New York Mets: Ranking the 10 Biggest Challenges Heading into Spring Training

Frank Gray@!/nyfaninsjerseyCorrespondent IFebruary 28, 2012

New York Mets: Ranking the 10 Biggest Challenges Heading into Spring Training

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    The New York Mets begin their spring training schedule next week when they play their first game on March 5. When they do, the team will have to answer several questions in the next few weeks.

    Several new players will need to establish themselves, while others will have to bounce back from injury. Among the major issues they face on the field is seeing where their ace Johan Santana is in his recovery.

    In addition, Daniel Murphy and Ike David must prove their health. Other veterans like Jason Bay and David Wright must show they are not on the decline. Younger players like Lucas Duda and Josh Thole have to show they're the real deal.

    On the pitching side, they have even more challenges. While the aforementioned Santana recuperates, the starting staff must bounce back from a season without him.

    Pitchers like R.A. Dickey and Mike Pelfrey must recover from a tough season. Are Jon Niese and Dillon Gee the real deal? How will the bullpen shape out with their new additions? Who will emerge as the closer? The setup man?

    These are all questions that will be answered in the next four weeks.

    Let's take a closer look at some of these issues more specifically. 

No. 10: Mike Pelfrey

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    Unlike this time last year, Mike Pelfrey will not begin this season as Terry Collins' declared "ace." By all accounts, that distinction will belong to Johan Santana. So what becomes of Mike Pelfrey?

    With a 4.74 ERA and a 7-13 record last season, Pelfrey needs to get his game back to the from of 2010 that brought him Terry Collins' approval. In that season, he posted a 15-9 record with a 3.66 ERA.

    Which Mike Pelfrey shows up this year will be determined by how the team handles him this spring. If he can control the mental part of the game, he may get back to that form.

    The pressure of being "the man" is no longer a convenient excuse for him. He's not going to be the No. 1 starter, and so, he doesn't have that pressure.

    He can relax as the No. 2 or possibly the No. 3 of the staff behind Santana and Dickey. This should help if he shows the potential that he did a few years ago.

No. 9: Bobby Parnell

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    Bobby Parnell entered the 2011 season as the closer of the future. He was dubbed the heir to Francisco Rodriguez but needed some grooming at the major league level.

    To ensure the proper tutelage, the Mets acquired Jason Isringhausen in the preseason and handed him the ball when they traded Rodriguez in July. After Isringhausen notched his 300th career save, the team handed the closer role to Parnell.

    He proceeded to close out six games successfully but blow another six. He was better as a setup man where he totaled 11 holds. There was no doubt he had the arsenal to be a closer.

    With a blazing fastball clocked in triple digits and a few other pitches to complement it, he was all set to take the league by storm. One problem. He didn't have the the mental strength to be in that role.

    The Mets signed a few players to compete for his old spot. This certainly points to the lack of faith they have in Parnell to gain the mental capacity needed to close consistently.

    With two potential suitors for the closer role, he has little chance of even being the setup man. To add to this, the Mets traded for a solid reliever in December named Ramon Ramirez.

    With him and Tim Byrdak included into the mix, things will get tight for Parnell to even win a bullpen spot despite his 100 mph fastball.

    He will likely be competing with D.J. Carrasco, Robert Carson, Josh Stinson, Manny Acosta and Pedro Beato for just two remaining bullpen spots.

    It's more likely he will be the seventh-inning reliever, and Carrasco will be the long reliever. Beato could be groomed in Triple-A for a spot-starter role (more on that in a little bit), and the rest of the pack will fall just short.

    If it pans out this way, Parnell will still be a vital part of the bullpen. If he misses out, they will proceed without him. They have options here.

    It's up to him to show them what he has.  

No. 8: Pedro Beato

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    Of the several options in the bullpen, the Mets can turn to Pedro Beato for multiple roles.

    The former Rule 5 draft pick is now a solid option to be plugged in if Johan Santana is not ready or if the Mets need a sixth starter at some part early in the season.

    He could also emerge this spring as a solid long reliever option in place of Miguel Batista or Manny Acosta. If this occurs, he will be highly utilized.

    He appeared in 60 games last year and had a 4.30 ERA. He was in a spot where the Mets had to keep him at the MLB level in order to not have to give him back to Baltimore where they got him.

    Now, they are in the clear of that rule and have the option to send him to Triple-A if they want to. The team has that flexibility.

    It will be up to Beato to make his presence felt in the next few weeks. 

No. 7: Andres Torres

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    In December, the Mets traded their embattled starting center fielder Angel Pagan. They acquired two players for him. One was reliever Ramon Ramirez who figures to be a big part of the bullpen this year, and the other was Andres Torres.

    Torres was a major factor for the San Francisco Giants on their championship run in 2010. Last season, he struggled. He had 19 stolen bases and a .221 batting AVG in 112 games.

    The question is whether or not that's an illusion. He's expected to be the leadoff hitter. Those numbers will not do this coming season. How he responds to his new team will remain to be seen, but he will have the next few weeks to show the team what he can do.

