Season Preview: The 1973 New York Mets
Over the last four seasons, the Mets have been paced by their power pitching. But ever since their Amazin’ run of 1969, the Mets have sorely lacked power at the plate to compete with the mighty Pittsburgh Pirates. Two, then three straight seasons with eighty-three victories begged for upgrades. Understanding that most knew certain sacrifices needed to be made which would involve our deep crop of pitchers. However, after a break-out season with the Angels, Mets fans are still up in arms over the trading of Nolan Ryan – and for good reason. In return for their enigmatic fireballer, the Mets got the Jim Fregosi of 1971, not the Fregosi of 1970, in which he established career highs with twenty-two home runs and eighty-two runs batted in. Instead, Jim Fregosi’s first campaign in Flushing frighteningly mirrored his final season with the Angels, which for Mets fans did little to ease the shock of last year’s trade. In a word, Jim’s 1972 season was abysmal. In 101 games and 340 at-bats, Fregosi only batted .232, hit five home runs and drove in thirty-three runs. Delving deeper into his history, we find he managed to slug above .400 only once in the last seven seasons.
Meanwhile, fanning Mets fans ire on the west coast, Nolan Ryan won nineteen games and posted a stellar 2.28 ERA. As a full time starter for California, he pitched 284 innings, striking out a prolific 324 batters, which led the American League. He additionally led the A.L. in shut-outs with nine. Many Mets fans swear they foresaw this type of success for their former erratic hurler. But honestly, who really anticipated this? Nolan Ryan also led the A.L. with eighteen wild pitches, and topped the circuit by issuing 157 walks. Those sort of stats are a little more familiar to Mets fans, but hardly enough to change any minds. Just based on last year alone, or, worse yet, based on any continued dominance by Ryan, this trade could go down as one of the worst deals we’ll revisit frequently over the next few years. To be fair as it pertains to GM Bob Scheffing, looming contract issues always seem to underwrite bad trades. In this case, local scuttlebutt centered around a potential conflict brewing between Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, and their respective, yet potentially clashing future salaries. In truth, only time will judge the execution of this trade. At present, Jim Fregosi hasn’t given fans any reason to think otherwise.
In turning our attention to the infield, and how Fregosi fits into it, I am committed to an albeit hasty opinion. Jim Fregosi doesn’t fit – at all. The only thing he managed to accomplish last season was to provide Mets fans with a renewed and even greater appreciation for Wayne Garrett. Therefore, heading into the 1973 season, if early on Yogi Berra senses Fregosi can’t recapture his swing that averaged fourteen home runs between 1964 and 1970, I expect the manager to waste little time reverting back to Wayne Garrett at third base full time. With regular play, perhaps Wayne himself can recapture the pop he displayed in his 1970 sophomore season. Besides, he wields a better glove at the hot corner than Fregosi too.
To be sure, times are changing in Flushing. Jon Matlack, the 1972 Rookie of the Year, officially made Gary Gentry expendable. More on that later. But that said, I believe GM Bob Scheffing‘s recent acquisition of Felix Millan from the Atlanta Braves is as savvy as any deal he’s made to date. In trading Danny Frisella and Gary Gentry in return for George Stone and Millan, the Mets get a highly proficient bat for the top of the order, not to mention a smooth and sure fielder at second base. Felix Millan‘s “choke-up on the bat” style of hitting provides him with supreme bat control. He batted .310 in 1970, and never struck out more than thirty-seven times in any season during seven years with Atlanta. He is a three time all-star and owns one gold glove. The Cat will be replacing yet another member of the Miracle Mets. Ken Boswell will be remembered well for playing on that team. Entering this season however, second baseman Felix Millan is a most welcome addition to the Mets.
After two consecutive all-star appearances, Bud Harrelson missed forty-seven games last season. As the most important and respected player of the Mets infield, no Mets pitcher, to include Buddy’s roommate Tom Seaver, speak of their success without mentioning their 1971 gold glove shortstop. Offensively, Buddy is averaging a .331 OBP over his last four seasons. Due to injury, Buddy was limited to twelve stolen bases last year. He stole a career high twenty-eight bases in ’71, and has totaled sixty-three over the last three seasons.
