By Mike Steffanos
Going into this winter I thought that the Mets had too many question marks to consider themselves a player or two away from being legit contenders, particularly with the Phillies and Braves looking solid.
There were some pundits and fans who thought the Mets could obtain a pitcher and a power bat and be solid contenders for 2010. Others, such as ESPN.com's Jayson Stark, felt like the Mets had to tear it all down and start over.
Personally, I thought a realistic approach for the Mets to take going into this winter would be a 2-year plan to regain contending status. They could have used 2010 as a year get some answers to those questions and while allowing some of their young players another year to mature. I do think there were a significant amount of questions which I will summarize below.
Question Marks for 2010
The rotation from one to five is nothing but questions: Can Santana bounce back? Can Mike Pelfrey finally put it all together? Is John Maine the promising mid-rotation starter we saw in 2007 or are chronic shoulder issues going to derail him? Can you count on Oliver Perez? Who is the fifth starter?
Which K-Rod will we see in 2010 -- the dominating pitcher of the first half or the post-All Star break arsonist? Who will set him up?
Can Daniel Murphy hit enough to justify a position traditionally reserved for power hitters? Can Luis Castillo milk another year from those gimpy knees? Can Jose bounce back and rediscover the durability he displayed from 2005-2008? Can David Wright rediscover his power stroke? How many games will Carlos Beltran be able to play? Who's the starting catcher?
Do I believe that the Mets can contend in 2010 if things fall together just right? Sure. But there sure are a lot of things that need to work out, and this team hasn't exactly been long on good luck of late.
If the Mets management viewed the upcoming season as I do then their lack of big moves beyond the Jason Bay signing would make some sense, but that's really not what they communicated to the fans. They pledged to aggressively pursue all options, which made it inexplicable to the fan base when purported targets signed relatively modest contracts with other teams.
Whatever the truth might be, the whole of the Mets off-season moves and non-moves gave off the vibe that there was no underlying master plan at all. The team looked indecisive and rudderless, earning it yet another in a series of public relations nightmares. They claim that they will contend in 2010 with what they have, but there aren't many believers among the fans or in the media.
For instance, Baseball Prospectus came out with their NL East PECOTA projections yesterday and have the Mets finishing fourth with a 79-83 record. While I think that might be a bit harsh, it's certainly possible if things don't go right. Conversely, I would be somewhat hard-put to make a reasonable case for 90 wins at this point. It could happen, but a lot would have to go right.
Let's take a quick look at what the Mets did and didn't do this winter:
Carlos Delgado, Gary Sheffield, Tim Redding, J.J. Putz, Brian Stokes, Cory Sullivan, Jeremy Reed, Brian Schneider.
Jason Bay, Kelvim Escobar, Ryota Igarashi, Gary Matthews, Henry Blanco, Chris Coste, Josh Fogg, Hisanori Takahashi, Shawn Riggans, Mike Jacobs.
The Mets did the right thing by letting Delgado go, but he leaves a big hole in the middle of the order. Bay will be a solid addition if his shoulder and knee holds up. Still, Delgado's departure changes the dynamic of the Mets batting order.
The lineup, somewhat lefty dominated over the past few years, now finds most of the power coming from the right side with Bay, Wright and Jeff Francoeur. Switch hitting Carlos Beltran will likely provide the only real left-handed power in the lineup, and he's not due back until May. Perhaps that contributed to the thinking behind bringing in Mike Jacobs to compete for a spot on the bench. Switch hitter Angel Pagan and Daniel Murphy can help some if they produce, but neither seems likely to put up big power numbers.
Catcher Brian Schneider didn't do much in two years here, but it's really unclear who's taking his place right now. Henry Blanco will likely be the backup, while Chris Coste seems destined to tutor Josh Thole in Buffalo. Then again, Thole is in the mix for a big league job, and Riggans is supposed to be in the mix, too. The Mets talked a lot about stabilizing the catching situation, but really didn't. In fact, I'm hard put to remember a Mets team that had a chance to contend from years past that had as much uncertainty about who would do the bulk of the catching going into the season.
Another of the big stories of the addition and subtraction from the winter is the bullpen. With Putz gone the eighth inning setup job is wide open. Kelvim Escobar was an early favorite for the spot, but he's already nursing a sore shoulder, and there are even rumors that he is more seriously hurt. Whatever is the case, you're talking about a guy who is 34 and has missed most of the last two seasons with shoulder injuries.
Beyond Escobar there are holdovers Sean Green and Bobby Parnell. After dropping down his delivery Green seems better suited as a situational righty, while the hard-throwing Parnell was really up and down, and could use a dependable off-speed pitch to complement the fastball.
If Escobar can stay healthy and seize the eighth inning job this bullpen slots in respectably behind him. Right now, however, things seem fairly tenuous -- and that's not even counting the concerns about Frankie Rodriguez. I find myself flashing back to September of 2008 when Jerry Manuel was emptying the bullpen every night trying to get the game to Billy Wagner. I think the likeliest scenario for this bullpen to really be solid would involve a couple of unexpected guys to really step up as Darren Oliver and Pedro Feliciano did in 2006.
Of course the biggest (and likely only high-impact) signing of the winter was Jason Bay. If I was the GM and following my 2-year plan I probably would have passed on Bay. Still, I have no real problems with the deal.
I know there's been a lot of talk about the injury concerns that Boston had about him, but I take those with a small grain of salt. Supposedly Johnny Damon was going to fall apart when he signed with the Yankees, yet he exceeded 600 ABs in all 4 seasons with the Yankees. Sure, the option to DH helped, but he was only the DH 4 times last year.
That doesn't mean I have no concerns about Bay holding up for four years (and a possible fifth), but Bay has made over 150 OF starts the last two years, and I don't believe he is likely to fall apart immediately -- jokes about the Mets medical staff notwithstanding.
I still think that while they might be hoping for the best, the Mets have to be looking at 2010 as somewhat of a transition season. By the end of the year they should have a clearer idea of whether Mike Pelfrey, John Maine and Oliver Perez are part of the long-term solution or not. Ditto with Daniel Murphy and possibly Fernando Martinez and Josh Thole.
There are some prospects who have a chance of making an impact on this team as early as next year, depending on what progress they make this year. Some of the young pitchers might see their first taste of the bigs as part of the bullpen solution in 2011.
If Wright and Reyes can bounce back from their difficulties they are still part of a young, solid core going forward. Beltran is signed through 2011. Bay will play most of this coming season at age 31, which isn't all that old even in this post-steroid reality.
In Part 2 of this article we share our thoughts on what we expect for this coming season and beyond.