Five questions: New York Mets

Some questions are questions, others are really answers. The Mets enter the 2010 season with question marks hovering ominously over virtually every player. There remains much that is unsure or even unknown about this team. But the number and nature of so many of the questions should help us answer two questions about the team’s prospects and management’s prospects.

How healthy is Jose Reyes? Will Jason Bay be a huge liability in left field? What about Jeff Francoeur at the plate? Can the new, veteran catchers, Rod Barajas and Henry Blanco, really help the pitching staff? How much will Luis Castillo regress from last season? Will the bullpen be any good? Will David Wright‘s power return? These are some of the questions that I don’t ask—I have only five. However, I might sneakily answer some of them as I deal with some of the others.

1. Whither Carlos Beltran?

When the Mets signed Beltran in 2005, they were buying the services of a complete player. When healthy, he’s been probably the best center fielder in the game the past several years. After undergoing some sort of knee surgery (at one point rumored to be microfracture surgery, but seemingly merely arthroscopic in nature) this past season, there are naturally some questions about how much speed he’ll still have. Always an extremely savvy base-stealer, he’d seen some decline in stolen base attempts in recent years as his knee pain worsened.

However, the bigger reason to wonder about his speed is because of the runs he saves in the field. As spacious as Citi Field’s outfield is and with Bay and Francoeur totemically manning left and right field, Beltran’s leatherwork is invaluable. A lost step in either direction could see many more doubles for opposing hitters.

Angel Pagan should see the lion’s share of playing time in center until Beltran returns (at the earliest in mid-May). With a UZR of 5.8 and a batting average of .306 last season, Pagan won’t be a precipitous drop-off for the Mets on the field or getting on base (though Beltran is much better at drawing walks). Of course, if for some terrible reason the Mets choose to play Gary Matthews Jr., then there will be calamity in center.

The Mets won’t be able to replace Beltran’s power from the center field spot, though. There has been some chatter in the ether forecasting a fall in Beltran’s power. Even THT’s own projection, Oliver, barely has him breaking 20 home runs in any season for the rest of his career. I am not so dour; I still see him staying above 25 home runs (based on a full season’s number of plate appearances). The dramatic fall in his HR/FB rate in 2009 to 10.8 percent echoes the fall in 2005 from which he rebounded nicely to his more usual career levels. Even the slightest fall in power will be keenly felt, though, because of the lack of power at other spots on the field.

2. Does it really matter who’s on first?

The biggest power difference between the Mets and the rest of the league will come at first base. As any fantasy player knows, first base is stuffed with power throughout the league. While the Mets had Carlos Delgado in the lineup, the team was no different. No longer—neither likely starter Daniel Murphy nor potential backups Mike Jacobs, Chris Carter and Fernando Tatis—is going to bring league average power (for a first baseman) to the plate. (Just in case you were wondering, Jacobs had a slugging percentage of only .401 last year, which is off the map for a first baseman.)

The Mets’ hopes rest instead on either Murphy becoming a sort of Keith Hernandez-esque line drive machine or on minor leaguer Ike Davis stepping-in and winning the role and fans’ hearts. Murphy does show great contact percentage, which makes up for his low walk rates, and he does hit a lot of doubles. But his groundball rate, at 40 percent, is a little uncomfortably high.

Meanwhile, Davis had a nice spring training before being sent back down to the minors for more seasoning. However, he doesn’t project to be a huge power threat—the consensus seems to be an upside best of around 25 home runs in a full season at peak age. Maybe, maybe he’ll out-project and hit more one day, but probably not, and almost certainly not this season.

All this means that if the middle of the order batters are on base, the bottom of order is going to struggle driving them in. With three from among Castillo, Murphy, Francoeur and Barajas/Blanco at the bottom of the batting order, there won’t be many repercussions from walking the fifth spot. And that’s when the full lineup is healthy. With Murhpy now injured, the opening day lineup could look like: Pagan, Castillo, Wright, Bay, Francoeur, Jacobs, Cora and Barajas.

3. Will the starting pitching drive Mets fans to the bottle?

Johan Santana‘s coming back from elbow surgery but should be fine. Pray that he is because the other starters can give ulcers. Everybody’s wondering if Mike Pelfrey is going to fulfill the potential that he kind of flashed in 2008. He’s a riddle but he’s now the team’s No. 2.

Behind him are John Maine and Oliver Perez, both youngish guys who’ve actually pitched better seasons than Pelfrey. But right now, they’re even bigger enigmas.

Perez’s Jekyll and Hyde routine is well known and he’s shown no sign of righting himself this spring. Maine is a more recent member of the asylum. Last year, even when healthy, he was hugely inconsistent. In no start did he go more than seven innings. Out of his 15 starts, he gave up at least five runs five times, but also gave up fewer than two runs in seven starts. Both on the mound and off, he rarely seems to be happy with the way he pitches.

All this means that Jonathon Niese, who just a week ago was still battling for a spot on the major league roster, is now being fitted for the third spot in the rotation (not that the order of the rotation is all that important). Niese might actually be able to deliver on that spot, though he might also struggle, much as Pelfrey did (and still does). Maine and, especially, Perez, have the talent to be middle of the rotation pitchers. So, as an upside, the team might have an above average rotation behind Santana. More likely, though, is that team gets subpar contributions from at least one, probably two or three and possibly all four pitchers.

4. “Should I buy my playoff tickets yet?”

