Betty's No Good Clothes Shop And Pancake House
Wednesday, March 31, 2004
  Now with more me!

The link up yonder will take you to part two of Norm's panel discussion, this time chock full of content from the Mets blogging community, myself included.
  Duquette says it ain't Seo, and Howe

Is that the worst possible headline I could think of? Yes it was. But if you can come up with anything better, I'd love to hear it.

As for the actual story, Jae Weong Seo had another rough outing on Tuesday, giving up five runs in four and a third innigs, striking out one, walking one and serving up a pair of home runs, elevating his spring ERA to 7.48. Afterwards, Jim Duquette and Art Howe both backed off previous assurances that Seo would definitely be a part of the team's starting rotation to start the season.

"If somebody scuffles a lot, we'll take a look at it," Howe said. "It's important that he gets it together."

Of course I don't put a lot of stock in spring training stats, and Seo really does deserve to be the first guy who gets a crack at one of the last two spots in the rotation after the way he pitched last year. But if he really is struggling with his mechanics or something like that, I wouldn't be opposed to Grant Roberts and, say, Tyler Yates a shot to prove they belong in the rotation while Seo gets himself straightened out in Norfolk. Then the Mets would have all the more flexibilty when injuries crop up or Steve Trachsel gets traded to a contender in July.

I would rather not see the Mets send Seo down just to avoid losing Scott Erickson, who, effective spring or not, I can't see being useful for much longer this year than David Cone was last year. Speculation in the article and a look at recent Mets history would lead one to believe that he's exactly the one who'll get the job. Hopefully the Mets will deviate from form, quit hedging their bets with mediocre veterans, and actually commit to this alleged youth movement.

As an aside, when did "scuffle" become the stock baseball synonym for "struggle"? My 1983 American Heritage Dictionary defines it as "1. To fight confusedly at close quarters. 2. To shuffle." If Seo is fighting confusedly at close quarters, then send him down, sure. He's probably got bigger issues than Rick Peterson alone can resolve.
Monday, March 29, 2004
  Mets bloggers of the world, unite?

Norm over at The Shea Hot Corner has posted part one of a round table discussion of the 2004 Mets, featuring some real, no-foolin' journalists as well as cameos from some Mets bloggers, including myself. This part's well worth checking out and part two will apparently be chock full of content from us bloggers.
  Mets get Gutierrez

Finally, the "Who Gets Danny Garcia's Job?" contest has come to an end. Your winner, Ricky Gutierrez, now formerly of the Cleveland Indians. For their role in this, the Indians will receive a player to be named later and the responsibility of paying a large portion of Gutierrez's salary to play for the New York Mets.

Jim Duquette was on WFAN this morning talking up Gutierrez's career .340 on base percentage to get across the point that he was brought in for his bat rather than his glove. While I'm glad Duquette didn't try to sell Gutierrez on his leather, the addition of a man who'll soon be 34 years old and is coming off of WWE-style neck surgery that limited him to only 115 major and minor league at bats last year doesn't exactly bolster my confidence in this sorry excuse for a bench. That .340 OBP is accompanied by a .353 career slugging percentage and the last time Gutierrez put up anything resembling a valuable offensive season was 2001 when he hit .290/.345/.402 for the Cubs. And the previous year, when he hit .276/.375/.401, was the only year in which his offensive production cracked the lofty heights of "league average" with his career-best OPS+ of 105. In comparison, noted offensive sinkhole Joe McEwing posted an OPS+ of 108 in his "career year" of 2001. Now, Gutierrez has been less consistently awful than McEwing and has always done a better job of getting on base as "Super" Joe's career .308 OBP will attest. But Gutierrez is more than two years older than McEwing and trying to play his first full season after a serious injury and medical procedure in 2002. Gutierrez would have to rebound pretty dramatically to be of much offensive use to the Mets off the bench this year and that seems fairly unlikely. Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system projects nearly identical seasons for Gutierrez and McEwing with the only real difference between their adjusted rate stats--.269/.330/.371 and .252/.313/.374, respectively--being a slight edge in OBP for Gutierrez.

With the Indians apparently taking on a large portion of his ungodly $4.6 million salary, the Mets won't be giving up much in the way of talent or cash for Gutierrez's services. But he'll be just another weak bat on an awful bench. The Mets could have gotten similar production out of Danny Garcia, without having to give up any kind of player or any real money, and maybe learned something about a player who might be useful in the future. Instead, they've gone with yet another veteran who won't be around for the next contending Mets team.
Saturday, March 27, 2004
  Timo no mo'

The Mets traded Timo Perez who was to play the superfluous role of "sixth outfielder" to the White Sox in exchange for twenty-six year old right-handed reliever Matt Ginter.

