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The 2008 Mets: Pitchers
The Mets' pitching was in the middle of the National League pack in 2007. They allowed 750 runs, 4.63 per game, good for seventh best in the league and a completely average ERA+ of 100. They got off to a much better start than that, posting a team ERA of 2.96 in April, but that number rose every single month, all they way to 5.14 in September. Things were even worse in the final seventeen games as opposing teams hit .281/.356/.446 against Met pitching, adding up to a a 5.80 team ERA over that stretch. Interestingly, August and September were by far the Mets' two best months for strikeouts, but they were also the worst months for walks, hits and extra base hits allowed.
The 2008 edition will feature some new faces that will help keep a few runs off the board. First of all there's Ryan Church and Brian Schneider. The 2007 Mets were one of the best teams in the league at turning balls in play into outs, doing so 70.7% of the time, good for fourth in the majors. This year the Mets have replaced two of their weaker fielders, Shawn Green and Paul Lo Duca, with a couple of guys who, if not spectacular, are at least good defenders. Church in particular should help out a starting rotation made up of mostly fly ball pitchers.
Of course, more importantly, the Mets have a couple of pretty good starting pitchers who weren't on last year's Opening Day roster. Taking the hill in the season opener will be two-time Cy Young Award-winner, three-time AL strikeout leader, perennial 200-inning pitcher and 2007 Gold Glover Johan Santana. Last year his ERA jumped all the way to 3.33, good for seventh best in the league, largely due to his allowing a few more home runs than usual. Other than that, it was the same old Santana: lots of innings, lots of strikeouts, not a lot of hits or walks. He has as good a chance as anyone to be the best pitcher in the National League this year.
A more intriguing story is the return of Pedro Martinez. Last year he returned from rotator cuff surgery in September and looked tremendous in five starts, posting a 2.57 ERA, 32 strikeouts and 7 walks in 28 innings. The question about Pedro is not whether he can still get major league hitters out. He clearly can. While his fastball is not what it once was, his array of pitches and intelligent approach are more than a match for any lineup he might face. All that remains in doubt is whether he can stay healthy, which we can't know for sure until he does or doesn't. But with the way he made it through those five starts last year and Spring Training this year, I am quite optimistic. He won't give the Mets 200 innings, but I am hopeful that he can make it through the season without his arm falling off. And if the Mets make it to September with Johan Santana and Pedro Martinez still standing atop their rotation, I think they can make it pretty far into October.
Those two might be the ones who'll strike fear into the hearts of October opponents, but numbers three and four won't exactly let those opponents stop and catch their breath. Oliver Perez had the second best season of his young career in 2007 with a 3.56 ERA, 174 strikeouts and 79 walks in 177 innings, making it through a full season for the first time since his dominant 2004. There was still some of the inconsistency that's plagued him since his breakout year, but 2007 was a big step forward from his awful 2005 and 2006 campaigns. He's been so all over the place the last four year that it's hard to know what to expect next. Was last year him settling in as an above average, but not elite, starter? Or was it a step toward regaining his 2004 form? A lot of dollars are riding on the answers to those question as Perez will be eligible for free agency at the end of this year. I would love to see him return either way, but the Mets will have several spots to fill after this season and only money with which to fill them. If Perez winds up too expensive for the Mets to retain, hopefully it's because his time with the team ended in a blaze of glory.
One pitcher who isn't going anywhere is John Maine, who won't be eligible for free agency until 2011. 2007 was the first time Maine spent a full season in the majors and it was largely a successful year. He put up a 3.91 ERA with 180 strikeouts and 75 walks in 191 innings. Only Tom Glavine pitched more innings for the 2007 Mets and his ERA was half a run higher than Maine's. But Maine was as culpable as anyone for the team's late season woes as he seemed to run out of gas late in the year. His ERA in the months of August and September was 6.14 in 11 starts. Eight shutout innings in his last start saved it from being over 7.00. He actually struck out more batters in either of those months than he had in any previous month, but his rates of hits and home runs allowed also went up and a greater percentage of his base runners came around to score. Perhaps the experience of pitching nearly 200 innings last year will lead to Maine having more in the tank as this season wears on. If he can pitch for a full season like he did for the first four months of 2007, the Mets could have a third (or fourth) stud on their hands.
