January 31, 2007

It's all about health

Rich Zuckerman at NBC Sports, writes about the Mets 2007 season and what it will all come down to:

The 2007 Mets are one of two teams, depending on your point of view. They could be a squad coming off an NLCS appearance with a very bright future, loaded with a pair of baseball’s brightest young stars in David Wright and Jose Reyes, a 29-year-old All-Star centerfielder coming off an MVP-caliber year, and a slew of promising young arms. Or, they’re an aging squad whose window to win is quickly closing, highlighted by five everyday players, two starters and a closer who will all be at least 34 by opening day (plus ageless wonder Julio Franco), not to mention an ace whose return is uncertain at best.

One thing the Mets shouldn’t have to worry about in ’07 is scoring runs. Fronted by the Reyes-Beltran-Carlos Delgado-Wright quartet, they ranked third in the National League in runs scored last season. The only lineup change will be Moises Alou replacing fan-favorite, but oft-injured, Cliff Floyd in left field. Floyd was hobbled much of last season by an Achilles tendon injury that, combined with Wright’s second-half slump, sapped some of the punch from the Mets’ lineup down the stretch and in the postseason.

After getting out-bid in their quests for Japanese import Daisuke Matsuzaka and new Giant Barry Zito, the rotation will be fronted by Tom Glavine, who will be 41 by Opening Day, and at-least-37-year-old Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez. Glavine and Hernandez both held up reasonably well under the rigors of last season, routinely delivering quality starts, and both veterans have been through all plenty of battles in their careers. As it is with any player their age though, durability becomes a question, especially with Hernandez, who has had his share of injuries in recent years.

With so much uncertainty in their rotation, a strong bullpen could again be the Mets’ saving grace in ’07. The pen’s 3.25 cumulative ERA was by far the NL’s best mark last season, and while losing submariner Chad Bradford hurts, his loss will likely be offset by the return of set-up man Duaner Sanchez from a season-ending shoulder injury suffered in a freak taxicab accident. When Guillermo Mota rejoins Sanchez and Aaron Heilman in front of Billy Wagner following Mota’s 50-game steroids suspension, the Mets will have the luxury of only needing 5-6 innings from their starters on any given day. One bullpen loss that should not be overlooked, however, is long-man Darren Oliver’s defection to the Angels. Time after time last season, Oliver bailed out beaten-up starters early in games, keeping the Mets close enough to have a shot to win late. Lefties Dave Williams and Scott Schoeneweis should share that role in ’07. Also, look for young fire-armed righty Ambiorix Burgos and rookie submariner Joe Smith to make their marks out of the pen before the season comes to an end.

So, will the Mets again be the team with a loaded lineup that closes the door at the end of games, or will they be the aging group with a patchwork pitching staff facing a slow decline into mediocrity? The answer, as Pedro said, just may come down to health.

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