The 2008 season was like the movie Groundhog Day for Met fans, except without the happy ending. While the Mets did not blow a seven game lead with 17 to go as they did in 2007, they did have a 2.5 game lead over Milwaukee for the Wild Card on September 20th. The rest is miserable history for Met faithful, culminating with a gut-wrenching loss to the Florida Marlins on the final day of the season and the final game at Shea Stadium.
The Mets come into 2009 hoping to turn things around with a new stadium and a new bullpen. However, the rest of the team is similar to the 2008 version and enters the new season with plenty of questions. How the Mets answer the questions below will likely determine their fate.
1. Can the Mets end the negativity surrounding the team?
After blowing late-season leads in 2007 and 2008, it is postseason or bust for the Mets in 2009. Even a new stadium does not offer a honeymoon and getting off to a good start is key.
Normally, impatient New York fans are the end of their rope and will be merciless if the team gets off to the kind of poor start that hampered the team last year. That start also cost manager Willie Randolph his job. Put simply, Francisco Rodriguez better not get to a three-ball count when he faces his first hitter at Citi Field.
2. Have the Mets finally solved their bullpen woes?
Last year, a Met fan’s worst nightmare was seeing Jerry Manuel pop out of the dugout to put in yet another struggling reliever. The bullpen blew 29 saves in 2008 and was particularly unreliable late in the season. In 2009, the bullpen should be less of a liability with the additions of closer Francisco Rodriguez and setup man J.J. Putz.
There have been concerns about K-Rod’s drop in velocity over the last few years and Putz’s injuries ruined his 2008. However, if the duo matches their previous performances, Met fans may not dread the ninth inning this year. Just as important, the Mets traded Scott Schoeneweis and Aaron Heilman, who became public enemies No. 1 and 2 in Flushing.
3. Do the Mets have enough starting pitching?
Four starters from 2008 return in 2009: Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey, Oliver Perez and John Maine. The fifth starter is likely to be either Tim Redding, Freddy Garcia or youngster Jonathon Niese. Santana is the clear ace, but there are questions with everyone else.
Pelfrey came into his own in 2008 with 13 wins and a solid 3.72 ERA, but he also threw a career high 200.3 innings, 130 more than he threw with the big club in 2007. Maine was hurt at the end of 2008, and Oliver Perez’s performance can swing wildly from inning to inning. The Mets were probably right not to give Derek Lowe the huge contract he received from the Braves, but it's unlikely that Perez will suddenly become a consistent winner. Ben Sheets might have been a better option, but his latest injury makes it a moot point.
4. Which Carlos Delgado will we see in 2009?
From April-June 2008, Carlos Delgado looked like a rich man’s Dave Kingman with a .231 BA, 14 HRs and 45 RBI. From July-September, Delgado looked like an MVP with a .313 BA, 24 HRs and 70 RBI. If the Mets get anything resembling the second-half Delgado, their offense goes from decent to formidable.
However, Delgado turns 37 in June and it will be very difficult for him to repeat those second half numbers over a full season. Delgado’s success may also hinge on how Citi Field plays. If the park is the pitcher’s paradise the Mets hope it is, his power numbers will suffer, if not, he should hit his 500th home run by season's end.
5. If Manny isn’t in left field, who is?
Met fans desperately want the team to sign Manny Ramirez, but it is pretty clear ownership will not let Manny be Manny in Queens. This leaves the Mets with a mix of youngsters Daniel Murphy and Nick Evans to go with 2008 reclamation Fernando Tatis.
Murphy showed potential as a rookie in 2008, hitting .313 with an .870 OPS in 49 games. Tatis was one of the Mets’ best stories of 2008, coming off the scrap heap to hit .297 with 11 HRs and 47 RBI in 92 games. It is a stretch to expect him to match those numbers in 2009. The only way the Mets stifle the Manny talk is if Murphy can continue to improve and become an additional offensive weapon.
6. How will Citi Field play?
Whenever a team moves to a new ballpark, there is a period of adjustment. While Citi Field has expansive dimensions and was designed to be a pitcher’s park, early indications are that it could favor offense.
This would obviously help players like Carlos Delgado and David Wright. The larger dimensions and asymmetrical outfield fence should also help Jose Reyes hit more triples and even an inside-the-park home run or two.
However, Johan Santana gave up 12 of his 23 home runs at pitcher-friendly Shea Stadium last year, so he is certainly hoping Citi Field doesn’t rival nearby LaGuardia Airport for total takeoffs in 2009.