By Mike Steffanos
As I mentioned Thursday, I think there are too many variables in place to make any effort to predict what might happen this season a crapshoot. I can see this team anywhere from around .500 to well into the 90s in wins.
I don't have a really solid read on several key players right now, but I think it's pretty clear where the keys to the 2009 season lie:
Jerry Manuel: The honeymoon is over. Jerry got a lot of breaks from the players, fans and even the media which covers this team simply because he wasn't Willie Randolph -- in the same way that Willie benefited for a while from his contrast to Art Howe.
Jerry also got some breaks from everyone because we all understood how bad of a hand he was dealt with that bullpen. In a way, I think that provided some cover to how badly he played said hand. Everyone was worn out in mid-September, which magnified the limited talent available. Better bullpen use will be crucial to the team's success and Jerry's long-term employment hopes.
I liked some of the areas of emphasis this spring, and respect Manuel for playing the political game in a way that Willie Randolph never did. I like the way Manuel will challenge a player but also support him. I hope he succeeds. But we all know how fast everyone will turn on him if this team struggles out of the gate.
Mike Pelfrey: Saying the Mets need Santana to have a good year would be stating the obvious. The Mets also need someone to step up in the way Pelfrey did midway through last season and give them another starter they could depend on -- particularly since it looks like both Perez and Maine might get off to slow starts in 2009.
I understand Pelfrey looks like a candidate for some regression to the numbers crunchers, and that's certainly a possibility. Personally, I think that as long as he continues to throw strikes aggressively he'll be fine. The real question will be if he can take a step up with his secondary pitches and become a legitimate number two in the rotation.
Fast fact: After averaging only 5.6 IP per start in April and May, Pelf averaged 6.1, 6.7 and 7.2 innings in June, July and August -- a true bullpen saver. Even when he showed signs of tiring in September, he still averaged 6.2.
John Maine/Oliver Perez: It would be lovely if Maine returned to his solid 2007 form and Ollie Perez pitches a whole season like he did after Dan Warthen took over as pitching coach. Hell, if both of them pitch well I can see this team with 95+ wins, all else being equal.
Still, looking at it more realistically, if the Mets don't get a solid season from one of these two we could be looking at a lost season. You can get by with three solid pitchers, but having only two would ensure over-usage of the bullpen and losing too many slugfests.
Fast fact (Maine): John contributed 191 innings in 32 starts to the cause in 2007.
Fast fact (Perez): Ollie totaled 194 innings in 34 starts last season, including a stretch of 13 straight games from June 29 - September 3 where he lasted 6 innings or more.
Sean Green/Bobby Parnell: It's a given that Frankie Rodriguez and J. J. Putz must produce this year, but it's also very important that someone else steps up to be a dependable seventh inning contributor.
Green is an interesting arm -- a sidearm pitcher who throws from a higher slot than Joe Smith did, the Mets seem to think he will hang in enough against lefties to allow them to stay with him if, say, there is another right-hander due up next.
Parnell has a great arm and is seen as guy who can get out righties and lefties in a role similar to what was envisioned for the departed Duaner Sanchez. He's young, inexperienced and sometimes loses command, but he pitched in key games last September and never looked intimidated.
Fast fact (Green): Although 30 years old, Green was somewhat of a late bloomer, not getting his first taste of the majors until he was 27.
Fast fact (Parnell): Take a look at Parnell's numbers in the minors and 3 years at Charleston Southern University and you probably won't be impressed. Fact is, though, that he didn't pitch at all in high school and has been a work in progress at both the collegiate and pro levels.
Ramon Castro: Jerry Manual has talked about using number one catcher Brian Schneider almost every day and using Castro as a traditional once or twice a week backup. This is understandable to an extent, as Castro has only managed to surpass 54 games and 200 AB once in his entire 10-year MLB career, and that was back in 2005 in his first year in New York.
Still, Schneider is essentially an automatic out vs. lefties -- .239/.310/.318. If the Mets were facing a leftie and Livan Hernandez was pitching, Livan's lifetime slugging percentage vs. LHP (.332) might make batting the pitcher eighth the smart play.
Castro can be streaky, but there is no doubt that the Mets offense vs. left-handed starters is more formidable with Castro. If I was Manual, I would start Castro as often as possible against southpaws, at least until he makes his inevitable trip to the DL.
If Castro could somehow give the Mets the 240 AB he did in 2005, they would be a better team. I wouldn't bet the farm on it, though.
Fast fact (Both): Schneider and Castro both were drafted out of high school. Schneider was a fifth round pick of the Montreal Expos in 1995, while Castro was a first rounder (#17 overall) in 1994.
Check back for Part 2 later tonight.