By Dave Mills
It happens but once a year... Opening Day for the Mets and their die-hard fannies.
Today, things get real and exciting. Hot Stove and Spring Training are behind us and the 162-game grind begins.
For Terry Collins' band of bargain basement finds, retreads, prospects and three stars (who have lost some luster), the slate is clean and everything starts anew.
After closely watching every machination of 50 different Mets teams between my 7th and 57th year on this planet, 2012 promises to be one of the most intriguing.
Being the guy that sees the glass as half full, I can't recall the Mets ever having four exciting left-handed hitters in their mid-20s, all of whom have the ability to go the opposite way with some pop and circumstance.
Of course, I speak of Daniel Murphy, Ike Davis, Lucas Duda and Josh Thole, all of whom can make this a memorable season if they play up to expectations and avoid the DL. These four represent the future of the Mets from a number of perspectives.
Murphy -- a Keith Hernandez-style, top-half-of-the-ball hitter, who specializes in raking to all field -- may be the best pure hitter to have ever donned a Mets uniform when all is said and done. This guy is a deft batsman. Problem is... he is a corner infielder playing an important up-the-middle position. To his credit, his fielding lapses do not seem to affect his stroke except that said lapses have led to considerable time on the DL. But truth be told, Murph is a gamer who put significant time in at three positions last season. Nothing easy about that hat trick, so some slack needs to be cut. His athleticism is impressive, as is his attitude. Daniel Murphy will be exciting to watch even with a few cringes as he fields his position at 2B.
Thole is in the same mold as Murph. In 2008, the Mets saw something and decided to put Josh behind the dish. The transition has certainly not been smooth as silk. And just when it appeared that he was getting his bearings, the front office brought in a knuckleballer to keep things dicey. Nonetheless, Thole has worked diligently to improve his defensive skills and keep his hitting sharp. He doesn't strike out and will always deliver a much higher OBP than casual observers realize. The Mets have a solid left-handed hitting receiver, who will surprise many with a breakout season.
The loss of Ike Davis last season was the single most devastating injury suffered to an everyday Mets player for a couple of reasons. Davis supplies pop and saves runs with his outstanding defense at the first sack. He also has the aura of a masher, which is critical to keeping opposing hurlers off-balance. Here's something to think about... If Davis stays healthy and only hits .250 with 25 HR and 80 RBI, the Mets are winners. Many think he will be much better in all departments. Everyone knows Ike will have his share of strikeouts. He will also save 20 runs and 20 errors.
Duda may have the biggest upside among the quartet of left-handed swingers. He makes contact, hits with power and can pull the inside pitch, as well as take it to the opposite field with authority. While he won't remind us of Clemente with his glove, he will likely be better than expected and display a reasonably good arm. Perhaps the Mets would have a more impressive lineup with Duda batting third behind Murphy, since he is not the lumberer on the basepaths that his size seems to indicate. More importantly, he and Murph can hit southpaws. Lucas is a central figure in the Mets future.
The right-handed bats -- David Wright, Jason Bay and Ruben Tejada -- are far more of a conundrum for Terry Collins and Sandy Alderson.
While the lefty bats will benefit from the improved parameters of Citi Field, the right-handed contingent, which includes Hairston, Turner and Nickeas, should find it far more beneficial for a variety of reasons.
Wright must cutdown on his strikeouts and be the player he was until Citi Field opened. David is a gamer, exemplified by his playing with a fractured back last season. He needs to focus on driving the ball and getting on base, so his speed can come into play. The new dimensions will help with the power.
Bay is an enigma. When he signed, I spoke of another George Foster, but that was unfair to George. Bay plays better defense and runs the bases quite well, which were both somewhat unexpected. If he keeps struggling at the dish, however, Collins will platoon him with Mike Baxter by the middle of May, which might not be bad. If Jason produces, it will be a boon to the Mets and everyone in the lineup.
Like all the young prospects, Tejada is a product of the Minaya administration, and a good one. The improvement he displayed as a hitter last season was stunning, to say the least. His bat control and patience improved radically over his previous two campaigns. If Ruben can eventually hit in the two hole behind a productive Torres or Valdespin, and in front of Murphy and Duda, he will see some high-quality pitches to rake. Expect better defense from Tejada than anyone can imagine.
The lone switch-hitter on the Mets roster is Andres Torres, who also needs to produce for the Mets to have a successful 2012. Torres can play CF and run the bases with considerable aplomb, but can he get to first base? If not, the Mets will likely go quickly to Valdespin, who has impressed the powers-that-be with a wealth of talent and speed.
As for the bench... if they play a lot, it will portend disaster for the 2012 Mets. Not because they are terrible, but because injuries will demand their appearance. Cedeno, Turner, Hairston, Baxter and Nickeas provide better than adequate defense and adequate offensive support. Cedeno, Turner and Baxter also have a touch of speed in their games.
For a change, the Mets will go into a campaign in relatively good health. The same cannot be said for the Phillies (Utlley, Howard, Polanco, Contreras and Michael Martinez), Braves (Hudson, Fish, Vizcaino, Moylan, Jurrjens and Chipper), Nationals (Storen, Wang, Morse, Kimball and Ankiel) and Marlins (Ceda, Stanton, Morrison). If the injuries persist for others and the Mets starters play, this can certainly be an intriguing season with no sure winner.
We'll take a look at the Amazin's pitching staff in the next edition.
Overrated and over-the-hill. Injuries and age conspiring against the best starting staff in MLB. Defense and bullpen is their weakness. But their starters may keep them in the driver's seat.
Four solid left-handed hitters. Questionable bats in LF and CF. New Citi Field dimensions will help the lineup and prove challenging to the pitching staff. An overall plus for Mets. Decent starters providing Santana makes 25 starts. Bullpen should be much improved. Should be. Will make up for loss of Reyes, by good on-base percentage, more hit-and-run and a very aggressive style of play.
An injury to Reyes or Stanton will be devastating. Hurlers questionable after Josh Johnson. Bullpen not up to championship standards. Park may play tough for their hitters, except those with speed and make a defensively challenged outfield even worse.
Way overrated and injuries piling up. Freddie Freeman is the player to watch. Keeping Michael Bourne off the bases is the key. Great bullpen. Questionable defense.
A strange team with lots of prospects, a few old hands and a rash of early injuries. Still a few years from a dominating lineup. A healthy Zimmerman and Morse are key, along with Strasburg, Gonzales and the other Zimmerman -- a formidable trio. Worth not worth it.