By Mike Steffanos
Last week I previewed the other teams in the National League Eastern Division, primarily concentrating on the pitching staffs. I thought it was important to take note of the fact that all of these teams, including the mighty Phillies, have some huge question marks heading into the 2007 campaign. While I certainly see the division as extremely competitive this season, I'm not as down on the Mets chances as some seem to be.
For instance, a good friend of mine who introduced me to statistical analysis a while back is quite pessimistic about the upcoming season. Apparently Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA forecasting system foresees drop-offs in both the Mets offensive and bullpen performance compared to last year. Since starting pitching is decidedly not a strength of this team, that certainly could make for a disappointing campaign for the Flushing nine in 2007. I've made some strides in understanding and appreciating statistical analysis these last few years after spending most of my career of baseball fandom as an unrepentant dinosaur, but I'm not buying into this one. While I concede that Jose Valentin, Endy Chavez and perhaps Carlos Beltran will perform closer to their career averages, I think it's likely that others will step forward and have big years. That's what happens on good teams. My friend's cherished PECOTA might be accurate when all is said and done, but I don't see it with the same aura of inevitability that he does.
Besides, what do you think projection systems like PECOTA would have spit out last season if you factored in only 23 starts from Pedro and figured in 20 starts from Orlando Hernandez, 15 from John Maine, 8 from Alay Soler, 7 from Oliver Perez, 6 from Brian Bannister, 5 from Dave Williams, 4 each from Jose Lima and Mike Pelfrey and 3 from Geremi Gonzalez?
I've read other, more conventional, baseball analysis that looks at every negative about the Mets -- particularly the age of some key players and questions about the starters -- and accepts the darkest possible outcomes for the Mets while glossing over potential pitfalls for the other NL east clubs. Yet the Philadelphia bullpen is a huge question mark -- magnified if one or more of their starters gets hurt. Atlanta's hopes ride on the health of several key contributors, as they lack any real depth. The Marlins are very talented, but they're also quite young and have more questions about their bullpen than the Phillies.
This isn't to gloss over the Mets problems, which could indeed derail their hopes this season, but it's hardly as hopeless as some would have you believe. The Mets pitching is in a state of flux, but they're lucky enough to have some young, talented guys in the mix for spots. Where there is uncertainty there is also opportunity, and jobs could be nailed down not just for this season but also for the next few years.
Other than the Nationals, I could make a case for any of the other teams to win the division. I could also make a worst-case scenario for any of the four, including the Mets, to finish fourth. If the Phillies can stay healthy and find a bullpen, they could win. If the Braves get everything to fall their way, they potentially have the most balanced pitching in the division. If the Marlins could keep all of their young starters healthy, they could run away with things. The one thing that I notice, however, looking at all of the others, is that all have some big weakness and very little depth. If the Phillies lose a couple of starters for any length of time, they don't have the bullpen to compensate. The Braves have no real depth at all, and Chipper's foot problems are chronic. The Marlins have no bullpen at all right now, and a couple of starting pitchers experienced problems before spring training even started.
For the Mets, the two biggest stumbling blocks are having a lot of older players that they're depending on and the unsettled starting rotation. I read a lot about the club every day, but I've gotten away from all of negative stuff. It's not that I can't accept bad news about the team I root for; it's just that enough is enough. I get the fact that the Mets are leaning on some old players while they're waiting for the young talent in the organization to develop. I get it that there is uncertainty surrounding the rotation. I don't need to be hammered with it every other item that I read.
When it comes to sports, perception often seems to trump reality. Last year many pundits picked the Braves to win the NL East, ignoring the obvious fact that the Braves had done nothing to address an extremely weak bullpen. The attitude was, "they're the Braves; they'll figure it out." The perception was that the Braves were a winning organization that would find a way to overcome their deficiencies. Meanwhile, the Mets had (rightfully) earned the reputation as an organization that would, more often than not, find a way to screw things up. Over the past couple of years, the Mets have given every indication that things have changed, but the pundits still view them through the old perception. They tend to give more weight to potential obstacles that stand in the way of Mets success.
Meanwhile, the Phillies seem to have received a pass on their own history, their lack of a sound bullpen and the reality that a couple of injuries to starting pitchers could derail their train very easily. Also, their starting rotation, while hugely improved, hardly rivals the 1971 Orioles. And by the way, could local Philadelphia newspaper writers please stop their pathetic fiction that all the talk is getting to the Mets? I know that kind of cheap bravado plays well in Philly, but all we hear out of Mets camp is how little reaction the press is able to get out of this "story".
The Mets starting pitching actually looks better to me than last year, despite the uncertainty surrounding Pedro's return. In case the pundits have forgotten, Martinez only contributed 9 wins in 2006. The difference this season is that the Phillies and Braves are much improved, while the Marlins won't have to overcome a 16-33 start as they did last year. I expect the NL East to be a dogfight all season long, and that's how it should be. I don't think there are going to be many games separating the top 3 teams in the east in 2007, but I think the advantage the Mets enjoy in depth over their competition will carry them through. Here is my projected order of finish: