By Mike Steffanos
Now that the first month of the season has passed, we're beginning to get a read on the 2006 New York Mets. With a 16-8 record and a 6-game lead over both the Braves and the Phillies, there's not much to quibble with. After getting off to a good start against the Nats, Marlins and Brewers, the Mets stumbled a little in dropping the last 2 games of the Braves series at Shea, and then went on the type of 10-game road trip that always seemed to bury them last year.
After splitting a 4-game series in San Diego and dropping the first game in San Francisco, things looked pretty dark. After an 11-2 start, the Mets had lost 5 of 7 and were not hitting anyone. The Mets rebounded with a couple of wins against the Giants, including the memorable finale in which they overcame Bonds' game-tying ninth inning pinch-hit home run. Then they waltz into Turner Field and take 2 of 3 from a Braves team that hasn't looked this vulnerable in over a decade. Despite yesterday's loss, the Mets finished a road trip that included a west coast swing and a series in the Ted at 6-4. I don't know about you, but I would have signed up for that at the start.
With Beltran back in the lineup you should be able to expect more consistency out of the offense, especially if Kaz Matsui can keep up his solid play at second base. He'll never make the plays that Anderson Hernandez made, but he can hit a little, and that's going to matter as the season wears on. I'll be curious to see what they do with Hernandez when he comes back -- I think he'd be better served by playing in Norfolk and working on a better approach at the plate. Of course, poor Kaz can make the whole point moot by getting hurt or reverting to poor play.
We spoke a lot in the off-season about Omar's big gamble with pitching. He traded away Jae Seo and Kris Benson for relief help. I don't think there's too many of us that would be willing to give Duaner Sanchez back to the Dodgers, but I'm not sure that we can say the same about the Benson - Julio trade. An overpaid mediocre starter would look pretty good right now pitching one of these next two nights. Meanwhile, the Jorge Julio project has made intriguing progress, but still looks like he's pitching in the home run derby at times.
Still, Omar risked his starting pitching depth for a deep bullpen, and at least that part of the gamble has paid off nicely. This is one of the top 'pens in baseball, and easily the best Mets bullpen ever. We know that Sanchez will eventually give up runs, but he's been awesome. Shields in Anaheim is one heck of a setup man, as is Linebrink in San Diego. The tandem of Sanchez and Heilman rank up there with anyone. It's a luxury for Willie Randolph to be able to have 2 guys with great stuff that can bring it for more than an inning.
Of course, the injury to Brian Bannister, combined with the ineffectiveness of Victor Zambrano, show the flip side of Omar's gamble. I really do wonder at times if the starting pitchers not named Pedro or Tom will turn over a lead to the bullpen often enough. I've been a supporter of Zambrano for a while, but my support is fading. He has to prove he's a dependable bottom of the rotation starter fairly soon, because the natives are getting restless. They don't want Victor to be this season's Kaz Ishii, and I can't blame them. Trachsel is Trachsel -- he'll give you some solid starts and some awful ones, but (hopefully) he'll give you the chance to win his games more often than not. Zambrano has to do that, too, or they need to close the books on Victor.
In the game Bannister was hurt, he rediscovered throwing strikes. He got hit a little, but it was a nice step for him. In a way this injury, which is thankfully minor, gives him a chance to step back for a moment and look at everything. I expect continued progress from him when he comes back.
In an odd sort of way, a key to this year's rotation might prove to be Jorge Julio. If he can become a reliable setup man, the Mets might be willing to give Aaron Heilman what he wants and make him a starter. If not, maybe Henry Owens, off to a great start in Binghamton, forces his way into the Mets bullpen. Maybe Heath Bell gets a real shot, but that seems extremely doubtful at this point -- the Mets just don't seem to believe in him. The thing to keep in mind is that it only takes one guy to step up and the need to keep Heilman in the 'pen goes away.
But for now, we'll watch John Maine's start tomorrow night with interest. He's the wildcard in the Benson - Julio deal, a prospect that the Mets really like, who has some issues with his mechanics and his secondary pitches, but has a chance to contribute something to this team. Meanwhile, Mike Pelfrey has aced his first test in Double-A, and keeps forcing the Mets to at least consider him as an option for this season.
Newark Star-Ledger: Willie Wants More
Don Burke quotes manager Willie Randolph on the team's hot start:
I don't change a thing. We have to keep our foot on the accelerator. I've always been greedy.
I don't think we've done anything, really. ...What have we done? We've played good for a month. If we play bad for two months, then we haven't done anything. And we're going to go through our downs. It's inevitable.
Bergen Record: Beltran's Hammy
In his notes column from today, Steve Popper offers this quote from Carlos Beltran after his first weekend back:
I'm getting better. I hope it will just be a few more days before I feel right. When I went to second I felt like I was pulling a truck. I still feel like I'm compensating.
Popper also cites manager Willie Randolph that the second base job is now Matsui's to lose:
That's the way it should be, Anderson [Hernandez] is just a rookie. Kaz is here right now and as long as we keep winning and he keeps playing well, he's going to continue to play.
A mild apology and a sincere thank you
I know that I'm getting spotty in the time I post lately. I've been having some issues with my health that have slowed me down some. Sorry for the inconsistency.
Thanks to Greg from Faith and Fear in Flushing for his kind words today. The above mentioned health problems have made the past couple of weeks a little rough, but a thumbs-up from someone who you really respect means something. (Greg, did you want that payment in cash or is a check okay?)