Perez hit just .269/.301/.364 last year in 346 at bats with the Mets. It was his fourth season with the team and only slightly better than his career worst 2001 when he hit .247/.287/.356 in 239 at bats. He had a halfway decent 2002 (.295/.331/.437) but never emerged as more than a solid backup after bursting onto the scene with a solid September and October in the National League Championship year of 2000. He hit even worse than Roger Cedeno last year, while playing adequate defense, and had an easily moveable contract, so he wound up the odd man out in the right field melange.

Ginter spent most of last year at AAA, where he'll likely start this year as well. He posted a 3.03 ERA in 68 1/3 relief innings, striking out 52 and walking 22 while giving up just 2 home runs. The last time he spent significant time in the majors, he struggled mightily agaisnt lefties (they hit .342/.388/.477 off him in 111 at bats), but the previous year he handled them well (.215/.321/.277 in 65 at bats) so maybe he's capable of being more than just a ROOGY. Either way, he's not likely to ever be more than a back of the bullpen arm and this trade probably has as much to do with opening up a roster spot for Jim Duquette's much-needed backup middle infielder as it does with Ginter.
Thursday, March 25, 2004
  Deivi Cruz?!

Are you kidding me? The Mets are allegedly interested in signing Deivi Cruz, recently released by the Devil Rays, to fill the role of backup middle infielder. Cruz, who has had over 400 plate apperances in each of his seven major league seasons would almost certainly command more than the major league minimum, and I'm wondering what exactly it is that he does that the Mets couldn't get cheaper from Danny Garcia. Cruz hit .250/.269/.378 last year and in seven major league seasons, playing almost every day, has posted an on-base percentage over .300 just twice, with a career high of .318. In addition to his offensive ineptitude, by any measure you can find, he's at best an average defensive shortstop, more likely below average.

Garcia had a rough year at the plate both at AAA Norfolk and in 56 major league at bats. But prior to last year, he had a history of posting solid to excellent OBPs in the minors. There isn't much evidence that Garcia's any sort of asset with the glove either and he hasn't played much shortstop in the minors, but if the Mets are in such desperate shape that they need Deivi Cruz or Danny Garcia to play shortstop for any significant amount of time, it would mean that Kaz Matsui, Jose Reyes and Art Howe's buddy Joe McEwing were unavailable and the Mets' season would be in the kind of trouble from which neither Cruz nor Garcia could do much to rescue it.

The only real argument I can see for signing Cruz would be that the Mets want to give Garcia some more time in the minor leagues. But given that he'll be twenty-four years old in April and plays a position currently occupied by the 21-year-old present and future of the Mets' middle infield, I don't see how that's worth throwing a few hundred grand at Deivi Cruz. If Garcia can't hack it with the Mets this year, he probably doesn't have much of a future with the team and the Mets are in a position where they're better served figuring that out than they are making sure McEwing is adequately backed up.

Instead of trying assemble the least useful collection of backup infielders he can find, Duquette should be focused on doing something about the remaining black hole in right rield. Either of the rumored available Blue Jays could be a good fit for the right price, but I'll thow another name out. Jason Lane. He's twenty-seven. He's got no chance to start where he is. And, oh yeah, he can hit (.298/.374/.452 at AAA last year, .272/.328/.472 in 2002, .316/.407/.608 at AA in 2001). Better than anyone we've got now, at least.
Sunday, March 21, 2004
  Reyes Getting Better

According to this article from the excellent, Jose Reyes and his strained groin are looking like they'll be ready for opening day, which is of course good news.

Also of note, Victor Diaz is apparently playing right field (and smacking extra base hits) in AAA camp. It's encouraging to see the Mets taking their hard-hitting player without a position and putting him in what, for the major league squad, is basically a position without a player. Hopefully Diaz takes to the move well enough to relieve Karim Garcia of his duties at some point this summer.
Thursday, March 18, 2004
  "We don't throw. We pitch..."

"...We threw last season, and look where it got us. From now on, we pitch."

