By Dave Mills
Two-thirds through spring training and halfway through the exhibition schedule, things are not so bad in Metsville. In fact, things are pretty darn interesting.
Can the Mets contend? Sure.
Can they win the East? Only if a lot goes well for them and wrong for the others.
If the Mets can get good starting pitching and make the defensive plays during April, the addition of Reyes and Beltran in May will prove to be the best prescription for success.
Except for Kelvim Escobar and Josh Fogg (were we counting on either?), the pitching staff appears to have healthy arms, some nice competition and two very impressive rookies (since we have to count Hisanori Takahashi as a rook).
No argument that the Mets have a lot of question marks following Santana and no definitive second starter, but they are loaded with very serviceable third through fifth starter types for the four slots following Johan. While the Phillies are four deep and others are three deep, the Mets are deep in arms and balance with four southpaws (Perez, Takahashi, Misch and Niese) and four righties (Maine, Pelfrey, Figueroa and Nieve) in the mix for those slots.
Takahashi has looked very sharp and in sync with his Japanese baseball time clock, which has pitchers ready to bring it by early March. Figueroa and Misch have also looked solid, especially Brooklyn boy Nelson, who somebody will surely sign if the Mets can't find room for him on the staff. That being said, you have to love Figgy's work ethic, rubber arm and brain, which are three things that seem to be lacking in John Maine.
Oliver Perez continues to be an enigma, but the best moves the Mets may have made during the off-season were picking up Rod Barajas and Henry Blanco, who will reign in and define Perez as a hurler. This was evident by the manner in which Barajas handled the much maligned lefty on Saturday afternoon. With the hefty salary Oliver is commanding, Omar/Jeff probably did the only thing that could be done by bringing in veteran backstops who are not afraid to keep moundsmen on point by throwing strikes. Like Perez, Mike Pelfrey will benefit from the vets behind the dish. But also like Perez, the Mets can't afford to give Pelf too much rope. If either pitcher is faltering by the end of May, look for the Steve Trachsel treatment for one or both. The best thing that can happen is that Maine finishes up the exhibition season strong and Omar/Jeff can include him in a deal for prospects.
Only two of the names above have minor league options remaining-Pelfrey and Niese. Therefore, the Mets can lose talent like Nieve, Misch and Figueroa if they can't find spots for them on the staff. Luckily, all three have proven they can be effective in the bullpen and spot starting. Because he is a pure starter and with options remaining, Niese will likely start the season in Buffalo (in spite of what most of the experts are claiming).
So, what are the various rotation options?
L - Santana
R - Maine
L - Perez
R - Pelfrey
X - Takahashi/Figueroa/Misch/Nieve
L - Santana
L - Takahashi
R - Pelfrey
L - Perez
L - Niese/Misch
L - Santana
L - Takahashi
R - Pelfrey
L - Perez
R - Nieve/Figueroa
There are only two givens in this bullpen--K-Rod and Perpetual Pedro. However, its pretty fair to say that the final two spots could easily be made up of two swing types--one lefty (Takahashi or Misch) and one righty (Nieve or Figueroa). Having this compliment in reserve, with Maine, Perez and Pelfrey in the starter mix, is imperative since five or six innings for that trio is far more likely than seven or eight on a regular basis. If our speculation bears fruit, that leaves three other spots to fill with right-handers Ryota Igarashi, Bobby Parnell, Sean Green, Kiko Calero and the new kid on the block--Jenrry Mejia, an impressive specimen if ever there was. All except Green have minor league options (Parnell and Meija) or minor league contracts (Igarashi and Calero), so the decisions are not quite as provocative as with the starting staff.
Thus far, Meija has been the talk of the preseason. But if he is to make the trip to Citi Field, the Mets will have to abandon the plan to have Jenrry be a starter and look to groom him for closer while setting up K-Rod for a couple of seasons. With electric stuff and a hard sinking cutter a la Mariano Rivera, this might not be a bad strategy which will ultimately protect the youngster's arm and fill a much needed role in 2012 with a value option. And like Perez and Pelfrey, Meija could blossom under strong veteran backstops like Barajas and Blanco, who are here for only a short time.
