By Dave Mills
In spite of the whirlwind of analysis and criticism that can only germinate from the ultimate major market in sports, for the first 22 games of the season this scribe has calculatedly refrained from rendering judgment on our 2011 Mets. Playing, coaching, managing and administrating in the New York fishbowl is daunting--to say the least. And premature analysis and criticism can be downright annoying. It also keeps fannies out of the seats.
While it may still be too early to comment in an authoritative manner, there is certainly some commentary that relates to the obvious and some that may pick through the clutter and put a few other issues--really worth discussing--in play.
There's nothing wrong with game analysis. Be it a newspaper writer or columnist, broadcaster or blogger, all have a right and duty to report the facts and even give their educated opinion. Mets fans are blessed to have some of the finest examples of those who endeavor in each of these disciplines.
The problem is that there are so many individuals endeavoring in each discipline (and trying to get noticed) that it often becomes a free-for-all to jump on any negative situation and make it even worse. And what does it lead to?... A barrage of never-ending, spewing-off at the mouth (and keyboard) that does nothing but incite fans to further criticism, booing, trash-talk and not showing up at Citi Field.
The Mets began this season with a new front office, new manager, new hitting coach, new first-base/OF coach and a several reserve players, outfielders in particular, who had no Citi Field experience. And let's not forget, the starting pitching staff had two veteran (but new to the Mets) major leaguers coming off serious surgeries and rehab. The bullpen had five completely new faces.
Has anyone ever started a new business and not run into obstacles? Is there any business that is not an ongoing work-in-progress? Has anyone ever renovated a home or building and not run into some unexpected developments? Are the Mets (or any sports franchise) any different?
No way the Mets are going to be as bad as they were in Games 5-18. So, rather than bemoan and pile on, lets acknowledge some things that 'are-what-they-are' and look at some of the positives...
Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz are not going to sell the Mets at the present time. There is little upside since they will be perceived as selling entirely from weakness. Best to clear their name, which is very likely, and bring the franchise back to respectability. In order to accomplish that goal they have retained Sandy Alderson, who it is very hard to find fault with thus far. My guess is the carrot the Wilpon family is dangling to a prospective minority shareholder is a right of first refusal when they do sell. That carrot is really the only thing of value they can offer at the moment due to lagging ticket sales, a mountain of debt and the Picard accusations.
Sandy Alderson and company have shown that they are not afraid to make moves and make them quickly if things seem to be going in the wrong direction. Just ask Luis Castillo, Oliver Perez, Blaine Boyer, Brad Emaus and the very disappointing DJ Carrasco. But they also made initial roster moves that gave them additional depth behind the active major league roster. In fact, they were able to retain Nick Evans, Luis Hernandez, Manny Acosta and Pat Misch in the system. A couple of these guys will undoubtably make a contribution this season. The Mets brain-trust also take risk. They struck out on Emaus, but the other Rule-5--Pedro Beato--looks like a real find. Not only does he have major league stuff, the native New Yorker also exudes confidence and appears to be rather imposing on the hill. It also appears that they have dealt with injuries in a more efficient manner than the prior regime. Kudos must be extended in terms of how they handled Beltran, Isringhausen and Bay. And there has been no hesitation in moving Paulino, Young and Pagan to the DL. "Patience is a virtue' and 'knowledge is power' are adages Alderson seems to appreciate.
While Wally Backman was the consensus favorite of Mets fans, Alderson may have taken his biggest risk by overlooking Wally, or did he? With Wally firmly ensconced at AA Binghampton, where virtually all of the Mets real prospects are or will pass through during the next two to three seasons, Alderson went to Terry Collins, who had impressed many during his first year of running the Mets farm system. From a perspective of fans in the stands and benefit of the doubt, Backman was actually an easier selection to lead the big club. So far, however, it appears Collins is not likely to panic nor will he fail to protect his players. While managers always make their share of questionable moves, it is still too early to know what type of strategist he is. A batting order is usually dictated by the overall health of the team, but clearly, his handling of the pitching staff is what will ultimately tell the tale. Nonetheless, it will be surprising if Collins does not fulfill his entire contract period (two years) and just as surprising if we don't see Backman a few years down the road.
There was nothing much on the infield table this spring other than who would play the second sack. Collins, a former resident of the position, was intrigued by the switch-hitting and versatile Luis Hernandez, while the front office Rule-5 scenario dictated Emaus. All the while, Daniel Murphy lingered as the obvious offensive choice. Hernandez got injured, Emaus faltered, Justin Turner prospered at AAA Buffalo and Murphy proved, while a novice, that he could become an acceptable (competent may be a few seasons away) defender. Who says options aren't a good thing? Nothing wrong with a platoon, as Backman/Teufel and Boswell/Weis proved in successful Mets campaigns of the past. Leaving Murphy/Turner there for the next 80 games will offend no one except a few pitchers on both the Mets and their opponents.