A good article on Rick Peterson from the New York Times. I'm getting about as excited by his presence in the Mets organization as anyone's.
Tuesday, March 16, 2004
  2004 New York Mets Preview, Part Two: The Arms

The Mets spent the offseason talking about building a team better suited to their ballpark and improving a pitching staff that allowed 4.7 runs per game (10th in the National League) by putting guys behind them more capable of catching the ball. While they undoubtedly succeeded in acquiring some talented defenders, the more direct approach might have been to acquire some better pitchers. But the combination of enormous contracts and relative recent effectiveness left the team with only one open spot in the starting rotation. They decided to call that spot the fifth spot and find a bunch of guys who'd work cheap to compete for it while the first four spots in the rotation remained filled by four guys most likely to pitch like number three starters. While this strategy won't do much for the team's chances this year, it will soon leave some spots in the rotation to be filled by the various promising youngsters currently making their way through the minor league system.

The only significant change to the team's pitching staff likely to pay immediate dividends is the hiring of Rick Peterson as pitching guru/coach. His track record of keeping young pitchers healthy while they develop into star major leaguers is the most exciting part about his arrival. But it also seems like the Mets' veteran pitchers are giving him a chance, which might help the team's aging core of starters cheat their decline phase for another year. Still, Shea Stadium is likely to be devoid of anything resembling a true ace until the one they call Kazmir doth descend from up on high to lead the wandering Metropolitans out of the darkness and into the promised land. For now the Mets will have to settle for a group mostly composed of guys fairly described as old and getting older. Finding reasons to be optimistic about this pitching staff means coming up with creative excuses for why the top three guys will stave off the aging process for another year. So let's get on with that.

#1: Tom Glavine

Yeah, I don't understand it either. In spite of pretty clearly pitching like the fourth most valuable starter on the team last year, Tom Glavine was named the opening day starter, against the Braves of all teams. Glavine started off last year by getting rocked by the Cubs on opening day and never really recovered. His ERA jumped more than a run and a half from 2002 as his strikeout rate dropped and his hit rate went up. And while these changes can easily be attributed to the inevitable decline of a thirty-seven year old control pitcher, Glavine's numbers also reveal some rather curious splits. His status as his former team's bitch has been pretty well documented, as he posted an ERA over ten in twenty innings over the course of four starts against Atlanta. And while those numbers aren't terribly hard to explain given the small sample size and the fact that the Braves had the best offense in the league, Glavine's performance at home was more inexplicable.

Glavine pitched almost identical numbers of innings at home and on the road in 2003 (91 1/3 at home, 92 on the road) and despite the fact that "home" was pitcher-friendly Shea Stadium, his home/road splits read like his jersey had "Colorado" written across the front. He gave up 23 more hits, one more home run and ten more walks at home, while striking out eight fewer batters, giving him an ERA of 5.22 at home and 3.82 on the road. Glavine himself put the blame for this discrepancy on the robotic shoulders of the QuesTec system, while pretty much everyone else thought it was about time the Tom Glavine Personal Strike Zone was abolished. Whether or not the machine actually turned strikes into balls for Glavine at home is questionable, but it seems pretty clear that he at least thought that was the case, which may very well have affected the way he pitched after a while. The idea that QuesTec got inside his head doesn't really do much to explain away his pathetic opening day start, but he did come back in his next home start to get a win against the Expos with a fine five strikeout, zero walk, one run performance over five and two-thirds innings. It wasn't until near the end of April that his performance at Shea started rolling back downhill.

The keys to Glavine bouncing back in 2004 will be to slay his QuesTec demons and learn to pitch against his former team without completely falling apart. Improving his performance against the Braves shouldn't be so hard now that they've lost some of their most potent offensive weapons of a year ago in guys like Javy Lopez and Gary Sheffield. Whether he can learn to pitch at Shea Stadium remains a question mark, but given the history of the park, I find it hard to believe that we'll see a repeat of his backwards split from 2003. I don't see Glavine ever regaining the ace-like form the Mets are paying him for, but I also don't think he's done quite yet, and I expect him to pitch like a solid middle of the rotation starter this year.

#2: Steve Trachsel

Art Howe announced that Trachsel would get the season's second start to split up the lefties at the top of the rotation and inadvertently stumbled into rewarding the team's most consistent and valuable pitcher of a year ago. Trachsel won 16 games with a 3.78 ERA as both his strikeout rate and walk rate were down from the year before. He is thirty-three years old, so we can't expect much improvement out of him from here on out, but he's still got several years on the true old timers of this rotation and has been very consistent over the last three years since a trip to the minors got him straightened out. He should provide more or less the same production this year as he has in the last few and perhaps the improved defense will even make him look superficially a little better. Last year was the first year since he started three games in 1993 that his ground ball to fly ball ratio was under one (0.85). If that continues, Mike Cameron could be his new best friend.

