By Dave Mills
The midseason travails of the NY Mets continues to be both a conundrum and a disappointment to the team, its management and its fans. However, the "less-than-Amazin's" remain reasonably well ensconced in first place due to far more inconsistent and lackluster play by the Braves and the Phillies. Those teams do not appear to have what it takes to really challenge the Mets if NY can heal and prosper.
Are the Mets as good as last year? No way. While the starting pitching is better and deeper, the bullpen misses the Duaner Sanchez, who was arguably the best setup man in baseball for the first four months of 2006. This team has also sorely missed the oft injured Moises Alou, even more than they missed Xavier Nady during the last two months and postseason of 2006. Most would have to agree that Oliver Perez for Nady was a worthwhile exchange of talent and the Mets were rolling at the time the deal was accomplished. Alou's absence exposed the middle of the lineup and forced radical changes and lots of tampering by Willie.
The centerpieces of the Mets infield--Reyes and Wright--have performed admirably, while the third cog in the offensive wheel, Carlos Beltran, is crippling the Mets at the plate. To his credit, he may be playing at less than 100% and is delivering sparkling defense, but it is fair to say that as Carlos Beltran goes, so goes the Mets offense. The statistics, which I will NOT recite here, bear this out, but his plate discipline, or lack thereof, is painful to watch. And when you are making $17 million per-season, the expectations of the paying customers may be difficult to meet, no less exceed.
A fascinating glimpse into the inner-workings of the front office is the quietude being exhibited by the normally frenetic Omar Minaya.
Clearly, and probably wisely, the Mets GM is not rushing to deal off prospects for aging veterans or questionable quick fixes. Likely, he is burning up the phone lines looking for role players who can improve the team. He continues to make the little deals that have served he and the Mets well for the past three seasons. A lefty utilityman like Marlin Anderson juxtaposed with a righty counterpart like Damon Easley is a typical Minaya scenario.
Releasing Julio Franco (albeit overdue) and perhaps bringing in a Jeff Conine, a cagey veteran with decent glove and some right-handed power and plate smarts, is another maneuver that could occur with a minimal transfer of prospects.
The outfield will likely be left to the assembled talent and settle in as Alou and then Chavez and Gomez return from their tears and breaks. While not a pretty picture at the moment, the homestretch could find Alou/Chavez in left and Green/Milledge in right with Gomez and a few other prospects seeing a little playing time. A blockbuster outfield deal will be an off-season development, especially since Easley, Anderson and Conine (if they get him) could see some time at the corners. Conine would give the Mets a number of options, including spelling Delgado or Green against tough southpaws. He would also give the Mets three right-handed bench players with pop. Granted, Conine is 41 and would offer the Mets no more than the balance of this season and perhaps next as a backup to Delgado during his final season as a Met.
The most painful of recent revelations is that the Mets have significant enough depth at 2B to release Jose Valentin. Again, with the versatile Easley and Anderson in the picture, it is time to give Ruben Gotay the second sacker role and the two spot in the batting order. Gotay has the skills and the energy to play almost every day, especially against right-handed pitching. Valentin was outstanding last season and is still the best defensive option, but Gotay has shown keen baseball instincts, youthful exuberance and serious talent.
In addition to the underperforming Carlos' and the injury hampered Valentin, Paul LoDuca is not driving in runs and getting on base at anything near the rate of last season. At the same time, his little used and extremely productive backup, Ramon Castro, appears to be the real deal and ready to assume a much heartier role. And keeping a roster spot for a third catcher just to give Castro a few more pinch hitting appearances is not really too creative.
Which brings us to the pitching...
Right now, every Mets starter is performing effectively. It is worth noting that Pedro Martinez may be ready to join the big club within a month. If so, they will find a place for him, which may end up being the 8th Inning setup man if Omar doesn't make a deal before the deadline. The best targets right now could be Eric Gagne, Akinori Otsuka, Octavio Dotel or Brad Lidge.
The Mets are staying in the drivers seat with fine starting pitching, excellent defense, speed and a good, but not great, bullpen. Yet, it is imperative that his team find some level of consistency. It has to win series and it has to score runs. Creatively shaking up the roster by bringing in Marlon Anderson and/or a Jeff Conine, handing the 2B job to Ruben Gotay and increasing the playing time of a valued performer like Ramon Castro is far more meaningful than canning a hitting coach. And if we hold on to Milledge, Gomez, Pelfrey, Humber and Mulvey, it is just fine with this Mets fan!