By Dave Mills
I have not posted here for quite some time, not for lack of wanting to, but simply for lack of time. However, our intrepid publisher, Mike Steffanos, deserves kudos for the extraordinary effort he puts forth to entertain and inform his visitors on a daily basis through the longest season in any team sport.
Major League Baseball is a grueling marathon, not just for players and coaches, but the media as well. To post a blog the width and breadth of MikesMets.com is a feat of no small proportion. To keep it on the high level that Mike does, with interesting, well-written content and superb insights into this game we so love, is a laudable achievement. And the achievement is even more commendable because Mike keeps it clean and does not bash anyone.
No matter the disappointing outcome of the 2007 season, Mike Steffanos made it better and more fascinating for all of us who enjoy coming here everyday. For his work as a superb baseball writer, editor, publisher and confidant, I tip my cap for all of us and say great work Mike. Please keep it up.
'Twas a long season to be sure, with an ending that was disappointing to say the least. Much can be written and discussed and will be for some time.
In these moments we search for scapegoats rather than answers. Baseball fans love to point the finger and say this one or that one is to blame. Mets fans are as good at this finger pointing as any fans around. When a collapse, like the painful one we just witnessed, is truly analyzed, there are no real culprits. In fact, this collapse was cumulative. Circumstances outweighed personal or even personnel failures.
This demise actually began with the injury to Duaner Sanchez at the end of July 2006. It was an off-field accident that has proved particularly painful to the NY Mets. With that injury, a series of events took place that I believe set the course for what just took place.
Keeping in mind that fault can be spread throughout the organization, allow me the argument that the most obvious scapegoat for the collapse was the entire Mets bullpen and those who put it together.
When Sanchez went down, for what has now become an interminable time, Omar Minaya went right out and dealt. He reacquired right-hander Roberto Hernandez, who could eat up some of Sanchez' innings, and he craftily got Oliver Perez, who has been a vital acquisition. In return, he gave up Xavier Nady, who has blossomed in Pittsburgh in exactly the way Minaya had hoped when he brought him to the Mets. The undertones of that deal have been both good and bad for the Mets.
In 2006, the loss of Sanchez and Nady proved to be their undoing, as they came up one game short of the World Series in spite of fine postseason outings for Perez. A consequence of bringing in Hernandez was that not he, nor anyone else, could have really replaced the quality appearances the team was getting from Sanchez, who was about as brilliant for four months as any Mets reliever had ever been.
Even more costly for the Mets was that Bert Hernandez displaced innings from Heath Bell, who DID show promise and a live arm. Had Bell been used more, and taken advantage of the opportunity, as he did the very next season with the Padres, he would likely not have been traded in one of Omar's worst deals. Would Health Bell have been able to help the Mets in 2007? Absolutely.
The Sanchez injury had an even more profound effect, as it took well-defined roles away from virtually all of the relievers and began what I call the "out-of-sorting" of the bullpen. Heilman became THE man for the 8th inning, a role he filled admirably. Not quite as well as Sanchez, but better than most Mets fans are willing to concede. But who was left for those critical 6th and 7th inning holds?
In the closing two months of 2006, none of this really mattered. The Mets were so comfortably ensconced and unchallenged at the top of their division (and the NL) that these seemingly minor deficiencies were under-the-radar. But 2007 was a different story. Early in the season, it was apparent that Innings 6-8 were critical, in that Randolph and Peterson were clearly trying to come up with the best combination. Joe Smith, who like Jose Feliciano from the left side, was clearly best suited as a right-handed specialist, became a co-sharer, with Feliciano, of the 6th and 7th inning setups to Heilman. They even saw time in the 8th inning role.
While Smith and Feliciano were brilliant for the first two months of the season, the increased workload proved to be Smith's undoing and just as surely decreased Feliciano's effectiveness in the second half. As Smith and Feliciano moved from what should have been pitching to one or two batters to facing three or several more batters, their deliveries and repertoires became exposed and more familiar to the league.
The ineffectiveness of Scott Schoeneweis, another specialist, as well as Burgos, Mota and Sele, plagued the Mets all season. For a short time, Jorge Sosa really stepped up to be a powerful righty out of the pen, but like his fizzle as a starter (due to being a two-pitch hurler), such was the case in September as a member of the pen.
Aaron Heilman, while effective much more than he was ineffective, also seemed to be more of a loose cannon in that 8th inning role giving up several long flies that cost games.
Normally, the aggressive Minaya would have sought to rectify the quixotic bullpen situation by July 31, but the Mets were in first place with an offense that had sputtered for two months and living off the remarkable efforts being put forth by all of their starters and Billy Wagner. Minaya and the Mets brain trust, like the rest of us, may have been fooled by the mindset brought about by simply being in first place.
Willie Randolph claims to work with the roster he is given. And since Whitey Herzog called it a career, that seems to be the case for managers all around The Show. If he asked for bullpen replenishment, as far as I am concerned, he is off the hook. If he did not, he shares some of the blame. And even though Willie made tactical errors on occasion, neither he nor Rick Peterson ever took the mound, played the field or took an at-bat.
Injuries have a habit of gnawing at the fabric of a team. In addition to the 2006 injuries to Sanchez and Pedro Martinez, the 2007 injuries to Moises Alou (who was brilliant at the plate and competent in the OF--when he played) and Jose Valentin, saw two powerful team leaders virtually taken off the roster and out of the clubhouse. The ankle injury to Damion Easley was also unfortunate and only slightly mitigated by the reappearance of Marlon Anderson, whose left-handed bat and lack of defensive prowess did not exactly supplant Easley. Conine was a good pickup, but far less versatile than Easley. Perhaps the key injury for the Mets offense was to Endy Chavez, whose overall versatility as a fourth outfielder is almost unprecedented in the major leagues.
Which brings us to the somewhat streaky starting lineup. David Wright has a magical season perhaps only impacted by a failure to complete a force play. Carlos Beltran was Carlos Beltran--very good defense, excellellent RBI and run production and actually proving he has the ability to play effectively with nagging injuries. Moises Alou could not have delivered more WHEN he played.
The areas of concern were 1B, 2B, RF, behind the dish and the not-so-amazing meltdown of Jose Reyes late during the last two months of the season, as he went from MVP candidate to perhaps the only Met regular to whom a finger could be aimed in the direction of.
More in the next installment.