Whether he continues to be effective or not, though, this is probably the last year we'll see Steve Trachsel in a Mets uniform. His contract is up after this season and with Glavine and Leiter set to be well compensated to pitch into 2005, the team is going to have to find some way to open up some spots in this rotation for the young talent coming up through the organization. Pitchers like Grant Roberts and Aaron Heilman, or even the Matt Petersons and Bob Keppels of the system, should be ready to step into the major league rotation come 2005 and Trachsel seems to be the one who'll have to get out of their way. If the Mets aren't in it around the trading deadline, I expect him to find his way to a team that fancies itself a contender.

#3: Al Leiter

Leiter started out last year talking about pitching more like Tom Glavine, working both sides of the plate and such. This strategy left him with a 5.57 ERA at the end of June, but an 8-5 record thanks to some luck and some support. He went on the DL at the beginning of July with an inflamed right knee and came back pitching like himself. He only posted a record of 7-4 in the last three months of the season, but his ERA over that period dropped all the way down to 2.15. His strikeout rate went up a little bit form 6.59 per nine innings to 7.14, his walk rate went from the absolutely frightening 5.85 per nine to the only moderately scary 3.33 and his home run rate went from 1.02 per nine in the first half to 0.44 in the second as he didn't give up a single home run in eight starts in the months of July and August.

His tremendous rebound notwithstanding, Leiter is still thirty-eight years old, his walk rate was still up and his strikeout rate down from the previous year. He did a great job adjusting last year to post that excellent second half and his apparent willingness to work with Rick Peterson should only help him make sure those gains stick, but he still needs to cut down on the walks to really be the pitcher the Mets need him to be and that may be a tall order. I don't think Leiter's a candidate for the kind of rapid thirty-eighth year decline that his first half of 2003 seemed to foreshadow, but there isn't much chance of him putting up anything like the 2.47 ERA he posted in 1998, either. He should be another solid but not dominating starting pitcher in this rotation.

#4: Jae Weong Seo

Seo was almost the anti-Leiter last year, as he started off hot and after cementing himself in the rotation started to make a case for himself as a Rookie Of The Year candidate. He put up a 3.09 ERA in the first three months of the season thanks to good control (1.74 walks per nine innings) and an ability to keep the ball in the park (0.48 home runs per nine). In the second half of the season he increased his strikeout rate from 4.73 to 5.80, but his walk and home run rates went with it and he wound up with ERAs of 6.61 and 5.34 in July and August, respectively. He bounced back somewhat in September, posting his best ERA for any month, 1.71, which looks good even when you notice that he gave up almost as many unearned runs, five, as he did earned runs, six.

At twenty-seven, there's probably not a whole lot more to Seo than what we saw last year. If he could put together the strikeout rates he posted in July (6.61) and September (6.25) with the walk rates he posted in the first half (1.74) and August (1.97) and the home run rates he posted in the first half (0.48) and September (0.85), he could have himself one heck of a season. That's probably asking too much, but Seo should continue to be a cheap but effective middle of the rotation guy for the Mets while the old guys are phased out in favor of the younger, more promising arms still on their way up.

#5: Grant Roberts or Aaron Heilman or Scott Erickson or Tyler Yates

In 2003, six pitchers other than Glavine, Trachsel, Leiter and Seo started a game for the New York Mets, and David Cone's 6.50 ERA was the lowest posted by any of them. So while the contenders for the open spot in the rotation don't look too intimidating, the Mets have a real opportunity to improve their pitching staff by just getting something around league average performance from one of these guys. It's too early to say for sure which one of them will wind up in the fifth spot, as they all seem to be holding their own in spring training thus far. But it seems pretty likely that all of these guys will be pitching for the Mets in the near or not so near future.

Roberts is out of options, so even if he fails to win a spot in the rotation, he'll be in the major league bullpen. For the third year in a row, Roberts gave the Mets part of a pretty good year out of the bullpen in 2003, posting a 3.79 ERA in nineteen innings over the course of eighteen appearances after recovering from a bout of tendonitis in his pitching shoulder. Roberts is twenty-six years old so now seems like it should be the time for him to fulfill his promise as a starter. He should be a useful member of the pitching staff whether he starts out in the rotation or not.

