Jeff McKnight, 1963-2015

McKnightbwJeff McKnight, a two-time Mets utility infielder made semi-famous on these pages for having worn five different uniform numbers for the Mets, passed away Sunday at his home in Bee Branch, Ark., newspapers reported.

McKnight, who’d just turned 52, had been battling leukemia for 10 years, his family said.

I first wrote about Jeff McKnight some 16 years ago, after inadvertently uncovering details revealing he was the first and still the only of the nearly 1,000 players in team history to appear in five different uniform numbers for the Mets.
15While on the one hand his feat is an odd curiosity, five uni numbers is also something else entirely. It’s not the kind of record that a player who is secure in his big-league status can possibly generate, and at the same time, it’s a testament to McKnight’s persistence and versatility, finding a way to be needed even as his teammates were needier.

5As detailed on my article featured here, Jeff McKnight had a long road into Mets history, logging six seasons and nearly 1,800 at-bats as a minor leaguer before getting a freak shot at the majors in 1989 when three Met infielders went down with injuries at once. His stint — then wearing No. 15 — ended as soon as the first one returned and he didn’t even get an invite back in September, becoming a minor-league free agent destined for two seasons with the Baltimore Orioles organization.

7He resurfaced with the Mets three years later, making the 1992 club as a reserve out of spring training wearing No. 5, then spending nearly all of 1993 with the Mets, this time wearing No. 7, since the Mets had subsequently reserved No. 5 for rookie comer Jeromy Burnitz. However, his run as No. 7 came to an end in May when manager Jeff Toborg and his staff were fired — it was the Worst Team Money Could Buy, after all — and McKnight switched to No. 17 when new coach Bobby Wine claimed No. 7.

17In 1994, he made the club again but this time wearing No. 18, as superstar pitcher Bret Saberhagen demanded, and received, 17. Whether McKnight was ever even compensated for his selflessness wasn’t even remarked upon; his was the lot of the 25th man, and he took what was offered.

18McKnight, then at the advanced age of 31 and battling a nagging injury, was sent to minors to rehab but recalled again shortly before the player deadline to strike in August, a move engineered not for McKnight’s benefit but to keep young players demoted to take his place in AAA busy in the event of a strike. The strike would shortly end that season, and McKnight’s career along with it.

Finding out Jeff passed away this evening was something of a shock and a disappointment; I meant to — and should have — reached out to him in person a long time ago, but the trail of my Internet sleuthing invariably went cold. I think I knew he was in Arkansas; and that he worked at a TV station.

I figured I’d always have a chance. I had no idea he was sick. I sometimes wondered if he even knew this site existed. I always hoped that if he’d read my lighthearted tribute he’d understand the respect behind it.

Rest in peace, Jeff.

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Top of the Order

So there’s Travis d’Arnaud, aka “Shoeless Aud,” wearing his new No. 7 jersey. Could you also see him in a new lineup position?

7Let me begin by saying I’m generally if not wildly optimistic for the Mets chances this year. I like the additions of Cuddyer and Mayberry. I believe that David Wright could still rebound, and I think Wilmer Flores is a bold choice in a year where offense is going to be hard to find. I think a solid starting staff and bullpen might be constructed just from what *doesn’t* make the opening-day roster this year. That’s all very encouraging.

Where I’m concerned is that they don’t really have an ideal leadoff hitter, and I worry especially that they’ll try to shoehorn Juan Lagares into that role. It’s not that I don’t believe Lagares could ever become a leadoff guy (though I have doubts), it’s that given his low walk rates and seeming luck on balls-in-play (he BABIPped at 340 vs. a league average of 300) I’d prefer he demonstrate whatever nascent leadoff skills he possesses as a 7th or 8th place hitter and let someone generally more qualified garner the extra trips and run-building opportunities that come with the role.

