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One Line Summary: Oh, cruel contention of the imagination… at the cost of Kazmir.

The Mets went into 2004 spring training with free agent closer Braden Looper, new outfielders Mike Cameron, Shane Spencer, and Karim Garcia, plus a Japanese shortstop, Kaz Matsui, who was believed to be so good that the Mets decided to move Jose Reyes to second base. Expos superstar Vladimir Guerrero was available as a free agent in a reduced market, but the Mets tried to wow him with a fiscally responsible offer—Vlad bolted for Anaheim. 

While rookie Tyler Yates fought off several talented youngsters for the last spot in the rotation, news was spreading throughout baseball about a flame-throwing little lefty, Scott Kazmir, who’d scorched the competition in three different minor leagues… and he was only 20. It had all the makings of a special year. What it ended up being was especially frustrating.

A 14-7 stretch in May catapulted the Mets into contention. The Mets hovered around .500 through most of June and July—they even swept the Yankees at Shea for the first time—and introduced 21-year-old third baseman David Wright to Flushing on July 21. But as the Mets started to slip in the standings, they made a bold reach. Preposterously bold.

On July 30 they acquired right-hander Kris Benson from the Pirates—a deal rumored for weeks—along with infielder Jeff Keppinger, in exchange for hard-nosed infielder Ty Wigginton and two prized minor leaguers: pitcher Matt Peterson and a young slugger named Jose Bautista. The shocker came minutes later when Kazmir, one of the most sought-after young pitchers in baseball, was traded to Tampa Bay for Victor Zambrano, a bottom-of-the rotation starter with control problems. Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson, said to have questioned the young lefty’s long-term prospects, supposedly claimed, “I can fix Zambrano in 15 minutes.” Zambrano’s 15 minutes of fame in New York (10-14, 4.42 ERA in 39 games) were neither kind nor fixable.

Fans who’d tried to be patient while the farm system slowly blossomed were livid. The day the Mets made the deal they were three games under .500 and seven back in the wild card standings. They never reached .500 again and finished 21 games behind wild card winner Houston. Howe was fired, Duquette was removed in favor of Omar Minaya, and the Wilpons, who’d bought out Nelson Doubleday two years earlier, receded into the background (for the time being). It was the club’s third straight losing season. Who knew what the future might hold for the Mets? New York Magazine, apparently. 

An insightful article in May 3, 3004 issue of New York magazine by Alan Schwarz envisioned the Mets lineup in two years. Schwarz was right on about the Mets getting Carlos Delgado and Shawn Green, keeping Jose Reyes and Cliff Floyd, a bit off on Kaz Matsui and Jason Phillips, and he didn’t see the Kazmir deal coming. No one did. Schwarz nailed the main point, though. “In the playoffs by 2006,” he predicted. “Shea Stadium will be rocking again. And the ghost of Roger Cedeno will have been exorcised forever.” Or at least for a little while.

By Matt Silverman
 

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Tagged:
Braden Looper, Carlos Delgado, Cliff Floyd, David Wright, Jeff Keppinger, Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes, Karim Garcia, Kazuo Matsui, Kris Benson, Mike Cameron, Nelson Doubleday, Omar Minaya, Roger Cedeno, Scott Kazmir, Shane Spencer, Shawn Green, Ty Wigginton, Tyler Yates, Victor Zambrano, Vladimir Guerrero

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