Heilman, the former 2001 first round pick out of Notre Dame, never quite got over the hump at AAA Norfolk in 2003. But he got called up at midseason anyway and got pounded, giving up 13 home runs and 41 walks in 65 1/3 innings while striking out 51, for an ERA of 6.75. Heilman seems to really be taking to Rick Peterson's instruction and given his minor league track record, he should be expected to bounce back and be a solid major league pitcher before too long. He may not start the season in the majors, but he should be back up to stay before the season's over, particularly if one of the veterans opens up a spot in the rotation by getting injured or traded. The twenty-five year old should become another cheap, solid middle of the rotation starter in the coming years.

Erickson may get the most chances to impress out of this group, because if he starts the season in the rotation and pitches well, he'll make tempting trade bait come July. There's not much in his recent past to suggest that he'll be a very effective starter at the major league level, but so far his spring training seems to be going well. I'd say he's more likely to help out the team by fetching something useful in a trade than by pitching well into September.

The twenty-six year old Yates went from reliever to starter last year and posted ERAs around four at three different minor league levels. He's the least likely of these four, in my opinion, to earn the fifth spot coming out of spring training, and the least likely to excel in it were he to earn it.

Bullpen: Braden Looper, David Weathers, Mike Stanton, John Franco, Dan Wheeler and friends

As I said when he was signed, new closer Braden Looper isn't likely to be a better pitcher than the guy he's replacing, or even the best pitcher in this bullpen. But it's a good idea for the Mets to label everyone in the bullpen with a specific role, thus decreasing the number of important decisions Art Howe has to make over the course of a game. Let Looper pitch when the Mets have a three run lead in the ninth, let Weathers pitch in more high-leverage situations and a let Franco cheer them on from a comfortable seat.

I think Stanton's got a decent shot of bouncing back to usefulness, as a lot of his decline last year can be attributed to a slight increase in his walk rate and a huge increase in his home run rate which was really just the result of him giving up two more home runs than he had in each of the previous two years while pitching a lot fewer innings. If he's ineffective again this year, he probably won't pitch too many innings and all he'll be is a drain on the Mets' payroll. If he can cut down on the home runs, he'll be a nice, if seriously overpaid, bonus.

Wheeler had a pretty solid season in his first year with the Mets, posting a 3.71 ERA in 51 innings, striking out 35 and walking 17. Hopefully he'll get to start the season in New York and work some important innings as the season progresses. Cheap, effective guys like Wheeler are the reason you don't give Mike Stanton nine million dollars over three years.

Scott Strickland will be back walking too many batters at some point this season, and guys like Orber Moreno and Royce Ring should do a decent job rounding out the bullpen. This group has a couple of veterans in Franco and Stanton who aren't going anywhere even if they pitch terribly and a closer who's unlikely to be of much value unless he can rack up enough saves to fetch something more useful in a trade. Otherwise, the 'pen features several reasonably priced solid pitchers who should do a good job for the team this year.

The pitching staff, like the Mets' offense, is probably at least a year away from being anything special. The guys at the top of the rotation are even further on the wrong side of thirty than Cliff Floyd, Mike Cameron and Mike Piazza and while none of them have troubling histories of serious injury, neither Tom Glavine nor Al Leiter is likely to pitch like the ace he's being paid to be. The youth movement on this side of the ball will really get going in earnest this year, but the guys who'll be showing up in the big show before the end of this year are probably more innings-eater than savior. Still, there's a talented group of kids on its way up through the organization, and with Rick Peterson on board, the team has a good chance of being able to turn that young talent into the next playoff-caliber pitching staff at Shea.

The top young hitting prospects in the system are beginning to make their way toward and into the big show and the pitchers aren't too far behind. Jason Phillips, Jose Reyes and Jae Weong Seo should be joined by Aaron Heilman and Grant Roberts as important parts of the major league roster this year. The next wave of hitters, guys like David Wright, Victor Diaz and Justin Huber, should be accompanied by starting pitchers like Scott Kazmir and Matt Peterson before too long, putting an exciting, competitive young team on the field at Shea Stadium in the years to come. And if any Mets fans are uncomfortable pinning all the hopes on the shoulders of a twenty year old lefty who hasn't even pitched 150 professional innings, just think of it as pinning all your hopes on Rick Peterson. It'll make you feel better.

