Mets land Church, Schneider from Nats
Outfielder Milledge departs in deal intended to balance lineup
NEW YORK -- Convinced that they didn't undermine their chance to deal for a front-of-the-rotation pitcher when they traded Lastings Milledge on Friday, the Mets addressed two lesser but critical needs when they acquired catcher Brian Schneider and left-handed-hitting outfielder Ryan Church from the Nationals.
At a price they could readily afford, the Mets solidified their outfield and their catching for at least two seasons, balanced their batting order and created circumstances that will benefit two of their key reserve players while bringing in a veteran presence. And at the same time, they set in motion the likely departure of Johnny Estrada, the catcher whose Mets tenure will probably end before he is fitted for a uniform.
A deal in the works for weeks, according to general manager Omar Minaya, cost the Mets a player who combines potential and youth and, over two seasons, occasionally made his age -- as it related to behavior -- more of an issue than his talent and caused his trade value to diminish.
Minaya, familiar with Schneider and Church from their days together in Montreal, bottomed-lined the move by saying, "We see ourselves as a better team now. [The trade] fills two needs with players in the primes of their careers."
But he also understood that the public might not embrace the first trade between the two franchises since April 2002, when he was the Expos' general manager. He referred to Schneider and Church as "not known names" but said "[the public] didn't understand it when we traded Kris Benson," not bothering to mention that John Maine was acquired in that exchange in 2005.
In dealing Milledge, the Mets lose a 22-year-old outfielder who had been the first player they took -- and the 12th selected overall -- in the 2003 First-Year Player Draft, a player who was unlikely to play his best position, center field, because of Carlos Beltran and whose occasional miscalculations in left and right field diminished his value to the club.
Milledge had been a key figure in trade talks that the Mets had with the Red Sox, involving Manny Ramirez in 2005, and with Orioles and Astros, involving Roy Oswalt, in 2006. And he was usually the odd man out when club executives spoke of a future outfield of Fernando Martinez in left, Beltran in center and Carlos Gomez in right. Their presence prompted Minaya to say he had "a surplus of outfielders."
Milledge remains highly regarded because of his quick bat. But he wasn't as good a fit as Church for the Mets -- at least for 2008 and perhaps '09 -- because he bats right-handed. With Schneider, a left-handed hitter, catching and Church playing right field, the Mets now can have three switch-hitters (Jose Reyes, Luis Castillo and Beltran), two right-handed hitters (David Wright and Moises Alou) and three left-handed hitters (Carlos Delgado and the two new men) in their most regular lineup.
Church's presence will also allow the Mets to use Endy Chavez in the role in which he is most effective, a No. 4 outfielder, to rest Alou against some right-handed pitchers and afford Gomez -- if he isn't included in a package for a starting pitcher -- more time to develop. Moreover, Church could replace Alou in left field in 2009 and play the position in Queens until Martinez has developed.
At the same time, Schneider, who turned 31 on Wednesday, is ideally suited to share the catching with right-handed-hitting reserve Ramon Castro. His presence and left-handed bat will enhance Castro's place on the roster, not to mention improve the Mets' defense up the middle and against the run.
"I'm big on defense up the middle," Minaya said. And he considers the Mets' catching "situation" as good as "any in the game."
The two-for-one deal came after Mets management said that the timing of a trade for a starting pitcher might interfere with the club's pursuit for a catcher in that the club wanted to retain its primary trading chips to fill the void at the front of its rotation. But judging from their conversations with other clubs, the Mets concluded that other players, particularly Gomez and Minor League pitcher Kevin Mulvey, were more coveted by other clubs than Milledge.
"We called the clubs we've been talking to to ask if this trade would hurt our chances [of dealing for a pitcher]," Minaya said. "They said, 'No' -- we still have enough players in our system to complete other deals."
A package including Gomez and one of the younger pitchers still could import left-handed Erik Bedard from the Orioles or right-handed Dan Haren from the A's. Minaya said he intends not to involve Church in trade talks.
Bedard and Haren are the two highest-profile pitchers the Mets seemingly have a chance to acquire. Johan Santana appears to cost more than the Mets are willing to pay the Twins in overall talent and more than their resources in young talent.
The Mets have far less interest in Joe Blanton of the A's, though they have a stated need for an innings eater in the wake of Tom Glavine's departure. Bedard or Haren could become the Mets' No. 1 starter. Blanton, a Bobby Jones-type pitcher in terms of results and how he pitches, would fit well in the middle of the rotation.
Because of the trade Friday, whichever pitchers the Mets do acquire will have a highly regarded defensive receiver. Schneider is a definite upgrade over Estrada, who was acquired in a trade with the Brewers on Nov. 20. Schneider is also 5 1/2 years younger than Paul Lo Duca, the man he replaces. Beyond that, he is signed through 2009. Estrada has no contract for 2008 and is eligible for arbitration. The Mets will likely non-tender Estrada on Dec. 10, unless another club is intent on acquiring him and makes the Mets an offer before the deadline for tendering contracts.
Schneider is precisely the kind of catcher Minaya and manager Willie Randolph had coveted, one who is concerned most with the pitching staff and the game at hand. He has started between 105 and 125 games since the beginning of the 2004 season.
"One of the [better] parts of my game is working with the pitching staff, sticking with the game plan, executing it along with controlling the running game," Schneider said. "My favorite thing to do is throw someone out at second base.
"I like to work with the pitchers and have them work the game plan."
Once he produced remarkable numbers throwing out would-be base stealers -- 63 caught stealing against 60 steals in 2003 and '04 combined. He threw out 24 of 77 would-be base stealers last season, and, beginning in 2003, 40 percent of 363 runners. Even with that drop in percentage, Schneider still may be the Mets' best throwing catcher since the early years of Todd Hundley's career -- 1990-93.
Schneider's offensive production, while not eye-catching, is quite comparable to that of Lo Duca. Schneider has averaged 12.9 RBIs per 100 at-bats over the last three seasons. Lo Duca, playing his last two seasons with the Mets' more productive batting order, averaged 11.4 RBIs per 100 at-bats from 2005-07. Schneider, likely to bat eighth for the Mets, hit 20 home runs in 1,187 at-bats the last three seasons, and Lo Duca hit 20 in 1,402 at-bats. Neither played his home games in a park conducive to home run hitting.
Church, 29, doesn't appear to have as high a ceiling as Milledge, but he is more accomplished than the player who is to be the Nationals' center fielder in 2008 and beyond. Church, eligible for arbitration as a Super 2, had 59 extra-base hits -- 43 doubles and 15 home runs -- and drove in 70 runs in 470 at-bats last season.
MILLEDGE VS. CHURCH
And Minaya said that Church "still has upside." Church characterized his career as "up and down," noting time spent in the Minor Leagues.
"But I've come out on top," he said. "And that's only made me a stronger person."
Church started 126 games for the Nationals -- 87 in left field and 39 in center. He has started 133 in left, 95 in center and 27 in right during his career. But he had played mostly right field in the Minor Leagues and he is equally comfortable in any of the three positions. The Mets consider Church's defense in right to be an upgrade over what Xavier Nady and Shawn Green provided during the last three years. Church may provide the best defense in right field the Mets have had in decades -- other than when Chavez has played there and when Mike Cameron started in right in 2005.
Milledge became involved in "situations" with the Mets because of a rap recording this past season and because of reporting late, on-field celebrating and creating strained relations with some teammates in 2006. Minaya said that none of that hastened the trade.
"Did he make mistakes? Yes, he made mistakes," Minaya said. "I don't know if I'd call it baggage."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.