If the Mets decide to keep Meija in a starting role and send him to AA or AAA, why not put Maine in the 8th Inning set-up role? Of course, Maine is not one to break his routine under most any circumstance, so this is a tough call even though it might be the best thing for his career.
If Green looks like a lock for the pen, anticipate that Parnell will be sent down to develop another pitch (or two) and that Calero could even start the campaign in Buffalo with another veteran--Elmer Dessens. That would bode well for the depth argument. But look for Green to be packaged and moved if Meija and Igarashi are both in the mix.
So, what will the opening day pen look like?
R - Rodriquez
R - Meija
R - Igarashi/Calero
L - Feliciano
R - Green
L - Misch/Takahashi
R - Nieve/Figueroa
BEHIND THE DISH
The catching corps looks to be deep with two fine receivers at Citi Field (Barajas/Blanco) and Buffalo (Josh Thole/Chris Coste). Barring an injury to Barajas or Blanco, you have to figure Omir Santos can and will be moved, perhaps with one or two other expendable pieces like Chris Carter, Sean Green or even Angel Pagan (although he's more valuable than ever with Reyes out of the lineup). Blanco will also become Santana's personal catcher and catch about 45-50 games as a starter. If one of them goes down, Omar/Jeff have more options than ever before, with the lefty swinging Thole and righty swinging Coste just 90 minutes away as the crow flies.
Interestingly enough, we could easily see .240 BA, 20 HRs and 80 RBI out of the "B" Boyz and a lot of Thole in September.
But the accrued benefits to the Mets pitching staff with Barajas and Blanco behind the dish are virtually indescribable. For a pitching staff who served up a plethora of base on balls in 2009 and worked from far too many "hitter's counts," we are about to be pleasantly surprised by the 2010 results. Don't be surprised if Barajas is signed to platoon with Thole and be Ollie's personal receiver in 2011.
AROUND THE BASES
The Mets infield has depth at the corners and little depth up-the-middle. Going with Daniel Murphy is the correct call. Lets see what he can do in 2010 and spell him against certain tough southpaws. With the left-handed Ike Davis up and coming and many other right-handed options for 1B and 3B in Fernando Tatis, Nick Evans, Mike Hesseman and Shawn Bowman, the Mets are somewhat protected against injury (and disease) at the corners. The big question mark is who backs up at SS and 2B.
Alex Cora is a nice player to have in a real bench role. Having him pinch hit to lead off an inning or move a man over late in a game and make the double switch; Or to start a game at SS once a month to rest Jose Reyes and once a week to rest Luis Castillo in a day game following a night game; Those, along with good mentoring, are his roles. But once Cora has to play every day for a week or more, the trouble begins. With his lack of range and 34 year-old body, Omar/Jeff have a hole that the minor league affiliates cannot plug. There is only one up and comer at the moment--Ruben Tejada, who clearly needs some more seasoning. Could he start the year at Citi Field? Sure. But he will likely be overmatched at the plate while offering just a little more defensive range than Cora.
There is one wild card in the mix right now. His name is Russ Adams, the former Blue Jay SS who bats from the left side and has some pop. With Reyes out for April (or a portion thereof), the Mets could give him the job and see what he brings to the table.
Jerry Manuel's (and all Mets fans) nightmare is if Castillo goes down with an injury early.
