The Boys of Late Winter

William RushingContributor IMarch 2, 2009

So I watched my first preseason game yesterday, and the last one with the regular lineup until after the WBC. Man, has it been a long five months. Given how completely the rest of the world has taken it on the chin, we’ve needed the escape that the National Pastime brings more than ever. 

Kudos to the Phillies.  As a Met fan, that’s a hard thing to write, but unlike 2007, they really were the team to beat in 2008. They deserved the championship. But this is a new year and the Mets have the same devastating lineup and a much improved bullpen.

I hope Jimmy and Cole aren’t expecting another choke, or they may have to choke on their own words. 

But enough trash talk. BTW, I think, as a Met fan, I deserve a little credit for not even mentioning the sports figure that has dominated both the front and back covers of the tabloids this offseason, and I’m not referring to Plaxico Buruss.

We’ll see how things play out this year. I may have something to say at a later date.

My boys looked pretty sharp yesterday. Castillo looks a lot healthier and thinner. Gone is the paunch. Church looked strong and seemed to be seeing the ball well. And although it’s only been a few games, it looks like maybe the switch of Reyes into a spot deeper in the lineup is a good idea.

Wherever he hits, Jerry has to make sure that he’s got fast runners ahead of him so that Jose’s running game isn’t compromised.

Daniel Murphy may seem like an ideal No. 2 hitter, but not if he’s batting ahead of Reyes. If I was Jerry’s bench coach, here’s my everyday lineup:

1.    Castillo
2.    Reyes
3.    Wright
4.    Delgado
5.    Beltran
6.    Murphy
7.    Church/Tatis
8.    Schneider

I’m still not completely sold on Murphy as the everyday left fielder. He made a nice snag in the middle innings yesterday, but then overthrew to second when he probably should have held the ball to keep the runners in place.

Not a big deal, but evidence of his rookieness and that he’s playing out of position. Clearly, even from my lineup, there’ a weakness to having three lefties back to back in the middle-bottom of the order. 

Having Tatis play nearly every day would alleviate that weakness. I think some Bobby Valentine-style batting orders might work with this team. Murphy can play left, third and maybe second. Tatis can play left, right, third and possibly first. Clearly, David Wright is going to play 150+ games, barring injury.

But giving Castillo and Delgado a few more days off will hurt neither man, and may prolong Delgado’s greatness. I’m not talking a platoon, but maybe a 36-year old guy should get a day off once a week.

There’s also been grumblings about a platoon at catcher to get the right-handed Castro in the game more often. I think he’s better as a strong backup like Endy Chavez. In 2007 when LoDuca was hurt a lot, Castro was not as solid in an everyday role.

And with eight RBI yesterday, Schneider showed yet again that not only is he a great backstop and handler of younger pitchers, but he’s no slouch at the plate either. He should play almost every day. Slot Castro in once a week and against the really tough lefties.

John Maine looked pretty good. It was only two innings and Tejada knocked one off him, but the wind was blowing out and Maine was tuning up his curveball. I like John Maine a lot.  He’s a guy that, if he remains healthy, could be a Sid Fernandez-like presence on the team; a number two pitcher in the three or four slot. 

And while the Mets have over the years made some pretty bad trades (Victor Zambrano for Scott Kazmir???) the Benson trade for Jorge (Who?)lio and that other guy named Maine looks golden.

The ‘pen looked good also. I think that part of the strain on guys like Sanchez and Feliciano last year, as well as the rotation, was the idea that while they might have a solid inning, they’d have to hand the ball to guys like Heilman or Schoenweis. 

Just knowing that after the seventh, where those guys will get most of their work, they can hand the ball to Putz and Frankie is going to make them relax.

2008 reminded me of the 1999-2000, when solid guys like Dennis Cook and the Turk would hand the ball to Armando Benitez. 

The setup guys were great but the closer was awful. Billy wasn’t awful, but you could tell that he wasn’t at full strength for much of the season. And with Putz and Frankie signed for a few years, can you imagine a bullpen with three elite closers?

When Billy comes back late this year or in ’10 we’ll have one of the best ‘pens in the history of the game. As long as both stay healthy, the Putz-Rodriguez tandem could look like the Mendoza-Rivera combo from the three-peat Yankees

On an emotional note, it was really nice to see a game again. I really missed baseball this winter, maybe more than any other offseason. This winter had a powerful ‘Where have the heroes gone?’ feel to it, President Obama notwithstanding. 

Maybe it was watching Shea get torn down, or maybe it was the ignominy of the Phillies being world champions, or the economy. America needs baseball now as much as it did in the '30s and '40s. 

But baseball needs America too, thanks to the blowback from the Steroids era. Best thing for both would be for owners to use common sense and lower ticket prices. I know they have to recoup their expenses from building new stadia, but in the case of the New York parks, the taxpayers paid for much of the construction.

And in the case of the Mets’ new park, we’re going to end up owning the naming rights also. When the Feds eventually nationalize Citigroup, I think there should be a contest for the new name. United States Federal Reserve Field, anyone?

I’ll be ranting about the DH soon. Stay tuned.


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