As for the here and now, the National League East is the Phillies' to lose, and the Mets as they're currently constituted don't have a serious shot at challenging them. The Marlins should come back down to earth a bit and the Braves' run at the top really should be over, dammit. And if the Mets can't beat the Expos this year, then something has gone seriously wrong. So, for my final prediction, I will pick the Mets to go 82-80 and finish in third place in the NL East.
Monday, March 08, 2004
  2004 New York Mets Preview, Part One: The Bats

In 2003, the Mets scored 4.0 runs per game, second worst in the National League. Yes, only the historically inept Los Angeles Dodgers offense scored fewer runs than the Mets, although they scored an entire half of a run per game fewer. In the offseason, the Mets addressed a couple of holes in their lineup, acquiring a great defensive centerfielder and taking the particularly creative approach of filling a hole at second base by signing a shortstop. But overall they avoided making a big splash in the free agent market, leaving a hole in right field unfilled and, for the first time in a long time, depending on the development of current minor leaguers to carry the team into a successful future. This strategy means that looking forward to the next Mets playoff team means looking beyond the team that will step onto the field on opening day. But it also means that the team's window for success will not be as narrow as that of a team comprised mainly of aging veterans. Today I take a look, position by position, at the first step in this evolution, the 2004 New York Mets offense.

C: Mike Piazza

For the purposes of this preview, catcher and first baseman will be treated as two separate positions. I hope, for all of our sakes, that this does not lead to any confusion.

Last year, when Piazza was healthy, he hit .286/.377/.483 in 234 at bats. Those numbers represented a slight increase in his walk rate and a fairly significant drop in his power numbers. The optimistic Met fan would hope that starting some games at first base would prevent fatigue and injury and help him bounce back somewhat, but even if he just stays healthy and hits like, well, like a thirty-five year old catcher, he'll be a valuable and important piece of the lineup. His defense behind the plate will likely continue to be okay in all areas unrelated to throwing, and the ability to station himself at first base against teams that run a lot, like the Marlins, should minimize the impact of his flaws somewhat. It's anyone's guess how he'll play defensively at first, but if he can manage to not embarrass himself out there, it should be a plus for both Piazza and the Mets now and in the years to come.

1B: Jason Phillips

When Mike Piazza went down with his groin injury, Phillips, the most major league-ready catcher in the Mets' organization, got called up and proceeded to play mostly at first base, taking the place of the injured Mo Vaughn and the inconsistent Tony Clark. He then went on to hit .298/.373/.442, besting any on-base percentage he'd ever put up in a full season of minor league ball and generally being the Mets' second most valuable bat, behind Cliff Floyd. Phillips didn't display a whole lot of power (just 11 home runs and 25 doubles in 403 at bats) and his minor league history makes 2003 look like something of a peak season in the area of getting on base. But if he can maintain something resembling last year's production for the next few of what should be his prime years, that, combined with his positional versatility, should make him pretty useful, at least while Justin Huber and Mike Jacobs try to figure out which one of them is going to be the Mets' next catcher. At first base, Phillips' defense wasn't great, but it wasn't bad, and should improve somewhat now that he's got a year of playing the position under his belt. Behind the plate, he'll at least do a better job holding down the running game than Piazza would.

2B: Jose Reyes

The decision to move Reyes to second base has its upside and its downside. Its upside will mostly be contained within the production of the new guy playing short. The downside is an increased risk of injury, a decrease in Reyes' positional value and the chance that Reyes won't be able to play the position. The first of these is the most troubling, especially given how much time he lost to injuries last year, but the last of them seems to be working out all right so far.

Reyes started out last year a nineteen year old shortstop at AAA Norfolk and didn't exactly build on his strong 2002, hitting just .269/.333/.356, which represented a slight increase in his walk rate and a decline in his batting average and power. The Mets promoted him anyway and he improved every month in the majors before injury ended his year early, winding up with a .307/.334/.434 line. He'll need to continue to build upon the improved plate discipline he showed in August, drawing 10 walks in 120 plate appearances, and continue to develop the power that his offseason weight gain portends. But he'll turn just 21 in June and already posted one of the great seasons by a 20 year old shortstop in league history, so there's plenty of reason to be optimistic and excited about his potential in the immediate future and beyond.

3B: Ty Wigginton

By virtue of being one of only two guys in the Mets lineup who stayed healthy long enough to qualify for the batting title, Wigginton wound up leading the team in various offensive categories. He gained some popularity with his hard-nosed attitude, but it didn't have much to do with his production at the plate, where he wasn't a threat to do much more than show up every day. He's 26 years old, so maybe he's got a Phillips-esque breakthrough season in him, but he'll have to improve upon his .255/.318/.396 line if he's going to survive the challenge of David Wright, Victor Diaz and Aaron Baldiris to his spot on the diamond in the coming years.

