February 25, 2008

The State of The Mets: The Shea Nation Perspective

By David Rubin (with thoughts from Jonathan Elfenbein and John Young)

It’s nearing the end of February, 2008, and opening day is slightly more than a month away as this is written. That means that it is time for our annual review of the Mets’ off-season moves, and predictions as to who will make it to the 25-man roster and how well each area will perform.

Without further ado:

The 2007 season started out with a bang, aimed at the other NL East teams, and ended with a bang, as the Mets’ shot themselves in the feet, losing a 7 game lead with 17 games left to play, losing 12 of 17 in total- and the Division lead, to the hated Phils of Philadelphia, no less! We have all relived the nightmares, can see the crumbling of the foundation, and don’t have to continue to revisit the greatest collapse in Major League Baseball history – IF the 2008 model finally lives up to expectations!

My dad passed away recently, as readers of this site are aware, and it really pisses me off that he had to witness the worst collapse in major league history during his last season watching with us, and that it had to be the Mets pulling it off, so to speak. I like to think that he had something to do with our acquisition of Santana, winning the first of two big poker hands up in heaven (the second one giving the Giants that little Super Bowl victory), and so I am officially dedicating this season of watching the Mets to my dad. We're dedicating a brick to him at Citi Field - so the unveiling of the new Stadium, which will, one day this season, cause us to change the name of our site (more on that in a few weeks), had better be a double occasion- the unveiling of the stadium, and the unveiling of a World Series flag!!! Omar- are you listening? No pressure or anything!

Fans weren't the only ones destroyed by the terrible turn in the Mets' season. General Manager Omar Minaya, and his entire staff, began retooling the club as soon as the season was finished. Trades weren’t immediate, but were in the planning stage, when the first big move of the off-season took place- Tom Glavine returned home to the Atlanta Braves. It took me the better part of 5 years to get used to Glavine in the blue and orange pinstripes, but I never purchased even a Glavine t-shirt, as he never quite fit into his uniform. It wasn’t for lack of effort on his part, and I applaud the heart he showed, even in losing the final game of last season; it’s just that he was, and always will be, an Atlanta Brave, in my eyes, and that is how he will go into the Hall-of-Fame. I respect him, always will, but I’d rather win a World Series without him. Now I’ll get my wish- I hope!

Glavine’s “defection” was only the opening shot, as the Mets’ parted with Shawn Green, Paul Lo Duca, and Aaron Sele; made an amazing trade to rid themselves of Guillermo Mota (even if they did release Johnny Estrada, the catcher they acquired for him), and allowed the contract of starter Brian Lawrence to expire- thank goodness! In order for the Mets’ to ever be a true World Series contender, the sixth or seventh option in the rotation cannot EVER include the likes of Lawrence, Jose Lima or Scott Erickson! Therefore, losing Lawrence hopefully was symbolic of our never needing a retread arm at the back-end of the rotation!

The off-season drama was just beginning. On the last day of November, Minaya made what seemed at the time to be a desperate move – trading one of his few blue-chip, major league-ready prospects, outfielder Lastings Milledge, for a defensive-minded catcher, Brian Schneider, and an outfielder, Ryan Church, who came with some “personal baggage” as well as yet-to-be-realized potential – certainly NOT a deal to excite the Mets’ faithful – actually, excite us it did, just NOT the way Omar originally intended! If we hadn’t just signed, then un-signed, Rockies’ catcher Yorvit Torrealba, which would have cost us merely more of owner Fred Wilpon’s money, perhaps we wouldn’t have been as confused or angry initially when hearing of the trade. After all, if we had signed Torrealba, we could’ve kept Milledge and all would have been well…well, not quite, as Torrealba was rumored to be injured, which is still unproven, and Milledge had seemingly worn out his welcome on the team, due to his purported hijinks (rap song, high-fiving, etc.) and seemed to be a better fit outside of the Big Apple. Indeed, Schneider is not only a far better defensive receiver than Torrealba; he’s also a better hitter and only 2 years older. Yes, he’s a better hitter- with more average homers and RBI’s then Torrealba, although they both have the same amount of letters in their last names- in addition to being perhaps the best at calling games in the league, if not all of baseball. Still, as much as we might have replaced part of what Lo Duca brought to the table, it seemed that the cost, a young, 5-tool, exciting homegrown player in Milledge, seemed too high a price to pay.