I’m not arguing that Travis d’Arnaud should be a leadoff hitter either, but I might be tempted to try him there sooner than I would Lagares. His walk rate is better and BABIP ought to improve, and his superior extra-base power could get us some early leads in road games, which I’d prefer over whatever advantage you might realize from Lagares’ stolen bases. Actually the club would seem to favor Curtis Granderson (or let’s face it, Kirk Nieuwenhuis) leading off, but I can see the argument for getting Grandy’s bat more in the mix off all those middle-of-the-order righties – yet another consequence of the Mets not having gathered in a lefthanded hitting shortstop over the offseason.

Who leads off for your 2015 Mets?

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Sweet Little 16

16Can you believe I’m the owner of website that’s now old enough to drive?

Yes, it was this day in 1999 when Mets by the Numbers debuted. It’s had a career as long, and about as useful, as Bud Harrelson’s. This site is so old that when it was launched the Mets still cared about what Dwight Gooden thought.

To celebrate let’s run down a list of the varied and memorable creatures to inhabit the No. 16 jersey, which began as a hot potato but matured into one of Metdom’s revered digits.

sammy-taylorBobby Gene Smith (1962), sometimes referred to as B.G. Smith, was the first man to occupy 16 for New York. An outfielder-third-baseman who’d spent most of his career with St. Louis, Smith was picked from the Phillies in the Expansion Draft, and was destined to become one of the first ex-Mets ever. He was batting .136 (3 for 25) when the Mets traded him to the Cubs for catcher Sammy Taylor, although he has the distinction of collecting the first triple in team history, a two-run stroke off future Met Jack Lamabe in April of ’62.

Smith handed the 16 jersey to Taylor as they crossed paths in the airport, and Taylor (1962-63, photo at left pinched from Paul’s Random Stuff) — one of seven catchers for that 1962 squad — subsequently passed 16 along to Jesse Gonder (1963) when they were swapped for one another in July of ’63. Gonder spent only a week in 16, surrendering it to oufielder Dick Smith upon Smith’s acquisition later that July, and switching to the unoccupied 12.

Smith (1963-64) and the man who followed him in the 16 jersey, Danny Napoleon (1965-66) were typical of the early Mets – both free-swinging minor league sluggers whose power didn’t translate to the big leagues. Following Napoleon were reserves Tommy Reynolds (1967), Kevin Collins (1968) and Queens native Mike Jorgensen (1969-71).

Crouching, choked-up slap-hitter Felix Millan wore No. 16 for 1973, his first year with the Mets. Millan switched to 17 a year later while reserve outfielder Dave Schneck switched into 16.

The Taylor-Gonder uni swap of 1963 would be repeated 13 years later later when another Met catcher, John Stearns (1975-76), took 12 and left his 16 to an outfielder, Lee Mazzilli, ushering in a new era of prosperity for the jersey. Mazz of course would be remembered more for his pants than his shirts, though both were revealingly snug fits.

mazzilliMazzilli (1977-81) was capable switch-hitting outfielder with power, speed, a good batting eye and style at a time when it was difficult to find a Met possessing any one of those qualities. His triumphant performance in 1979 All-Star Game — a home run and RBI walk, the latter off the Yankees Ron Guidry, complete with Mazzilli’s eff-you bat-flip — is remembered fondly by all Met fans to have survived 1979. Among guys wearing No. 16, Maz is still the Mets’ all-time leader in games, hits, home runs, runs, RBI, walks, strikeouts and stolen bases.

By the time Mazzilli arrived for a feel-good Met reunion in 1986, Dwight Gooden had already rewritten 16’s history behind an electrifying right arm. The first pitcher to wear 16 as a Met, Gooden’s spectacular arrival in 1984 and mind-boggling success in 1985 will never likely see an equal. Although arm and drug troubles eventually wore some of the magic away, Gooden’s career was substantial enough that the club was careful not to issue 16 for nearly five years after his departure — and then only to a guy with equity in it, fading phenom Hideo Nomo (1998).

goodenAlthough Gooden was reportedly unhappy with the Nomo issue, several successors in 16 asked for — and received — Doc’s blessing. But a tradition of issuing 16 to veterans on their last legs was only starting then too.

