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Even winter can't stop baseball's return

Mike SteffanosSunday, February 12, 2006
By Mike Steffanos

It's funny that there's a snowstorm raging outside of my window and yet a real warmth in my heart. Pitchers and catchers will be reporting to the Mets spring training complex in Port St. Lucie, Florida on Wednesday, with the first workouts beginning Thursday. Actually, there are players down there right now, including that perennial advertisement for the "right way to do it", David Wright. Baseball 2006 is finally right on top of us.

In the local dailies there are a ton of Mets stories, all looking ahead to what should be an intriguing baseball season. While the snow literally piles outside my window, I can almost smell the scents of leather, glove oil and freshly cut grass. Even though my outdoor thermometer tells me we're still on the wrong side of 20 degrees, I can feel a warm sun shining down, and that first trickle of sweat running between my shoulder blades as my muscles begin to loosen up.

I can feel all of these things because, though my body may be trapped here in Connecticut during this Nor'easter, my spirit is far, far away in a place where a sharply thrown baseball is making a solid "thwack" as is crashes into a glove...

Oh, well -- I'd better get out there and start shoveling before Lisa gives me a solid "thwack". Here's some highlights of the day's news:

Newsday: Starters needed, inquire within
David Lennon reports on the new reality of the Mets pitching staff, where what once seemed like a strength -- starting pitching -- is now a huge question mark after trading away Jae Seo and Kris Benson. Lennon quotes GM Omar Minaya on the open competition for the bottom 2 rotation slots:

I think it's going to be experimental. We owe it to some of the guys we're bringing in to have the chance to step up. So we're going to experiment and keep our eyes open to see what's going on in the marketplace.

It seems highly unlikely the Mets will be patient with anyone outside of Pedro and Glavine this spring. Aaron Heilman responded well to being under pressure last season, and that should serve him well. Of the rest, Victor Zambrano is going to have to step up from the get go -- if he shows the form that he did in June and July last year he should get a reasonable shot, if he flounders like he did early and late, I don't think he has a long leash in this season of high expectations.

Mets Inside Pitch (Subscription): Building from within
Bryan Hoch reports on David Wright, Jose Reyes, Aaron Heilman and Heath Bell -- players that came up through the Mets system that hope to be a part of a title drive in 2006. Hoch quotes Heath Bell on the attachment he feels for the Mets after spending 9 of his 28 years with the organization:

Trust me, I don't want to be anywhere else. There might be a better opportunity somewhere else, but I want to stay here and I want to show people I can win the job. I can help the team win in New York.

We're going to have a great team this year. I would really like to be a part of it.

Those of us that like the kid can only hope that he gets a fair shot this spring.

Palm Beach Post: The pressure is on
Tom D'Angelo tells us that the upgrades that Omar has made this spring have ratcheted up the pressure to live up to the hype. He quotes Cliff Floyd:

Every team in the East didn't get as good as we got. That can put pressure on us, but I think we have a team that won't allow that to happen.

It will be interesting to watch how this team responds to pressure early in the season. Most teams contending for a title have a number of years as a unit behind them, and have a track record to build on. The roster upheaval of this off-season has rendered a track record that is practically a blank slate.

Newark Star-Ledger: 10 questions
Don Burke also pens a long feature on the pressure of the expectations that weigh on the Mets, listing 10 key questions for the season, among them (my thoughts in parentheses):

Can Carlos Beltran take a deep breath and just relax? (Burke thinks that if Matsui is traded and Beltran starts slow, the boo-birds will focus their wrath on Beltran.)

There's quantity, but is there quality in the Mets bullpen?

Why is Victor Zambrano still here? (Burke also feels he will be on a very short lease.)

Is the pitching better or worse with Aaron Heilman in the rotation? (Even if Heilman manages to do well in the rotation, the team needs to find someone who get out lefties to take his place in the bullpen.)

With expectations raised, can Willie Randolph handle the heat? (No honeymoon this year for Willie.)

Daily News: 5 More Questions
Adam Rubin came up with half the questions, the one especially interesting was Who's batting second?

For all the chatter about Carlos Beltran being more suited for the No. 2 spot in the lineup, Randolph steadfastly maintained last season that Beltran will be a three-hole hitter during his Mets career. So, while it's true that Beltran has batted 17 points higher during his career in the No. 2 slot (.292, vs. .275 at No. 3), it seems more likely that catcher Paul Lo Duca will hit second behind Reyes. Lo Duca would be followed by Beltran, Carlos Delgado, Wright, Floyd, Xavier Nady and whoever plays second. One benefit: Lo Duca makes contact. He struck out only 31 times in '05. In fact, among active major leaguers with 3,000 career plate appearances, only ex-Marlins teammate Juan Pierre (211) has struck out fewer times than Lo Duca (213). That should benefit the Mets on hit-and-runs with the speedy Reyes atop the order. Beltran figures to have a better sophomore season with the Mets regardless of where he hits, now that he's experienced New York scrutiny and put a lingering quadriceps injury behind him.

I've written in the past that I'm not one that has a problem with keeping Beltran in the third slot. Here's what I had to say:

I know a lot of fans thought this was a mistake. I personally liked it. There was a lot of pressure on Willie to put Beltran into the 2 hole in the lineup to "take the pressure off him." Carlos was signed for big money, and will be under pressure for his whole stay in New York. Maybe it didn't pay off this year, but I think in the long run it will help Beltran to realistically adjust to what is expected of him. I thought leaving him in the 3 hole all year was Willie's way of sending a subtle message to Carlos that he will have to find a way to live up to expectations.

My thoughts haven't changed at all on that. I think Beltran has the capability of being a good number three hitter, he just has to grow into that role, playing in New York, and accepting the expectations caused by his contract.

Also in Daily News: Alay Soler
Christian Red pens a nice story on Cuban defector Alay Soler being reunited with his wife and child (who had had never seen) after two years.

New York Post: Zapping Victor
Mark Hale also reports on the questions and expectations faced by the Mets this season. The best one-liner of the morning goes to Hale:

Victor Zambrano is more inconsistent than Isiah Thomas' team strategy...


Newsday: The new stadium
John Heyman provides a little peak at the Mets new stadium in his column, citing Pittsburgh's PNC Park as an important inspiration.

Also in New York Post: Fives
Joel Sherman makes lists of five as we approach spring training. In Five Position Switches he lists Aaron Heilman returning to the rotation. Carlos Beltran is one of Five Guys Looking For A Do-Over, and Kaz Matsui is one of Five Players Who Might Be Dealt In Spring -- no shocker there.

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