And that was the last sonic boom heard from Queens, unless you heard the cranes hard at work building Citi Field, for what seemed like forever. In early December, however, it came out that the Red Sox, Yankees and Mets were the leading contenders to land the best pitcher in the game, Minnesota left-hander Johan Santana, a mere year away from free agency. And then we learned that the Sox were offering a package based around either starter Jon Lester or outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury; the Yankees were countering with a deal led by star pitching prospect Phil Hughes and centerfielder Melky Cabrera; and the Mets, if they really wanted to land Santana, were rumored to have to give up both of their remaining top positional prospects, outfielders Carlos Gomez and Fernando Martinez, in addition to a gaggle of the Mets’ top pitching prospects, and, at one time or another, major leaguers Aaron Heilman and John Maine, when ridiculous rumors calling for the inclusion of Jose Reyes weren’t being floated everywhere you could read. Of course, Omar would never have added Reyes to any deal for anyone, including Santana, as he’d be run out of town, and there’s no way the Wilpon’s would allow Jose’s departure even if, somehow, Omar thought he’d put together the trade of a lifetime.

Sure enough, that’s exactly what Omar did, but I’m getting ahead of myself. We, Mets’ fans, were left hanging on the vine for the month of December, and the month of January, or so it seemed, as, depending on what day it was, the Twins were either trading Santana to the Sox, with the Yanks backing out, or to the Yanks, with the Sox backing out…and always, it seemed, the Mets were also-rans in this game of high stakes poker. And yet, when all the smoke cleared, on January 30th, the week of the Super Bowl, the Mets seemed to have done it- acquiring Santana for minor leaguers Gomez, Phil Humber, Deolis Guerra and Kevin Mulvey – and no Martinez or Heilman (let alone Reyes) were to be found in the deal! Mets’ fans couldn’t believe it- the best pitcher in the game, a lefthander, who was friends with Pedro Martinez, no less- and we didn’t have to give up the rumored 5 or 6 players called for in the deal, nor did we lose out, for once, to either of the AL East juggernauts. The worm began to turn…

And here we sit, still remembering last season (how could we not), yet simultaneously excited about the possibilities that 2008 brings. Based on one blockbuster (and $137.5 million dollars) and a few, small adjustments, the Mets’ off-season went from being the worst in MLB to being amongst the 2 or 3 best – while both the Sox and Yanks virtually stood pat. It looked like a game of chicken, played out between the Sox and Yankees, and only the Twins lost! Moreover, rumors of possible dissent between Pedro and another number 1 starter began- erroneously, it turned out- as the media sought to find something wrong with this deal- until they found out that Pedro actually has a signed jersey of Santana’s hanging on his wall, more because of the kind of man that Santana is then his accomplishments on the field. Memories of Martinez-Schilling, it seemed, could be put to rest…at least as far as we were concerned. And the Twins derived one additional bonus in the trade- not having to face Santana for the next 7 years, and not strengthening potential rivals for a Wild Card position. Maybe rookie GM Bill Smith isn’t as dumb as some thought…

Where does that leave the Mets’, at least the 2008 version? Well, we’re filled with a lot of older players, at the edge of, or end of, their prime (Wagner, Martinez, Delgado, Castillo, Alou, O-Hern), as well as a group of young players about to reach their potential (Wright, Reyes, Maine, Perez, Church, Pelfrey). In between, we have some key players coming back from injuries large and small, (Beltran and Sanchez), and as they go, so goes the season. The rotation is the strongest it’s been since 1986, and the bullpen, a sore spot in ’07, could end up a major strength a la 2006; defense should be a strong-suit as well, if you exclude left field, and the bench, a specialty of Omar’s, should prove to be an exercise in efficiency, late-inning heroics and positional movement (multiple players able to play multiple positions). Overall, an interesting mélange of players who should combine to produce a pennant-winning team, at the very least, this season.