Hail the return of Jason Bay, who protects several other middle-of-the-order-bats, none more than David Wright, whose stats with Bay vs. without Bay are like night and day. In the four games since Bay returned, the Mets have won all four with Bay and Beltran each hitting a homer and Ike Davis and Wright going yard thrice. It is also nice to see the hustle and determination that Bay exhibits. He plays a solid left-field, runs the bases well and seems to have some unadvertised sneaky speed. We may also be witnessing a bit of a resurgence of the old Carlos Beltran, who is getting more comfortable in right-field with every game and has now played a day game after a night game. As the Mets broadcasters have let us know, Carlos is really enjoying his right-field indoctrination. The real shame is we saw only five innings of the frontline outfield in action. Barring further injuries, when Angel Pagan returns in two weeks it will be fun to watch the frontliners perform together once and for all. At that time, it is hard to imagine the Mets will keep both Scott Hairston and Willie Harris in the mix.
During the past seven games, we have seen quality performances from Dillon Gee (twice), Jonathan Niese (twice), RA Dickey, Mike Pelfrey and Chris Capuano. All were a far cry from the first two weeks and much of the pressure on the bullpen was 'relieved.' Capuano and Dickey even came out of the pen to face a few batters at opportune moments. With Chris Young about to reappear from the DL, it's nice that the decision will be what to do with Gee, who has never had a bad game in his six Mets starts over the past two seasons.
Nothing helps a bullpen more than starting pitching delivering length. It creates stability and better role definition. It doesn't hurt that Pedro Beato and Jason Isringhausen have been stellar in what is now their 7th and 8th Inning appearances. In fact, it appears Beato can even come in during a 6th frame and throw to four to five batters. Taylor Buchholz seems now to be the man who can fill in from the 6th through the 8th Innings leaving Tim Byrdak, as the LOGGY, and Gee as the just-announced, new long man. The conundrum for the Mets brass is what to do with Bobby Parnell when he returns from the DL. Perhaps using Igarashi or Acosta while Parnell fine-tunes another pitch at Buffalo, which he must have if he is eventually going to be an effective closer.
The outfield has been the bane of the Mets defensively, especially prior to the return of Bay. Clearly, Harris and Hairston have been disappointments as they toil to find the key to playing in cavernous Citi Field. It is especially difficult when your playing time is spotty. Bringing in Jason Pridie, a defensive specialist, to replace Pagan was a gutsy move by the front office and a substantive acknowledgement of the challenges of playing CF at such a 'pitcher's park.' A Pridie bomb in the 4th straight victory makes everyone look good. Not much to say about Chin-lung Hu, who has to be there because no one else can play SS. Perhaps he will play some late inning 2B when the Mets have the lead and a double-switch is in the works. Mike Nickeas has done an admirable job while awaiting Ronnie Paulino's first regular-season appearance. Paulino will be the right-handed compliment platoon against left-handed hurlers, who he generally eats up.
REALLY GOOD NEWS
The Mets farm system appears to be flourishing to some degree. There are more than a handful of starting pitchers who are tearing at various levels. We have seen Dillon Gee, but Jenrry Meija is also dominating AAA hitters. At AA, Brad Holt is positively displaying his wares. And turning heads in high A-Ball are Matt Harvey, Jeurys Familia and 6'11" Scott Moviel. These young St. Lucie studs have microscopic ERAs and a 7-0 record awash with strikeouts. To mitigate the likely loss of Jose Reyes, the Mets have also three-tiered some interesting shortstop prospects-Ruben Tejada at Buffalo, Jordany Valdespin at Binghamtom and Wilmer Flores at St. Lucie. The Mets system is also deep in left-handed hitting outfielders (Pridie, Fernando Martinez, Lucas Duda, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Sean Ratliff, Matt Den Dekker and Darrell Cecililani). One or two of these prospects could find themselves with the big club when Beltran moves on and if the Mets choose to move Pagan.
The bottom-line for Mets fans is that the doom and gloom scenario being fostered by some in the media was stifled by the past four contests, all of which the Mets dominated with excellent pitching, good defense and a combination of timely hitting with pop. Is it the Mets we will see for the balance of the season? Well... who knows? But I'll tell you this--these Mets are much closer to what you'll see than the Mets of Games 5-18.