), but he was legitimately great in ’85 and ’86 and was brilliant in Games One and Four in the 1986 World Series.
Terrell pitched a couple of league average seasons with the Mets, but he was later flipped for another very useful piece, as we’ll see a bit later on.
June 14, 1983: Mets trade Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey to Cardinals for Keith Hernandez
This trade was probably the most significant of Cashen’s entire tenure in New York, both because it brought in a franchise name like Hernandez and because it immediately put the Mets back on the map as a team to be taken seriously. Hernandez initially voiced his disgust at being traded to a perennial ne’er-do-well, but he quickly changed his tune and his arrival in New York signaled an almost immediate turnaround for the franchise. Hernandez was a former MVP and one of the National League’s premier first basemen with the Cardinals for a number of years, but his manager, Whitey Herzog, just hated him. Herzog wanted him out, and the Cards’ loss was the Mets’ gain, as Hernandez went on to post four straight All-Star-caliber seasons with the Mets, all while continuing to display his all-world glove at first base. He’d turn into a franchise icon and also later made a noteworthy appearance in a Seinfeld episode where he blew off Jerry’s invitation to help him move.
Meanwhile, Allen had a couple of years as a useful, albeit faceless, reliever, while Ownbey made seven barely-notable starts with the Cardinals. The move constituted a classic case of a personality clash between manager and star player leading to a terrible baseball move. Herzog was the man in St. Louis at the time, and clashed with Hernandez over his perceived unwillingness to run out grounders and his past substance abuse issues. The Cards were forced to more or less trade Hernandez at gunpoint, and that never, ever works out. Mex was 30 in 1984, but he still had a lot left, hitting .305/.396/.440 with the Mets from 1984 to 1987.
December 8, 1983: Mets trade Bob Bailor and Carlos Diaz to Dodgers for Sid Fernandez
A criminal heist by the Mets. Fernandez posted insane strikeout numbers in his first couple of years in the minors, so it’s hard to see why the Dodgers gave up on him so quickly. El Sid reached the majors at age 20, and then the Dodgers traded him for an over-the-hill bench player (who was never that good anyway) and a relief pitcher who was out of the majors in three years.
Fernandez would go on to win 98 games with the Mets and was notoriously difficult to hit, three times leading the league in fewest hits given up per nine innings. He won 16 games for the 1986 champions and 12 more for the 1988 division winners.
August 28, 1984: Mets trade Gerald Young, Mitch Cook, and Manny Lee to Astros for Ray Knight
This one didn’t look all that one-sided at first. Knight was a solid hitter who enjoyed some All-Star seasons with the Reds and Astros (he famously replaced Pete Rose in Cincinnati and hit .318), but in 1984 he looked finished, and then in 1985 he was downright miserable, hitting just .218. In the ’85-’86 offseason, though, Knight worked himself back into shape and played his way back into the lineup as the team’s everyday third baseman, hitting .298. Of course, he’s most remembered for his huge hit in the tenth inning of Game Six, and for his go-ahead home run in Game Seven, both of which earned him the 1986 World Series MVP.
Young was lightning-fast and stole 65 bases with the Astros one year, but he really couldn’t hit at all. Lee actually made his mark as an all-glove shortstop with the Blue Jays, but the Mets already had a young, up-and-coming shortstop in Kevin Elster. Cook never pitched in the majors. So the Mets basically got a starting third baseman on a championship team for a shortstop who couldn’t hit a lick.
December 7, 1984: Mets trade Walt Terrell to Tigers for Howard Johnson
Tigers manager Sparky Anderson hated HoJo for some reason, which led to this trade. Johnson was a backup infielder in ’86, but once Knight left in free agency, Johnson blew up. Johnson became the team’s regular third baseman for the next seven years and had three seasons where he hit 30 or more home runs, including an absolutely monstrous 1989, when he hit .287/.369/.559 (a 169 OPS+), clubbed 36 home runs, and stole 41 bases.
Terrell, who had been acquired along with Ron Darling a couple of years earlier, would go on to have a decent career as a league-average starter, but he wasn’t anything like the star HoJo turned into.
December 10, 1984: Mets trade Hubie Brooks, Mike Fitzgerald, Herm Winningham, and Floyd Youmans to Expos for Gary Carter
The other big one. Carter’s arrival in New York turned the Mets from simple contender to juggernaut, as they won 98 and 108 games in Carter’s first two seasons with the team, respectively. The ever-smiling Carter had been a star with the Expos for years, but Expos owner Charles Bronfman absurdly singled him out as the reason the Expos kept missing the playoffs each year. Carter came over and cemented his Hall of Fame worthiness with the Mets, with big years in ’85 and ’86, and he became an icon in the Big Apple. He also knocked in nine runs in the 1986 World Series.
This trade wasn’t quite as lop-sided as many tend to remember. Here is each players’ WAR total after the trade was consummated:
That’s 16.5 WAR for the players the Expos received, for those scoring at home. You’re going to come away with the short end of the stick more often than not when trading a star player, but the Expos didn’t get totally screwed. Brooks in particular turned out pretty well, and made the All-Star team a few times. Fitzgerald was at least a decent catcher for a number of years. Youmans looked like he was going to have a solid career before falling victim to drug problems. When you trade a Hall-of-Famer, though, and the team you traded him to immediately wins the World Series…well, you’re going to have egg on your face.