    Since the loss of Jose Reyes and the trade of Angel Pagan, the team really has no legitimate threat in the leadoff spot. Torres will have to develop a better feel for working counts and getting on base. He has a .318 career OBP and needs to build on it.

    As a leadoff hitter, he needs to get on board as often as possible. It starts with limiting his strikeouts compared to his walks. He has never had a season where his walks-to-strikeout ratio was the typically anticipated 2/1.

    In fact, he had averaged more than double the strikeouts to his walks in almost every season of his career. If he's to help at the top of the order, get on base and get things going, he has to be patient, work the counts and change his overall approach.

    That has to start in spring training. If the Mets address this challenge, they may not miss Reyes or Pagan as much.  

No. 6: Josh Thole

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    This season, the pitching staff will be led by Josh Thole. Now in his second full season and fourth overall, Thole has come a long way to round out his game, but one aspect still gets some criticism—his defense.

    Starting with his offense, last season, he hit for a .268 AVG and had 91 hits in just 114 games. He has shown he can hit at the MLB level as he had a .276 AVG for his four-year career thus far. Last season very well could be an adjustment year.

    The next phase was calling a game. He handled the pitching staff well. This may be a combination of good communication with a veteran pitching staff and getting to know various batters in the league. Expect this trend to continue.

    His defense is the last part of his game and is the one with the biggest challenge. He threw out 17-of-82 would-be base stealers to the tune of a .207 CSP (caught stealing percentage). This needs some work.

    His technique may be something that has to be addressed. His bigger issue, though, is how he performs with R.A. Dickey on the mound. When Dickey throws his knuckleball (and he does almost every pitch), Thole has trouble handling it.

    He had a career-high 16 passed balls last year. The Mets will have to address this by either working on his mechanics and footwork behind the plate with the knuckler or having backup catcher Mike Nickeas be the primary catcher for Dickey.

    If they choose to have Thole continue to catch for Dickey, they will have to commit to helping him tweak this part of his game in the next few weeks.

    They can't afford to have another season of multiple passed balls when Dickey is on the mound.

No. 5: Ruben Tejada

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    Say hello to Ruben Tejada. You will hear his name for the next few years. Now that Jose Reyes has swam to Miami Marlins for the big payday, the mantle of shortstop phenom in NY falls to Tejada.

    He has proven he can hit well in the big leagues. In 96 games last season, he hit for a .284 AVG and had 93 hits in that span. He's a sure-handed fielder too. In 245 fielding chances at second base last season, he only had four errors (.984 fielding percentage).

    The issue comes with his numbers at shortstop, where he will reside this coming year. In more than half the chances that he had at second, he committed far more errors. His 181 fielding chances at shortstop yielded eight errors (.956 fielding percentage).

    This could simply be a coincidence. It also could be a sign that he needs to get comfortable in one spot. Finally, it could also mean that he just can't handle the position. The team needs to figure out which one it is.

    Fans may be looking to him as the next Reyes, but the truth is, he may be closer to the next Rey Ordonez but with a little gap power. If he progresses the way the team hopes, he will fit in just fine.

    The issue will be if he can avoid putting the pressure on himself or feeling the pressure from media and fans for being the replacement for Jose Reyes.

    The truth is a player like Reyes comes along once every generation, and it will be very difficult, maybe even impossible to live up to that hype.

    All he needs to do is not worry about doing his best Reyes' impersonation and try to be the best example of Ruben Tejada that he can be, and the rest will fall into place.

No. 4: Daniel Murphy

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    Ruben Tejada's progression in the field will depend a lot on Daniel Murphy. As the team enters spring training, there's little doubt Murphy is the starter at second base. With Terry Collins giving Justin Turner reps at first to back up Ike Davis, the job at second is Murphy's to lose.

    The issue with Murphy is two-fold, however. First, the main concern will be his health. He missed the last half of the season due to a torn MCL in his knee that he suffered from taking a hard slide while defending second base on a double-play attempt.

    He seems relatively healthy as he has been practicing hard to get better at fielding this year. How long will his legs hold up under the rigors of playing a tough middle-infield position?

    Only time will tell, but based on Collins handing him the job, it may be safe to say they're banking on him remaining healthy all year.

    As eluded to a moment ago, the second issue is his defense. He has been working with former Mets second baseman and Mets coach Tim Teufel to get better. He has the drive and determination to be better in the field.

    The question is does he have the agility and athleticism to do the job effectively and consistently? If he proves he does, the Mets may have a great talent on their hands. They have to address this challenge in the next few weeks, though.

    It's a bad place to be in when your double-play combination is prone to errors and injury.

No. 3: Mets Bench

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    The Mets have several questions to answer in the next few weeks. One such question is what players will make up the bench? There are a few names that are almost certainties. Among them is Scott Hairston, Mike Nickeas and Justin Turner.

    However, that only leaves three remaining spots. Assuming the Mets go with 11 pitchers and 14 fielders, that is. Before we look at the players fighting for those three spots, let's look at the players already assumed to make the team.