Two seasons ago, Donn Clendenon hit eleven home runs while sharing time at first base with Ed Kranepool, who hit an additional fourteen home runs. Last season, production numbers at first base suffered a precipitous fall. Eddie Kranepool (8) and Jim Beauchamp (5) only combined to hit thirteen home runs in year one of the post-Don Clendenon era. Steady Eddie Kranepool will get a fair share of games at first base again this season. But here comes The Hammer. First base now belongs to the slugging sophomore named John Milner. Last season Milner shared time in left field with Cleon Jones. He and Kranepool will now flip. The Hammer finished third in the 1972 Rookie of the Year voting after hitting seventeen home runs in 362 at-bats.
The trade to bring Rusty Staub to New York was perhaps Bob Scheffing’s best deal. The Mets acquired Rusty Staub last April from the Montreal Expos in exchange for youngsters Tim Foli, Mike Jorgensen, and the big catch, burgeoning outfielder Ken Singleton. It can be argued the Mets paid too much. Tim Foli after all, was the #1 overall pick of the 1968 draft. There is no denying however, Rusty became an instant crowd favorite despite only appearing in sixty-six games last year. Wildly popular, Le Grande Orange is looking forward to his first full season as a member of the Metropolitans. The right fielder will be expected to join John Milner, Cleon Jones, and to a lesser degree, Willie Mays, in providing power and slugging in the middle of the line-up. In 1970, Staub hit a career high thirty home runs. The Mets hope he can provide that kind of production in 1973. Now a ten year veteran, Rusty will turn twenty-nine years old in April.
The upcoming 1973 season also bids farewell to yet another member of our beloved championship team. I can’t even begin to tell you how saddened I am that Tommie Agee will no longer be patrolling center field at Shea Stadium. Were it not for his spectacular catches four years ago, Mets history reads very differently today. But after two consecutive years suffering through knee injuries, GM Bob Scheffing decided to part ways with Tommy, and traded him to Houston for two players I wouldn’t trust to mail a letter for me. Don Hahn now stands to receive substantial playing time in support of Willie Mays. Turning forty-two years old this May, the Say Hey Kid is widely expected to finally call it quits at season’s end.
In left field, Cleon Jones is coming off a 106-game season. Fairly or not, he was compromised last season by what some deemed a “questionable” leg injury. Nonetheless, this season’s performance may be affected as well. So far, his Opening Day status is probable. At thirty years old, no one is necessarily doubting Cleon’s remaining ability. In fact, 1971 was one of his best campaigns in Flushing, as he posted a .319 batting average, and matched his career high in home runs with fourteen. John Milner picked up the slack in left last year. This season, the back-up role behind Cleon Jones will likely fall on Ed Kranepool and George Theodore.
Behind the plate, Jerry Grote is yet another Met whose 1972 campaign was ravaged by injuries. Among the top defensive catchers in baseball, Jerry missed ninety-eight games last season. Like Cleon Jones, Jerry Grote seems headed towards a season riddled by nagging injuries. In his fourth year, Duffy Dyer stepped in last season to carry the load. The club will promote twenty-four year old Ron Hodges to back-up Duffy Dyer as the situation warrants. Although, word is Ron Hodges will head north with the club regardless.
On the hill, if anyone is going to make Mets fans forget Nolan Ryan, and Gary Gentry for that matter, it is going to be Jon Matlack. The tall, twenty-three year old lefty went 15-10 in his inaugural season. As noted earlier, his mound efforts captured the 1972 Rookie of the Year award. In 244 innings pitched, he posted a 2.32 ERA, and a 1.172 WHiP.
In 1969, Gary Gentry endeared himself to fans as a rookie, winning thirteen (13-12) games for those Amazin’ Mets. Unfortunately, since then Gary has been unable to take an appreciable step forward. Although posting respectable ERA’s (3.23 in 1971), Gentry only managed a 34-32 record after three seasons. Last year at twenty-five years old, his effectiveness tailed off. He pitched his fewest innings in four seasons, and stumbled to a 7-10 record, while his ERA ballooned to a 4.01 mark. With the emergence of Jon Matlack, Gentry effectively served to shore up second base with an all-star caliber player. Pitcher George Stone came over from Atlanta along with Felix Millan. He projects to be the team’s fifth starter this season, and can be classified in the same category as Gentry. Both pitchers are looking to regain their lost form, and enjoy bounce-back seasons in 1973. A change of scenery just may be what both hurlers need.
