Prior to the start of the 2008 season, Carlos Beltran declared his ballclub the "team to beat" following their epic collapse at the end of the 2007 season, when his Mets coughed up a seven-game lead with 17 games to play.
Well, Carlos was right.
The Mets were the team to beat, which is exactly what happened to them down the stretch for a second-consecutive season.
They were beat.
Again, and again, and again.
Among the reasons the Mets failed to qualify for the postseason were the 29 blown saves their bullpen gave up, in large part due to the season- and potentially career-ending elbow injury suffered by Billy Wagner, which forced interim manager Jerry Manuel to rely on the arms of Aaron Heilman, Scott Schoeneweis, Joe Smith, and Luis Ayala to figure out ways to nail down victories.
Despite the valiant effort of Johan Santana, the bullpen failed to come through, and the Mets faced another early offseason, leaving general manager Omar Minaya to figure out a way to get his team over the hump and back into October.
The plan was to give the bullpen a face lift. Heading into the winter meetings last week, Minaya knew that a buffet of relievers would be awaiting him.
The Mets GM wasted no time, locking up former Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez to a three-year, $37 million contract to replace Wagner and give the Mets a ninth inning presence they lacked at the end of 2008.
Knowing that his team needed a way to get the ball to Rodriguez, Minaya pulled off what he characterized as "an old-fashioned baseball trade," taking part in a three-team, 12 player blockbuster which sent Heilman and Smith packing to Seattle and Cleveland respectively, while bringing back former Mariners closer J.J. Putz (pronounced Puts, not Putts) to set up K-Rod.
The Mets also parted ways with Mets folk hero Endy Chavez, best known for his miraculous catch in Game Seven of the 2006 NLCS, while bringing back Mariners outfielder Jeremy Reed and right handed reliever Sean Green.
By the end of the winter meetings, what happened in Vegas certainly didn't stay there, as the Mets were beneficiaries of an early Christmas, having their bullpen completely made over.
Having not offered Ayala arbitration, and traded Schoeneweis to Arizona for a young minor league arm, it was out with old and in with the new.
With their new ballpark set to open next year, the Mets have already addressed their biggest need in a big way, adding two of the premier relief pitchers the game has to offer.
Still needing to add at least one other starting pitcher, a left fielder, and perhaps a replacement at second base—should Minaya be able to move Luis Castillo—the Mets have work left to be done if they want to dethrone the champion Philadelphia Phillies, who have officially set up shop inside the heads of both the team and their fans.
Remember, it was the perfect season of Brad Lidge that was a big a reason as any the Phillies ended their 28-year championship drought, proving that a reliable bullpen can make or break championship aspirations.
For a team looking to put the dreadful finishes of the previous two regular seasons, Minaya has the Mets moving in the right direction having addressed their most pressing need by creating what could easily be the most dominating eighth and ninth inning combination in all of baseball.
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