Given Diaz's big numbers with Binghamton after arriving via the Jeromy Burnitz trade (.354/.382/.520 in 175 at bats) and the fact that the Mets have been trying him out at third base in spring training, I have to wonder if they're considering not waiting until Wright is ready to give Wigginton some competition at the hot corner. Diaz doesn't seem to be much more useful with the glove at third than he has been at second (i.e., not very), and it seems like the Mets should just accept his destiny as a future corner outfielder. Maybe they're trying to see if he can handle a couple of infield positions well enough to bolster a bench long on outfielders, short on infielders and even shorter on useful bats. I would think he'd have more utility as someone to plug in either the continued black hole in right field or the one that'll open up in left the next time Cliff Floyd goes down due to injury.

Wigginton's defense wasn't bad for a guy just learning the position, but he didn't have a lot of range. He's another who should be more comfortable and effective after a year on the job.

SS: Kazuo Matsui

Predicting Matsui's offensive production based on what he's done in Japan is a tough task. Last year he hit .305/.368/.549 for the Seibu Lions of the Japanese Pacific League and the year before that .332/.391/.617. But witnessing Hideki Matsui's amazing disappearing home runs last year has made everyone wary of expecting Kaz to pop many balls over the wall. But there's reason to believe he'll at least hit for a decent average, draw a few walks and rack up some doubles and his defense is already garnering rave reviews in spring training.

The Mets have been talking like they're trying to replicate the top of the Marlins' World Championship lineup with Matsui and Reyes playing the roles of Pierre and Castillo. The Mets' duo don't seem likely to match the OBP those two put up last year, at least in the short term, and neither seems likely to run as much as Pierre. But Castillo wasn't of much use on the basepaths, getting caught almost half the time when trying to steal. And I would put money on Matsui and Reyes' power numbers besting those of the Champs' table-setters.

LF: Cliff Floyd

As always, the story with Floyd was that he was an asset as long as he was healthy, which was not as long as you would like. He hit .290/.376/.518 in 365 at bats before finally giving in to the Achilles problem he'd been fighting almost all year. It almost goes without saying, but the health of Floyd and Piazza will go a long way toward determining how far the Mets go this year. His defense wasn't much good, what with the inability to run full speed and all, and will probably continue to be sub par.

CF: Mike Cameron

Cameron was the Mets' other big signing of the offseason, and one less fraught with uncertainty than the shortstop from Japan. The Mets got pitiful offense and defense out of their outfield much of the time in 2003 as the guys who could play defense couldn't hit well enough to stay in the majors and the guys who could hit couldn't be kept on the field for the whole season, for one reason or another. And of course there was Roger Cedeno whose primary talent at this point appears to be "drawing salary." Cameron is the top, or at least one of the top few, defensive centerfielders in all of baseball, depending on which defensive metric you look at, and should provide a nice boost to both his fellow outfielders and the pitching staff by getting a glove on anything hit anywhere near him, while providing a good deal more offense than the Mets could have gotten out of part-time defensive wizards like Tsuyoshi Shinjo and Jeff Duncan.

When Cameron was first signed, I was slightly less than enthusiastic mostly due to the fact that he wasn't the huge offensive upgrade that I thought the Mets needed. And while it's true that he's not even going to provide the sort of power that the Mets surprisingly got out of sometime centerfielder Jeromy Burnitz for half of a season last year, it seems that Safeco Field really did depress Cameron's offensive production over the last few years, even more than Shea Stadium will this year. While Cameron's slugging percentage has declined slightly two years in a row after something of a power spike in 2001 (30 doubles, 5 triples, 25 home runs), he's still got a decent amount of power, especially away from Safeco, and he's consistently posted quality on-base percentages, particularly when adjusted for his park and league. He's also managed to stay in the lineup for upwards of 500 at bats on a yearly basis. It seems that all signs point to Cameron providing above-average offense out of the centerfield position to go along with his top-notch defense. As the kids say, my bad.

RF: Karim Garcia, I guess

Last year the Mets got just about nothing out of right field, with Roger ".267/.320/.378" Cedeno being the position's most common occupant. They entered this offseason having decided that, enormous contract or not, Cedeno was not the rightfielder for this team going forward. After deciding against taking any chances with Vladimir Guerrero's back, they wound up with precious few options and settled on the bullpen brawler. For all the talk about Cedeno's allegedly awful defense, there isn't much statistical evidence to support the idea that Garcia is any better with the leather. At the plate he'll provide more power than Cedeno and not much else. He certainly wouldn't be an impediment in the path of any young outfielder who might catch fire and earn a major league job. But for this year, Garcia should earn enough money to cover his various legal bills and then get out of the way so the Mets can pursue a better option in the offseason.

