Five questions: New York Mets

1. Is this team, um, cutting corners?

Along with first base, the outfield corners are usually where you find
your big boppers. The current Mets plan for the outfield corners, as best I can tell, is to play Daniel Murphy (career total of 131
major league at-bats) full-time in left field and have Ryan Church platoon with
Fernando Tatis in right. I don’t want to sound negative, but these guys don’t
exactly strike fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers, do they?

Last year, the Mets used 12 different players in left field including
Trot Nixon, Moises Alou, Damion Easley, Brady Clark, and so on. All
told, Mets left fielders combined for a .273/.334/.396 line, which is
well below league average for left fielders (.271/.350/.453).

Actually, the Mets left-field numbers would be even worse if not for the
impressive play of Murphy, the 22-year-old who was called up in August
last season and hit .313/.397/.473 in 151 plate appearances.

That stint has apparently earned the left-handed-hitting Murphy the
full-time job in left field, pushing would-be platoon partner
Fernando Tatis to right field in a time-share with Ryan Church.

The decision to take at-bats against LHP from Church and hand them to
Murphy is surprising, or it should be. Jerry Manuel was quoted in
The New York Times as saying Murphy was the better hitter against left-handers. Let’s check the numbers—here
are the splits of Murphy and Church against left- and right-handed pitching:

                     Murphy        Church
OPS Against LHP      .725          .724
OPS Against RHP      .832          .830      

They look very similar don’t they? Except, I didn’t tell you that
these are Murphy’s minor league splits compared to
Church’s major league numbers. Obviously, Church wins this comparison. How did Murphy fare against major league left-handed pitching
last year? Why he hit .400! Right, he went 4-for-10.

Church, for his part, was off to a potential breakout season last year when he
suffered his second concussion on May 21. He came back after missing
a couple of months but did not hit well after the injury. Perhaps
Manuel is still concerned about Church’s health.

Nevertheless, you’d think a team with playoff aspirations would be
manning one or both outfield corners with bigger bats. Then again,
the Mets did win a World Series with Cleon Jones and Ron Swoboda in
the outfield corners.

2. What’s the name of the guy on second?

Luis Castillo,
that’s target="new">what. Castillo was signed to a four-year
contract worth $25 million dollars before the start of last season.
Given the way player prices have come down this year, I’m guessing the
Mets would like to take a do-over on that signing.

Castillo
played about a half-season, posting a line of .245/.355/.305. The OBP is not
bad, but the utter lack of power is. There was a time when Castillo
largely compensated for his weak bat by playing excellent defense and
being productive on the base paths. Those days appear to be over: according to Sean
Smith’s WAR (wins-over-replacement) database,
Castillo is no longer the plus fielder he once was. In fact, in 2008
Castillo was
well below average in batting and defensive range, did not show a
strong arm on the double play and was only a tick above average (plus three
runs) on the basepaths. It all adds up to a replacement-level
player. All that for only $6.2 million per.

To make matters worse, Jerry Manuel has been talking about moving
Castillo to the leadoff spot, bumping Jose Reyes down to third in
batting order. Now, I’m not one to fret too much over batting
order. Many studies have shown that they don’t make all that much
difference. On the other hand, moving a player up in the order gives him more at-bats, at the cost of somebody else.

Actually, batting Castillo second didn’t make any sense either. I’m
thinking that Castillo is perhaps the sixth- or seventh-best hitter on the
team. So, I would bat him down around the sixth spot.

If you bat him leadoff instead of sixth, say, you are taking away 18 plate
appearances each from Reyes, Beltran, Wright, Delgado and Church and
handing them to Castillo. That works out to 90 plate appearances going from a
composite near-superstar to Luis Castillo. Not good. (Actually, I just
did a quick-and-dirty estimate of the number of runs batting Castillo second
would cost the Mets. I get something like 3.5 runs, which is less than
one-half win. I guess I was right when I said batting order doesn’t
make much difference.) Still, it’s not the right thing to do.

