The Mets’ Pursuits Of Carlos Correa—And Mo Vaughn—Underline The Differences Between Now And Then

Mo Vaughn and Carlos Correa are not normally mentioned in the same sentence.

One is a 55-year-old former first baseman whose terrific career — in which he won an MVP and made three All-Star teams — included just seven playoff games and no series wins. The other is a shortstop who is almost 22 months shy of his 30th birthday but already on a Hall of Fame path and the owner of a World Series ring.

But Vaughn and Correa are likely to be linked as the final intriguing high-risk, high-reward additions made in off-seasons a generation apart for two distinctly different Mets teams and eras.

Twenty-one years ago this week, Vaughn’s introduction at Shea Stadium was viewed as the latest bold move in a rapid transformation of the Mets, who reached the World Series in 2000 but needed a frantic sprint over the final seven weeks of the season to finish with an 82-80 record in 2001.

Of course, transformative can mean lots of things, and the Mets’ overhaul following an underwhelming 2001 season turned a disappointing team into a last-place team and officially closed the book on the Bobby Valentine/Steve Phillips shotgun marriage.

The eleven veterans acquired by the Mets — 26 days after closing the deal to acquire Vaughn from the Angels for Kevin Appier, Phillips pulled off a three-way deal with the Brewers and Rockies in which he obtained Jeromy Burnitz and Jeff D’Amico — combined to post a total WAR of 4.7 in 2002. The only one of the 11 players still officially on the Mets’ payroll following the 2003 season was Vaughn, who suffered a career-ending knee injury in May 2003 but remained on the disabled list through the expiration of his contract in 2004.

In retrospect, while the 2001-02 overhaul was performed during the final winter in which Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon were in their uneasy partnership as co-owners, the Mets’ moves had all the marks of the half-measure penuriousness that would define Wilpon’s tenure as the team’s sole owner through the 2020 season. Instead of being given a budget that would have allowed for the pursuit of difference-making free agents such as Barry Bonds, Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi or Juan Gonzalez, Phillips had to do the three-card monte trick of wheeling and dealing players and prospects in hopes of cobbling together a contender.

And thus here — in the aftermath of a Christmas week spent by the Mets trying to close a deal for a player whose injury history gave the team some pause about committing to him long-term — is where the similarities end between Vaughn and Correa and the Mets of then and now.

Owner Steve Cohen spent more than $389 million in re-signing Brandon Nimmo, Edwin Diaz and Adam Ottavino and signing a quintet of outside free agents — starting pitchers Justin Verlander, Jose Quintana and Kodai Senga as well as reliever David Robertson and catcher Omar Narvaez.

But that mind-boggling outlay only allowed the Mets to tread water in the hyper-competitive NL East, the division that’s yielded the last two Senior Circuit pennant-winners in the Braves and Phillies. Signing Correa would be the first move to markedly improve a 101-win team that was at least one power-hitting bat short last season — if, of course, he actually signs on the dotted line.

Correa agreed to terms with the Mets on a 12-year, $315 million deal in the overnight hours of Dec. 21, less than a day after a 13-year, $350 million deal with the Giants fell apart over the latter’s concerns with Correa’s physical and the lower right leg injury he suffered following a collision in the minor leagues in 2014. But by Christmas Eve morning, the Mets’ deal stalled, likely for the same reason.

Seven days later, Correa remains officially unsigned. But even if the worst-case scenarios come to fruition — Correa either doesn’t sign or his Mets tenure is pockmarked with injuries stemming from his pre-existing injury — the pursuit of Correa still embodies the boldness of the Cohen era that was lacking under the Wilpons. No longer are the Mets looking for their missing pieces with the baseball equivalent of long-shot lottery tickets, hoping that a Vaughn or a Robinson Cano can rediscover his peak form despite mounds of evidence to the contrary.

“This really makes a big difference,” Cohen told the New York Post’s Jon Heyman Dec. 21. “I feel like our pitching was in good shape, we needed one more hitter. This puts us over the top.”

Even if it doesn’t, it’s a sign they’re a whole lot closer than they were 21 years ago — or three years ago.