It's at this point that things get a little dicey. As of right now the Mets haven't announced whether Orlando Hernandez or Mike Pelfrey will begin the season as their fifth starter, but it's a safe bet that both will get some starts this year. El Duque was very good when healthy last year, with a 3.72 ERA, 128 strikeouts and 64 walks in 147.2 innings. Pelfrey was bad, but got a little better as the season went on. Hernandez can't be expected to stay healthy for the whole season and the recent tinkering with his windup makes him even more of a question mark than usual, but he could be very effective when healthy. Pelfrey's had an awful Spring and is yet to have sustained success at the major league level, but he did improve his strikeout rate in the second half last year. If El Duque is really healthy, he's probably the better option right now. A little more time at AAA couldn't hurt Pelfrey. But whichever way the Mets go, at least they've got two starters standing between Omar Minaya and the Chan Ho Parks and Jason Vargases of the world.
A few Met relievers had very good years in 2007, namely Billy Wagner, Aaron Heilman and Pedro Feliciano. Unfortunately, the guys who ranked fourth and fifth in relief innings pitched were Guillermo Mota, who was uniformly awful, and Scott Schoeneweis, who turned every right-handed hitter into David Wright. Seriously, righties hitting against Schoeneweis had an OPS of .963, one point better than Wright's season mark. Joe Smith got off to a great start but then got smacked around pretty good. Jorge Sosa pitched well enough to be a decent fifth or sixth option out of the pen.
This year Wagner, Heilman, Feliciano, Schoeneweis and Sosa will be joined by the returning Duaner Sanchez, newcomer Matt Wise and probably one of Smith, Nelson Figueroa, Brian Stokes and Ricardo Rincon. The Mets should be able to cobble together a pretty good bullpen from that lot. As much as you can predict reliability from any reliever, Wagner, Heilman and Sosa will be what they have been. Feliciano should continue to be excellent, but if Willie Randolph ever fighures out that he can get both righties and lefties out while Schoeneweis should only ever pitch to lefties, they will both be more valuable for it. Wise should be a solid, if unspectacular, middle reliever. The biggest question is Sanchez. If he somehow regains his 2006 form, he will be a huge addition. But even if he does slightly less than that, he should be a valuable piece of the seventh and eighth inning puzzle. Overall, it looks like a solid collection of relievers, and the addition of Santana should lighten their workload a bit. But all we know for sure is that Willie Randolph will continue to use them in ways that beggar belief.
Of course not everything will go right for this pitching staff. Pedro, Perez and Maine won't all pitch two hundred innings while fulfilling every bit of their potential. But the Mets' starting rotation is such a talented group that they don't have to exceed expectations much to be one of the best staffs in the league. And if one or two guys does get a bit lucky or stay especially healthy, we could be watching something very special.
Overall, I think this is a very good team with a chance to be great. The offense is in the top third of the league and the pitching staff is even better. Johan Santana, David Wright and Carlos Beltran may the best in the league at their respective positions. Jose Reyes, Oliver Perez and John Maine may not have reached the upper limits of their abilities yet. This team could look quite different next year with Perez, Carlos Delgado, Pedro Martinez, Moises Alou and Orlando Hernandez all headed toward free agency. But the 2008 version of the Mets has as good a chance as any National League team of playing in the the World Series.Official prediction: 95 wins.
The 2008 Mets: Hitters
As you may have heard, the Mets' 2007 season did not end as well as they or their fans might have liked. It's hard to blame the team's offense for the historic collapse, though. In those fateful seventeen games when the Mets went from prohibitive pennant favorites to historical punchlines, the team scored 98 runs or 5.76 per game. They put a total of 804 runs on the board in 2007, 4.96 per game, good for fourth best in the National League. While the Mets' pitching has made most of the headlines this offseason, the bats should once again be among the league's best. Here's a look at the state of the offense, position-by-position.Catcher
Met backstops hit .267/.309/.410 last year, around average for the league, as a big year from Ramon Castro (.291/.333/.567 in 141 AB) somewhat made up for Paul Lo Duca's decision to stop using steroids (.266/.307/.373 in 429 AB). That story will have to repeat itself in 2008 if the Mets are going to get any offensive production out of this position as Brian Schneider and his anemic bat step into the starting role. There's been talk of Castro getting significantly more playing time this year, but I'll believe that Willie Randolph will deviate from traditional starter/backup roles when I see it. The fact that Castro may begin the season on the disabled list with a strained hamstring won't help any.