3. Who’s going to round out the rotation?

Ok, so maybe this isn’t exactly a burning question. Just about
every team has questions regarding the bottom of the rotation and the
question is usually framed like this: “Can’t we find somebody
better than Livan Hernandez to be our fifth starter?” I have no idea who
the Mets fifth starter is going to be. Their first four are, as you
know, Johan Santana, John Maine, Oliver Perez and Mike Pelfrey — and that is a
good-looking rotation. But, can’t they find somebody better than
Livan to be number 5? Anybody?

Actually, I was going to spend a paragraph writing snarky comments
about Hernandez and his 6+ ERA last year and the fact that his
fastball would not qualify for a speeding ticket in many western
states. But you know what? The projections for Hernandez in 2009
show a low-5′s ERA, which is just about average for a fifth starter.

The Mets are also considering Tim Redding (unlikely now, with a shoulder problem), Jonathon Niese, Freddy
Garcia
and Bobby Parnell as possible bottom-of-the-rotation guys. If
I were Jerry Manuel, I’d give a good look to the young guys and use
Livan as a backup plan. Either that or do what a lot of Mets fans are
clamoring for: sign free agent Pedro Martinez.

4. Have the Mets addressed their bullpen problem?

Ummm, ya’ think? With last year’s bullpen meltdown undoubtedly still
fresh in the minds of management, the Mets pulled out the stops in
going after top-shelf relievers this offseason. Francisco Rodriguez, one
of the elite closers in the game and the owner of the single-season
save record, was signed to a three-year deal worth $37 million. A few hours
later the Mets acquired another top-notch reliever, J.J. Putz
of the Mariners, who came over in a head-spinning three-team trade
that involved approximately 37 players.
When the dust settled, the Mets also had acquired side-arming reliever
Sean Green, while bidding adios to relievers Aaron Heilman and
Joe Smith.

The end result looks pretty darn good, not that last
year’s bullpen looked bad on paper. As I wrote in The Hardball Times
Baseball Annual 2009
, the Mets bullpen projected to be better than the
Phillies relief corps, but it simply didn’t work out that way. That
can always happen, of course—players don’t always meet their
projections. This is especially true for relief pitchers, whose
projections are necessarily based on relatively few innings pitched.

But the Mets must feel pretty happy with their new relievers.
There are still a couple tweaks left to make: Duaner Sanchez was
recently released after the Mets concluded he would never get back the
stuff he had prior to his 2006 auto accident. So there is an opening
or two in the ‘pen and much of the current discussion revolves around
the possibility of adding a left-handed arm, since there is currently
only one (belonging to Pedro Feliciano) in the bullpen.

5. What is right with this team?

These “Five Questions” pieces, by their very
nature, tend to focus on the negative aspects of a team. Where are
the weak spots? What might go wrong? Is the manager crazy? I think
that’s as it should be. If everything is just hunky-dory, there’s not
much interesting to write (or read) about. But just because I focus
on possible weaknesses, it doesn’t mean I am down on the Mets.

Actually, quite the contrary is true: I think the Mets have very good
prospects for making the playoffs (and I’m
target="new">not the only one). So, in an attempt to
discourage the usual boatload of e-mail insisting that I didn’t give
the Mets a fair shake in my preview, here’s what I think is right
about the Mets.

It’s often said that a championship team consists of a few superstars
and star players, surrounded by a supporting cast that is close to average.
You want to avoid the black holes at all costs. No one can deny that
the Mets have some heavy-duty superstar power. Wright, Beltran, Reyes
and Santana are legitimate superstars and, perhaps you could put that label
on Rodriguez, too. Much of the supporting cast also projects as above
average: Maine, Pelfrey and Perez in the starting rotation, Delgado at
first base, Putz in the bullpen.

I think if the Mets can approach league-average performance in the
outfield corners, they will be fine. They will even be able to carry
Castillo’s weak bat and glove in that case. This assumes, of course,
that the players produce as expected. Not everyone will, for sure,
but the hope is that the inevitable under-performers will be picked up
by somebody who over-performs.

I, for one, also hope that the Mets have a nice
10-game lead in mid-September. I wouldn’t want to tempt fate a third
time.

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