Seafaring outfielder Derek Bell (2000) had long worn No. 16 in other locales as a tribute to Gooden, who preceded him from Tampa to the big leagues and whom Bell considered a hero. Bell would be a kind of Biazzaro Lee Mazzilli, known known not for his shirt but his gigantic, billowing pants.

In 2003, David Cone took 16 in tribute to his former teammate Gooden in a brief and doomed comeback attempt.

Then there was catcher Paul LoDuca (2006-07) who like Mazzilli was Brooklyn born, and grew up as a fan of the Gooden-era Mets, and wore 16 to signify it. LoDuca was a bit of a mess when it was all over but his .290 average as a Met is the best among guys who wore 16.

By the time LoDuca came along, Gooden’s long estrangement from the franchise led to careless reissues including a season of second-choice infielder Doug Mientkiewicz (2005); and nondescript reserve catcher Rob Johnson (2012). In between, prodigal outfielder Angel Pagan (2008-11) was alternately brilliant and brilliantly frustrating; his trade to San Francisco is one of the worst of the Sandy Alderson era.

Most recently, 16 went to last-call veterans Rick Ankeil (2013) and Daisuke Matsuzaka (2014). Most recently its been assigned to Alex Castellanos, a longshot non-roster outfielder who looks likely to spend the season in Las Vegas.

But after 16 years I can say this, you never know with these guys.

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2015 Mets Numerical Roster

Here’s what the roster looks like now that numbers were published on the Mets’ site today.  New assignments in bold. I included the reserved and/or returning occupants of 2014’s vacant numbers in parentheses where appropriate.

No. 2014 occupant(s) 2015 assignment
0 Omar Quintanilla vacant
1 Chris Young vacant
2 Dilson Hererra Hererra
3 Curtis Granderson Granderson
4 Wilmer Flores Flores
5 David Wright Wright
6 Matt den Dekker den Dekker
7 Bob Geren Travis d’Arnaud
8 Vacant Vacant
9 Kirk Nieuwenhuis Nieuwenhuis
10 Terry Collins Collins
11 Ruben Tejada Tejada
12 Juan Lagares Lagares
13 Josh Satin vacant
14 Retired Retired
15 Travis d’Arnaud Bob Geren
16 Daisuke Matsuzaka Alex Castellanos
17 Vacant Vacant
18 Tim Teufel Teufel
19 Vacant (Zach Lutz) Johnny Monell
20 Anthony Recker Recker
21 Lucas Duda Duda
22 Eric Young Kevin Plawecki
23 Taylor Teagarden Michael Cuddyer
24 Vacant Vacant
25 Ricky Bones Bones
26 Tom Goodwin Goodwin
27 Jeurys Familia Familia
28 Daniel Murphy Murphy
29 Ike Davis, Eric Campbell Campbell
30 Andrew Brown Brandon Allen
31 Vacant Vacant
32 John Lannan Steven Matz
33 Vacant (Matt Harvey) Harvey
34 Vacant Noah Syndergaard
35 Dillon Gee Gee
36 Juan Centano Sean Gilmartin
37 Retired Retired
38 Vic Black Black
39 Bobby Parnell Parnell
40 Bartolo Colon Colon
41 Retired Retired
42 Retired Retired
43 Vacant Buddy Carlyle
44 Kyle Farnsworth, Buddy Carlyle John Mayberry Jr.
45 Zack Wheeler Wheeler
46 Vacant Zach Thornton
47 Jose Valverde Cory Mazzoni
48 Jacob deGrom deGrom
49 Jon Niese Niese
50 Rafael Montero Montero
51 Dave Hudgens Jack Leathersich
52 Carlos Torres Torres
53 Bobby Abreu Vacant
54 Dave Racaniello Racaniello
55 Vacant (Noah Syndergaard) Matt Reynolds
56 Scott Rice Rice
57 Lamar Johnson Kevin Long
58 Jennry Mejia Mejia
59 Dan Warthen Warthen
60 Vacant (Brandon Allen) Pat Roessler
61 Dana Eveland Vacant
62 Erik Goeddel Goeddel
63 Vacant Gabriel Ynoa
64 Vacant (Danny Muno) Akeel Morris
65 Vacant (Cesar Puello) Puello
66 Josh Edgin Edgin
67 Vacant Hansel Robles
68 Dario Alvarez Alvarez
69 Vacant Vacant
70 Wilfredo Tovar Tovar
71 Gonzalez Germen Xorge Carillo
72 Vacant Gavin Cecchini
73 Vacant Jon Velasquez
74 Vacant Daniel Muno
75 Vacant (Cory Mazzoni) Tyler Pill
76 Vacant (Chase Bradford) Bradford
77 Vacant (Brandon Nimmo) Nimmo
78 Vacant Vacant
79 Vacant Matt Bowman
80 Vacant Cody Satterwhite
81 Vacant (Jack Leathersich) vacant
82 Vacant vacant
83-99 Vacant Vacant
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Now You Tell Us

