It’s easy to forget that Bret Saberhagen spent three and a half seasons with the New York Mets, but that’s not for lack of impact.
The New York Mets have been known to star chase in the past. This was especially true in the 1990s. They made moves to acquire every star and former star they could get their hands on. Mike Piazza, Carlos Baerga, John Olerud, Eddie Murray, and Bobby Bonilla just to name a few.
One that is easily forgotten by fans is the great Bret Saberhagen. The former Kansas City Royals’ ace was one of the elite pitchers in baseball in the 1980s. Royals fans will never forget a 21-year-old Saberhagen winning the Cy Young and World Series MVP in 1985.
In the offseason prior to the 1992 season, the Mets made a move for the two-time Cy Young award winner. The blockbuster move saw the Mets send Kevin McReynolds, Gregg Jefferies, and Keith Miller to the Royals for Saberhagen and Bill Pecota. That was two starters from the Mets’ 1991 lineup and their primary backup infielder. They gave up a ton for the star pitcher.
The results, like with most stars the Mets’ acquire, were mixed, to say the least.
When Saberhagen came, the Mets were coming off their worst season in a while. They had just finished 77-85 placing fifth in the NL East. It was clear they were no longer the favorites they were throughout the 80s.
The acquisition of Saberhagen was supposed to be a way to counteract that thought process. The Mets were supposed to be one of the best teams in the NL with a core to make it last.
That didn’t happen, though Saberhagen’s play on the field wasn’t one of the reasons why. Saberhagen was exactly who the Mets traded for throwing a 3.50 ERA, 2.88 FIP, 7.5 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, and 2.0 fWAR.
The issue was that he had trouble staying on the field, only starting 15 games and throwing 97.2 innings. Dominance on the field only matters so much when a player can’t stay healthy.
Over the course of a full season, Saberhagen would have been worth slightly over four fWAR. That would have been about equal to his 1991 season with the Royals.
The Mets went 72-90 in 1992. It was another fifth-place finish in the NL East. The offense wasn’t there because the Mets sent two of their best hitters to Kansas City for Saberhagen. So, despite a phenomenal pitching staff that starred Sid Fernandez, Doc Gooden, David Cone, and Saberhagen, the Mets simply couldn’t win games.
The 1993 season didn’t bring any more success. The Mets went 59-103 after fielding one of the worst rosters in baseball. Doc Gooden was gone, David Cone was gone, and the offense didn’t see much improvement. However, Bret Saberhagen was still there playing at star level when he was healthy.
Saberhagen started just 19 games as injuries plagued him again, but he was the same guy when he was on the field. He had a 3.29 ERA, 3.11 FIP, 6.0 K/9, 1.1 BB/9, and 3.3 fWAR. That was an improvement over his 1992 season all the way around.
That said, his impact on the team was limited. In fact, he’s better remembered for his off-the-field incident more than his play on the field.
In 1993, Saberhagen sprayed bleach into a group of reporters. Once he was caught, he apologized and donated one day’s pay to charity. Not the greatest look for the guy who was one of the faces of the franchise.
Saberhagen’s Mets career would remain snakebitten even once he moved past the injury issues.
A record-setting season cut short
Bret Saberhagen was finally able to stay healthy in 1994, and it showed. He was the dominant ace the Mets thought they were getting when they made their trade. Finally, they were ready to take that next step and be competitive again.
Saberhagen started 24 games in ’94, throwing 177.1 innings. He pitched to a 2.74 ERA, 2.76 FIP, 7.3 K/9, 0.7 BB/9, and 5.4 fWAR. Over the course of a full 35-start season, Saberhagen was set to be worth 7.9 fWAR, which would have been a career-high.
Unfortunately, that season was cut short by an MLBPA strike. Saberhagen was an All-Star and finished third in NL Cy Young voting that year and got an MVP vote. Better than all that, Saberhagen had walked only 13 batters in the entire season. Saberhagen is the only pitcher since 1919 to throw at least 150 innings and have more wins then walks.
The Mets finished the shortened season with a record of 55-58, which was third in the NL East. They seemed to be back on track to contend for a playoff spot with Saberhagen leading the way.
That wasn’t the case. The Mets tumbled back to the bottom of the standings in 1995 and Saberhagen became a prime trade target for contending teams. According to Mets’ vice oresident Joe McIlvaine, the Mets had been in contact with 12 teams.
Eventually, the Mets’ dealt their ace to the Colorado Rockies for Juan Acevado and Arnold Gooch. Neither player lasted with the Mets past the 1995 season.
Saberhagen missed the entire 1996 season due to injury, then went on to play four more seasons with the Boston Red Sox.
A familiar story for the New York Mets
Stories like Bret Saberhagen’s are all too familiar for the New York Mets. The team loves to chase stars and oftentimes they turn out like Saberhagen.
Pedro Martinez, Yoenis Cespedes, Roberto Alomar, Tom Glavine, Johan Santana, and Francisco Rodriguez are just a few examples. injuries, poor performances, or a good player on a bad team. It rarely seems to be a case of the right player at the right time.
That’s the problem with relying on free agency and trades to build a team. That’s why the media dubbed the early 2000s Mets “the worst team money can buy.” They kept trying to build a team of other people’s stars.
The Mets are at their best when they’re building through their prospects. 1969, 1986, and 2015 were all built through prospects and supplemented by outside stars.
Teams should take the Mets’ actions with stars like Saberhagen as a cautionary tale. It’s important to know when to go star chasing. They can’t try and extend a closing window or open a closed window by going star chasing. It’s a recipe for wasting money and top talent.