Let’s look at the team, position by position, including off-season moves and predictions for the upcoming season:

New in 2008: Johan Santana, Ryan Church, Brian Schneider, Steven Register, Matt Wise, Ruddy Lugo, Angel Pagan, Olmedo Saenz

Playing Elsewhere (or not at all): Tom Glavine, Shawn Green, Paul Lo Duca, Guillermo Mota, Lastings Milledge, Aaron Sele, Brian Lawrence, Carlos Gomez, Kevin Mulvey, Phil Humber, Deolis Guerra

Non-Roster Invitees: Tony Armas (P), Nelson Figueroa (P), Eddie Kunz (P), Jon Niese (P), Juan Padilla (P), Ricardo Rincon (P), Brant Rustich (P), Raul Casanova (C), Salomon Manriquez (C), Olmedo Saenz (INF/OF), Fernando Tatis (3B), José Valentín (INF), Brady Clark (OF), Ben Johnson (OF) and Fernando Martinez (OF).

Off-Season Report Card Grade: A-
Was it a B, a B+, an A- or an A – NOT the question I thought I’d be asking myself back in December, or even early January – and yet, the single acquisition of the best pitcher in baseball can do that to someone! It could have been a D, if not for the acquisition of Santana, and the cost for doing so. So gone are the trades that took Milledge from the roster, kept Castillo on the roster for a longer-term then expected, and made the entire bullpen stronger just by adding 200+ innings! Omar bet the farm that he could get Santana (and some Prada shoes from Jeff Wilpon), and once again, Omar proved that no one should ever doubt him…well, anyone able to ignore Brian Bannister and Heath Bell, at least…Remember, if I said it once, I’ve said it a million times (and before any other blogger)- “IN OMAR, WE TRUST!”

Key Returnees from Injury: Duaner Sanchez, Duaner Sanchez, and Duaner Sanchez – get the hint? If Sanchez returns to his 2006, pre-accident form, he moves Heilman back to the 7th inning, protects Wagner, fills in for Wagner from time to time, and shortens games where someone’s name not rhyming with “Bantana” pitches. Also watch out for: Carlos Beltran, always fighting something; O-Hern- only his toes knows; Carlos Delgado- is it age or was it a one-season aberration; Luis Castillo’s knees – to creak or not to creak; Moises Alou- will all of his body-parts still be attached at the end of the season?; Pedro Martinez and his entire torso, as well as his toe- if all is healed, look out!; Juan Padilla- a potentially useful cog in middle relief; reliever Scott Schoeneweis- will the real Scott please stand up – if he can; and, finally, Endy, Endy, ENDY Chavez, he of the most amazing catch in team history, and THE most important player off the bench, spelling Alou, Beltran and Church at different times, and ensuring little to no drop-off on their “rest” days. Start the injury day with Duaner, end it with Endy, and another major difference between 2007 and 2008 will be there for all to see…IF Endy comes back reasonably soon, we hope!!!

Which One Will We See?: The Carlos Delgado of 2007, who seemed like he had lost a step or two all across the board, resulting in his worst season as a professional, or Carlos Delgado, the clutch (albeit streaky) hitter of 2006? Here’s betting that Delgado has at least a year or 2 of top slugging left on his agenda, and with his move down in the order, look for a return to the 100 RBI area he usually lives in.

On The Rise- Minor League Edition
: Minor League relievers Eddie Kunz and Brant Rustich are both huge relievers who could potentially make their marks in ’08. The major papers have featured articles on both players recently, and Kunz especially, last season’s top draft pick, might crack the roster right out of Spring Training. His fastball tops out in the 96 mph range, and closer Billy Wagner is already taking Kunz under his wing. If not this season, certainly in ’09, look for Kunz to become a lock in the bullpen for years to come. Fernando Martinez, the best position prospect (and best prospect, period), in the Mets’ system, already has said that he expects to reach the majors this season – at the ripe old age of 19, no less! With his talent, I, for one, won’t doubt him!

On The Rise- Major League Edition: Ryan Church, in 470 at-bats last season, playing in a park worse than Shea for hitters (RFK), still managed to hit 15 dingers and knock in 70 runs on a team challenged for offense. His average was .272 and he hit 43 doubles, which should translate into at least another 10 homers or so playing in Shea (and I can’t believe I’m saying that ANYONE might experience additional power in Shea- but I am!) Church is an excellent fielder, and playing full-time, should easily exceed his best season, statistically speaking, in 2008. He’s our team sleeper pick for achieving more than anyone expects in 2008, which could move Omar’s grade up to an “A” if it happens.