PATROLLING THE OUTFIELD
With Carlos Beltran down and out for at least the month of April, Omar/Jeff have brought in Gary Matthews Jr. for a reasonable penny. And Matthews has looked very good indeed, both defensively and offensively. Being a switch-hitter hasn't hurt the equation. Problem for him is that the Mets already have a switch-hitting outfielder who can play all three positions (albeit not quite as well as Matthews), but whose speed is seen as a tremendous asset, especially with Reyes on the shelf. Look for Angel Pagan to play more CF than Matthews to kick off the campaign. If he does poorly, it will not take Manuel long to substitute Matthews. Whomever prevails will likely get about 10 starts per-month as Beltran will be rested on day games following night. Francoeur and Bay will sit occasionally against tough right-handers, since both players are strikeout machines.
All that being said... there appears to be a feast of left-handed hitting outfielders now in the Mets system, any of whom could be legitimate starters in 2011 and 2012. The two standouts appear to be Fernando Martinez, who is going to be hard to keep down on the farm for more than one more campaign, and Kirk Nieuwenhuis, a studly prospect with a good glove and some offensive prowess. Looks like Jason Pridie may have been a good pick-up as well, if they can keep him in the system.
Likely, F-Mart will replace Francoeur in 2011 and Nieuwenhuis could be the replacement for Beltran in 2012. As fine a player as Carlos is when he is playing at 100%, he is not often functioning fully healthy and the Mets suffer greatly for it.
With a 12-man pitching staff and a catching platoon (of sorts), the bench really consists of Cora, Pagan or Matthews and one player to be named on the day before the Mets break camp. That competition is already well defined. The candidates are Mike Jacobs (PH, 1B, emergency catcher), Chris Carter (1B, LF) and Frank Catalanotto (pencil him in anywhere except catcher and pitcher). Jacobs and Catalanatto are on minor league contracts and Carter has options remaining, so all three are likely to remain with the organization. Only Carter is able to be traded. If power is the demand, then Jacobs or Carter fit the bill. Unfortunately, both are defensively challenged. If Jerry want versatility, Long Island Frank is his man.
One of the things that makes being a general manager so interesting is who stays and who goes. And there are many ways to get rid of players. One of the best is to see who has value, match them with a team that has needs and extract a prospect or two. Of course, pumping up your player's value is the key. This is why Daniel Murphy must play this year and (hopefully) play very well. With Ike Davis and F-Mart in the wings, Davis must be slotted in at 1B. A strong first half for Murphy could mean he could be traded at the July 31 deadline or at the end of the season for an important piece or prospects. It is really difficult to visualize exactly where Murphy will fit in for 2011 and beyond.
Much the same can be said for Angel Pagan, who is not likely to be more than a 4th outfielder with the Mets once Beltran comes back and with so many OF prospects on the horizon.
If John Maine jumps out to a good start, he too could be moved at the deadline, especially with all those arms battling for the fifth starter and long reliever spots.
Sean Green probably has a little value and more if he gets off to a good start.
Omir Santos can and will become a very good backup or platoon starter with another organization and should have some value in the market.
Chris Carter is clearly ready to hit big league pitching, but has no position to play on the Mets or perhaps anywhere in the National League. Some AL team has to be interested in Carter as a DH either full-time or in a platoon.
THE FUTURE IS SOON
Perhaps the best news of the spring is what appears to be a stronger crop of prospects than at anytime in Mets history. Fact is, in 2012, it is quite possible that the Mets could have an entirely homegrown starting lineup and more than 15 players who passed through the system. Not that far-fetched. Take a look:
1B - Ike Davis (Nick Evans/Shawn Bowman)
2B - Reese Havens/Ruben Tejada
SS - Jose Reyes
3B - David Wright (Shawn Bowman/Nick Evans)
C - Josh Thole
LF - Jason Bay
CF - Fernando Martinez (Angel Pagan)
RF - Kirk Niewenhuis
SP - Mike Pelfrey/Jon Niese (and Meija, if he stays out of the pen)
RP - Jenrry Meija/Bobby Parnell/Pedro Feliciano
Put Wally Backman in the driver's seat, make Roger McDowell the pitching coach and this will be a very unique, unprecedented and exciting scenario.