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February 17, 2012

The BP Broadside

The Kid's Biggest Moment

by Steven Goldman

By this morning you have no doubt read countless stories about Gary Carter, his playing career, and his character both on and off the field. The links came flying furiously yesterday, because his passing had been a foregone conclusion for quite awhile. Sadly, in our business that means not only sorrow and sympathy but getting a head start on writing the obituary.

There was extra incentive to start early on Carter, because in this case there are no crocodile tears; he was an important and beloved figure in at least two baseball towns and a legitimate Hall of Famer (for more on this aspect of Carter’s career, see Jay Jaffe’s piece elsewhere on the site). His career .262/.335/.439 rates don’t look like much in our offensively bloated era, but he played in a difficult park at a more austere time. At his peak, which lasted (roughly) from 1977 through 1985, Carter hit .276/.349/.478. Give that a park and era adjustment and maybe grant the Kid a few points of production for the wear and tear of catching, and you have a real star. His OPS+ for those years was 129, his TAv about .300. That is to say nothing of his strong defensive abilities.

I don’t want to focus on Carter’s on-field achievements today, but of the crucial moment of team-building in which he played a key role. That was the day he was traded from the Expos to the Mets. This far removed, it is difficult to remember that the Expos were once a legitimate baseball team, not the bastard stepchild of MLB, existing to make salary-dumping deals such as that which sent John Wetteland to the Yankees for the immortal Fernando Seguignol and bundles of greenback dollars.

If you look at the team’s trading history prior to their dealing away Carter, you can find both good deals (Rusty Staub from the Astros for Jesus Alou, Jack Billingham, Skip Guinn, and $100,000—the latter two players after Donn Clendenon refused to report to Houston) and bad (Tony Bernazard to the White Sox for Rich Wortham), sometimes both with the same player—getting Ken Singleton , Tim Foli, and Mike Jorgensen from the Mets for Staub was a nice move, even if Staub did have several good seasons left. Sending Singleton and Mike Torrez to the Orioles for Rich Coggins, Dave McNally, and minor-leaguer Bill Kirkpatrick was not. What you can’t find is Javier Vazquez to the Yankees for Nick Johnson, Juan Rivera, and Randy Choate—the veterans in their prime for cheaper children.

I don’t have a good place to put this, so let me just pause here to acknowledge the inexplicable December 22, 1999 swap that sent Hideki Irabu north of the border in return  for Jake Westbrook, Ted Lilly, and Christian Parker.

The December, 1984 Carter deal was very much the forerunner of the dying Expos of the pre-Washington years. The Expos were not under pressure to trade Carter, then 30, in any baseball sense. He was not an imminent free agent or up for arbitration. He was, in fact, locked up, having just completed year three of a seven-year contract signed after the 1981 season. However, the Expos had just seen their attendance drop from 2.3 million to 1.6 million and were rumored to have lost quite a bit of money.

Knowing this and the subsequent history of the Expos makes it hard to look upon the Carter deal as a pure baseball move. In return for the best catcher in baseball, one who had just come off of a .294/.366/.487 season in a .255/.319/.369 league (.327 TAv), the Expos received four players. The most established of these was 28-year-old  infielder Hubie Brooks, a defensively shaky third baseman who the Mets had in desperation tried to convert into a shortstop. The Expos would continue the experiment despite poor returns on defense because, when healthy, he was an  above-average hitter for a shortstop of the time, even when his disdain for ball four is considered. In 1986, he hit .340/.388/569 in a season limited to 80 games because his violent swing tore ligaments in his thumb. Brooks would ultimately end up in right field, where he was a sub-par performer.

The other three players are quickly dealt with. Catcher Mike Fitzgerald, who had started for the Mets that season, might have developed into a decent hitter, but injuries and problems throwing out runners truncated his career. Outfielder Herm Winningham was drafted four times before signing with the Mets. His early minor league numbers make him look like Brett Gardner the First. As soon as he got to the Expos, his plate judgment disappeared and his speed started to die off.

The big prospect prize of the deal was right-handed pitcher Floyd Youmans, a high school teammate of Dwight Gooden’s. Youmans had a fastball that sat at 93-95 mph, and he complemented it with a slider and a changeup. Reaching the majors at 21, he initially struggled with his command, but in 1986 he struck out 202 batters in 219 innings while holding batters to just 145 hits, including two one-hitters. Unfortunately, he also walked 118—and that was pretty much that. Injuries and drug and alcohol problems limited Youmans to just 47 more games. He was out of the majors at 25.

Meanwhile, Mets GM Frank Cashen was doing exactly what needed to be done. From 1983 to 1984, the Mets had swung their record from 68-94 to 90-72. Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, and Sid Fernandez had just completed their rookie seasons, but the rest of the rotation was still in question. The lineup looked to be set with Keith Hernandez’s bat and glove at first and a productive outfield of George Foster, Mookie Wilson, and Darryl Strawberry. That left several holes. The 23-year-old Fitzgerald had hit only .242/.288/.306 in 112 games. Second baseman Wally Backman was ostensibly a switch-hitter but couldn’t hit from the right side at all—in his career he would average .294/.364/.362 against righties but only .165/.259/.202 against left-handers. There was no regular shortstop; Brooks, a third baseman, was going to move to short, which left an equally large hole at third base.

That August, Cashen had traded Gerald Young, Manny Lee, and Mitch Cook to the Astros for veteran third sacker Ray Knight. Knight hadn’t hit at all in 1984, so during the winter meetings, the Mets traded pitcher Walt Terrell to the Tigers for young third baseman Howard Johnson. Then, when Carter unexpectedly became available, Cashen shifted his plans and dealt Brooks away in order to close the deal. The Mets never did fill the resultant hole at short—they let Rafael Santana fake it for a few years, then ran through Kevin Elster, Dick Schofield Jr, Tim Bogar, Jose Vizcaino, Rey Ordonez, and Mike Bordick before finally landing on Jose Reyes—which is not to say that Brooks could have done the job. The Mets won in 1986, but given that their collection of players should have been expected to do so much more—and nearly did—one wonders how all the other near-misses of the Davey Johnson era would have played out with a more reliable anchor in the middle infield.

There is no wondering about Carter’s impact. The Mets added eight more wins in 1985, losing to the Cardinals by just three games, and then blew the doors off the league with 108 wins the year after that. Not all of that was due to Carter—Cashen kept tinkering, addressing weaknesses with players from the farm like Lenny Dykstra, Kevin Mitchell, Rick Aguilera, and Roger McDowell, and from outside, trading for Tim Teufel and Bobby Ojeda. However, the crowning touch was always the acquisition of the best catcher in baseball.

Gary Carter might have been a Hall of Famer even had he never gone to New York, but the fact that he did represents one of those rare occasions where player and need recognized each other and were brought together at just the right moment. Carter had 10-and-5 rights and could have vetoed the deal. However, he knew what was at stake: “I'm aware of the fine nucleus the Mets have,” he said. “They just missed winning the pennant last season. And I feel I can do my part to help them win a championship.” He was right, and in doing so, he crowned his own legend.

Goodbye, Kid, and thank you for that.  
 

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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