The Mets' three-decade journey to David Wright

May 13th, 2020

NEW YORK -- Mets history buffs may easily recall that when Mike Hampton signed with the Rockies as a free agent in 2000, his old team received the compensatory pick it needed to draft David Wright. Even Hampton laughed about the serendipity when he visited Mets camp this spring, joking that he “was trying to look out for the organization.”

“Look what I did for you guys,” Hampton quipped. “I got you David Wright.”

What many don’t realize -- what even Wright did not know, until he was alerted to it earlier this week -- is that the transaction tree actually has much deeper roots, involving a dozen moves and 30 players. Here is the more than three-decade story of how the Mets acquired one of the most important players in franchise history:

June 6, 1967: Mets select Jon Matlack fourth overall in the 1967 Draft
In terms of WAR, Matlack was one of the four best first-round picks in Mets history (and one of their three best until Wright came along). Matlack won National League Rookie of the Year honors in 1972, played a starring role in the ’73 World Series and, over seven regular seasons, made three NL All-Star teams while posting a 3.03 ERA. All was well until the dawn of free agency in the mid-'70s, when Matlack -- much like fellow stars Tom Seaver and Dave Kingman -- began expressing his dissatisfaction with the way Mets officials were running the team.

“I’m no rebel,” Matlack said in May 1977, according to The New York Times, “and this has nothing to do with the guys I’m playing with. … This has to do with the way the club is being run and promises that were made to me that it would be run better.”

Dec. 8, 1977: Mets trade Matlack to the Rangers in a four-team deal. They also send John Milner to the Pirates and receive Willie Montanez from the Braves, as well as Tom Grieve and a player to be named (Ken Henderson) from the Rangers.
Matlack’s unhappiness ultimately played a role in his exit; six months after trading Seaver, the rebuilding Mets dealt Matlack at the Winter Meetings in Hawaii in the first four-team swap in MLB history. The trade was a bust; the Mets received almost no value on the field in Grieve or Henderson, though they realized their mistake quickly enough to salvage something from the situation.

Dec. 5, 1978: Mets trade Grieve and Kim Seaman to the Cardinals for Pete Falcone
With Grieve coming off an uninspiring Mets debut, the team dealt him to St. Louis in another Winter Meetings deal. This one proved a bit more lucrative as Falcone, a Brooklyn native, posted a 3.91 ERA over four seasons in Flushing.

Dec. 20, 1982: Mets receive a compensatory pick (20th overall), when Falcone signs with the Braves as a free agent
In a twist of the cosmos, Falcone officially left the Mets on the day Wright was born.

June 6, 1983: Mets select Stan Jefferson 20th overall in the 1983 Draft
Like so many on this list, Jefferson accomplished little in a Mets uniform (though he did manage to spend parts of six seasons in the big leagues, mostly for other teams). At the time, the Mets remained in a rebuild from which they began to emerge -- at least symbolically -- only later in June 1983, when they acquired Keith Hernandez from the Cardinals.

Dec. 11, 1986: Mets trade Jefferson, Kevin Armstrong, Kevin Brown, Shawn Abner and Kevin Mitchell to the Padres for Kevin McReynolds, Gene Walter and Adam Ging
Unwilling to stand complacent after winning the 1986 World Series, Mets general manager Frank Cashen engineered an eight-player deal that essentially sent Mitchell to San Diego for McReynolds. That night, manager Davey Johnson told the Times that the Mets became “immediately … a lot stronger than we were.”

As Johnson predicted, McReynolds enjoyed plenty of success in Flushing, hitting 122 home runs over six seasons. But local history generally looks unfavorably on the trade, because Mitchell won the 1989 NL MVP Award after bouncing from New York to San Diego to San Francisco. What neither team could know was where the deal would ultimately lead.

Dec. 11, 1991: Mets trade McReynolds, Gregg Jefferies and Keith Miller to the Royals for Bill Pecota and Bret Saberhagen
Seeking an ace, Cashen’s replacement Al Harazin landed one in yet another Winter Meetings swap, giving up three starting position players for Saberhagen. It didn’t work. Injuries and the 1994 strike limited Saberhagen to 74 starts over four seasons for the Mets, who were unable to climb back into contention despite their newest high-profile arm.

(In yet another curious coincidence, Miller -- a relatively minor part of the deal -- went on to become one of Wright’s agents and most trusted friends.)

July 31, 1995: Mets trade Saberhagen and a player to be named (Dave Swanson) to the Rockies for Juan Acevedo and Arnie Gooch
For the last-place Mets, this deal was mostly a salary dump, but they did receive Acevedo to create an interesting branch on the transaction tree. The team subsequently traded Acevedo for Rigo Beltran, whom they used in a five-player deal to acquire Chuck McElroy, whom they then swapped for ex-Met Jesse Orosco. Already the oldest player in the Major Leagues at that point (and he still had four more seasons to come), Orosco did not throw a pitch in his second stint with the Mets. Instead, the team shipped him to St. Louis for infielder Joe McEwing, who became an important mentor to Wright early in his career.

Still with us? Back on the main part of the tree, the Mets were not done moving and shaking.

Dec. 1, 1998: Mets trade Gooch and Todd Hundley to the Dodgers for Roger Cedeño and Charles Johnson
As they began to emerge from their decade-long division doldrums, the Mets included Gooch in a deal that sent Hundley -- the franchise’s single-season home run king -- to the Dodgers for Cedeño and Johnson. In what was essentially a three-team swap, the Mets immediately flipped Johnson to the Orioles for Armando Benitez, who became an important part of their bullpen. But they kept Cedeño, at least for a year.

Dec. 23, 1999: Mets trade Cedeño, Octavio Dotel and Kyle Kessel to the Astros for Mike Hampton and Derek Bell
Once again in need of an ace, the Mets sprung a surprise trade to acquire the left-handed Hampton with one year left on his contract. Despite the price, the deal was a success; Hampton led the rotation with a 3.14 ERA and finished second to Al Leiter with 15 wins. Hampton also won NL Championship Series MVP Award, throwing 16 shutout innings against the Cardinals.

Dec. 12, 2000: Mets receive a compensatory pick (38th overall) when Hampton signs with the Rockies
Despite his popularity in New York, Hampton fled after one season for Denver, $121 million and what he perceived as increased quality of life. Asked at the time why he viewed Colorado as a prime destination, Hampton drew the ire of proud New Yorkers when he infamously replied: “the school system.”

Their anger didn’t last.

June 5, 2001: Mets select David Wright (38th overall) in the 2001 Draft
As compensation for Hampton signing in Denver, the Mets received a pick at the end of the first round of the 2001 Draft. They had scouted Wright heavily, but they were even more enamored with pitcher Aaron Heilman, whom they selected 18th overall. The Cubs were also closely following Wright, but they selected Mark Prior second overall and didn’t have another pick until the second round. That allowed the Mets to grab Wright at No. 38.

Jan. 7, 2019: Mets release David Wright. The 52-year transaction tree comes to an end
Even the longest transaction trees must eventually die. Wright’s ended amidst his back, neck and shoulder woes in early 2019, when the Mets came to an agreement to release him after a 14-year career. All told, Wright made seven NL All-Star teams, served six years as captain and finished with more WAR (49.2) than any other position player in franchise history.