By Mike Steffanos
I understand that the team has a lot of question marks going into this season, but I can't help but feel more optimistic this year. I'm sure the revamped bullpen plays a part in this, but that's not the only reason.
Although I defended him for quite a while, I came around to the idea of firing Willie Randolph before the Mets actually got there. Willie had completely lost that team and the fans. He let his relationship with the New York media -- admittedly obnoxious themselves at time -- sour to the point that it got in the way of managing the team.
The whole Randolph situation put a cloud over the team right from spring training until the day he was fired. Just having that cloud gone right from the get-go is probably worth 5 wins this season. Jerry Manuel is no managerial genius, but he understands how important it is to keep the players and the press on his side.
Another reason for optimism, I think, is the departure of another coach I defended in this space. I do think Rick Peterson was unfairly maligned at times just because he's a little weird, but when you listen to some of the pitchers talk, you understand it was time for Peterson to go.
A good coach understands that being a good salesman is just as important as being a good technician. If the player you're working with buys into what you're trying to get him to do, you'll probably succeed. If he doesn't, you'll almost undoubtedly fail.
Apparently Peterson became somewhat of a dictator to the young pitchers on the staff to the point there was obviously some resentment. You only have to listen to them speak glowingly of Warthen's willingness to listen to them to understand the contrast. Things like where Ollie Perez stood on the rubber and what off-speed pitch Mike Pelfrey through apparently became non-negotiable with the former pitching coach, and that's precisely why he became the former coach. It was time for him to go.
The Mets also did a good job this winter of turning over a significant portion of the team. While there are plenty of questions, I like what they've done. They've given themselves a chance to win this year, and now it's up to the players.
Here are some of the things that I'll be looking at this spring and into the season:
John Maine: I do think this is a huge year for John Maine. More than just staying healthy, he has to prove that he is more than just a 5 inning pitcher with occasional flashes of brilliance. If he can't accomplish that this season, the Mets might have to decide whether he is better suited for the bullpen.
Luis Castillo: No surprise here, but I do think if he is in shape and can survive the anger of a percentage of the fan base, Castillo can actually be a positive on this team. He's a patient hitter who knows how to get on base, and if he can avoid the excess passivity he fell into last year he can help this lineup.
Duaner Sanchez: I thought it was a mistake last year when Sanchez broke camp with the Mets. He wasn't at 100%, and I thought they would have done better to let him build up strength for a month and then call him up. In any case, a Sanchez that resembles the 2006 version would be an invaluable bridge to the late inning tandem.
I'll be watching to see if Sanchez can get back above 90 consistently on the fastball. The great changeup is still there, but it's diminished without the good fastball to set it up.
The corners: There is a good percentage of the Mets fan base and blogosphere that seems pretty convinced that the corner OF will be a weakness this season. They don't believe Murphy and Tatis will come close to their production last season and they don't buy into Church's strong pre-concussions start. I'm more optimistic, but I can't pretend that I have any surety about Murphy in particular.
If Murphy develops into the player that Manuel and the front office seem to think he is and Church can rediscover that solid approach that made him so dangerous in April and May last year, that would ease a lot of doubts. Throw in an effective season from Carlos Delgado and you'd have a potent offense.
I'm looking forward to seeing what happens with the group they've assembled this year. I suspect that 2009 will be more fun than the last two seasons, but there are no guarantees. I do like this team, though, and that makes them easy to root for. I'm looking forward to the start of spring games and a chance to start to figure out what we have here this season. In a real sense, there are no conclusions to be drawn until we have some sort of clue with this club really is.