Five Moves the New York Mets Must Make to Become Contenders
Former Mets first baseman and current television analyst Keith Hernandez has said a few times during the course of the season that a team is never as good as they look during a hot streak, and is never as bad as they seem to be during a cold streak.
Well, the Mets have seen both sides of the coin early in this young season, which leads me to believe that they'll end up, eventually, some place in the middle.
Right now, that middle seems to be the .500 mark, where the Mets are now hovering close to at 18-20, following a dismal four-game sweep at the hands of the Marlins down in Miami.
It's not exactly the way the Mets envisioned the first four games of an eight-game road trip against division foes happening. Plus, things won't be much better when they come home next weekend to host the Yankees and Phillies at Citi Field.
It seems like ages ago now that the Mets finished April on an eight-game tear, including a 9-1 homestand that saw them reach first place in an ultra-competitive NL East in which all five teams look like they're for real this year.
Yet, since that eight-game win streak in April, the calender has not been kind to the Mets, who are now 4-11 in the month of May. In fact, had the Mets not rallied for six runs in the eight inning against the Nationals last Tuesday, they could be staring at an eight-game losing streak right now.
But it's not as if the season is over. The season is not even one quarter of the way over yet. There is still time to try to fix this team and lift them back towards respectability.
One thing that shouldn't be overlooked is that, despite the 4-11 record in May, the Mets have played games decided by two runs or less in 12 of their last 13 games, which tells me a few things.
Primarily, it tells me that the offense doesn't quit, and they try to rally until the 27th out is recorded. We've seen them rally back from five, six, even seven runs down (with mixed results) and I love to see the fight and the never-say-die attitude. It's a refreshing change from last year when often they'd look dead after falling behind in the game.
In addition, it tells me that at some point, the breaks have got to start going the Mets' way. With so many close games decided by a few plays that go either way, at some point those breaks have to go the other way. It's not as if the opposing team is going to continue to make every diving catch and get every slow roller to bang off the third base bag for a base hit.
I still believe that the core talent on this team has so much potential that it hasn't fully realized yet, so today I'll look at five moves that the Mets should make to try to salvage this season, with the hopes of contending both now in 2010, and in the future.
Overhaul the Starting Rotation
Everyone knew going into the season that starting pitching was going to make or break this team. Johan Santana was the one sure thing in the rotation, and aside from a start here and there when he hasn't had his best stuff, Santana has been tremendous as usual.
One of the more pleasant surprises during the 2010 season has been Mike Pelfrey, who has gotten off to a hot start with a terrific April, giving the Mets a little bit more stability at the top of the rotation.
However, the final three games in Miami were horrific from a starting pitching standpoint, with each pitching performance arguably worse than the last.
Oliver Perez was yanked from the rotation after a 7-2 loss on Friday night after giving up four home runs and seven runs total among nine hits in 3.1 innings.
Perez, in a move likely influenced by his agent Scott Boras, refused a minor league assignment and will now hurt the team by rotting in the bullpen, wasting a roster spot, as he is unlikely to be used in anything other than mop-up duty.
Not to be outdone, John Maine proceeded to kick things off on Saturday by walking the first three batters of the game on 12 pitches, something rarely seen by the most veteran of baseball guys.
The promising Jon Niese, the 23-year-old rookie lefthander who at times has pitched with the poise of a veteran beyond his years, put a bow on the four-game set with the Marlins by re-injuring his troublesome right hamstring and allowing five runs (two earned) in just 2.0 innings.
Hisanori Takahashi has pitched brilliantly in long relief this year, and is one of the front-runners to replace either Perez or Niese in the rotation, should Niese miss some time.
But I think it's about time that John Maine be held accountable for what he has become, and that is a shell of his former self. Maine, and Perez for that matter, have regressed since 2007, and should not be pitching in a major league rotation for the moment, at least not with this team.
Down in Buffalo, veterans R.A. Dickey and Pat Misch have pitched well, and both deserve a shot to get a few starts with the big league squad. If necessary, Dillon Gee and Tobi Stoner are two youngsters who the Mets could turn to if Dickey and Misch don't pan out, but I'd prefer the stability of a veteran over more rookies coming up.
Don't get me wrong, I'd much rather take a look at young players over veteran retreads nine times out of 10. But after failing to sign any free agent pitchers this past season and instead relying on Maine and Perez, Omar Minaya has put the Mets in a bit of a bind.
Then again, a lot of those free agent pitchers haven't really panned out in the early part of the year, as I mentioned last week.
But that's what veteran starting pitchers are for. Unlike an Ike Davis, who can be promoted from the minors with the intention of being the first baseman of the future, the Mets aren't looking for a guy like Dillon Gee to come up to make his major league debut and run with a rotation spot the rest of the season. At least not yet.
Right now, Perez and Maine need to be replaced, and hopefully Niese can come back as soon as possible and continue to develop at the major league level.
Speaking of the rotation...
Send Jenrry Mejia to the Minors to Develop As a Starter
I don't want to sound like a broken record, but one of the most painfully obvious problems with this team is the mishandling of the Mets' top pitching prospect, Jenrry Mejia.
Using him infrequently out of the bullpen has stunted his development as a starting pitcher, where some scouts say he's destined to become a star. We've seen the flashes from the young Mejia, with a high 90s fastball that seems to have a life of its own with its cutting action.
It makes the most sense to send Mejia down to Binghamton, where he can stretch out his arm as a starting pitcher and work on his breaking ball. Clearly he's got the talent to become a big time pitcher in the big leagues someday, maybe even as early as this year.
