By Chris Ruddick, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2003 FINISH (66-95) - Fifth Place (NL East)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: OF - Mike Cameron, SP - Scott Erickson, OF - Karim Garcia, RP - Braden Looper, SS - Kazuo Matsui, 3B - Todd Zeile
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: 1B - Tony Clark, OF - Tsuyoshi Shinjo, 1B - Mo Vaughn
PROJECTED LINEUP: Kazuo Matsui (SS), Jose Reyes (2B), Mike Piazza (C), Cliff Floyd (LF), Mike Cameron (CF), Jason Phillips (1B), Karim Garcia (RF), Ty Wigginton (3B)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Tom Glavine (LHP), Al Leiter (LHP), Steve Trachsel (RHP), Jae Seo (RHP), Grant Roberts (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Braden Looper (RHP)
MANAGER: Art Howe
Art Howe begins his second year as skipper of the New York Mets with nowhere to go but up. His maiden voyage in New York could be characterized as nothing short of a disaster, as injury problems plagued the Mets all of last season, never letting them get on track.
New York endured its third straight disappointing campaign since losing to the Yankees in the 2000 Subway Series, finishing 66-95 last year, 34 1/2 games back of the Atlanta Braves in the NL East. It marked the Mets' second straight last- place finish.
However, because of all the injuries and disappointments, the team was forced to recall some of their younger players, such as first baseman/catcher Jason Phillips and shortstop Jose Reyes, both of whom have become cornerstones of the franchise.
Mike Piazza played just 68 games because of a myriad of injuries, most notably a torn groin, and hit just 11 home runs and drove in 34 runs. Towards the end of the season, though, Howe made it known that Piazza's future will be at first base and not behind the plate.
Piazza, who has been lukewarm at best about the potential switch, remains the face of the organization, and team officials have said they won't give him extensive time there until he is absolutely comfortable playing the position.
Adding to the Mets' misery was the fact that Tom Glavine was a major bust last year, losing the second most games of his career and the most since 1988. He should be better, but there are still problems with the starting rotation.
The Mets won't be contending for a World Series title, but they will sell seats and that is directly linked to Reyes and Japanese import Kazuo Matsui, who was signed this winter. Matsui's arrival, though, has pushed Reyes to second base, where he and Matsui will form one of the best double-play combos in all of baseball, as well as an impressive 1-2 punch at the top of the order.
Fans in Flushing had heard for years about the blue chip shortstop the team had down in the minor leagues. Reyes more than lived up that reputation, as he generated the kind of excitement inside Shea Stadium that had been sorely lacking.
The 20-year-old Reyes provided a spark atop the lineup, while playing a flawless shortstop, and hit .307 with 32 RBI and 13 stolen bases in 69 games before ending his season in late-August with an ankle injury.
Reyes, who will also drop to second in the lineup for Matsui, has also been nothing but professional since the team asked him to switch positions to accommodate Matsui. He has yet to have any problems with the transition, except for the fact that a hamstring injury has limited his time with Matsui and could miss the start of the season.
Matsui, or Kaz, as he wants to be known, comes to the Mets with high expectations for himself and for their fans. The 28-year-old shortstop batted .305 with 33 homers and 84 RBI last season with the Seibu Lions.
The switch-hitting Matsui, who was league MVP in 1998, is a seven-time All Star and four-time Golden Glove winner. Kaz also led the Pacific League in stolen bases twice and is one of only eight players in Japan since 1950 to hit .300 or better with 30 or more home runs and 30 or more stolen bases.
At one corner will be Ty Wigginton, who begins his second year as the Mets' starting third baseman. Wigginton was another one of the team's bright spots from a season ago, leading them in hits (146), runs (73), RBI (71) and at-bats 573). He also hit .255 with 11 homers.
Wigginton, who set numerous rookie records, also committed 16 errors, but improved defensively over the course of the season.
Now at the other corner it gets a bit interesting.
Phillips will likely start the season at first and get the bulk of the work there. The 27-year-old, who will also see some time behind the plate, was impressive last season hitting .298 with 11 homers and 58 RBI in 119 games.
Begrudgingly, the Mets will start the season with Piazza as their starting backstop. The problem is he considers himself a catcher, and as long as he does, he will complicate the future of this position for the team.
Piazza, who is just four home runs away from breaking Carlton Fisk's all-time record for homers by a catcher, is not the feared hitter he once was and seemed lost at the plate when he returned from the groin injury in late- August.
Vance Wilson, the best defensive catcher on the roster, filled in admirably for Piazza last season and will continue his backup role this season.
One of the few positions the Mets shored up through free agency this offseason came in center field, where they signed defensive specialist Mike Cameron, who will become the team's first everyday player at the position since Jay Payton in 2000.
