By Mike Steffanos
I guess it's safe to say that not every surprise has been a pleasant one for Mets fans this year. Carlos Delgado's inability to keep his batting average above .230, lingering struggles for key members of the bullpen, and a prolonged June nose-dive have been some of the early low-lights for this club. However, there has been compensation in the form of very nice surprises, too.
I'm sorry that I can't cite the exact source of this, but I read a while back that one of the biggest jokes among baseball people this past winter was to say, "we don't need [insert name of big free agent pitcher here], we have John Maine." The reference, of course, was the insistence of team officials that they had confidence that Maine (and Oliver Perez) would mitigate against the need to purchase an overpriced starter from the superheated pitching market. Many in the baseball press and in the front offices of other teams scoffed at the thought. Indeed, it seems as if I spent the whole winter reading one snarky piece after another ridiculing the club's decision.
Some of these people were honest enough to eat their words, but many were not. A quick look at the stats of Maine, Perez and some of the pitchers the Mets were pressured to sign or trade for show that the numbers speak eloquently for themselves:
One reason I choose to make this point now is that I have been reading quite a bit of criticism in the local press of the moves Omar Minaya made this winter. While it certainly is legitimate to criticize the fact that both the trades with the Marlins and Padres look unfavorable at this point, and that both Moises Alou and Orlando Hernandez have spent time on the DL, I have yet to read one of these writers criticizing Minaya bother to point out the fact that the Mets have so far come out far ahead by placing their faith in Maine and Perez rather than chasing any of the above. To my mind, by far the biggest "win" of the off-season for the Mets is this much-criticized decision.
For me, I'd like to think the jury is still out on the Marlins trade, with Jason Vargas at least showing promise of being a decent mid to bottom of the rotation major league starter. Henry Owens has done well, but is out now with a shoulder injury, and Matt Lindstrom has been inconsistent. If Vargas pans out, it's hard to see this one being worse than a push. The Heath Bell and Royce Ring for Ben Johnson deal seems less likely to turn out well, but that's how it goes. No one wins them all. But while criticism of a GM's deals is fair, conveniently leaving out bad deals not made is not.
Those of us Mets fans who liked the decision to go with Maine and Perez this winter -- and there have been many on this site -- have been rewarded in the first 3 months of this season with the privilege of watching the development of two very good young starters. Fans in San Francisco have had the thrill of watching the lefty whom the team opened the vault for pitch like a mid-rotation plodder. His numbers are below those of Maine and Perez in every category above. When I give Omar the responsibility for the failure of some of his moves to pan out, I give him a ton of credit for believing in what he had in these 2 young pitchers. They were literally laughing at the Mets this winter for that. Not any more.
By the way, for what it's worth I think that both pitchers are only scratching the surface of what they will be. Perez in particular can be inconsistent, but when you look at that in the context of how far he has come in such a short period of time, it's obvious to me that he hasn't come close to his ceiling as a pitcher. While some are still skeptical of his long-term performance, I'm not. If he could stay healthy -- and I realize that this always a big "if" with pitchers -- I think he could be a top of the rotation starter for a few years.
As for Maine, those who are already inclined to give up on Mike Pelfrey and/or Philip Humber would do well to remember that not every pitcher enjoys immediate success in the majors. Maine's numbers in his first go-round with the Orioles weren't any better than Pelfrey's this season. For every Verlander who makes an immediate splash there are other pitchers who take time to find themselves and settle in to a major league career. I would say John Maine has done that very nicely given another chance.
At some point down the road, if they continue to pitch well, both Maine and Perez are looking at nice paydays. The difference here between paying them and paying a pitcher that we sign as a free agent or trade for is that we will already know they can pitch in New York. No danger of Kenny Rogers syndrome. Moreover, both Maine and Perez are establishing that they each in their own way thrive under the spotlight and pressure that is New York baseball.
One further point about Omar's winter. Minaya is taking heat for Moises Alou missing so much time after being the big offensive signing of the winter. Part of the reason a 41-year-old was signed to a 1-year deal rather than a younger outfielder is currently on display with the Mets. Carlos Gomez is proving how close he is to being ready to hold down one of the corner outfield spots for the next few years. With Lastings Milledge and Fernando Martinez also knocking on the doors of the major leagues, it didn't make sense to tie up a lot of money and years in an outfielder.
If Alou makes it back and balances the lineup through a stretch and playoff run, that signing will look a lot better. A bigger question for me for next season is whether Carlos Delgado can retain enough skills to hold down a middle of the order spot for another year. If Alou and Shawn Green are gone, that would leave David Wright, Carlos Beltran and Delgado as 3-4-5 in the order. Even if Green stays another year he's a 6- or 7-hole hitter now. The Mets might need to do something stop-gap for next year, too, as I doubt that Milledge or Gomez would step into a heart of the lineup role.
Despite complaints about how old the team is this year, they're actually nicely balanced between veterans and rising stars. I don't think Omar Minaya has earned High Honors for this past winter, but the failing grade that some are giving him is unjustified.