Jim McAndrew pitched arguably his best season last year. Entering his sixth year with the Mets, Jim made twenty-three starts and posted an 11-8 record. In 160.2 innings, he limited opposing batters to 133 hits, and only issued thirty-eight walks, good for a solid 1.064 WHiP.
Next, will the real Jerry Koosman please stand up? Entering his sixth year, Kooz is yet to recapture the bite of his first two seasons in the bigs when he compiled thirty-six wins. Since then, Koosman has managed just twenty-nine wins in the last three seasons. He posted his first losing campaign in 1971 with a 6-11 record. Then last year, his ERA grew to a career high 4.14 mark. He has failed to pitch 200+ innings in two consecutive seasons now. Quite simply, Jerry needs to be the pitcher of 1969 and 1970 again. He needs to top 200 innings, drop his ERA, and get his strikeouts back up to six or seven per game. If Jerry Koosman can manage that, the Mets will play very meaningful games in September.
Finally, the staff ace – Traditionally speaking, Tom Seaver is now entering his prime. While that probably doesn’t bode well for the rest of the National League East, the fans in Queens think that’s just marvelous. Seaver will not actually turn twenty-eight until November. But it seems as if he’s been at this pitching thing forever. On the heels of two consecutive ERA and strikeout titles in 1970 and 1971, last season Tom Terrific posted his third twenty-win campaign of his six year career. Tom won twenty-one games last season while losing twelve. His 2.92 ERA was actually his highest mark in six seasons. He also struck out over two hundred batters for the fifth straight year.
The bullpen will again be anchored by the frenetic, energetic, schizophrenic, screwballer, Tug McGraw. Call him what you will. Just make sure you call him one of the finest relief specialists in the game today. Pitching in Shea since 1965, the Mets eccentric fireman enjoyed his finest season as a pro last year. In 106 innings pitched, he limited opposing batters to ninety-one hits, and walked forty, for a 1.047 WHiP. He posted an 8-6 record, with an outstanding 1.70 ERA, which tied his career best mark. Tug also struck out ninety-two batters, and saved twenty-seven games; a career high. Tug McGraw will be joined by fellow left-hander Ray Sadecki, who was used primarily in relief last season for the first time in his career. Rounding out the bullpen from the right side this season will be Buzz Capra, Phil Hennigan, and Harry Parker. Missing from this year’s relief corp is Danny Frisella, who since 1967, served as a very effective pitcher for the Mets. He was sent to Atlanta in the Felix Millan trade, and will be missed.
The Mets are now three years removed from their remarkable World Series upset over the Orioles. Since then, most in the media (but not all…eh-hem, Dick Young) have refrained from labeling the Mets a one year wonder as long as Tom Seaver pitches every fourth day, and through sheer respect, while Gil was still alive. As the thrill of ’69 inevitably wanes, the upcoming 1973 season is no doubt filled with daunting challenges. The magic surrounding this team is far from gone. It just needs to be recaptured. So far, Yogi Berra is getting the benefit of the doubt as he enters his second season as field manager. Under Yogi, the Mets matched the eighty-three wins posted by Gil Hodges the prior two years. In fact, because the opening of the 1972 season was delayed by the first ever player’s strike, Yogi’s team gained eighty-three victories in six less games played, finishing the season ten games above the .500 level. Berra managed to do so, while many of his positional players endured a slew of season-altering injuries.
Instead, general manager Bob Scheffing is enduring the brunt of local media scrutiny as he tries to separate the team from 1969, and retool them for the seventies. Mr. Scheffing is entering his fourth year on the job. While president of minor league operations, Joe McDonald, continues to provide the big club with young talent from the farm, many wonder if Bob Scheffing has done enough since inheriting a championship team in 1970 to get them back into the World Series.
There are still two back-up middle infield jobs, and one last spot in the bullpen to be won. Otherwise, the 1973 active roster is almost set. On April 6th and 7th, the Metropolitans will host Steve Carlton and the Philadelphia Phillies to kick off their twelfth season of National League baseball. In the case of Shea Stadium which opened in 1964, our beloved ballpark turns ten years old this season. What better way to celebrate than with a second N.L. East flag?
Let the games begin.