November 1, 1985: Mets trade Calvin Schiraldi, John Christensen, Wes Gardner, and LaSchelle Tarver to Red Sox for Bob Ojeda and three others.
This trade turned out to be a doubly fantastic one not only because Ojeda had a career year in his first season with the Mets, but also because Schiraldi acted almost like a sleeper agent in the 1986 World Series, virtually handing the Mets Games Six and Seven with his crappy pitching. Ojeda went 18-5 with a 140 ERA+ in 1986 to become the surprise go-to guy on the staff that year. He would never be so good again, but he did win 51 games with the Mets.
Schiraldi is seen as a villain in Red Sox circles because of his role in blowing the ’86 series. He was a largely mediocre reliever for the rest of his career, with one unremarkable season as a starter with the Cubs. Gary Carter famously questioned his intestinal fortitude when he was a member of the Mets, and he has a lasting reputation as a choke artist, deserved or not. Of the other three guys the Red Sox got for Ojeda, only Gardner had anything resembling a decent major league career, and he was just a spot starter/mop up man.
January 16, 1986: Mets trade Billy Beane, Bill Latham, and Joe Klink to Twins for Tim Teufel
Yes, that Billy Beane. Of the three players Cashen dealt for Teufel, only Klink would go on to contribute anything in the majors, and that was basically two years as an interchangeable lefty with the A’s. Teufel wasn’t an All-Star, but he was a useful platoon second baseman (spelling Wally Backman against lefties), and he hit a robust .308/.398/.545, with 14 homers, in 1987. He accumulated 7.4 WAR in six seasons as a Met
March 27, 1987: Mets trade Ed Hearn, Rick Anderson, and Mauro Gozzo to Royals for David Cone
How do you steal a future All-Star from a Hall of Fame GM for a backup catcher and two faceless relievers? Ask Cashen, who ripped off future Braves general manager John Schuerholz in this now-legendary fleecing. Cone had control problems in the minors and apparently that was enough for the Royals to send him along for a bunch of tripe. Cone, as we all know, broke out with the Mets, winning 194 games in the majors and 81 in the Big Apple. His breakout 20-win season in 1988 was instrumental to the Mets rolling to 100 wins and the division title.
None of the players the Royals received for Cone did anything in the majors after the trade, although Hearn did pen an inspirational biography detailing his battles with kidney disease.
As is the case with every general manager, not every trade Cashen made turned out in his favor. In the interest of fairness, we should take a look at a couple of deals where Cashen and the Mets came out losers.
December 10, 1982: Mets trade Mike Scott to Astros for Danny Heep
This one nearly came back to bite the Mets in a big way, as Scott almost single-handedly won the 1986 NLCS for the Astros with two utterly dominant starts. Heep spent four seasons with the Mets and was a pretty good fourth outfielder and bench bat. Scott, of course, went on to win 110 games with the Astros and earned the Cy Young Award in 1986.
It’s hard to fault Cashen for trading Scott away in this instance. Scott was 27 at the time of the trade and had just come off a horrible 1982 season. He hadn’t shown anything up to that point to indicate that he would turn into even a decent pitcher, much less a star. It would have taken a crystal ball for anyone to predict that he would go on to develop the split-fingered fastball (or another, less legal, pitch) and start dominating the league.
December 11, 1986: Mets trade Kevin Mitchell, Stan Jefferson, Shawn Abner, and two others to Padres for Kevin McReynolds and two others
Whether this was a bad trade in the end depends on how one decides to look at it. McReynolds had some big years with the Mets, most notably 1988 (he went 21 for 21 on stolen base attempts), and filled a big void in left field. In six seasons (two stints) with New York, he hit 122 home runs. Mitchell came from a rough upbringing and was seen by more than one Mets front office person as a bad influence on Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry (lest we forget this rather dubious story).
On the flip side, McReynolds was seen as a complete zero in the clubhouse by his teammates and wasn’t particularly well-liked (one common accusation was that he cared more about duck hunting than winning). It didn’t help that Mitchell got his behavior under control and turned into one of the most fearsome sluggers in the National League, winning the NL MVP in 1989 with the Giants. Mitchell accumulated 6.9 WAR in 1989; McReynolds racked up 3.6. The Mets lost the division to the Cubs that year by six games, so this trade didn’t kill their playoff hopes all by itself, but it certainly didn’t help.
June 18, 1989: Mets trade Lenny Dykstra and Roger McDowell to Phillies for Juan Samuel
Just an awful trade, and one that marked the end of the Cashen-era Mets dynasty. The Mets traded their center fielder and an effective reliever for a second baseman-turned-center fielder with a .309 career OBP. It went about as well as expected. The only way this makes sense, then and now, is as a dump of Dykstra’s personality. Samuel wasn’t much good when the Mets got him, he sucked in half a season as their center fielder, then he was immediately traded away for Mike Marshall.
It’s one of the all-time head-scratchers, for sure. Dykstra was and remains a creep, but he was just 26 and would develop into something like a star with the Phillies. His monster 1993 season led them to the World Series. McDowell had another six or so seasons left as a good reliever. Just a stinker for the Mets, any way you look at it.