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An Oldie But a Goodie — Steve Phillips’ Worst Moves

I wrote this article just before Steve Phillips got fired as Mets general manager in June 2003, in the hopes of getting it published somewhere. That never happened, and I don’t want to waste it, so here it is. The article is unchanged from the original, so some things might seem dated. Enjoy.

steve phillipsSo it turns out he didn’t have the “skills set” after all. When the New York Mets fired general manager Joe McIlvaine midway through the 1997 season and hired Steve Phillips (left), owner Fred Wilpon said Phillips had the “skills set” demanded from a GM in the changing world of baseball. No one knew what he meant then, and six years later and with Phillips now fired, we still don’t. But one thing is for sure – Phillips didn’t have it. Sure, Phillips made some good moves – trading for Mike Piazza, trading for Armando Benitez (for Todd Hundley, made expendable by Piazza), and trading for Al Leiter. And his team made it to the World Series in 2000. But Phillips’ legacy will be one of blunders – major ones that led to his firing, that led the Mets to the basement of the National League East. Here are 10 of his biggest mistakes, in no particular order:

Alex Rodriguez was not shy about letting all of baseball know he wanted to play for the Mets when he became a free agent following the 2000 season. Hell, he was even a guest of the Mets at Shea Stadium for the World Series, instead of rooting on his buddy Derek Jeter in The Bronx. So what does Phillips do? He publicly lambastes Rodriguez for his supposed demands, saying he would turn the clubhouse into a “24 and 1” situation. So he doesn’t even make an offer for the greatest hitter of his generation. Two years later, though, he trades for Roberto Alomar, who by all accounts is more of a “24 and 1” guy than Rodriguez, who by all accounts is a superb teammate in Texas.

2-We’ll take Sheffield – for our spare parts:
Just before spring training in 2001, Gary Sheffield wanted out of Los Angeles in the worst way. He said he’d go to 3 teams – the Braves, the Yankees, and the Mets. The Dodgers reportedly wanted either Mike Piazza or Edgardo Alfonzo. Phillips wisely said no (although 2 years later he let Alfonzo simply walk away, but that’s another story). Then the Dodgers said they’d take Jay Payton and some prospects. Phillips said no to that as well (although a year later he gave Payton away for next to nothing, but that’s another story). Phillips countered with Daryl Hamilton and Dennis Cook. The Dodgers are probably still laughing over that. Why not give Payton? The perennial prospect who is now flourishing in the rarified air of Colorado will never be as good as Sheffield. What was Phillips thinking? A year later, Sheffield was traded to the Mets’ nemesis, the Braves.

3-Bonilla Redux:
The Mets and Dodgers both had problems following the 1998 season. Their names were Mel Rojas and Bobby Bonilla – 2 useless players with big contracts. So Phillips decided to swap dilemmas. The only problem – Rojas had a year left on his contract at $5 million, Bonilla was owed about $13 million over two years. Oh yeah, one more problem – as hated as Rojas was by Mets fans for his propensity for giving up majestic home runs, Bonilla was despised even more for his first disastrous tour of duty in New York. So what happened? Bonilla hit less than .200, and his behavior made even more enemies of Mets fans. When the trade was announced, Bonilla said “it will be different this time.” As a New York Post scribe pointed out “yeah, it was worse.” Incidentally, when the Mets released Bonilla, they didn’t want to write a check for six and a half million bucks. So they struck a deal to pay him off over a long period of time. The finally tally with interest – about $25 million.

hampton4-Short term rental in the Hamptons:
After falling short in the 1999 playoffs, Phillips decided the Mets needed an ace to get to the World Series. They got one from Houston in Mike Hampton (left), giving up promising righty Octavio Dotel and Roger Cedeno (more on him later). But instead of tying up the 22 game winner long term, Phillips decided he didn’t want to meet Hampton’s request of $75 million over 5 years (certainly a lot of money, but not outlandish at the time). Phillips was right — Hampton did indeed lead the team to the World Series, then led his family to the fine school district of Denver for $138 million.  He’s now with the Mets’ nemesis, the Braves. Which led to…