Cameron hit .253 last year with 25 homers and 80 RBI for the Seattle Mariners, but was tremendous in the field, where he saves runs and helps out the pitching staff immensely. He could encounter some problems at the outset, though, adjusting to the swirling winds inside of Shea.
In left field will be Cliff Floyd, who labored through an injury-plagued 2003. The 31-year-old Floyd played for most of the year with a sore Achilles' tendon before finally getting surgery late in the season.
Floyd, who hit .290 with 18 HR and 68 RBI, needs to stay healthy if the Mets' lineup wants to do anything. He offers a ton of protection for Piazza and could enjoy a big RBI year if Matsui and Reyes do their job.
Rounding out the outfield will be Karim Garcia, who split time with the Yankees and Cleveland Indians a year ago. Garcia ended his season in New York, as he played 52 games in pinstripes, hitting .305 with six homers and 21 RBI and was a solid playoff contributor for the Bronx Bombers.
The two-time Cy Young Award winning Glavine heads up a veteran rotation trying to rebound from one of the worst seasons of his brilliant career. The lefthander, who will be 38 at season's start, never seemed to get on track for the Mets, starting with an Opening Day blowout, and finished the season 9-14 with a 4.52 ERA.
Glavine failed to reach double-digits in wins for the first time since 1988 and his lofty ERA was the highest its been since that same year.
Right behind Glavine in the rotation is fellow southpaw Al Leiter, who was lights out after the All-Star break last season, winning seven games and pitching to a 2.15 ERA. He finished the season 15-9 with a 3.99 earned run average.
The 38-year-old Leiter spent some time on the DL last season with an inflamed right knee, which allowed him to improve his conditioning and mechanics and made him stronger down the stretch.
Righty Steve Trachsel won a career high 16-games last season and has been New York's most effective starter since the middle of the 2001 campaign. The 33- year-old hurler, who was almost dealt at the trade deadline, also pitched to a 3.78 ERA and lost 10 games.
Rookie Jae Seo was a pleasant surprise, despite his 9-12, 3.82 ERA season. The South Korean righthander finished the season strong after enduring a slump and finger injury midway through the year.
Who rounds out the rotation will be another question mark heading into the season. The front-runner right now is young righthander Grant Roberts, who has excelled this spring posting a 1.93 ERA in 14 innings while striking out 16.
Veteran Scott Erickson could also figure into the mix at some point and righthander Aaron Heilman is also vying for the No. 5 spot.
Braden Looper was brought in just before the start of spring training and will enter the season as the team's closer. Looper saved 26 games for the World Champion Florida Marlins last season, but his ineffectiveness down the stretch cost him to lose his job to Ugueth Urbina.
By bringing in Looper, lefthander Mike Stanton can assume his role as the team's primary setup man. A fixture for the Yankees for years, the 36-year- old, like many others in Queens, suffered through an injury-plagued 2003, his first year with the club and was 2-7 with five saves and a 4.57 ERA.
Workhorse David Weathers will also be back in the pen, but will likely be used a bit less than the team-high 77 times he was used last season.
Also returning for a 15th season with the Mets will be team captain John Franco. The 43-year-old lefty returned from elbow surgery in late May and appeared in 38 games, going 0-3 with two saves and 2.62 ERA.
Who fills out the bullpen is anyone's guess, but young lefties Jaime Cerda and Pedro Feliciano figure to be in the mix, as do righthanders Dan Wheeler and Jason Anderson and Jeremy Griffiths.
This is one spot on the team where there is some semblance of stability. Timo Perez and Joe McEwing provide not only some speed in late inning situations, but both can play a number of positions, as well as provide a spark. Perez can play all three outfield spots, while McEwing can play just about everywhere.
Todd Zeile was also signed and will proved some late-inning pop off the bench and will fill in nicely at both corner infield positions.
Also figuring into the bench mix will be Wilson, who is thought of as more of a late inning defensive replacement than a bat off the bench. However ,this spring he has changed his swing, moving his hands back more so they follow his legs. The switch has allowed him to stay through balls better, and thus far in spring, he is teetering above the .275 mark.
One good thing about finishing in last place is that there is nowhere else to go but up. But, with the expectations of Matsui and a full year of Reyes, fans in Flushing have a reason to attend the ballpark again. If Piazza and Floyd stay healthy, this lineup could be impressive, provided Matsui and Reyes are the forces at the top that everyone thinks they can be. Glavine is bound to be better this season, and teamed up with Leiter they are as good as any 1-2 combination in the NL East. Looper was inconsistent at times last season, but he is a definite improvement over the model of inconsistency in Armando Benitez. Nobody is expecting much from the Mets this season, which could make them dangerous. However, they still need to hit more, and that aging pitching staff is bound to break down at some point. The Mets, though, are starting to get back on the right track.