It has been almost taken for granted over the last couple of seasons that the New York Mets have been a team unable to close. Having lost 12 of their last 15 games in 2007, they blew what seemed to be an unassailable seven game lead atop the NL East.
They then followed that by throwing away a 3.5 game lead this past September in their attempt to close Shea Stadium with a division title and possible World Series bid.
It is not only in the standings they have failed to close things out though, with their 29 blown saves last year. Suddenly a trend starts to appear, and perhaps World Series MVP and NL East nemesis Cole Hamels has some credence to his claim that the Mets have been "Choke Artists."
If you look at the standings, it's clear the Mets have been on the bubble these last few years. If they had manage to convert a mere one-third of their blown saves to victories, they could have locked up the home seed in the NL playoffs, possibly lived off the emotion of one last October run at Shea and well, who knows what could have happened.
With that in mind, manager Jerry Manuel and GM Omar Minaya struck fast in the off-season. They arrived at the Bellagio without a closer, and they left with not one, but two from the AL West. The Mets acquired J.J. Putz from the Seattle Mariners and free agent Francisco Rodriguez. This past season, Rodriguez set the single season saves record with 62 out of 69 attempts.
So with the addition Putz and K-Rod, have the Mets immediately become the NL favorites, or has the intense focus on pitching left the lineup with more questions than answers?
In his first spring training as Mets manager, former AL Manager of the Year Jerry Manuel has set about putting his fingerprints on the club, preaching to his players to take a team first approach.
He is looking for his players to be less selfish with runners on base, make sacrifices for the team and forgo personal stats in exchange for team glory.
To drive home the importance of being practical during at-bats with people on base, Manuel organized a highlight reel of the Mets’ top 2008 opposite-field hits to be playing on televisions in the team’s spring training clubhouse. Manuel has a stated preference for opposite field hits in certain situations rather than going after an all or nothing home run swing.
He has also preached significantly to Jose Reyes about limiting the use of his base stealing skills to when they are absolutely necessary for the team. The actual number of steals that Reyes has over the season is not important to Manuel, rather he is looking at how many times a stolen base can be used to manufacture a run or throw a pitcher off his game.
“Stolen bases aren’t important to me,” Manuel said. “It’s important when you steal the base...Just to have the numbers aren’t important. It’s when you steal a base that’s important.”
The rotation has been fortified and looks less like an injury waiting to happen now that Pedro Martinez is off the books. In recent seasons he has clearly not been the player he once was and it is now up to Freddy Garcia, Tim Redding, or Jon Niese to nail down the fifth spot in the rotation.
While neither of these names will strike fear into opposing batters, the Mets believe Niese has tremendous potential, Redding has shown he can be formidable for periods, and Garcia when healthy is going to give the team 30 solid starts a year.
The lefty Niese tossed eight scoreless innings against the Braves in September, and Mets officials for much of the winter talked about him being the favorite to claim the No. 5 starter’s role.
Johan Santana is the undisputed ace and hopes to be fit again after surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. He boasted a 16-7 record with a miserly 2.53 ERA in 234 innings last season. He also had over 200 K's and didn’t lose a start after June 28.
Mike Pelfrey, 25, finally realized his first-round-pick potential the Mets have been waiting on since drafting him with the ninth overall pick in 2005. He logged 200 2/3 innings while going 13-11 with a 3.72 ERA.
Oliver Perez’s re-signing and the return of John Maine from surgery to shave down a bone growth on his right shoulder blade, means the rotation has a familiar look to last season. Perez and Maine combined for 20 wins and over 325 innings pitched last season, and the Mets will be hoping for a similar return from their third and fourth starters in the coming year.
The bullpen looks like it should be considerably stronger than last season with Scott Schoeneweis, Aaron Heilman, and Joe Smith all traded away and the addition of two closers to lock down the eighth and ninth innings in Putz and K-Rod.
Sean Green didn’t get much hype when he arrived from Seattle with Putz in December, but Mets officials expect the 6’6” right-hander to play an integral role in the bullpen.