Um, no. If this were the NHL or NBA, where eight teams from each league get into the postseason, then maybe.

The management and even some members of the media would have us focus on what MIGHT happen. Certainly, the Mets might make the playoffs; odder things have happened. They have a quartet of players, who, if healthy, offer a more than solid foundation to build a playoff or even championship team. Adding Bay into that mix does not hurt.

But the Mets aren’t likely to make the playoffs. I can think of at least as many scenarios that would have them finish below .500 as above it: Beltran doesn’t make it back as or when expected. Same for Reyes. Wright’s power doesn’t return to normal. All would be mortal blows to the season. These are just the things that went wrong last season that have to revert to normal; it doesn’t count the things that could go wrong this year that were normal last year—like, say, if Francisco Rodriguez gets injured.

And that’s just to make it above 81 wins. To get into the playoffs, the Mets’ll probably need 14-15 wins from at least one of their non-Santana pitchers and at least 10-11 from still two more. They’ll need one and more likely two among Castillo, Francoeur and Murphy to be positive offensively. And the rest of the bullpen will need to be helpful as well. Basic probability tells us that it is very unlikely that enough of these come true for the Mets to put champagne on ice.

5. When will Omar Minaya and Jerry Manuel get their first unemployment checks?

Of course, it’ll all depend on the team’s performance. But chances are they are fired when it becomes clear that the team isn’t playoff bound, and deservedly so. Manuel seems to have no vision for the team, no theory on baseball to be held and hold himself accountable to. He’s a dabbler who repeats his past mistakes and abandons experiments whimsically.

Minaya seems to have marginally more focus. Of course, the contracts he’s given to Castillo and Perez are disasters that have handcuffed the team. He’s shown himself capable of signing other, more productive talent as long as he pays top dollar. His trade for Santana has worked out well.

It is usual PR shtick to focus on possibilities, instead of probabilities when talking with the media—like how Francoeur might maintain the production he gave the team for half a season last year. The problem is that Minaya might be drinking his own Kool-Aid; he buys into the upside too much. And his little head-scratchers start to add up. Why did he trade for J.J. Putz without giving him a physical? Why did he chase Heath Bell out of town? Why sign Alex Cora to (effectively) a two-year, $2 million per year contract? Why sign Cora, or any backup shortstop, that you’re uncomfortable playing if Reyes starts the season on the DL, especially when Reyes spent much of last season on the DL? Why give up anything for Matthews?

Minaya seems to value intangible, unquantifiable traits. The nice thing about them from an executive’s perspective is that it is hard to be held accountable for misreading them. Perhaps there are some intangibles that are genuinely valuable, but if so, Minaya’s hoarding of them hasn’t been reflected in the team’s performance (has any team been less “clutch” in the past three or four years?).

If there were any justice for the fans, the owners—the Wilpons—would be fired as well. I doubt that Minaya would’ve done better unfettered, but it is pretty clear that Jeff Wilpon was not helpful either—tales of how he was caught up in the Rasputin-like influence of the assistant GM, Tony Bernazard, seem telling. The Mets owners seem to remove problems only when the fans start to blame the ownership for them; they’re never out in front of the problem.

If/when Minaya and Manuel are fired, the essential thing for the team is that the Wilpons (particularly Jeff Wilpon if he’s calling the shots now) ask themselves some tough questions: “Do I (Jeff) have enough knowledge of business to help run operations at all? Do I have enough knowledge of baseball to give input on personnel decisions?”

The team, despite its Bernie Madoff woes, will have more resources than most other teams. With any luck, the Wilpons will hire a management team that understands management and baseball, a team that uses its experiences to learn from its mistakes, uses statistics and scouting properly to inform decisions and doesn’t reverse-engineer rationals for actions. Then maybe the Wilpons can start thinking of putting some champagne on ice.

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Comments

  1. Bob Rittner said...

    I can understand pessimism about the Mets in 2010. But Reyes and Wright will both be 27 years old during the season. The Mets should have plenty of money and a reasonably good farm system so that intelligent planning could reorganize the team around those two and become a contender while they are both in their primes, I think as early as 2011.

  2. Ralph C. said...

    The Mets’ offense, such as it is, will not be good enough to overcome their very shaky pitching, both starting and relievers. I see the Mets losing 90+ games and Jerry Manuel and Omar Minaya both being fired, if not at the same time. I think the Mets lost their window of opportunity to win a World Series with Wright and Reyes, and I don’t see them as a playoff team in the near future. I think Wright and Reyes will have to go to other teams to see the playoffs again and a possible visit to the World Series. The Mets’ window has closed for this regime. We’ll see what happens with the new GM and manager next year and beyond.

  3. Ralph C. said...

    Intelligent planning is the key, I agree, but that is something I don’t foresee but, hey, that’s me.

  4. Jonathan said...

    According to Metsblog.com, Matthews is going to start in centerfield tomorrow.  That’s too bad though I’m not surprised.  The single worst thing about being a Mets fan these days is the constant expectation of disappointment – not via the players but with management.

  5. ken said...

    If the Mets were run like the Yankees, after last season they would have paid $100m for Lacky, and traded the farm for Haliday, and had three great pitchers, enough to make a run at the playoffs.  That’s what the Yankees did the year before.  But the Mets are not serious about winning, and just tried to see if they could pick up some average pitchers like Pinero or Marquis cheap.  When they weren’t cheap, there was no plan B.  At least it will be easy to get cheap Mets tickets off stubhub this year.

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