By Greg Wiley, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2004 FINISH (71-91) - Fourth Place (NL East)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: OF - Carlos Beltran; SP - Pedro Martinez; INF - Miguel Cairo; RP - Felix Heredia; 1B - Doug Mientkiewicz; SP - Kazuhisa Ishii
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: SP - Al Leiter; RP - John Franco; OF - Richard Hidalgo; RP - Mike Stanton
PROJECTED LINEUP: Jose Reyes (SS); Kaz Matsui (2B); Carlos Beltran (CF); Mike Piazza (C); Cliff Floyd (LF); David Wright (3B); Mike Cameron (RF); Doug Mientkiewicz (1B)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Pedro Martinez (RHP); Tom Glavine (LHP); Kris Benson (RHP); Victor Zambrano (RHP); Kazuhisa Ishii (LHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Braden Looper (RHP)
MANAGER: Willie Randolph
The Mets were very active this offseason, arguably the most active team in the league. It started towards the end of last season when they decided to part ways with manager Art Howe after just two seasons. The team then replaced general manager Jim Duquette with Omar Minaya, who made all the big moves after being given full autonomy from owner Fred Wilpon and his son Jeff.
Minaya's first move was very surprising, but not nearly as eye-opening as what was to come. Minaya hired long-time Yankee coach Willie Randolph as the new manager, giving the former Met his first managerial position at any level. He then shocked the baseball world by getting in on the Pedro Martinez sweepstakes and signing the future Hall-of-Famer away from the defending World Series champion Red Sox. That was followed with the most improbable of signings, as he captured the prize jewel of the free agent market, outfielder Carlos Beltran.
Even with the active offseason, there are a number of question marks surrounding this club. 1. Can the untested, inexperienced bullpen bridge the gap to closer Braden Looper? 2. Can stars like Mike Piazza, Cliff Floyd and Jose Reyes stay healthy the entire season? 3. Will Kaz Matsui be able to handle a position move from shortstop to second base? 4. Will Mike Cameron, upon his return from offseason wrist surgery, be able to handle his move to right field from center without causing problems in the clubhouse?
The good news for the Mets' infield is that Piazza is no longer at first base. The bad news is that he's back as the team's full-time catcher. After a failed experiment last season, Piazza has been assured that he will see a bulk of action behind the plate this season. That's great news for Matsui, Reyes and David Wright, who will now be making the throw to first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz. The former Gold Glove winner was acquired by New York from Boston and his experience should keep the errors to a minimum.
Piazza's move to catcher is also great news for opposing base runners. His backstop woes have been well-documented and don't expect that to change as he enters the final year of his lucrative contract. Last year he threw out only 21 percent of base stealers (9-of-43) in just 50 games behind the plate. His shortcomings will have to be made up by the pitchers, who will have to keep the runners close.
Back to the good news for the Mets. Reyes is relocating to his more comfortable position at shortstop. The question is, however, will he be healthy enough to play. When 100 percent last season, Reyes was the Mets' second baseman. He gave way to Matsui at short, but missed a bulk of the season with back and hamstring ailments. With Reyes back at short this year, expect a lot more plays to made and the team to score a lot more runs.
Reyes will serve as the leadoff hitter and his speed will prove to be a lethal weapon on the base paths. He just needs to be able to get on base with regularity, setting the table for the rest of the lineup.
Matsui is expected to follow Reyes in the batter's box and again be his double-play partner. This year, though, Matsui will be in a different role, moving over to second. Last year, the long throw from short was difficult for Matsui, as he committed a league-worst 23 errors at the position. The transition to second isn't expected to go over flawlessly, but all indications out of spring training is that he is going to be okay on the right side of the diamond.
Matsui, a switch-hitter, pulled his weight in the batter's box last season, hitting seven homers -- five of which came leading off a game. He hit .272 and scored 62 runs, but his 97 strikeouts and only 44 walks aren't a great ratio for a two-hole batter. He does make contact, which should allow Randolph to hit and run more often, and his speed should keep the team out of too many double plays.
The hot corner is the infield position that has Mets fans the most excited heading into this year. With Wright manning the position, the club has what it hopes to be its franchise third baseman. In 69 games last season, Wright hit .293 with 14 homers, 17 doubles and 40 RBI. Those numbers have management salivating at his potential. He appears to have a good head on his shoulders and shows the work ethic necessary to succeed in the majors, as well as in New York.
He will most likely bat sixth in the lineup behind Floyd, allowing Randolph the opportunity to break up the right-handed bats of Wright and Piazza. However, if Floyd gets traded or struggles, Wright could move up and see a lot more good pitches in protecting Piazza.
The trio of Floyd, Beltran and Cameron will man the outfield from left to right. The big controversy is Cameron's move to right. He is a former Gold Glove centerfielder and wasn't happy when he was told of the move. However, he has reportedly gotten on board with the move, realizing that if he didn't he could be shipped to Oakland or Detroit, both teams which aren't expected to be as good as New York.
Much of New York's success will lay on the shoulders of Beltran. He is the new face of the franchise and has to put up the numbers to provide the punch. It will be the first time in his career that he will be in a major media market and with a team whose fans can turn on you with one strikeout in a big situation. His numbers (35 HR, 104 RBI, 42 SB, .267 BA in 2004) will fade in the abyss that is Shea Stadium's outfield, but his presence in the lineup will benefit the Mets greatly.
