Spring Training 2010: Where Do the Mets Go From Here?
If you're a New York Mets fan like I am, you've got to be thick-skinned.
It's hard enough when you see your entire 40-man roster fall apart at the seams due to injuries, but it's even more painful when you're forced to watch your division rivals face your crosstown rivals in the World Series.
Over the past six seasons, through three managers and what seems like one hundred general managers, the Mets have had an unbelievable stretch of roller coaster up-and-downs.
From the death of the short-lived Art Howe era intersecting the birth of the David Wright and Jose Reyes era in 2004, to the exciting 2005 season that brought in Willie Randolph, Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez, it looked like the end of the past decade would be happier times for the Mets faithful.
A 2006 season that saw the acquisitions of Billy Wagner and Carlos Delgado ended with shocking disappointment, as the Mets finished with a major league best 97 wins but dealt with untimely injuries leading up to the playoffs, where the underdog Cardinals upset them in the NLCS on their way to a championship.
In 2007, the Mets faded down the stretch and blew a big division lead as the red-hot Phillies went on to win the NL East on the final day of the season.
More of the same in 2008, as the Mets and Phillies battled to the last day for the second straight season, with the Mets falling one game short again as Shea Stadium was closed for good.
From the day Jerry Manuel was hired in mid-2008, the Mets had one of the best records in baseball that year, despite falling short by one game as the Mets had started exactly one game under .500 with Randolph at the helm.
Manuel set the tone early in spring training of 2009, making his hitters participate in a rigorous practice where they were asked to swing at 80 pitches in a row in a fast-paced repetitive drill that was supposed to encourage hitting to the opposite field.
It may have led to David Wright messing with his swing, as Wright hit a career low in home runs and the entire Mets team finished dead last in baseball in total home runs.
Of course, with Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran out of the lineup, it's going to be tough to hit home runs in a big ball park with no one protecting Wright.
Enter 2010, enter Jason Bay. The former Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirate gives the Mets a much-needed power bat from the right side, and a legitimate cleanup hitter.
In 2010, the Mets look to leave the past three seasons in the past, and look to the future. The medical staff and trainers have stressed "prevention and recovery " as both a slogan and a frame of mind.
No one wants to see a repeat of what happened in 2009, when bodies were going down left and right, with by my count at least 19 or 20 players spending significant time on the disabled list.
So after an offseason in which the Mets front office looked more dysfunctional than ever, (just who is in charge here? Omar Minaya? Jeff Wilpon? John Ricco? Wayne Krivsky? All of the above?) and the only significant addition was Bay, what are we to expect of a roster that by and large looks suspiciously similar to the last three years?
Really, what else is there other than cautious optimism? As a Jets fan, I've seen what happens when the Murphy's law mentality gets in the head of the players, coaches and fans. Revamping the coaching staff exorcised the Jets' demons, but the Mets are trotting out the usual suspects again.
Personally, I would love to see Bobby Valentine managing this team, as he shouldn't have been fired in the first place. However, I can't see the Wilpons letting him run his own ship like he would, and should, want to.
So Jerry Manuel is the captain of the ship again. Perhaps if the marquee guys can stay healthy this year, the Mets can surprise some people. Obviously that's a huge "if."
Already though, there are rumblings about Manuel potentially shaking things up, most notably with the thought of batting returning superstar Jose Reyes in the three slot in the lineup.
Reyes started his career as a talented 19-year-old who battled durability issues, but he had played 153 or more games every season since 2005 before dealing with a knee and hamstring injury that cost him all but the first 36 games of the 2009 season.
Reyes is regarded as one of the premiere leadoff hitters in the game, but I personally like the idea of moving him to the third spot in the lineup, at least until Carlos Beltran returns from his most recent knee surgery.
Reyes had 81 RBI in 2006, a year where he hit .300/.354/.487, and that's while batting leadoff in the National League.
If he can drive in 81 runs with a pitcher hitting in front of him, I can imagine his offense taking a big leap forward if he were to hit third behind two speedy leadoff men with Jason Bay and David Wright batting behind him.
If Angel Pagan wins the center field job in spring training, I think he's capable of leading off with Luis Castillo hitting second. This would allow a top three of Pagan, Castillo and Wright, all three being speedy switch hitters.
All of a sudden, the Mets lineup can minimize the loss of Beltran and lengthen the lineup with Daniel Murphy, Jeff Francoeur, and Rod Barajas hitting in some order sixth, seventh, and eighth.
The question is, can the pitching staff hold up their end of the bargain?
The Mets went after John Lackey, who ended up signing a huge free agent deal with the Red Sox instead. However, after that, the Mets effectively decided against heavily pursuing any remaining starting pitchers like Jason Marquis, Joel Piñiero, and Randy Wolf.
Instead the Mets will go with Mike Pelfrey, John Maine and Oliver Perez behind Johan Santana. Santana is expected to return to form following minor elbow surgery, but despite his status as one of the best lefthanders in all of baseball, he can't pitch every day.
The Mets are going to have to hope that Oliver Perez is as focused mentally and fit physically as he claims to be, and that John Maine can avoid the injury bug and his perpetually rising pitch count.
Mike Pelfrey is a bit of an enigma after his down year in 2009 following his breakout 2008. The tastefully named rookie lefthander Jon Niese, himself coming off a gruesome hamstring injury, is the early frontrunner for the fifth rotation spot.
Niese will compete with Nelson Figueroa, Fernando Nieve, and others for the final rotation spot.
So who can accurately predict this team? Can anybody? The pitching staff is full of question marks, as is the defense. No one knows quite yet who is the center fielder, who is the first baseman (probably Daniel Murphy, with prospect Ike Davis waiting in the wings), and exactly why Luis Castillo is still employed.
Despite all that, I can't help but be cautiously optimistic about this team, no matter what.
I'll hope for health throughout the organization, for the young pitchers to step up, and maybe the Mets can shock the world and compete for a playoff spot now that the bulls-eye is off their back and nothing much is expected of them.
Until then, spring is in the air, and hope springs eternal. There's always one or two party crashers who end up in October that no one thought would be there in February or March. This time of year, all 30 teams can realistically think that this is their year.
So why not us?
(For more Mets, Jets and Nets analysis, visit my personal blog, MetsJetsNetsBlog)
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