When glimpsing the National League East from afar, I was having a hard time deciding who my favorite would be. I sincerely rooted for the Philadelphia Phillies to win the World Series in 2008 once my beloved San Francisco Giants had played their last game so I'd naturally lean the Phightin's way in 2009.
Except it's so hard to have another stellar year when you have those crosshairs stapled to your back. Plus the New York Mets had an active and intelligent offseason.
You can see I was gradually talking myself into betting on the Mets. Then I looked more closely at their roster...and decided I'm sticking with the Phils.
Not that Gotham's Senior Circuit representative isn't stacked—the Mets most certainly have loads of talent and the vast majority of it is proven. It's just the level isn't overwhelming and New York (for whatever reason) seems to need that level to make the postseason in recent years.
The last two campaigns have seen one epic collapse and another frail finish despite having a considerable amount of money invested in a considerable amount of talent. However, the Metropolitans have tended to cluster the talent/money in one area and that can probably account for the ultimate failures of the 2007/2008 squads.
After spending on offense and then on starting pitching, New York got around to addressing the bullpen this winter. Omar Minaya brought in Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz to shore up 2008's Achilles' heel.
And that's putting it gently—the Mets' "relief" last year was spectacularly bad once Billy Wagner went down, just rank. It needed a ton of help and getting two elite closers should be just what the doctor ordered.
Still, there are some surprising vulnerabilities in what should be one of the NL's top three teams this season:
Projected starting lineup
Catcher—Brian Schneider/Ramon Castro
First base—Carlos Delgado
Second base—Luis Castillo
Third base—David Wright
Left field—Daniel Murphy
Center field—Carlos Beltran
Right field—Ryan Church
This was my first surprise because that lineup isn't as ferocious as I was expecting. The Schneider/Castro combo looks like the Mets are punting offense from the backstop and that's not a horrible idea considering most teams end up inadvertently doing that anyway. But the outfield is underwhelming even if Murphy can stretch that ~.300 average over a full season.
And yet, Wright/Beltran/Reyes makes this a very good offense in the NL. If Delgado can squeeze another year out of his revitalization, it's an elite offense.
Ace—Johan Santana (L)
Second spot—John Maine (R)
Third spot—Oliver Perez (L)
Fourth spot—Mike Plefrey (R)
Fifth spot—Livan Hernandez (R)/Tim Redding (R)/Freddy Garcia (R)
Again, not as dominating as I was expecting. And if Santana misses any substantial time, look out. The lefty led the team in wins, earned run average, WHIP, innings pitched, and strikeouts in 2008 so it's safe to say the starting rotation absolutely must feature a healthy Johan Santana. Maine is unwisely overlooked considering he pitched with a damaged shoulder in 2008 and had decent success. Perez will give you two things for sure: Ks and walks—the ratio will decide his year.
Pelfrey showed promise and the fifth spot looks to be a quagmire of discarded arms.
Closer—Francisco Rodriguez (R)
Set-up—J.J. Putz (R)
Set-up—Eddie Kuntz (R)
Set-up_Pedro Feliciano (L)
Set-up—Duaner Sanchez (R)
Set-up—Ron Villone (L)
That is an ample sufficiency of Major League ability right there. For most teams. It just seems to be the case that the New York Mets are not most teams—they don't seem to get any help from Lady Luck or the baseball gods (not since 1986 at least) so they need to make up for that absence with outstanding capacity for performance.
And, considering the Phillies have their share, I don't think New York has enough.
On offense, the picture is wonderful as long as you focus on the top four threats. David Wright is superlative in every sense of the word, but this isn't a David Wright piece so I'll let the offensive numbers summarize his excellence—a .302 average, 42 doubles, 33 home runs, 115 runs scored, 124 runs batted in, 15 stolen bases, a .390 on-base percentage, and a .924 OPS. And he plays Gold Glove caliber defense at the hot corner.
At the tender age of 26, David Wright is the best third baseman in the National League. So the Mets have that going for them.
