Remembering Mets History (1998) The Mets Catching Problem Before the Arrival Of Mike Piazza

When the Bobby Valentine era began in late 1996, there were signs of good things to come. In Valentine's first full year at the helm, the Mets won 88 games, the most wins they had had in seven years. It was also the first time they went over .500 since 1990.

In 1998 they won 88 games again, this time finishing second but still missing out on the wild card spot. There were a couple of more pieces Valentine & the Mets needed to complete their team to make a deep post season run.

On May 22nd, 1998 Mike Piazza arrived & the Mets had their superstar player, a future Hall of Famer. In Piazza's first full season the Mets won 97 games & made the post season. Piazza hit 40 HRs & drove in 124 runs. 

In 2000 he led the Mets to the NL Pennant.  But before the greatest hitting catcher of All Time arrived, the Mets were in turmoil at the catchers position.

Todd Hundley had been the Mets All Star catcher & had the position locked up since 1992. By 1996, he had set the Franchise & MLB single season HR mark for a catcher, with 41 round trippers. Playing in New York, made Hundley a celebrity in the Big Apple. 

He got to appear on Saturday Night Live & he enjoyed the night life, very much. But this was something that didn't sit well with his managers, first Jeff Torborg, then the stern Dallas Green, but especially with Bobby Valentine who was building a winner, his way.

Toward the end of the 1997 season, Hundley got injured & underwent reconstructive elbow surgery. The rehab took time, he wasn't ready to start the 1998 season. This is still before Piazza arrived, which would happen a little over a month later on May 22nd. 

The Mets used five different catchers in the first 44 games of the '98 season, with Piazza being #6 upon his arrival in the team's 45th game. 

Here's a look at who was behind the plate in 1998..

Jim Tatum was a journeyman utility player who had spent time with the Milwaukee Brewers (1992) Colorado Rockies (1993-1995) Boston Red Sox (1996) & San Diego Padres (1996). 

He would play 35 games for the 1998 Mets, four games at catcher, getting one start. With his strong arm, he threw out three of the four base runners who tried to steal on him. 

He was sent down & granted free agency in October, he never played in the majors again. In a short five-year career, he batted .180 with 2 HRs & 13 RBIs.

Rick Wilkins was a veteran catcher who had played seven years in
the majors, mostly with the Chicago Cubs (1991-1995). Houston Astros (1995) San Francisco Giants (1996-1997) & Seattle Mariners (1998-1998). 

He came to the Mets from Seattle on May 8th, for minor leaguer Lindsay Gulin, to help out the catching situation. Wilkins would play in just five games for the Mets, getting two hits & RBI in 15 at bats. He was sent down & granted free agency in October. He signed with the LA Dodgers.

Alberto Castillo had been with the Mets since 1995, seeing limited action through the years. In 1997 he played in 35 games batting .203 with seven RBIs. On Opening Day 1998, he drove in the game winning run, in a 1-0 Mets 14 inning victory over the Phils' at Shea Stadium. 

Castillo saw the majority of the time at the start of 1998, with action in 26 of those first 44 games. But he clearly he wasn't the answer. 

In 38 total games with New York that year he hit .205 with his first two career HRs & seven RBIs. Defensively, he threw out 54% of would-be base stealers (15 out of 28). He was granted free agency at the end of the season & signed with the St. Louis Cardinals. There he played in 93 games behind Eli Marrero.

Tim Spehr was another traveling catcher, who had been in the big leagues since 1991. He played with briefly the Kansas City Royals (1991) then spending the majority of his time with the Montreal Expos (1993-1996). He then went to Atlanta & Kansas City in 1997.  He signed with the Mets that January & was in the Mets minor leagues although he wasn't hitting.

He would also see lots of playing time before Piazza's arrival, including being the starting catcher on Opening Day. But in 28 games he batted just .137 with three RBIs. He threw out 7 of 12 base runners trying to steal, 37%  a bit better than the league average. By the end of August he would be gone too, getting purchased by the Kansas City Royals.

Todd Pratt  had come up with the Phillies in 1992 & played there three years. He went to the Cubs & then missed all of 1996 without getting signed. He was delivering pizza & working at Bucky Dents baseball school, before signing with the Mets in 1997. 

He would get two starts at catcher in early May, he would hit a three run HR in his first & have a three-run triple the next day. Pratt would soon emerge as the best of the bunch. 

He became Mike Piazza's backup catcher over the next 3 1/2 years & became a solid, popular player. He would forever be remembered for his walk off HR, in the NLDS clincher against the Arizona Diamondbacks, advancing the Mets to the NLCS.

 In 1998 he batted .275 with 2 HRs 9 doubles & 18 RBIs in 41 games. In 16 games at catcher he threw out 44% of would be base stealers.

 In the 2000 pennant season he threw out 39% of base runners playing in 71 games. Pratt was a good hitter thru the years, he hit .293 in 1999 & then .275 with 8 HRs & 25 RBIs in 2000.

In July of 2001 he was traded to the Phillies, where he would spend the next five years. He closed out his 14 year career in Atlanta in 2006.

After Piazza arrived, it was clear he was the number one catcher. The Mets down played the idea of Todd Hundley being traded but the writing was on the wall. Hundley returned from his injury in July & only saw two games behind the plate. The Mets experimented with him in the outfield but that didn't work out. After the season, in December he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Roger Cedeno & Charles Johnson.

Jorge Fabregas
who had spent time with the California Angles (1994-1997) the Chicago White Sox (1997) & Arizona Diamondbacks (1998). He would come over on the July 31st trade deadline in exchange for Nelson Figueroa & Bernard Gilkey. He played in 20 Mets games batting .188. He was traded to Marlins & then ended up on the 1999 Braves team.

The Mets would make two consecutive post season appearances in Piazza's first two full seasons, It was the first time in franchise history the Mets had done that. In his eight year Mets career, Piazza hit .296 with 1928 hits 220 HRs 193 doubles & 655 RBIs with a .373 on base %.


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