Thank goodness I’m not paying attention at work today.

The d’Arnaud-to-7 story is old news already and although the Mets are insisting it goes down this way I still have doubts it’ll go down like this when the bell rings:

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 1.19.00 PM

 

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Is Travis d’Arnaud changing his shirt?

7Twitter caught fire this morning with reports that Travis d’Arnaud was changing his uniform number, from 15 to 7. While I haven’t seen official confirmation yet, it appears the source is an especially revealing e-commerce site: The team’s own order-your-own-‘official’-jersey offer (only $267.99!!).

51The drop-down has plenty more to say that’s not yet on the official roster page, including assignments for newcomers John Mayberry Jr. (44); Sean Gilmartin (36); Jack Leathersich (51); Steven Matz (32); and Noah Syndergaard (34). A few other guys on the 40-man are listed in 00, which we’ll assume are unassigned still — Akeel Morris and Gabriel Ynoa. (Leathersich is also listed in 00, while Hansel Robles isn’t listed at all. Neither are the gaggle of NRIs who typically get Spring assignments in the 60s, 70s and 80s).

15We may be jumping the gun on at least some of the actual assignments. If d’Arnaud is indeed changing to 7, we’d presume Mayberry would take the vacant 15, which he wore for several years with the Phillies, rather than 44, which technically still belongs to 2014 Met and 2015 non-roster invitee Buddy Carlyle. The switch to 7 would also require that bench coach Bob Geren changes into something else, not that that’s a big deal. We’ve also heard, from a reader, that incoming hitting coach Kevin Long will wear No. 30, but still have no confirmation of that.

The move to 7 will reignite a battle for the all-time lead in hits by a single uniform number: Though 7 and occupants Ed Kranepool and Jose Reyes maintains its longtime, all-time lead, Team 5 led by David Wright as of the end of last season had pulled to within 3 hits.

Typically we’re at the time of year when such info drops officially so we expect to see the roster populate soon and answer — at least for now — the burning questions.

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Here’s Why the Mets Got So High

I’ve mentioned this in passing a few times before but it bears repeating: We are living in a Golden Age for unique uni number distributions in Metland.

68Not since 1979-80 — when six first-time jerseys were issued — have first-time numbers arrived with the same velocity as they have in the five years since Kevin Kierst was named to succeed Charlie Samuels as the Mets’ equipment manager in 2010. And when you consider additional factors — Kirest’s willingness to reissue rare jerseys; Samuels’ final year in 2009; and the relatively swift corrections we’d see with the 1979 and 1980 issues — we are experiencing more freshness in the number game than any time since the club’s first 34 jerseys were issued in 1962. For a team going on its 53rd birthday, and approaching its 1,000th player, that’s remarkable.

70Let’s take a closer look. When Dario Alvarez took the mound for his Major League debut Sept. 3, he also became the first player in team history to wear No. 68 in a game. Two of his teammates — Wilfredo Tovar and Germen Gonzalez, respectively — trotted out the 70 and 71 jerseys for the first time a year prior. In 2012, it was Josh Edgin in 66; in 2011, Chris Schwinden (63) and DJ Carrasco (77) broke the cherries on their numbers.

