Five Questions: New York Mets

Last year, the Mets looked like then-GM Steve Phillips was using a baseball register from around 1997 when he put together the team. Almost everybody was a star back then: Mike Piazza, Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar, Jeromy Burnitz, Tom Glavine, David Cone, John Franco…the list keeps going. It was 2003, though, and the Mets’ only All-Star representative was the soon-to-be-traded Armando Benitez, who wasn’t really all that great anyway. With all that past-prime talent, it wasn’t too surprising that the Mets finished under .500. But 95 losses? I have to say, even I was surprised by that, and I was pretty down on the Mets heading into ’03.

This year, though, there’s some hope for improvement. The additions of Mike Cameron and Kaz Matsui should help the club, and 2B Jose Reyes is one of the best young players in baseball. Cameron, Matsui, and Reyes all come with question marks, which leads right into the rest of this preview…

1) Kazuo Matsui — All-Star or mediocrity?

The easy answer is “somewhere in between,” but I won’t get off that easy. Fortunately, my buddy Aaron Gleeman has already done all the hard work. Click on the link to figure out how he did it, but Aaron projected Matsui to hit roughly .275/.325/.445 in his first U.S. season. Projecting the performance of Japanese players in America is often a crapshoot (see Matsui, Hideki), but I was surprised to see that Gleeman’s rough projection is extremely close to the projections of two much more sophisticated systems, Baseball Prospectus‘ PECOTA and Baseball Primer‘s ZiPS system. Take a look:

              AVG      OBP      SLG
Gleeman      .275     .325     .445
PECOTA       .281     .339     .456
ZiPS         .284     .349     .445

It’s almost eerie… The three projections are virtually identical in batting average and slugging, and the OBPs aren’t all that far apart. What all three projections make pretty clear is that Kaz Matsui won’t be contending for any MVP awards. An optimist might say that Matsui could hit like Nomar Garciaparra, but realistically, Rich Aurilia and Orlando Cabrera are better comps. Which isn’t bad at all – just don’t expect superstardom from Flushing’s Matsui.

Of course, the right answer to the question, “All-Star or mediocrity?” is, “both.” Matsui will be above-average, but not by a lot. Still, he’s likely to waltz into the All-Star Game, if the voting records of other Japanese stars are any indication.

2) Now that Mike Cameron is out of Safeco Field, how will he hit?

I like Cameron a lot, and I think he’ll do well in New York. In his Mariner career (2000-2003), Cameron’s numbers were absolutely killed by his home ballpark:

Home: .223/.328/.373, .241 GPA, 30 HR
Road: .286/.370/.514, .295 GPA, 57 HR

Shea Stadium is no hitter’s paradise — the last two years, its park factor is 96 — but you’ve got to expect an improvement in Cameron’s home stats. I’m not ready to just double his road stats, but let’s say Cameron has a more normal split. How about this:

Home: .250/.350/.440
Road: .280/.365/.500

Which gives us a total of .265/.358/.470. I think that’s pretty close to what we can expect out of Mike Cameron in 2004. Add to that his Gold Glove defense, and Cameron is arguably the best NL center fielder this side of Jim Edmonds (with the possible exception of Andruw Jones, who is about Cameron’s equal both at the plate and in the field).

I’ve tried to be a little conservative, but I could easily see Cameron hitting .280/.380/.500, which (along with the stellar D) would make him one of the best players in the National League. The Mets have Cameron locked up at a pretty reasonable $6.5M/year through 2006, at which time he’ll be 33 years old. I think that’s a good signing – they’ve got an underrated player at a good price, and they aren’t on the hook for any major decline years.

3) What’s the future for Jose Reyes?

Two 20-year-old phenoms did well in half a season at the major-league level in 2003 — Jose Reyes and Miguel Cabrera. Both are headed for stardom, though neither are quite there just yet. Reyes batted .307/.334/.434 in 69 games from June 10-August 31, at which time he went on the DL with an ankle injury. A .307 average with decent pop from a rookie shortstop is always a good sign, and at this point Reyes has the brightest future of any young middle infielder in baseball.

According to Lee Sinins’ Sabermetric Encyclopedia, Reyes had a .552 Offensive Winning Percentage last year, which ranks fourth among 20-year-old shortstops in baseball history (minimum 250 PA).

                    Year      OWP
Alex Rodriguez      1996     .755
John McGraw         1893     .655
Arky Vaughan        1932     .565
Jose Reyes          2003     .552
Travis Jackson      1924     .538
Tony Kubek          1957     .532

That’s pretty select company. Vaughan and Jackson went on to have Hall of Fame careers at shortstop, and of course A-Rod will join them. John McGraw, known for his managerial success, was actually an outstanding player in his own right — he moved to third base and finished his career with a .465 OBP. Rounding out the list is Tony Kubek, who was no legend, but was the regular on six Yankee pennant-winning teams. Guys on the list with sub-.500 OWPs include such future stars as Robin Yount, Gary Sheffield (!), and Alan Trammell.

