There has been a lot of talk recently of Alex Rodriguez opting out of his contract following this season. Rodriguez has gone from one of the greatest shortstops in Major League history to everyone’s favorite whipping boy. It has been sad to watch this transformation.
And the saddest part of all is that it didn’t have to be this way.
It was well known that Rodriguez was ready to leave Seattle following the 2000 season and that he wanted to play in New York. Now, the Yankees had Derek Jeter, so the logical destination was for Rodriguez to join the Mets. The stars were properly aligned. The Mets had just made the playoffs following the 1999 season for the first time in 11 years and were a team on the upswing. Rodriguez was the player who could even the scales between the Yankees, who had just won the World Series for the third time in four years in 1999, and the Mets.
The Mets had Cuban defector Rey Ordonez as their shortstop and Ordonez won his third straight Gold Glove Award in 1999. He was a flashy fielder but as an offensive player, Ordonez was a zero. While the trend was for offensive shortstops like Rodriguez, Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra and Miguel Tejada, Ordonez put up offensive numbers that would be at home on the back of Mario Mendoza’s baseball card.
In 1999, Ordonez posted 165 total bases in 154 games and notched an OPS+ of 66. An average offensive player posts an OPS+ of 100, so Ordonez was 34% below average at the plate. That’s really, really not good.
Ordonez was eligible for arbitration following the 1999 season. Now as a rule, the Mets do everything possible to avoid arbitration with their players, preferring not to go through what is often an acrimonious process. But if ever there was a time to break this rule, with Rodriguez seemingly waiting in the wings, this was it.
Instead, general manager Steve Phillips gave Ordonez a four-year contract. But Phillips left a glimmer of hope alive by withholding a no-trade clause from the deal. This meant that if the Mariners accepted that Rodriguez was going to leave, they might trade him during the season and they would likely want a shortstop as part of the return package.
But no trade happened during the 2000 season, one which saw the Mets make the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time in franchise history. The Mets advanced to the World Series, losing to the Yankees in five games.
Rodriguez became a free agent and the Mets were still rumored to be the front runners to land the biggest free agent prize in history. In his last season with the Mariners, Rodriguez, at the ripe old age of 24, batted .316 with a .420 on-base percentage and a .606 slugging mark.
However, the Mets made no pitch for Rodriguez. Now, there is a chance that Phillips received word from his bosses that they would not spend the money necessary to sign Rodriguez, but there has never been a public acknowledgment by anyone involved. So, I am going to say the reason that Rodriguez did not end up with the Mets was strictly Steve Phillips’ fault.
The Mets bowed out of the negotiations in mid-November of 2000, when Phillips said that the team would not meet Rodriguez’ non-monetary demands, which allegedly included a personal office on stadium grounds and charter jet service for friends and family.
“It’s about 25 players working as a team,” Phillips told the AP. “The 24 plus one-man structure really doesn’t work.
“I don’t mean to cast aspersions on Alex Rodriguez, but I don’t think you can give different rules and separate one player from the rest of the team.”
It’s been over six years since that time and we can see how that decision worked out for all parties involved.
The Phillips Mets went from a 94-win team in 2000 to an 82-win team in 2001 to a 75-win team in 2002 and a 66-win team in 2003, when Phillips was fired. Alex Rodriguez has never been on a team that lost 95 games in the Majors.
Rodriguez ended up signing with the Rangers, getting a 10-year, $252 million contract. The dollar amount of his contract was staggering and fans made him the poster child for everything wrong with sports. Rodriguez spent three years in Texas and his teams were below .500 each season.
Despite winning the Most Valuable Player Award in 2003, the Rangers decided that Rodriguez, and not their league-worst pitching staff, was the reason the team was under achieving. So, they dealt him to the Yankees. To facilitate the deal, Rodriguez agreed to move to third base, deferring to longtime Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, even though Rodriguez was a much better all-around player, especially defensively, than Jeter.
In three seasons with the Yankees, Rodriguez has averaged almost 40 home runs per year along with 119 RBIs. But the team has yet to win a World Series with Rodriguez on the roster. Fans and critics have bent over backwards to invent reasons why Rodriguez has been a failure in his time in the Bronx. His former pal Jeter has all but shunned him and his manager humiliated him by dropping him in the batting order in the playoffs.
I think it is fair to say that the Mets’ decision to avoid Rodriguez did not work out for Steve Phillips or Alex Rodriguez in the short term. But the big question is: did it work out for the Mets?
While it certainly did not work out from 2001-2004, the Mets have been a different team since Omar Minaya took over in 2005. But what if Rodriguez had joined the team in 2001? What would have happened then?
Ordonez enjoyed perhaps the finest offensive season in his career in 2001, but that still meant just a .299 on-base percentage and a .336 slugging mark. Those woeful numbers were a large reason the Mets finished last in the league by scoring just 3.96 runs per game. Meanwhile, Rodriguez hit 52 home runs, posted a .399 on-base percentage and a .622 slugging mark.
The Mets got off to a dreadful start. They were 38-51 at the All-Star break. In that time frame, Ordonez had a .270 OBP and a .283 SLG. I think it’s safe to say that Rodriguez would have made a difference.
Let’s give the Mets their third straight playoff appearance in 2001 with Rodriguez. It’s safe to say then that their off-season would have been a lot different. In reality, Phillips acquired Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar, Roger Cedeno and Jeromy Burnitz, none of whom worked out. It’s hard to predict which, if any, of these moves would have been made if Rodriguez was on the team.
But it is somewhat reasonable to think that the deadline deals that cost the Mets Scott Kazmir and Justin Huber in 2004 would not have happened had the team signed Rodriguez. And it is also likely that Phillips would still be the general manager and not Minaya. Without Minaya, the team probably doesn’t get Pedro Martinez or Carlos Beltran or Carlos Delgado.
What would the team look like then heading into 2007? Here’s one guess:
C – Paul Lo Duca
1B – Justin Huber
2B – Mark Loretta
3B – David Wright
SS – Alex Rodriguez
LF – Jose Reyes
CF – Mike Cameron
RF – Lastings Milledge
That outfield would certainly be more athletic than the one featuring Moises Alou and Shawn Green that figures to open the 2007 season. That would still be a formidable squad and one that would likely have been quite more productive in the 2001-2005 time frame.
I just hope Steve Phillips is enjoying his ESPN gig more than Rodriguez is his stay with the Yankees. And if Rodriguez does opt out, maybe he can switch to second base or the outfield and sign with the Mets this time. I cannot think of a better way for Rodriguez to get back at all of the people who doubted him with the Yankees than to lead the Mets to a World Series win. That would be something.