In the mid-1980s, stars like Keith Hernandez, Darryl Strawberry, and Dwight Gooden grabbed most of the headlines. On these pre-1986 teams that exuded budding talent and personality, Jose Oquendo began his major league career. The Mets had originally signed Oquendo as an amateur free agent in 1979. In 1983, at age 19, he made his major league debut in Queens with the big club. At the time, Oquendo was notable for being the very first Mets player born after the Mets came into existence in 1962.
Oquendo was initially groomed as a shortstop, and he spent his entire Mets tenure in the hole between second and third base. He saw a lot of playing time in 1983, appearing in 120 games and snagging the starting job away from Ron Gardenhire. Oquendo’s hitting had yet to blossom, however, and he hit only .213 over the entire season.
Oquendo returned for another season in 1984, but he split more of his playing time at shortstop that year with Gardenhire and Rafael Santana. His average increased just a tick to .222, and his OBP remained low at .284. Still, Oquendo showed significantly more promise at the plate in 1984. During May and June, he hit a much-improved .250 and .243, respectively, before his playing time drastically decreased in the second half.
Despite being touted as a strong defender, the Mets ultimately decided that whatever defensive value Oquendo provided was not worth carrying his bat on the roster. They traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals before the ’85 season, in a deal packaged with Mark Davis that netted the Mets John Young and Angel Salazar.
Though he spent all of the 1985 season in the minor leagues, Oquendo enjoyed a career renaissance in St. Louis beginning in 1986, mostly as a second baseman, and his hitting improved tremendously. Oquendo was a key part of the mid-’80s Cardinals teams that had a healthy rivalry with the Mets. He ended up spending the next ten years in St. Louis until he retired after the 1995 season.
The Mets may not have known it at the time, but Oquendo’s bat always had potential and eventually came around. It did take a change of scenery for his hitting prowess to appear, which is why Oquendo falls into the category of “Mets who didn’t fully thrive until they played every day for another team.”
It is very difficult for major leaguers to make their mark as utility players. Many times, talented players are thrust into part-time roles because of their team’s roster construction, not because they don’t have the ability to produce every day.
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The Mets have groomed many players from “rookie status” to “stardom” over the years, but for Turner, Mitchell, and Oquendo, “stardom” would only be achieved once they left the Big Apple.