Of course, with the arrival of Kaz Matsui, Reyes will move over to second base. The merits of that decision are debatable, but more to the point, where does Reyes’ OWP rank among 20-year-old second basemen?

                    Year      OWP
Jose Reyes          2003     .552
Reddy Mack          1886     .519
Roberto Alomar      1988     .513
Bill Mazeroski      1957     .498
Harry Steinfeldt    1898     .493
Dick Bartell        1928     .464

Wow, Reyes is off the charts. Other than Mack, all of the guys on the list above had stellar careers. Players who didn’t make it onto the chart include Bobby Doerr, Larry Doyle, and Ed Delahanty (yes, he played 2B that year).

Both lists are littered with Hall of Famers and guys who are just below that level, which is obviously encouraging for Reyes’ future. Whether at shortstop or second base, Jose Reyes has a long and productive career ahead of him.

4) Will a move to first base rejuvenate Mike Piazza’s offense?

Piazza is only four homers away from breaking Carlton Fisk‘s record for HR by a catcher, so he’ll spend at least enough time behind the plate to pass Fisk. Defensively, his never-great backstopping has only gotten worse with age. But will a move to first base help his declining offense? Take a look at the drop in production the last two years:

2000-01: .312/.391/.593, .324 GPA
2002-03: .282/.365/.524, .295 GPA

Last year, Piazza slugged a career-low .483 in 234 at bats, and he missed half the season with a groin tear. He’s also 35, smack in the middle of his decline phase. The days of hitting .320 with a .570 slugging percentage are over, but I do think a move to first base will do two things for Piazza:

1) Keep him in the lineup a lot more, and
2) Boost that SLG back over .500.

Another thing we saw in limited at-bats last season was an increase in Piazza’s walk rate. If he can hold the batting average steady around .280, keep the walk rate where it was last year, and bring his slugging percentage back over .500, Piazza will be roughly as valuable a hitter as Derrek Lee, Jeff Bagwell, and Richie Sexson — the second tier of NL first basemen. Add to that an increase in playing time, and the move from catcher could keep Mike Piazza around long enough to hit 500 homers.

5) Are Tom Glavine’s days as a quality starter over?

Last offseason, the Mets “won” the Tom Glavine sweepstakes, signing the aging lefthander to a 3-year deal worth around $35 million. On the surface, it made some sense; Glavine had just gone 18-11 with a 2.96 ERA with the Braves, and he had won at least 13 games (with a better-than-league ERA) every year since 1991.

A closer look, however, revealed some problem areas. First of all, Glavine was no youngster – he turned 37 before ever throwing a pitch that counted for the Mets. More importantly, his never-high strikeout rate was even lower than usual. From 2001-02, Glavine struck out just 4.93 batters per 9 innings, against a league average of 6.88. Along with the drop in K-rate, Glavine’s walk rate in those years had climbed above the league average, making the lefty a prime candidate for a collapse.

But the Mets, enamored with 18 wins and a sub-3.00 ERA, locked Glavine up for three guaranteed years at top dollar. He responded with his worst year since 1988, going 9-14 with a 4.52 ERA (while playing half his games in a pitcher’s park). And what of that strikeout rate? It plummeted to 4.03 per 9 innings, an unacceptably-low figure. Glavine’s strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.24 was the second-worst in the National League (among ERA qualifiers), a hair better than Wayne Franklin.

Some might say, “Hey, what about David Wells and Jamie Moyer? They’re old lefties who don’t strike people out, and they’re still good!” Actually, compared to Tom Glavine, those two guys do strike people out. The numbers for all three pitchers in 2003:

               SO/9     BB/9     K:BB
Glavine        4.03     3.24     1.24
Wells          4.27     0.85     5.05
Moyer          5.40     2.76     1.95

Wells’ strikeout rate is just a little higher than Glavine’s, but his walk rate is ridiculously low. As for Moyer, his strikeout rate is 34% higher than Glavine’s, while his walk rate is 15% lower. David Wells and Jamie Moyer are not comparable pitchers to Glavine, not anymore.

Tom Glavine has had a great career. He’s won 251 games, and has reached the 20-win plateau five times. The man is on his way to the Hall of Fame, but for now, he’s a fifth starter making ace money.

In Closing…

All told, the Other New York Team heads into 2004 as the clear choice for 4th place in the NL East. Think of it this way… If the Mets are even to finish in third place, they will have to either

1) be better than the Phillies, who are probably the best team in the entire league,
2) be better than the Braves, who have been winning division titles since the first Bush administration, or
3) be better than Florida, the defending World Champions.

I don’t think anybody would call even one of those things “likely.” The Mets are a fourth-place team, and .500 would be a nice step in the right direction.

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