Floyd will need to return to his All-Star form of a couple years ago if the Mets want to succeed. He will be batting fifth behind Piazza and needs to be able to protect the slugger with regularity. If not, he and not Cameron, could be shipped out of town.
Coming into spring training the Mets believed they had one of the best starting rotations from top to bottom in the league. However, despite the offseason acquisition of Martinez, the possible season-ending injury to Steve Trachsel's back has the team worrying a bit.
The acquisition of Martinez obviously helps the rest of the rotation, as he gives the club a legitimate No. 1 starter. Many expect Martinez to dominate the National League this season, especially coming to a park that clearly benefits pitchers. The question regarding the righthander is his throwing arm and whether or not it will hold up. Martinez has shown he can handle the media/fan pressure, but can his arm handle the pressure of another 200-plus inning, 30-plus start season?
Last year, he went 16-9 with a 3.90 ERA in 33 starts. He has made at least 29 starts in each of the last three campaigns and the 217 innings he accumulated in 2004 were the most since tossing the same amount in 2000. Without a designated hitter and the pitcher hitting for himself, Martinez should fare well this season. It is the rest of his four-year contract that has critics worrying. That, however, is for a different time.
The Martinez signing benefits Tom Glavine more than anyone else on this staff. The 39-year-old lefthander no longer has to be the top gun of the staff and his numbers should improve as a result. In two seasons with the Mets, Glavine has just a 20-28 mark. Last year, he went a disappointing 11-14 with a 3.60 ERA. He started the season 6-2, but after a one-hitter on May 23 versus Colorado, he went 5-12 rest of the way. That slump included an 0-5 stretch during a five-start stint from June 24-July 17.
Kris Benson appears to have found his way since coming to the Mets in a trade from Pittsburgh last season. Last year, he was 12-12 with a 4.31 ERA overall, going 4-4 with a 4.50 ERA in 11 starts with the Mets. He has been impressive this spring, keeping his pitches down in the strike zone. If that keeps up, he should be very effective and could put together his best major league season to date.
With the injury to Trachsel, Victor Zambrano moves up a spot in the rotation. Zambrano has nasty movement on his fastball, which is his gift and curse. Because of the movement, the righthander rarely knows where his pitches are going to end up. Thus, his walk numbers are always high. Last year, he issued 102 free passes, but also struck out 123 batters in 142 innings of work combined with the Mets and Devil Rays. His performances have been questionable at best this spring and he needs to be much better to help the Mets this season, especially after the loss of Trachsel.
New York filled its last spot in the starting rotation late in spring training by acquiring lefthander Kaz Ishii from the Los Angeles Dodgers in exchange for backup catcher Jason Phillips. Ishii, 31, was 13-8 with a 4.71 ERA in 31 starts a season ago with the Dodgers. He is just as erratic as Zambrano on the mound, striking out 99 and walking 98 in 172 innings. However, compared to the Mets' other options for the fifth starter (Matt Ginter and Aaron Heilman), New York is much better off.
Other than closer Braden Looper and setup men lefthander Felix Heredia and righthander Mike DeJean, nothing is set in the New York bullpen.
Looper is coming off a 29-save season in which he posted a 2.70 ERA and nearly a 6-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 83 1/3 innings. There is no reason to believe that Looper can't at least repeat those numbers again this year, and maybe improve if the offense plays up to expectations.
However, if the setup men fail, don't expect too much from the closer. DeJean should be okay in his role, but Heredia has been suffering from numbness in his throwing hand and his status is questionable. He should be ready for the start of the season, but if his performance is anything like last year the Mets could be in trouble.
Heredia had a 6.28 ERA in 47 games with the Yankees in 2004. He needs to be much more effective to help the Mets and even stay in the majors this year.
That's about it for New York. The team has been rumored to be searching for bullpen help, going as far as talking with the Detroit Tigers about Ugueth Urbina. However, to this point nothing has been finalized and the Mets appear ready to go into the season with relievers that include: Scott Strickland, Heath Bell, Ginter, Jae Seo, Dae-Sung Koo and Bartolome Fortunato.
The key bench acquisition for the Mets this offseason was Miguel Cairo, who can play every infield position except catcher. With the injury history of Reyes, Cairo becomes invaluable to New York. He hit .292 last year in a utility role with the Yankees, and a similar output would be more than welcome this season.
Youngster Victor Diaz will provide some power off the bench. He is expected to start in right field if Cameron can't begin the season. He can also take over the position if Cameron is dealt. He could, however, start the year in Triple- A to get at-bats and not warm the bench.
Others who are likely for spots include: infielders Chris Woodward, Marlon Anderson and Jeff Keppinger; catcher Ramon Castro; and outfielders Eric Valent and Ron Calloway.
The Mets will be vastly improved from a season ago. The club finished in fourth place in the NL East with only 71 wins. The team will definitely improve upon that, but don't expect too much of a turnaround. Teams like Atlanta and Florida also improved in the offseason, and the Mets need to play above their potential to make a splash in the division. Expect New York to possibly vie for a Wild Card spot at best with a .500 finish more likely.