The Best Defense: -is good pitching and solid defense up the middle. Well, it looks like that is EXACTLY what the Mets possess, as their tandem of Schneider, Castillo, Reyes and Beltran is as formidable, defensively, as anyone’s combo in the game. Other than Alou, whose short-comings can be mitigated by having Church cover more ground in right, allowing Beltran to cheat towards left, their defense is one of the best in the game, as the addition of Schneider really improves their overall game, pitching included. Speaking of pitching, with a healthy Martinez, the addition of Santana, and a stronger bullpen, defense takes an even greater starring role in the success of this team. With a healthy Chavez taking over for Alou in late innings, the Mets’ possess 5 potential Gold Glovers (Wright, Reyes, Schneider, Beltran and Chavez) as well as some additional, good defense off the bench. Pitching and defense have long been hallmarks of successful Met teams, and this season should be no different.

The Roster

Starting Rotation
: Johan Santana, Pedro Martinez, John Maine, Oliver Perez, Orlando Hernandez, Mike Pelfrey.

There are questions abounding about each of these starters. Will Santana remain healthy all season, putting aside rumors of a late-season injury from last year? Can Pedro come back for a whole season, and will his finesse (he’s asking to be called Picasso by his teammates) replace his speed, enabling him to remain a top-of-rotation starter? Can Maine remain consistent all season? Will the “real” Oliver Perez show up for an entire season, especially in a free agent year? Can O-Hern get healthy enough to start the season, or will Pelfrey have to be relied on as the 5th starter, at least to open the season? And, will Pelfrey ever reach the potential expected from a first round draft pick? These are the days of our lives…okay, actually, as harsh as some of those questions seem, this rotation truly has the potential to become either Jekyll or Hyde – if everything, or the majority of everything, goes as expected, the Mets should have the best, or second best (behind either Arizona or San Diego) pitching staff in the NL.

Our best guess? Santana goes 22-4, with a 2.83 ERA and 255 strike-outs in 225 innings, and wins his 3rd Cy Young Award; Pedro goes 15-7, with a 3.22 ERA and 205 strike-outs in 190 innings; Maine goes 17-9 with a 3.10 ERA and 200 strike-outs in 210 innings; Perez goes 19-10 with a 3.30 ERA and 210 strike-outs in 194 innings; and Pelfrey goes 11-7 with a 3.80 ERA in 150 innings, as O-Hern is actually 55 years old and decides to get involved with AARP (ok, kidding about that one, but right now, I don’t see Hernandez playing a vital role in a season when we just learn that he had an operation on a toe, not a bunion.) With Jorge Sosa in reserve, and nary a Brian Lawrence around, this is not only the best Mets’ rotation in a long time; it could be among the 3 or 4 best in baseball. If it is, the sky is the limit for this team!

Catcher: Defense MUST come first from this position, and that is where Schneider’s addition can pay big dividends for the team immediately. Their collective offense won’t be bad at all, either. Schneider and Castro can combine for 24 homers (8 for Schneider, 16 for Castro) and 95 RBIs (45 for Schneider, 50 for Castro) as the Mets have the best 1-2 catching tandem in the game. Combined, this lefty/righty combo should be the most productive platoon in the league, and catching should be a strong position for us for a number of years to come- until Francisco Pena reaches his potential, at least.

Infield: All positions are set- Delgado, Castillo, Reyes and Wright fill things out from first to third, and there are capable back-ups in the likes of Easley, Anderson, Gotay, and, later in the season, Valentin. Wright should have been the MVP last season, and will be right in the thick of that race this season. Reyes has a LOT to prove, after his disastrous September, and if I had to bet on any one player turning things around, I’d bet the bank on his producing the best season in his short career. Castillo is a stabilizing influence on Reyes, as is Valentin, and it can’t hurt that Castillo is also one of Santana’s best friends in the game and put the bug in his ear originally that he should come to Queens. Delgado was never as bad a fielder as he was made out to be, but he’ll never be confused with Keith Hernandez, either. A return to form for one of baseball’s best citizens is in the cards as well, and the infield will be the engine that drives the team to expected heights. We predict Wright has a season for the ages- 41 homers, 118 RBI’s, 30 stolen bases, a .298 average, and Gold Glove defense. Reyes will steal fewer bases, think 65, but raise his average to .318, with 22 homers and 90 RBI’s; Castillo hits .305 with 25 steals and performs well hitting after Reyes; and, finally, Delgado returns to form, hitting .284 with 33 homers and 105 RBI’s (yes, you read that right!) Overall, the combo of offense and defense, especially on the left side of the infield, will drive the team towards the World Series – that’s our story, and we’re sticking to it!