5-Take our money, please:
With no Hampton, Phillips needed to fill a gaping hole in his rotation. The best pitcher available on the free agent market was Kevin Appier, whom Phillips admitted he’d been after for years, for reasons known only to Phillips. Appier is a good pitcher, but not a great one, certainly not an ace. But a desperate Phillips paid him like one, anyway – 4 years, $44 million. That’s a ton of money for a middle of the rotation guy. Which led to…

6-Mo better blues:
Mo Vaughn wanted out of Anaheim, and Anaheim was willing to oblige. All the Angels wanted was the aforementioned Appier – seems they needed a middle of the rotation guy, as well as out from under Vaughn’s mammoth contract. The Mets took on the hobbling first baseman, and now he’s out, searching for the missing cartilage from his knee. Phillips is paying him $17 million this season – second in baseball only to that A-Rod guy.

7-Make me an offer I can’t refuse, I beg of you:
Mo Vaughn would not have been necessary if Phillips did not lowball John Olerud following the 1999 season. Conventional wisdom was that Olerud wanted to sign with his hometown Mariners. So Phillips, who is almost conspiratorial in his fear that his offers are being used to drive up prices elsewhere, offered Olerud $6 million a year for 3 years, when $8 million a year would have been fair and appropriate for the sweet swinging lefty first baseman. Olerud ended up signing with Seattle for $7 million per. Later, Olerud said his wife really wanted to stay in New York, and he wouldn’t have known what to do if the Mets made an overwhelming offer up front. Good job, Stevie.

8-A tale of 2 trades:
In July 1999, the Mets made 2 trades with the A’s. One is unfairly criticized. One is unfairly forgotten. The first trade sent outfield prospect Terrance Long to Oakland for the much maligned Kenny Rogers. Long went on to be a productive player, Rogers went on to walk in the run that sent the Braves to the 1999 World Series. But Rogers went 5-0 for the Mets, and they never would have gotten to the playoffs without him, so Phillips deserves some credit here. But a week later, he sent Jason Isringhausen and Greg McMichael to the bay area for Billy Taylor. Why? The 38 year old Taylor was closing for Oakland, and the Mets already had a closer in Armando Benitez, and a pretty good backup in John Franco. Taylor contributed nothing to the Mets, and was gone after the season. Isringhausen is now one of the top closers in the game. Good move, Phillips.

cedeno9-Roger Redux:
Phillips has a penchant for re-acquiring players he traded away – McMichael, Lenny Harris, Bill Pulsipher. Roger Cedeno became his latest castaway to return to the island via free agency before the 2002 season. Phillips signed him, despite one scout saying Cedeno had the worst baseball instincts he’d seen in decades. The Cedeno the Mets traded away in 1999 was a fleet-footed slap hitter with 66 stolen bases, and was a respectable fielder. The Cedeno Phillips got back was a bulked up guy who seemed afraid to steal a base. And his fielding has been embarrassing. And Phillips thought he could play center? Was he watching the same Roger Cedeno as Mets fans?

10-Another Phillips obsession:
Rick Reed was called lots of things during his tenure with the Mets – replacement player, scab, good dependable pitcher. The man dubbed “Greg Maddux lite” was a steady worker, even if he wasn’t allowed to join the players union. Before the 2001 season, Reed got a 3 year, $21 million dollar deal from Phillips. It was a little much, but Reed earned it. Later in the season, Phillips traded Reed to the Twins for another player he coveted for years for some reason, Matt Lawton. Lawton was a bust, and was later part of the Roberto Alomar deal. The trade left another hole in the rotation that was filled with injury prone Pedro Astacio at about the same money.

What the heck, one more:
Bobby Valentine called Ichiro Suzuki one of the top five hitters in the world. He urged Phillips to do all he could to get him. And we all know what Phillips thought of Valentine’s opinion. We’ll never know what Phillips bid, but whatever it was, it was less than the Mariners. Again, a lowball offer from Phillips cost him a great player. And Valentine was right.

So now Steve Phillips is gone. Maybe the next guy will spend Fred Wilpon’s money, as well as judge talent, a little more wisely.  And hopefully, he’ll bring with him a far superior “skills set” than his predecessor.

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