Schneider and Castro are both signed through 2009 when both of them will turn thirty-three. That gives the Mets about nineteen months to come up with some sort of long term plan for this position as they don't seem to have one yet. After carelessly losing Jesus Flores to the Nationals in last year's Rule 5 Draft, the best minor league catchers in the Mets' system include thirty-five year-old Raul Casanova and eighteen year-old Francisco Peña. Peña may someday catch for the Mets, but he may be old enough to drink by the time he figures out the whole "hitting" thing as he hit just .210/.263/.283 in A-ball last year.First Base
The parts of this preview that point toward good times ahead will show up any paragraph now. In the meantime, let's talk about Carlos Delgado. Delgado fell off a cliff in 2007, hitting .258/.333/.448. He lost a full hundred points from his 2006 slugging percentage and was well below average for a National League first baseman. He did have a couple of very good months, posting OPSes over .900 in July and September. Perhaps offseason elbow and wrist surgery led him to get off to a slow start and we can expect him to bounce back somewhat now that he's relatively healthy. But the chances of him being an elite first baseman or one of the three best offensive players on this team are pretty slim.
After this season the Mets will have to decide whether to pick up Delgado's option for 2009 or pay him $4 million to go away. Barring a miraculous comeback, this should not be a difficult decision. Seeing as the Mets don't have any reinforcements on the way from the minors or even any decent options to back up Delgado this year, their future plans likely involve throwing lots of money at Mark Teixeira.Second Base
Met second basemen hit .278/.348/.405 in 2007, about average for the NL. Unfortunately, the Mets decided to dump the best bat they had at the position to make room for Fernando Tatis on the roster. Ruben Gotay hit .295/.351/.421 in 190 at bats last year. Those numbers aren't eye-popping and he may not have even been likely to repeat them. But he could have been a solid bat off the bench with some power to complement Luis Castillo's "singles, singles and more singles" approach. Instead, they've chosen Tatis and his "versatility." He's so versatile that he spent two of the last four years doing something other than play professional baseball. Tatis will likely have the job of backing up Delgado at first base and making Carlos look like an offensive powerhouse by comparison.
Castillo is signed for four years and should keep putting up solid OBPs with no power and decent defense for at least a couple of years. Backing him up this year will be thirty-eight year-old Damion Easley and thirty-four year-old Marlon Anderson. Both could provide a decent bat off the bench with more power than Castillo if they stay healthy. Meanwhile, the twenty-five year-old Gotay will likely fit in just fine on the Atlanta Braves' bench.Shortstop
Jose Reyes famously hit a slump at the worst possible time in 2007. But he still had a very productive year at .280/.354/.421 with 78 stolen bases and very good defense. He didn't hit with as much power as in 2006, but he continued to improve his walk rate. There's been a lot of talk in the offseason of Reyes toning down his fun-loving antics or trying to hit the ball on the ground more. When the season starts, I expect that all of that will be forgotten and Reyes will be what he is: one of the best players in the game who's still getting better. And he won't turn twenty-five until June.Third Base
David Wright is the old man of the left side of the Mets' infield, having reached the big two-five back in December. He'll just have to settle for being the better player of the two. Last year's .325/.416/.546, 34 stolen base, Gold Glove campaign might have made him the first NL MVP in Met history if not for his teammates collapsing around him in late September. He did all he could, hitting .397/.451/.575 in those last seventeen games. He probably wasn't the best defensive third baseman in the league last year, but he has certainly improved a lot in his three and a half major league seasons. And with the bat he is beyond reproach and only getting better. The Mets may make one questionable decision after another at the margins of their roster, but as long as Wright and Reyes are sporting the orange and blue, this team will be worth watching.Left Field
Moises Alou gave the Mets a terrific half of a season in 2007, hitting .341/.392/.524 in 87 games. He was one of the few standing alongside Wright, pounding out hits all through September including a twenty-four game hitting streak that started on August 31st. There's no reason this year should be any different. Unfortunately, the inevitable disabled list portion of the season will start with game one as Alou is out until late April or so due to hernia surgery. Backups Angel Pagan and Endy Chavez should provide good-to-great defense in his absence, but neither will come close to replacing his bat.