Outfield: Moises Alou, Carlos Beltran and Ryan Church- a lot needs to go right with this combo, primarily staying healthy, and if that is the case, this combo will be better than advertised.

No one expected Alou to hit the way he did last season, except maybe Alou, as his .341 average, 13 homers and 49 RBI’s in 328 at-bats was amazing, considering he turned 41 half-way through last season (sheesh- he’s almost as old as I am!) If he can remain healthy enough to get to the plate 450 times, the Mets’ offense can really take off!

Beltran puts up big numbers, in spite of the fact that at times he makes the game look too easy. He fights injuries when lesser men would be sitting on the bench, and his game is not as appreciated as it should be. He does all of the little things well, from base-running to playing through injury, and still he gets booed by hometown fans. He might not be the player who practically single-handedly carried the Astros to the World Series a few years ago, but he remains one of the bets all-around players in the game and I’m still glad we signed him 3 years ago. This will be Beltran’s fourth season with us, and if he can stay (or become, at this point, as he’s still recovering from injuries) healthy all season, he’s going to quiet those “boos” this season.

Finally, as discussed earlier in this post, Church should surprise a lot of people this season as he puts up the best numbers of his career.

We predict Alou to hit .315 with 20 homers and 80 RBIs; Beltran runs neck and neck for MVP status with Wright, hitting 38 homers with 128 RBIs and .281 average with 20 steals and another Gold Glove; and Church finishes up with 25 homers, 92 RBI’s and a .275 average. Endy fills in around all 3 starters, with 5 dingers, 45 RBI’s and a .295 average. Big health “IF’s” abound, but if they remain healthy, the outfield should deliver more than originally expected, and Alou’s vocal leadership combined with Beltran’s quiet, dignified manner in which he plays the game puts both men into leadership roles on the club once again.

Bench: Marlon Anderson, Damon Easley, Castro, Chavez, and either Ruben Gotay, Jose Valentin or Olmedo Saenz make up one of the most versatile benches in the game. Omar loves to find bargains to fill out his bench, and in Anderson and Saenz, he has 2 of the best pinch-hitters in the game (as well as being former Dodgers’ teammates.)

Gotay, Saenz and Valentin all come with big question marks attached. Gotay has run out of options, Saenz is not much of a fielder, and Valentin is coming off of a major injury last season at the age of 38. Best guess is that Gotay makes the roster out of Spring Training, Saenz signs a minor league contract to play in New Orleans, and Valentin rehabs himself onto the roster in May, at which time the Mets will trade Gotay to an American League team for a prospect.

Once again, as in 2006, the bench plays a major role in the Pennant Race, coming through at all the right times. If anyone’s production declines, Omar has proven he’s not reluctant to pull off a deal at any time, usually one that has us scratching our heads, but that will pay off in the long run as no one in the game assembles a better bench on a budget then Omar does!

Bullpen: Billy Wagner, Aaron Heilman, Duaner Sanchez, Pedro Feliciano and Scott Schoeneweis are virtual locks, leaving 2 spaces open to fill from the likes of Padilla, Kunz, Joe Smith, Jorge Sosa, Matt Wise, Steven Register and Ambiorix Burgos. Our picks? Sosa and Wise, with the Rockies allowing the Mets to keep Register for additional $$, and the rest starting the season in AAA, except Kunz, who begins in Binghamton but certainly won’t end there.

The addition of Santana strengthens the bullpen immensely even before Sanchez’s return to health; once Willie establishes roles for everyone, especially Heilman and Feliciano, the bullpen will be a strength again, as it was in 2006. There are many options this season, at least, and younger players like Smith, Kunz, Register and Rustich can develop for another season before having to face the bright lights of the big city just yet.

If Wise comes back from being hit in the head with a ball last season, and Schoeneweis regains his health and command of his pitches, the bullpen will actually be 7 deep and offer enough options behind a strong rotation to keep the Mets in contention all season long.