73Joining those six are a second group of ballplayers who while not first-time wearers of their numbers, turned up nonetheless in infrequently issued ones: Jack Egbert and Dana Eveland (who each wore 61); Omar Quintanilla, who this year became only the third player in team history to be issued No. 0;Robert Carson, the third 73 in team history (and the first not have equity in the number); and Jenrry Mejia, just the fourth 58.

57Because we’ve seen players like Mejia, Edgin, Gonzalez and Carson carry their weird numbers over multiple seasons, I’d argue this era is far more significant than the aforementioned shenanigans of 1979 and 80. The unusual activity then was confined mainly to September of 1980 when minor league callups Luis Rosado, Ed Lynch, and Hubie Brooks got first-time issues of 57, 58 and 62 respectively, while fellow callup Mario Ramirez got the second-ever 61. (Pitcher Dyar Miller, who had arrived in July of 1980, also got 56 for the first time).

Hard to say exactly what happened that year but it’s a good guess these were leftover Spring jerseys. What’s telling is that in future appearances, these issues were all withdrawn. Brooks took 39 then 7; Lynch yo-yo-ed between levels for the next few years and collected three more numbers. Rosado and Ramirez never made it back.

61The 1979 first-time issues were for Neil Allen — the team’s first 46 — and Jesse Orosco, whose 1979 arrival coincided with sudden budget-driven veteran releases near the end of Spring Training resulting in the team’s first-ever No. 61. Jesse, of course, would be outfitted in the more traditional 47 the next time he turned up.

64While its easy to point to Kierst’s appointment as a line between the “tradtional” Met number range and what we have to start considering to be the New Normal, I’ll point to an issue in the final hours of Samuels’ 27-year reign — Elmer Dessens‘ No. 64 — as the Big Bang of the of the new era. The 60s would soon be in full swing; and the 70s dawning.

Why? That too is a good question. The effects of having taken a few numbers out of the rotation — 31 hasn’t been issued since Mike Piazza left town in 2005 and Kierst has quietly mothballed 17 — would explain some. And coaches taking numbers associated with their playing careers — and not the orderly 51-55 they wore in days of yore — matters too. But I suspect the main reason is the emergence of a new numerical designation for relief pitchers, an evolution that follows (by a few decades at least) the specialization of the role itself.

This makes sense. In the 1960s and 70s during which the Mets forged their numerical identity, relief pitchers were primarily starters with sore arms and/or less stuff than their teammates. And at least some starters — Roger Craig for one — were the club’s best relief pitchers too. Distinguishing between the roles back then, never mind the numbers, was barely necessary. Today, the Mets appear to be acknowledging that relief pitchers are a different breed deserving of distinct numerical territory, one they’ve roughly carved out beyond the 50s where the coaches used to be, and away from the 30s and 40s that appear to more exclusive to the starting staff.

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Rockie Horror Pitcher Show

2If the Mets really want Troy Tulowitzski, he ought to be theirs. And if the reports we’ve seen out there are any indication, I don’t think the hold-up ought to be whether or not Noah Syndergaard is included in such a deal, but rather, about how much of that $100+ million Tulo’s got coming to him will the Rockies be willing to kick in to get as much as Syndergaard back. There’s no deal otherwise.

You only have to look at the motivation with which the Dodgers coughed up Matt Kemp to the Padres to get an idea. Los Angeles gave away $32 million to make that deal happen, coming away only with a glove-first catcher and two decent pitching prospects.

The Rockies arguably are even more up against it, given they play in a division with the defending World Series champion and now two more going-for-it-now teams in San Diego and the Dodgers. They reportedly heard “crickets” about Tulo at the Winter Meetings. I wouldn’t underestimate their desire to get something done, and the Mets for once have the cannon fodder to make it happen, if the price is right for them. I’d be very willing to look into this.