    Scott Hairston did fairly well off the bench last season. He got into 79 games and hit seven home runs while driving in 24 runs.

    Justin Turner played three different positions after competing for a roster spot in spring training last year. He filled in as a starter for both Daniel Murphy and David Wright. He hit four home runs, had 51 RBI and 113 hits in 117 games played.

    Mike Nickeas is the better defensive option of the two catchers and will only be used as a backup to Josh Thole, unless they also make him R.A. Dickey's exclusive catcher. He had 10 hits and one home run in 21 games last year.

    The rest of the pack is up in the air. It includes Josh Satin, Ronny Cedeno, Reese Havens, Valentino Pascucci, Zach Lutz and Kirk Nieuwenhuis to name a few.

    Of these players, Cedeno has the most MLB experience (seven seasons) and can be a middle infielder backup.

    Josh Satin had a brief September stint last year and was quickly a fan favorite. His performance was not so celebrated, though. In 15 games, he hit for a .200 AVG and scored three runs, had two RBI and 11 strikeouts in his 25 at-bats.

    The remaining candidates will have to fight it out and hope to fill a need for the team in order to make the roster. Of these players, one who has the flexibility to play multiple positions would go farther than the rest, particularly one that can go between the infield and the outfield.

    Pascucci is an option there as he's listed as an outfielder but has played both corner-infield spots in the minor leagues. The team is high on Nieuwenhuis but will be eager to see if he has healed from his injuries last season before giving him a real chance on the club.

    Either way, the bench will be filled with veterans and youngsters, but no one really stands out as a clear go-to pinch hitter. It is more like a collection of utility guys without defined roles.

    There's no Lenny Harris type to come off the bench knowing his only job is to get a pinch hit. There's no Roger Cedeno type to be a pinch runner in a key situation. They will relying mainly on new faces.

    That in and of itself is a question mark. How will they gel and how will they complement the starters? As spring training goes on, the bench will become clearer.

    With clarity, perhaps there will be some answers.

No. 2: Johan Santana

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    The New York Mets entered their 2011 season already down by one major player—Johan Santana. After his shoulder surgery in September of 2010, it was unclear if he would be capable of returning for a midseason run last year. He wasn't.

    The Mets were all but doomed before the year started. Some may say the same about this year's version of the Metropolitans, but a Mets team with a healthy Santana is a dangerous team.

    If he's healthy and rebounds back to the form of his old self, he will all but guarantee double-digit wins and triple-digit strikeouts and innings pitched. He saves the bullpen with his endurance, and he brings a Gold Glove caliber defense as well.

    When all of this is factored in with his ability to embrace the role of staff ace, the Mets have a pitcher who was so desperately missed last year that merely his presence this season lifts them beyond expectation.

    The big question is health. Last reports were that he threw a 72-pitch batting practice and felt just fine. He had velocity and great location.

    While other pitchers like John Smoltz have grown stronger after the exact same surgery, others like Mark Prior struggled to regain success.

    The Mets are hopeful to not overuse him, and perhaps, their caution will pay off in Smoltz-like fashion.

    If it does, they will be all the better for it.

No. 1: Mets Closer and Setup Spots

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    The Mets have had issues with the setup role ever since they traded Francisco Rodriguez. When Bobby Parnell and Co. proved to be ineffective, the Mets knew they had to address this in the offseason.

    They did so in one short day. The Mets traded Angel Pagan for Andres Torres (CF) and Ramon Ramirez (RP). Then, they signed Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch. Both pitchers spent last season splitting the closer role with the Toronto Blue Jays and are being reunited with the Mets.

    Between the three pitchers and Bobby Parnell, they have four options to use as setup relievers in the eighth and close games in the ninth. The question is who will do what?

    It's likely that with Parnell's success as a setup man, he will continue to be used in that role at some point. Either in the seventh or the eighth and perhaps both.

    Based on his lack of closing experience but valuable relief skills, Ramirez (11 holds and a 2.62 ERA in 2011) most likely will share that duty with Parnell.

    Then, the team must decide the last two innings between Rauch and Frankie Francisco. It will come down to Francisco getting the majority of chances with Rauch relieving him on off days.

    Rauch (11 saves, 4.85 ERA in 2011) is an imposing presence on the mound, standing at 6' 11". He's coming off of a knee injury and seems to be healthy so far. It's apparent, though that the majority of the closing chances will go to the more experiences Frank Francisco (17 saves, 3.55 ERA in 2011).

    He's an intimidating presence as well. Standing at 6'2" and 250 lbs, he has a strong fastball and is effective in late-inning situations. Overall, the Mets have a stronger bullpen this year.

    How they develop and how Terry Collins uses all the weapons at his disposal in that bullpen will be major keys to the Mets season. Those tendencies must be established in spring training.

    Of the many on the field challenges that face the Mets this spring, none are as colossally important to the health of the current state of the franchise and the potential of a solid 2012 season as these 10 questions.

    If the Mets address these early and decisively, it will go a long way toward team chemistry and on field success.