Lance Johnson is often overshadowed by his New York Mets teammate Bernard Gilkey. That doesn’t make much sense considering his amazing impact.
In the offseason before the 1996 season, the New York Mets made three big moves. They traded for Bernard Gilkey, signed Mark Clark, and signed Lance Johnson. Each move would have its own effect on the team, though all three made a significant impact on the team.
All three players turned in tremendous performances in a disappointing 1996 season. Johnson and Gilkey especially had phenomenal seasons. Gilkey’s breakout campaign often dwarfs Johnson’s in minds of Mets fans, which doesn’t make much sense.
Johnson had an equally as good campaign. He didn’t put up the power numbers Gilkey did, but he set a number of major league and Mets records that year.
Even more important is the role that Johnson played in both stopping the Mets get to the playoffs and helping them get to a World Series.
Records and dominance
The New York Mets were not a good team in 1996. The team finished the year with just 71 wins. That came despite having the best outfield pairing in baseball that year in Bernard Gilkey and Lance Johnson. The two were worth a combined 14 fWAR that year.
Over the first half of the ’96 season, the Mets knew they had something special in Johnson. He hit .322/.345/.473 in an astonishing breakout performance that saw Johnson earn his first and only All-Star appearance.
Johnson only got better in the second half, hitting .346/.382/.487. He did all of this while playing an elite defensive center field. Overall he hit .333/.362/.479 and was worth 6.4 fWAR. Why was he worth less than Gilkey?
Johnson didn’t have the same power numbers as Gilkey, hitting just nine home runs compared to 30 from his teammate. Johnson also didn’t walk much, his walk rate was only 4.6% compared to Gilkey’s 11.1%. Power and on-base percentage are the biggest parts of WAR calculations, and as such modern analytics prefer Gilkey to Johnson.
However, Major League Baseball and the Mets’ record books feel differently. In 1996, Johnson became the only player in MLB history to have led both the American League and the National League in at-bats, hits, and triples. He also became only the third player in MLB history to have led both leagues in triples, and the third to have led both leagues in at-bats in consecutive years.
Johnson set five Mets single-season records and finished second in two more in 1996. He set the record for at-bats in a season with 682, which would hold until Jose Reyes broke it in 2005. He set the record for runs scored in a season with 117, Edgardo Alfonzo would break that record in 1999. Johnson had the most total bases in franchise history with 327, David Wright would break that record in 2007. Johnson set a record for triples with 21, which still stands. His 227 hits are also a record that has yet to fall.
Johnson’s .333 batting average was the second-best in franchise history, behind only Cleon Jones’ .340 in 1969. His 50 stolen bases were third-best in franchise history, but he became just the second Met to steal at least 50 bases along with Mookie Wilson.
It was a magical season that will stand the test of time, at least until all of Johnson’s records have been broken if that’s possible.
A strong half and a trade
Heading into the 1997 season the Mets felt ready to break out. It was about time they found their groove with Gilkey, Johnson, and the newly acquired John Olerud on the team.
That’s exactly what happened. The Mets broke out and ended up in a playoff race. For the first time in a long time, they were buyers at the deadline. Johnson was a huge part of that.
Unlike Gilkey, Johnson didn’t experience a huge fall-off in 1997. He wasn’t the player he was in 1996 for sure, but he was still an excellent player nonetheless. Johnson hit .309/.385/.404 in 72 games for the Mets in 1997. Then the 33-year-old star was traded to the NL-worst Chicago Cubs in a waiver deal in August.
The deal sent Johnson and Mark Clark to the Cubs in exchange for Brian McRae, Mel Rojas, and Turk Wendell. The idea behind the trade was to bulk up the bullpen, which was the worst unit on the team. They felt they had no choice but to strengthen it if they were going to have any chance at making the playoffs.
Things didn’t work out that way. Instead, all three players they acquired in the trade had dreadful ends to the 1997 season. It’s not far fetched to say that trade sank the 1997 Mets.
Meanwhile, Johnson went on to finish the year strong in Chicago hitting .303/.342/.455. In retrospect, that deal was a disaster that cost the Mets a chance at the playoffs for one season, but helped them to get to a World Series in another.
While McRae and Rojas didn’t have long successful careers with the Mets, Turk Wendell did. Wendell was an instrumental part of the Mets’ bullpen from 1998 until he was traded in 2001.
He led the Mets with 77 appearances out of the bullpen for the Mets in 2000, and another six appearances in the playoffs that year.
Lance Johnson would have helped the Mets in 1997, but the playoffs were no guarantee. With Wendell, the Mets got years of great cost-effective pitching out of the bullpen, something the team has a history of having difficulty finding.
Current and future impact
Lance Johnson’s tenure with the Mets brings up a big question that baseball teams have to face every year, what matters more, the present or the future? The Mets had a chance to win in 1997 and tried to seize it by trading one of their best players. It didn’t work out the way they wanted, but ended up playing a huge role in the Mets success years later. Does that make it worth it?
The answer is almost always that the future matters more. Teams want to build a roster that can contend for multiple years. That means giving up stars for future pieces sometimes. However, is that same decision making true if the team is contending?
Should a team in contention give up one of their best players for a future piece if that star is older or on a short-term contract? Can they risk throwing away a chance at the playoffs when those chances are rare for most teams in MLB?
This is a philosophical question that really breaks down how fans and executives alike view the idea of building a roster. Some teams will tear everything down even in a contending situation with eyes on years in the future, while others will throw everything at trying to contend as soon as possible. The Mets tried to do both and only succeeded at one.
A success that might not equal what they considering Wendell was a reliever and could have been easily replaced. Still, there’s no denying the effect Wendell had on the team in both 1999 and 2000. He was a key piece of those teams and without him it’s possible those teams don’t make the NLCS and World Series, though that seems a stretch.
So, was Turk Wendell worth Lance Johnson and the New York Mets’ 1997 playoff hopes?