That’s one possibility, anyway. I’ve thought for some time now that a leadoff type shortstop, in a non-Tulowitzski sense, is what the Mets need, with Flores going over to second base and Daniel Murphy moving on to another club. In fact, Murphy probably goes in either of my shortstop scenarios, since subtracting his salary would probably make sense if the expense of a Tulowtzski is added, and the Mets have runway at second base with Flores and Herrera easy enough to add in. Either way, they’re not done yet, I don’t think.

19Thanks to Gene and Howie for keeping me on toes here. I think adding John Mayberry Jr. was great for the Mets (righthanded bench power, versatile outfielder) and I go with Gene’s prediction that he winds up wearing No. 19.

Tulowitzski would be one of those guys who triggers a number change, though I don’t imagine be any trouble to reassign Hererra No. 1. According to the legwork by Howie below, 1, 8, 13, 16, 17, 19, 22, 24, 30, 31, 32, 34, 36, 43, 44, 46, 47, 53, 57, 60, 61, 62, 64, 67, 69 and 71-99 are available. We’ll see some of those numbers populated by recent 40-man roster additions (including the presumed 34 Syndergaard) and other spring training invitees soon enough. Happy holidays!

 

 

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23 Skidoo!

Oh for the days I used to be the first person to report on this (and one of the only to care). Hey guess what! Cuddyer will wear No. 23!
23When I think of 23, I think of Doug Flynn, the slick fielding infielder who arrived in the Tom Seaver trade. Flynn was never any kind of hitter but could turn the pivot, and lasted longer than any other occupant of the number, amassing more appearances, turns at bat, and overall hits (an even 500) than any other 23.

But perhaps a better parallel to Cuddyer was the mercurial Bernard Gilkey, himself a veteran right-handed hitting corner outfielder when he joined the Mets in 1996. Gilkey famously went on to have one of the best single seasons of any Met — 23 or not — and probably the best debut season for a new arrival in team history. His marks for home runs (52), RBI (223), doubles (90), stolen bases (29) and runs scored (226) easily top his peers in 23, and most were accumulated during that freaky ’96 year. His marks would eclipse those of Joe Christopher, the Virgin Islands-born standout of the 1962-65 Mets. Along with Ron Hunt, Christopher in 1964 was the first Met regular to hit. 300 in a season.

The less said about Brian Schneider, the better. Most recently, 23 belonged to briefly visiting reserve catcher Taylor Teagarden, whom I believe is again a minor league free agent looking for a AAA catching job and a spring training invite.

Only four pitchers have worn 23 for the Mets; the noteworthiest being Pat Mahomes, the versatile swingman of Bobby Valentine’s teams. Mahomes was a magical 8-0 in 1999, almost entirely in long relief bailout situations.

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Qualify This

5Thrilled to see today that the Mets went and signed veteran stickman Michael Cuddyer, who, given the usual caveats about age and injury and old outfielders signed by the Mets, is almost exactly what the club needed: That is, a good righthanded hitter who can play a corner outfield slot and first base, with the bonus of being a FOD (Friend of David). He’s the new Moises Alou!

Seriously, the news that Colorado had extended a Qualifying Offer cooled expectations to a point where I was working hard to convince myself that Allen Craig or Michael Morse — poor men’s Michael Cuddyers, at best — were worth a shot, or maybe saying the hell with it and overpromoting Brandon Nimmo was going to be the plan. But I’m glad this worked out, and with a price that’s none too steep given the potential to make a difference.

Cuddyer you should know wore No. 3 these last few years in Colorado but that’s because Carlos Gonzalez occupied the No. 5 Cuddy rocked all those years in Minnesota. He not about to take either digit in NYC, but we could make a case for 55, or maybe, No. 1 if fans can forget about the doomed Chris Yound experiment.

47The Mets in the weeks leading up to this signing prumed the 40-man roster and lost a few misnumbered guys along the way. Little doubt I liked Andrew Brown more than Terry Collins ever did, but he’s been claimed by the Athletics. Catcher Juan Centeno in the meantime is taking his weird No. 36 to Milwaukee.

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