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Does it scare you that it's all about Willie?

Mike SteffanosThursday, February 9, 2006
By Mike Steffanos

As the Mets sit poised (and favored) to win the NL East, they have a lot of history to overcome. For the Mets to win it, they're going to have to shake off a decade-and-a-half of bad karma, and they're going to have to figure out how to win games in Atlanta. I don't care if they find a way to add Barry Zito, Albert Pujols and Jeff Kent to their roster; they'll still have to overcome their own past.

I know there are many that will question this, saying that a lot of the roster has been turned over, but if the past has taught us anything it is that strange things happen when players put on a Mets uniform. This team has achieved success very seldom in the last 15 years, with a cumulative record of 1147-1214 (.485 win%), finishing over .500 only 6 times, including last year. They have lost over 90 games 5 times, and won more than 90 only twice. I'm not trying to depress you with these numbers, but to make a point -- it's hard to shake an established organizational history of failure.

When Omar hired Willie Randolph as manager, one of the things that he hoped for was that he had someone running the ship who was immune to the losing mentality that had permeated the franchise. For all of Willie's lack of skills in managing the bullpen, for all of his maddening stubbornness in staying with players that he shouldn't, Willie thinks like a winner. He expects to win, and he expects his players to succeed. In the long run, that will make a huge difference.

Willie has a lot to learn as a manager, but that almost weird confidence that he possesses can not be learned -- you have it or you don't, and you can't fake it. You can obsess about his failings if you wish, but I tend to fixate on the way he kept his team playing last year when previous Met teams -- including the one from the year before -- had completely collapsed in the same situation.

Davey Johnson was hardly a great manager, but he managed to win. He made a lot of strange moves, but he came across as a winner. In a way, Randolph reminds me a lot of Johnson. So, although I do feel that Willie must learn from his failings last season, I'm not quite as worried about him as many Met fans seem to be.

MLB.com: Can this be the year?
At MLB.com, Jim Molony looks at the NL East and picks the Braves Mets to win it. Braves fans are thinking, "yeah, yeah -- we've heard this before", but Molony offers some solid reasoning:

Atlanta's winning percentage has steadily declined each of the past four seasons. The Braves begin 2006 with uncertainty in the bullpen and no proven closer, unproven commodities in at least four starting positions (catcher, first base, corner outfielders) -- and that's assuming Edgar Renteria's contributions will negate the loss of shortstop Rafael Furcal. Throw in pitching coach Leo Mazzone's departure and this is the biggest overhaul the Braves have undergone in the course of one winter since Bobby Cox arrived in town. The Braves have more questions going in than they've had in at least a decade.

As good as the Braves have been since moving into the NL East, their run of success has as much to do with the almost shocking ineptitude of the management 0f the rest of the division. The Mets and the Phillies could write a book on underachieving. As for the Nats/Expos, they have an excuse. In the Braves' first NL East campaign in 1994, the Expos were actually 6 games up on the Braves when the strike killed the season in August. Then the strike killed the Expos.

In any case, here's why Molony thinks this might be the Mets' year:

New York's winning percentage has increased each of the last three years and the Mets' 83 wins last season were the most since 2000, the last time the Mets were in the playoffs.

The Mets' biggest problem in 2005 -- the back of the bullpen -- should be a strength this time around with the arrival of Billy Wagner. Wagner succeeds Braden Looper at closer. Looper was tagged with seven losses and eight blown saves. Not all Looper's fault of course, but do the math. If those numbers had been halved, the Mets, who finished seven games behind Atlanta, would have made the playoffs last year.

Wagner, Duaner Sanchez and Jorge Julio strengthen a staff that finished third in the league in ERA last year. The Mets must replace Kris Benson's 28 starts and Jae Seo's contributions but that shouldn't be a problem with arms like Aaron Heilman on hand.

Offensively, the Mets made significant upgrades, adding lefty slugger Carlos Delgado (.301, 33 HR, 115 RBIs) and catcher Paul Lo Duca (.283) to a lineup that already included Carlos Beltran, Cliff Floyd and budding superstar David Wright.

Other than 1986, the Mets have never done all that well as the favorite to win going into the season. It will be interesting to see what Willie Randolph and Omar Minaya can do to change that.

South Bend Tribune: Aaron Heilman
Eric Hansen reports from the home of the fighting Irish (for those that don't know, Heilman was a first round pick out of Notre Dame) on the "pivotal spring" AH faces. He quotes Paul Mainieri, Heilman's coach at Notre Dame:

He was the most unselfish kid on our baseball team. And yet he was the greatest pitcher who ever wore a Notre Dame uniform.

You don't get many chances in the major leagues, so you have to be ready to take advantage. He knows this is a pivotal time in his career, but I believe he's going to grab the bull by the horns. And more importantly, Aaron believes that too.

Last year, Aaron proved he is a bona fide major-league pitcher. This year he needs to prove he's a bona fide starting pitcher. If he does, it's going to lay the groundwork for him to be in the major leagues the next 10 years.

If Heilman enjoys success as a starter -- say 12 wins and a decent ERA -- it could go a lot towards silencing the critics of the Jae Seo and Kris Benson trades. Hansen has an interesting quote from Heilman concerning changes he might make to succeed as a starter:

I really don't feel like I need to change my style of pitching or add another pitch. As long as I hit my spots and change my speeds, I'll be all right -- and just remembering what got me here.

Interesting, because most experts seem to feel that Heilman will need more than a fastball and changeup to succeed. He does have a slider that he doesn't throw very often -- of course, he was in the bullpen for most of last year. He's right about hitting his spots, though. When he was bad at times last year, it was due to an inability to control his fastball -- both in excessive walks and in missing his spot and leaving his fastball in locations that favored the hitter. If he can locate better, he just needs to work in enough sliders to keep hitters from sitting on his fastball and changeup.

ESPN: David Wright
Phil Rogers list his choices of who might be "the next Derrek Lee" -- a hitter poised to take his game to the next level. Rogers picks David Wright as one possibility, offering the following:

A first-round pick in the 2001 draft, Wright advanced steadily through the Mets' system before arriving with a bullet in 2004. He hit .293 with 14 homers and an .857 OPS in 263 at-bats. Had this been a fluke, he would have immediately declined in 2005, but he was even more productive as he settled into the league, batting .306 with 27 home runs (in a tough place to hit homers) and a .912 OPS.

Scouts love the way the right-handed hitting Wright works pitchers and extends at-bats. His plate discipline improved markedly in 2005, when his ratio of strikeouts to walks dropped from almost 3-1 to about 1.5-1.

Most of Wright's at-bats came in the fifth spot last season, but his totals could explode if manager Willie Randolph opts to hit him third and use Delgado as protection. He could hit 30-plus home runs and drive in 120.

Getting Paid to Watch: Bobby O
Bob Sikes, former assistant trainer of the 1986 Mets, profiles Bobby Ojeda in his blog, sharing Ojeda's willingness to pitch through pain to help his team win.

SI: The Nationals' lease
The District of Columbia Council came through by approving a revised lease for the Nats' new ballpark -- but MLB isn't quite ready to embrace it. This whole Expos/Nats soap opera has been a fiasco since MLB took over the Expos. Find the team a real owner before you embarrass yourself and baseball further, Mr. Selig.

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