By Dave Mills
Low Expectations May Be the Elixer
For the first time in several campaigns, no one picks the Mets the win the NL East and few pick them for the NL Wild Card. Perhaps we have been blessed by the lowering of expectations?
For those of us who prefer to see the glass as half full, there are four things to keep in mind as we begin yet another baseball season which brings to a close our annual ordeal that began last October 4 with what seemed like a hoard of Mets on the disabled list:
1. In spite of Reyes (back within a week), Murphy (back within three weeks) and Beltran (back within six weeks) on the DL, it is almost impossible for a repeat of the injuries that plagued the team in 2009.
2. There IS talent in the Mets system in spite of what the pundits have been pushing the past few years. And in case you don't believe it, how many teams would like to have Jennry Meija, Fernando Martinez, Ike Davis, Josh Thole, Ruben Tejada, Bobby Parnell, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Toby Stoner and a few other studs, all of whom will be ready to play regularly in The Show between now and April 2012 (at the latest)? By and by, these some-ready and some-on-the-cusp-of-ready guys also create the stopgap that was sorely missing last year when Omar Minaya had to undertake a scavenger hunt through the MLB junkyard.
3. This team will rake.
4. This season, the team of Omar/Jeff will have plenty of talent and prospects to deal for a high-grade piece or two prior to the July 31 deadline. That could include John Maine, Fernando Nieve, Daniel Murphy, Omir Santos, Chris Carter and even Gary Matthews or Angel Pagan, not to mention the best corps of prospects the Mets have had since the early 1980s.
All the question marks (outside of: Can the Mets stay healthy?) revolve around the pitching staff, but even there, the depth is far greater than 2009. Fact is, without the outrageous contract in the possession of Oliver Perez, most Mets watchers would have rather slotted in lefties Hasinori Takahashi or Pat Misch, or righties Nelson Figueroa or Nieve. While they will likely lose Figueroa, the other three are in the fold and ready to go.
The bullpen also has a new look and lots of question marks, but Minaya's habit of stocking arms may well help the Mets in a number of ways. Veterans Kiko Calero, Elmer Dessens, Manny Acosta and RA Dickey can be called up in minutes. Never underestimate veteran depth for the pen. And don't forget Bobby Parnell could make a second half return.
There are other subtle improvements that make the Mets a better all-around team in 2010. The catching corps is very deep. In fact, Barajas and Blanco are among the top defensive catchers in the game, know how to handle a pitching staff and will not embarrass the Mets at the plate. Josh Thole, a fine hitting prospect by all measures, is also said to be developing his defensive skills faster and better than most observers had anticipated.
Speed and defense should also improve noticeably.
The Mets led the NL in stolen bases in 2009 without Jose Reyes in the lineup for 125 games. Francoeur, Bay, Murphy, Cora, Matthews, Pagan and Tatis can easily contribute 60 SB, while Wright, Castillo and Beltran can easily do the same. If Jose Reyes produces an equal measure, which is well within his ability, the Mets will dominate the basepaths.
Defensively, there is no doubt the Mets are improved. As previously mentioned, a huge defensive upgrade at catcher. Jason Bay, who looks like a much better player than some of us anticipated, has a great arm and gets a good jump. He is also "sneaky fast" in terms of a power hitter. With a similar defensive player in RF in Francoeur and the serviceable Matthews, as a defensive replacement, the outfield has considerably improved, and even more so when Beltran enters the fray. The infield benefits as well with the return of Reyes and Murphy since they are both very rangy.
While overall depth, speed and improved defense and power will help, 2010 will boil down to starting pitching. Johan is a going to be good even if he is not dominating. The other four starters are going to have to deliver quality starts three out of four times out. If three of them fail to do that, the Mets are in trouble. If two of them do it, they can contend. If three of them do it, they can take the NL East.
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BUFFALO'S OUTFIELD LOOKING VERY POWERFUL
With Chris Carter in LF, Jason Pridie in CF and Fernando Martinez learning his new position of RF, the Bisons' left-handed hitting brigade is going to put some fear into right-handed hurlers. Nick Evans will play often at the two corners and a touch at 1B for a bit of balance. If Carter starts strong and Mike Jacobs and Frank Catalanotto falter, look for Carter to enhance the Mets bench shortly after Murphy returns. No doubt he is the best hitter in the bunch. Carter's achilles heel has always been his glove, but those May and June inter-league games would be one heck of a showcase at DH.
MEIJA BETTER OFF STARTING IN BINGHAMTON
Many have said it during the past two weeks, but the Mets would be far better off developing the impressive Meija as a starting pitcher. What is the weakest link going into 2010? Once the bullpen washes out a bit and Calero, Dessens and Acosta have aired it out in Buffalo, the Mets need to send Meija down to eat innings and develop good secondary pitches, which is something Parnell and Eddie Kunz are about to attempt, likely as starting pitchers.
COACHING MAY WELL BE IMPROVED THROUGHOUT THE METS SYSTEM
Adding Dave Jauss (bench coach) and Chip Hale (third base) to the staff is just the beginning of the story. Wally Backman (Cyclone's manager) may end up being the most important addition since his entire coaching/managing career has revolved around developing young players and creating solid fundamentals and team play. It looks like Terry Collins (Director of Minor League Development) may well have inherited a much better group of prospects than was anticipated.
NL - Phillies/Cardinals/Rockies/Mets edge Braves for Wild Card
AL - Bosox/Chisox/Angels/Rays edge Highlanders for Wild Card
OPENING DAY RIGHT IN THE METS' WHEELHOUSE
In keeping with tradition, the Amazin's posted another terrific opening day victory via some outstanding pitching by Santana, Nieve and K-Rod as well as the big right-handed bats throughout the lineup. The newcomers Bay, Matthews and Barajas contributed multiple-hit efforts, but the big blast came in the first frame off the bat of the now pumped-up D. Wright, who muscled the ball over the rightfield fence. Some outstanding defense by the Mets was contrasted against a host of defensive lapses by The Fish, who may have the only first baseman in MLB (Gaby Sanchez) who has no concept of how to stretch from the bag to receive a throw. A nice unassisted double play by Hanley Ramirez kept the contest from being a complete blowout.