Honestly, would you rather see John Maine or Oliver Perez struggle to throw 115 pitches through five innings over an electric Mejia, who has the ability to dominate hitters when he harnesses his talent?
Unless you're on the hook for the $24 million Perez is being paid this year and next, the answer is obvious. I just hope the Wilpons can wake up and realize a sunk cost when they see one. Even the Rays are paying Pat Burrell $9 million to go away.
End the Jeff Francoeur Experiment in Rightfield
During spring training, Jeff Francoeur was a revelation for the team and the fans. He emerged as a great clubhouse guy who kept everyone loose. This was sorely needed for a team like the Mets, who knew they were going to have a lot of pressure to succeed and get off to a quick start in 2010.
In April, Frenchy delivered with both his bat and his arm, hitting a solid .284/.355/.531 for the month, good for an .886 OPS and a 138 OPS+.
(In case you're not familiar with OPS+, it is a sabermetric stat known as adjusted OPS, or OPS+, that adjusts a player's on-base plus slugging percentage to account for the player's ballpark and the league they play in. An OPS+ of 100 is defined as league average)
Not coincidentally, Francoeur's struggles have corresponded with the team's overall struggles in the month of May.
Like I mentioned before, the Mets are 4-11 in May, despite 12 of their last 13 games being decided by 2 runs or less.
It's not Francoeur that's gotten them close, though. His numbers for the month of May are comically bad. His triple slash line is .102/.148/.102, which you can probably calculate in your head to equal to an awful .250 OPS. Not a .250 on-base percentage, a .250 OPS. That's a -30 OPS+. Not a 30, a negative 30.
Normally, I wouldn't freak out over a prolonged slump. Heck, it happens to the best of them, like Jason Bay and David Wright. The problem is that Francoeur may not just be slumping, he may be regressing towards the mean.
Even his throws from right field, his only redeeming on-field quality, have been lackluster recently.
Francoeur's 2010 line overall is now .215/.279/.369 for a .648 OPS and a 72 OPS+, which is considered below average for a starting major league hitter. His career number OPS+ is 92, slightly higher than his season totals but still below average for a big league player.
In comparison, Angel Pagan's career OPS+ is 99, just slightly below league average, and let me remind you that this is a purely offensive stat. Pagan's defense makes him a much more valuable player than Francoeur overall. In addition, Pagan posted a career best 121 OPS+ in 2009 and has been one of the better hitters on the team so far this year.
The answer, quite frankly, is that Angel Pagan has to remain in the lineup over Jeff Francoeur when Carlos Beltran is able to return to the lineup. In the meantime, would it hurt to see Chris Carter get a few more starts in right field every now and then?
Carter is not Beltran, obviously, but can he really be any worse than Francoeur has been this month? Francoeur was once quoted as saying that "if on-base percentage is so important, why don't they put it up on the scoreboard?"
Carter got his first start of the season on Sunday and narrowly missed a home run, hitting a 420 foot fly out to the warning track in Miami in his first at bat while also driving in a run later in the game. A lefthanded hitter, Carter had a .390 OBP down in Buffalo, even doing well against lefties.
Maybe his defense isn't gold glove caliber, but for a guy filling in temporarily, his bat may make up for it.
All I know is, Jeff Francoeur makes me crazy when I see him swinging at every single pitch he sees. If he doesn't get it going immediately, I can't see him as a starting major leaguer next season...if he's a major leaguer at all.
Shake Up the Coaching Staff, Starting with the Manager
It's no secret to most fans that the Mets are underachieving with a roster full of talent. It's not as if the Mets are sending out scrubs like last season when half the roster was injured.
The Mets have stayed relatively healthy, save for injuries to pitchers Ryota Igarashi and Jon Niese, both of whom injured their hamstrings fielding slow ground balls.
So far, so good for the Mets medical staff, whose "Prevention and Recovery" philosophy from spring training has evidently been working in the early part of the year.
So with no injuries, there are no excuses for an underachieving lineup that only has one home run from the cleanup spot and has struggled with the team's best three-hole hitter on the shelf from day one in Carlos Beltran.
The blame has to be on the coaching staff. That means the hitting coach, the pitching coach, and the manager.
Howard Johnson and Dan Warthen have seen more players regress than get better under their watch. Jerry Manuel's lineup change that had Jose Reyes hitting third was a nice try, but it was an obvious failure days, if not weeks, before Manuel pulled the plug.
My personal choice to manage the team is longtime AAA manager Ken Oberkfell. Oberkfell was Baseball America's Minor League Manager of the Year in 2005, his first season as Mets AAA skipper. He also managed his Dominican winter league team, Escogido, to a Caribbean World Series championship this past offseason.
Currently in his sixth season managing the Mets' AAA affiliate, Oberkfell, a former major league infielder who won a World Series with Keith Hernandez on the 1982 Cardinals, deserves a shot to turn around a roster littered with his former players.
Other candidates include Mets scout and former Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin, Mets minor league coordinator Terry Collins, and new Brooklyn Cyclones manager Wally Backman, who is a former Mets player who was part of the magical 1986 team.
Of course, there's also Bobby Valentine, currently working for ESPN. I'd like to think most Mets fans would welcome him back with open arms.
Replace Omar Minaya as General Manager
(For more Mets, Jets and Nets analysis, visit my personal blog, MetsJetsNetsBlog)