Green, 29, went 9-7 with a 4.32 ERA in 160 relief appearances for the Mariners during the past three seasons.
Redding may also find himself in a setup role should Garcia or Niese win the fifth spot in the rotation, and should be joined by Duaner Sanchez, who missed part of 2006 and 2007 when he was involved in a taxi cab accident.
Mets officials would like to add a second left-hander to the bullpen to join Pedro Feliciano who some would consider lucky to have retained his place in the 'pen after last season.
Another area Jerry Manuel is looking to make an impression is on the lineup, with a few notable changes from previous years being hinted at. The prospect of moving Jose Reyes from his regular leadoff spot to third in the lineup is being toyed with. Luis Castillo would then bat leadoff, followed by Carlos Beltran.
Castillo, despite a poor season in 2008 (.245 average and .340 OBP), actually possesses a higher career average and OBP than Reyes, and he has lost 20 lbs. in his attempt to reclaim the form that earned him the four-year, $25 million deal he was given prior to last season.
David Wright and Carlos Delgado with their combined 71 home runs and 239 RBI look to once again anchor the lineup and give the team the runs required to provide a lead for their much vaunted closers.
There are, however, questions of whether the Carlos Delgado we see this year will be the one that was visible in the first half of the season last year, with a .228 average, 45 RBI, and 14 homers, or the post All-Star game Delgado who went on a tear with 24 dingers, 70 RBI, and a .313 average.
He has shown some decline over the past few years and it is very possible that the 11 years he spent playing on artificial turf up in Toronto are starting to catch up to him.
In the outfield, Daniel Murphy has won the race to start in left, having been originally projected to split time with Fernando Tatis as he did last season. Murphy has only two months of service time and 131 Big League at-bats to his credit, so this is a bold move by Manuel.
But Murphy, 23, also owns a .313 career average and an uncommon aptitude for hitting, and provided he can continue to hit left-handed pitching, the decision not to pursue any of the big free agent left fielders and promote from within could pay huge dividends for the Mets.
There are however a few questions over the Mets’ lineup. Ryan Church struggled tremendously at the plate having suffered from his second concussion in only four months last May. Church will hope that a strong spring can bring him back to the player he was becoming following his trade from the Washington Nationals.
Jerry Manuel has admitted he isn't sure of Church's ability to return to his previous form, nor of his capacity to be as productive a hitter as Manuel would like.
"There's no doubt he can be that player. He's physically able to be that player," Manuel said. "The question becomes, how are you going to perform?"
Another potential problem for the Mets lineup is how much of a lefty-heavy list they will have with Murphy, Delgado, Church, and Brian Schneider all hitting from that side of the plate to go along with switch-hitters Reyes, Beltran and Castillo.
Against southpaws, Tatis is expected to start over Murphy in left field and Ramon Castro will sit behind the plate for Schneider. However, that will pose its own problems as the bench on those days is scheduled to consist entirely of left-handers (Daniel Murphy, Brian Schneider, Alex Cora, and either Jeremy Reed or Marlon Anderson). Thus it is reasonable to expect the Mets to try to add a right-handed bat for the bench.
As for the lineup, the key components from the last few seasons are still in place. Wright is continuing to blossom into one of the best players in baseball, Beltran appears to be more suited to the No. two spot in the Mets lineup with his recent propensity to hit more for percentage than power, and Jose Reyes is becoming more of a leader with each year that goes by.
If Ryan Church and Daniel Murphy can reach their potential, the Mets outfield will compare favorably against any in baseball. Delgado will required to be the first baseman we saw after the All-Star game last year, and Luis Castillo is the player Minaya thought he was signing to a long term deal, the Mets will be well placed to challenge their division rival Phillies for the NL Crown.
As with every team entering Spring Training, there are question marks. However, the newly acquired strength in depth in at the back end of the bullpen should only add to what was already a team on the bubble of success.
That along with Manuel's attention to detail and people management skills, could make this the year Wright and Reyes lead their team to the promised land.
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