If O-Hern regains his health and Pelfrey doesn’t remain in the rotation, he can either start in AAA or spend some time on the major league roster, getting spot starts and working up his arm strength for an eventual season of 180+ innings. His addition would negate the need for Sosa, who probably wouldn’t be sent to the minors but could also be moved, a la Gotay.

A source of frustration last season should see Wagner come back with a vengeance; notching 41 saves with an ERA in the very low 2.00 range (think 2.41) sounds about right.

The Manager: Willie Randolph enters his fourth season as the Mets’ manager, coincidentally, his fourth season as a major league manager as well. Willie Randolph, the man, is someone everyone should strive to be- fair, generous, charitable, intelligent, family-focused and honest; Willie the manager allows his own stubbornness to often become his worst enemy.

We’ve been critical in the past of Willie’s in-game management, and seeming inability to handle his bullpen well. We’ve also said that Willie could be the most stabilizing clubhouse manager around, until he seemed to have lost Reyes’ trust last season. A very quite visit to the Dominican Republic to meet with Jose and his family during the winter might be the spark that ignites Reyes towards achieving his finest season to date, and that alone would seem to force the Mets to offer a contract extension to Willie, currently signed through 2009. However, nothing less than a World Series appearance would seem to be able to extend Willie’s current tenure in New York, and would also weaken Omar’s power base, as he’s been Willie’s most ardent backer to date.

In a recent interview with Sports Illustrated, Mets’ owner Fred Wilpon offered the following:

"We're fully supportive of Willie. Everyone from ownership to Omar is here to make sure Willie is as successful as he can be because that's what's good for the organization.''

Reading between the lines, Wilpon obviously feels that, with the acquisition of Santana, Willie now has everything he needs to be successful and anything less means that Willie can say goodbye after this season.

Willie certainly has an interesting example to follow in New York sports, as Giants’ coach Tom Coughlin, formerly Public Enemy #1, went from a sure thing to be fired at the start of this past season to bringing the team all the way to the most improbable of Super Bowl victories. If Tom Coughlin can do it, certainly Willie, a graduate of Brooklyn’s Tilden High School (where Jon’s dad and my dad also graduated, as we’ve reiterated many times) can do it, too! Let’s hope so, because we’d like nothing more than to see this first class man realize his potential as a manager, after a playing career of consistency and professionalism resulted in multiple World Series victories with the hated Yankees. Willie has a lot of work to do- let’s hope it pays off for everyone concerned!

Prediction: Mets win the division by 5 games over the Braves, defeat the Dodgers in the first round of play-offs, defeat the Diamondbacks for the Pennant, and defeat the Angels in the World Series! David Wright wins the MVP, Santana the Cy Young Award, Reyes leads in Stolen Bases again, and the Mets have the best ERA in the league!

The team is getting older, and will have a lot of re-tooling necessary to repeat in 2009. This season presents the Mets best chance since 2000 – here’s betting they don’t blow it this time! Now someone wake me up before the season starts- cause I must have been dreaming it all! Santana's really a Met? Come on...where's Bobby and Pam Ewing?
Let’s Go Mets!!!!


Anonymous said...

Wow! Great 2008 article pack about the Mets off season. I hope you keep progressing in your blog it's pretty darn good. Your buddy Mike who someday, when I'm ready I'm going to create a Mets Blog. But for now, I'm going to enjoy all Mets Blogs out there.

Anonymous said...

great to see you writing again david and jonathan

Anonymous said...

you guys really knocked down wright's average alot

Anonymous said...

great post even though it took me like a half hour to read

Anonymous said...

i see delgado becoming a monster again too but i cant see alou playing enough games to reach those numbers

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

are you kidding? maybe you should go hold brad lidge's hand while he goes under the knife!

Anonymous said...

what are you smoking phillie

Anonymous said...

i guess you didnt har that santana went to the mets or you wouldnt have made that stupid comment

Anonymous said...

FYI - Wise didn't get hit in the head with a pitch - he HIT a batter in the head and was traumatized by it.

David Rubin & Jonathan Elfenbein said...

Thanks for reminding me- I posted this at 1 in the morning and the very last thing I had written about, of course, was the bullpen. If Wise can go back to throwing like he did before he beaned that batter, which I am betting he can, he will prove to be a great addition to the bullpen! Thanks again for pointing it out!