New York also has Jose Reyes, who is almost as polished as Wright and is a year younger. Reyes doesn't flash the same power as his partner on the left side of the infield, but he runs circles around a pretty spry David Wright—.297, 37 doubles, 19 triples, 16 HRs, 114 runs, 68 RBI, 56 SBs, .358 OBP, .833 OPS. In modern baseball, 19 triples and 56 swipes are rockstar numbers for those categories.
Although I prefer Hanley Ramirez, you could argue Jose Reyes is the best shortstop in the NL.
But the picture starts getting gloomier here and it starts with Father Time. He is a formidable and additional opponent the Mets must face every day because, on paper, New York is expecting a lot from an aging pair of Carloses: 31-year-old Beltran (who's older than that because he's always been a bit on the fragile side) and 36-year-old Delgado.
Beltran's certainly got more run in him and there's no reason to expect a sharp decline from his 2008 final tally of a .284 average with 40 doubles, 27 bombs, 116 runs, 112 RBI, 25 steals, a .376 OBP, and an .876 OPS. But, sooner or later, a decline is coming and he did play 161 games in 2008.
Delgado's the bigger concern, though, because of his advanced age. I say there's a decent chance that New York doesn't see him hit .271 with 32 doubles, 38 HRs, 96 runs, 115 RBI, a .353 OBP, and an .871 OPS in '09.
If he does—after turning 37 in June—what the hell are the Los Angeles Dodgers paying Manny Ramirez all that money for?
And the clouds get even more foreboding once you move out of the safe harbor of Wright/Reyes/Beltran/Delgado.
Like I said, the Mets appear to be punting the catching spot in terms of offense. And it would appear they're doing the same at second base—although New York did try to ditch Luis Castillo (shockingly to no avail). Ryan Church is alright, but something about the guy smacks of performance-enhancers—I guess it's just the suspicion that a guy with a lot of natural get-up-and-go would seem to benefit exponentially more from PEDs.
Daniel Murphy's only 23 and did hit .313 in 131 at-bats last year—that's reason to be optimistic. Unfortunately, if he or Church can't hack it, the Mets can only turn to Fernando Tatis, Bobby Kielty, Jeremy Reed, or Angel Pagan. That's not much of a safety net.
Still, with those four guys leading the way, the offense shouldn't be a problem for New York.
The pitching is really what gave me pause.
While I like John Maine and Mike Pelfrey, even I won't say they're top of the rotation guys. And Oliver Perez is scary if you ask me—he might have no-hit stuff, but he doesn't seem to be making as much progress as you'd hope as far as getting a harness on his electricity. Plus he's rep'd by Scott Boras, which makes me twice as suspicious.
God forbid the fifth spot goes to Livan Hernandez. Yikes. But the alternatives aren't exactly spell-binding—I'm afraid Freddy Garcia may be done (or at least another several months from fighting his way back) and Tim Redding used to pitch for the Washington Nationals. I think we're done here.
If Johan Santana's preseason rattle is more than just that, the Mets are staring down the wrong end of a gun.
Remove his 16-7 record, 234+ innings pitched, 206 Ks against only 63 walks, 1.15 WHIP, and 2.53 ERA from New York's pitching scene and what's left is not pretty. Without Santana, that revamped bullpen doesn't mean squat.
With him, though, the pitching staff could be a sight to behold (except for Livan).
Because that bullpen will help keep the shine on the starters for a long time.
K-Rod might not be all his record is cracked up to be, but he's still one of the best at slamming the door in the last frame. And J.J. Putz was on his way to that same eschelon before his train got momentarily derailed recently. I've always been impressed by Duaner Sanchez and the lefties aren't too shabby (Pedro Feliciano and Ron Villone) either.
Those are a lot of quality arms and they should turn 2008's greatest weakness into 2009's greatest strength. If Santana can miss just that first start and the four big guns get some unexpected help, the New York Mets could carry the National League flag into the World Series.
Even if they can't unseat the champs from atop the NL East roost, this squad should be your 2009 National League Wild Card. With all that money in all three primary areas of baseball interest, there are truly no more excuses for anything less.
But, remember, these are the Mets.