Garcia may wind up being platooned with fellow Yankee outcast Shane Spencer who will probably do a similar job of looking like a decent offensive option when standing next to Roger Cedeno.

Bench: Roger Cedeno, Joe McEwing, Todd Zeile, Timo Perez and a cast of thousands

This bench, regardless of what minor leaguers wind up filling it out as the season progresses, looks positively punchless, lacking anyone even likely to match Tony Clark's minor positive contributions of a year ago. But last year saw players intended to fill the role of reserves called into every day service on numerous occasions with fairly disastrous results. Because of ineffectiveness and time lost to injury from nominal starters like Piazza, Cedeno, Floyd and Mo Vaughn, and the less than smooth transition to the current youth movement, players like Clark, McEwing, Perez, Duncan, Shinjo, Jay Bell, Raul Gonzalez and Vance Wilson saw significant playing time. All of these players, with the exception of Clark and Wilson, and along with temporary starting shortstop Rey Sanchez, performed below replacement level. While Cedeno, McEwing, Zeile and Perez are not good bets to do much better this year, full seasons from Floyd, Piazza, Reyes and Phillips, as well as the additions of Cameron and Matsui, would decrease the team's dependence on its lackluster reserve talent. While certain of these conditions, namely full, healthy seasons from Floyd and Piazza, are far from sure things, the Mets can also expect to get slightly less awful reinforcements from a minor league system featuring more developed options like Diaz, Craig Brazell and Daniel Garcia, who struggled in a brief cameo in New York last year. The bench figures to be a weakness for the Mets again this year, but due to some addition by subtraction, it may not be such a crippling liability as it was a year ago.

Once again the burden of the Mets' offensive health rests largely on the shoulders of two aging and increasingly fragile stars, Mike Piazza and Cliff Floyd. The team has begun to surround them with a more solid supporting cast, but the lineup still features at least one gaping hole and a couple of placeholders for promising prospects who are unlikely to be ready to help this year. If Floyd can provide an uncharacteristically healthy year and Piazza's move to first base can manage to keep him in the lineup for the majority of the year, the team's offense should be much improved. Still, that is doubtful to be enough to carry this team to the playoffs. Floyd and Piazza will need to hang on for at least another year until the organization's core of promising youngsters begins to produce the major league talent that will constitute the Mets' next playoff-caliber lineup alongside whatever free agent or trade bait Jim Duquette is able to find who can both hit and play right field. Whether they'll stick around and maintain their effectiveness long enough is anyone's guess, but one thing is for sure. The Mets are building a future that looks bright whether they're still around to be part of it or not.

Coming soon to an internet browser near you, Part Two: The Arms!
Monday, March 01, 2004
  Kazmir for Soriano?

I told you last time. No!

Seriously, I think this trade may be even less palatable than the previously rumored deal involving Jose Reyes. Kazmir's value is even more tied up in potential than Reyes', but that potential, particularly with Rick Peterson on board, is for a career as the dominant ace the Mets sorely need. New York fans may not have gotten the chance to get attached to Kazmir the way they have to Reyes, but I think losing him may be an even bigger blow to the organization than losing Reyes.

But even putting aside arguments about Kazmir's potential, Alfonso Soriano the right fielder just wouldn't be as valuable as Alfonso Soriano the second baseman. In 2003, Soriano's Equivalent Average (EQA) of .296 ranked third among all major league second basemen, behind Bret Boone and Marcus Giles, and his OPS of .863 ranked fourth, behind Boone, Giles and Jose Vidro. That kind of production out of the second base spot would be a huge plus for any team. But if you stack his numbers up against major league right fielders last year, he only comes in tenth in both statistics. That would certainly be a big upgrade over what the Mets had in right last year or are likely to have this year, but not so much as to be worth giving up the crown jewel of the farm system, in my opinion.

I'm still not opposed to the Mets acquiring Soriano to play right field, if he's willing to make the switch, and it is rumored that he is. But they shouldn't make the trade thinking they're getting an elite offensive player and compensating the Rangers accordingly. If Soriano winds up patrolling right field at Shea Stadium, he shouldn't be expected to be much more than a top-third major league right fielder.

In other news, check out this excellent article from the New York Times about Mike Cameron and his defense. Not only is it another example of advanced metrics like UZR popping up in mainstream media, but it's an insightful look at how Cameron does what he does out in center field.
Disseminating descriptions and accounts of New York Mets games without the expressed written consent of Major League Baseball or the New York Mets since 2003.

Location: Hatboro, Pennsylvania, United States
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