While it seems likely Alou will be able to hit as long as he's able to walk, he will turn forty-two this season. Six months ago the Mets had three promising young outfielders in their system who might fill the impending holes in left and right field. Now Fernando Martinez is the last man standing. While he may have the bat to be a major league left fielder before too long, expecting him to be ready by 2009 is overly optimistic. He's still only nineteen and didn't exactly tear up AA Binghamton last year. The Mets may be in the market for a stopgap after this season, though I wouldn't bet against the best option being Alou himself.Center Field
Carlos Beltran didn't quite repeat his monster 2006, but he still had an excellent year, hitting .276/.353/.525 and winning his second, deserved Gold Glove. He was slowed at times by some minor injuries, which is becoming an annual tradition. But when he is completely healthy, he can be a dominant player and overall, there's no shame in playing second fiddle to David Wright. Beltran's $119 million contract runs through 2011 and right now, it doesn't seem like the Mets will regret a dollar of it.Right Field
The trade that sent Lastings Milledge to the Nationals in exchange for Ryan Church and Brian Schneider didn't make the 2008 Mets any better and it did make them older. But that doesn't mean that a full year of Church in right field won't be an improvement over what the Mets got in 2007 when Willie Randolph repeatedly chose Shawn Green over Milledge. Met right fielders hit just .273/.326/.398, well below the NL average of .275/.344/.442. Meanwhile, Church, in his first full major league season, hit .272/.349/.464 in one of the best pitcher's parks in the game. He should also be a defensive improvement over Green's statuesque performance. Church won't be an All-Star and the fact that he played his first full major league season at 28 doesn't bode well for his career longevity. But in 2008, he will be an asset.
The Mets' offense isn't without its holes and there isn't much help on the way from the minors. But they've got three great players in the primes of their careers with some decent supporting players alongside them. This team isn't going to lead the league in runs scored, but they should again be solidly in the top four or five. That could be plenty, given the Mets' pitching staff, who I will be back to discuss shortly.
Quick, someone wrap Pedro in bubblewrap
Things that happen in Spring Training tend to be pretty meaningless in the long run. Some no-name hitter getting hot for three weeks batting against other teams' minor league relievers isn't cause to run out and buy his jersey. Your team's ace getting knocked around while experimenting with a new pitch shouldn't lead you to sell your season tickets. Still, the first three weeks of baseball have gone pretty poorly for the Mets.
Six of the Mets' presumptive Opening Day starting nine have missed time due to injury and their theoretical second baseman and center fielder haven't set foot on the exhibition grass at all. Most of these injuries have been minor and will likely be forgotten by the time the team heads north. But for a squad as old as it is talented, it hasn't been an encouraging start. And the news has only gotten worse this week.
First there was the news that Orlando Hernandez has had to alter his windup, ditching his trademark high leg kick to alleviate pain in his right big toe. Right now he appears to be more than a few weeks away from being ready to start the season. It's no surprise that El Duque will miss some time this season and Plan B, Mike Pelfrey, has pitched well in his early starts. But this seems like the sort of problem that could linger and potentially derail Hernandez's whole season and beyond the unproven Pelfrey, the Mets don't have much of a backup plan for the fifth starter spot.
Then we learned today that Moises Alou will miss four to six weeks due to hernia surgery. Alou's injury is about as surprising as Duque's, but the Mets might be even more ill-prepared to replace the aged outfielder. His nominal backup is Endy Chavez who hasn't played an inning this spring. If he doesn't return, the task probably falls to Angel Pagan, who, awesome name and 12-for-28 spring aside, has a career .306 OBP. He's got enough speed and defensive ability to be a decent fifth outfielder, but starting him in left field for a few weeks would be less than ideal. Brady Clark would not be a whole lot better.
Then there's Carlos Delgado's bad hip. And Ryan Church's concussion. Maybe now is the time for Omar Minaya to stop putting off looking for some backups for his oldest and most fragile starters. At this point I'm just hoping Olmedo Saenz doesn't get the start at first base on March 31st.