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Can the Mets rebound under new management?
In previous offseasons, the Mets have tried hard to buy respectability, showering long-term deals on imports with an eye on short-term gain. Because of injuries (Carlos Beltran, Jason Bay), underperformance (Oliver Perez, Luis Castillo) or off-field problems (Francisco Rodriguez), those disastrous deals have severely restricted the Mets’ flexibility. New GM Sandy Alderson was an inspired hire, but to really start over, he needs time to get out from under those deals while integrating low-cost talent.
Last September, the Mets’ hopes for 2011 took a crippling blow. Johan Santana, the Mets’ ace starter, needed surgery to repair the anterior capsule in his left shoulder. It was the third season-ending operation of Santana’s Mets career, but far more troubling than previous injuries to his knee and elbow. Pitchers are often not the same after shoulder surgery, and the Mets owe Santana a staggering $72 million over the next three seasons. They cannot expect much in 2011, and a return before July would have to be considered encouraging. Without Santana, 15-game winner Mike Pelfrey steps into the No. 1 spot, followed by knuckleballer R.A. Dickey and lefty Jonathon Niese. Pelfrey, who relied heavily on fastballs in the past, threw more curveballs, developed a splitter and enjoyed his best season. Dickey was a revelation, with a hard knuckleball and a respectable, if slow, fastball, and consistent results. Niese wore down late but was trying to improve his conditioning over the winter. Beyond those three, the Mets must hope that righty Dillon Gee builds off an impressive September, when his ERA was 2.18. They also hope that either lefty Chris Capuano, who won 18 games with the Brewers in 2005, or Chris Young, who was limited to just four starts last season after making just 32 starts the previous two years combined, can fill the No. 5 spot in the rotation.
The Mets tried to void the remaining guarantee on Rodriguez’s mammoth contract after he was arrested Aug. 11 for assaulting his children’s grandfather at Citi Field and tore a ligament in his right thumb. It was worth a shot, but in the end the Mets received only the remainder of his 2010 salary. They are stuck with him now, and if they contend, that may be a good thing, because Rodriguez remains an elite closer. If they don’t contend, though, the Mets will scale back Rodriguez’s role so he does not reach the 55 games finished he needs to collect $17.5 million in 2012. They signed the reliable righty D.J. Carrasco to join Bobby Parnell and Manny Acosta as setup/middle men, but they could use a veteran lefty not named Oliver Perez. Keeping Perez on the active roster will likely enrage Mets fans, who gave up on Perez when he exercised his right to refuse a minor league assignment last year, preferring to waste away as a largely forgotten reliever in Flushing.
New manager Terry Collins made a point of calling Castillo to tell him he would have a chance to win back his job as the starting second baseman. Castillo, 35, is still a contact hitter, but almost all of his hits are singles, and he cannot run like he used to. More likely, the Mets will give the job to Daniel Murphy or defensive wiz Ruben Tejada, 21, who was overmatched at the plate last season. As a first baseman in 2009, Murphy hit .266 and led the team in homers with 12. But he missed all of last season with a knee injury, lost his job to Ike Davis and is a novice at second base. Shortstop presents much more clarity, where Jose Reyes — still only 27 years old — returns for his ninth season. As always, he is an igniter when healthy but an annual injury risk whose concentration can come and go. Collins will do his best to keep Reyes focused, and despite his decline the last two seasons, Reyes is still young enough to be considered in the latter stages of his prime.
David Wright and Davis represent the best of the Mets — homegrown products the team can market for their production and personality. The two did combine for 299 strikeouts last season, though Wright’s total (161) was perhaps more troubling because it increases every season, while his walks have been decreasing. The good thing, though, is that Wright’s power returned after disappearing in the first season at Citi Field. Wright has excellent speed for a power hitter and remains a well-above-average fielder. Davis also measures as an outstanding fielder, with the best Ultimate Zone Rating of any National League first baseman last season, according to Fangraphs.com. And because the Mets delayed his promotion until three weeks into the regular season, they retain his rights for six more years through 2016.
The Mets got a pleasant surprise last season with the development of Angel Pagan, who led the team in stolen bases (37) and led all regulars in batting average (.290) while playing stellar center field. The switch-hitting Pagan made 88 starts in center, and with Beltran’s mobility limited after years of knee problems, Pagan figures to stay in center with Beltran making the transition to right. Beltran starts fresh with the new administration, but he is entering the last season of his contract, and the Mets will trade him in July if he is healthy and they are out of the race. Bay’s year was a nightmare even before a concussion ended his season in July. The Mets expect their high-priced left fielder to be fully ready for spring training, and they are desperate for him to be the power-hitting force he was for the Pirates and the Red Sox. Bay played better in the field than many statisticians expected, and if attitude and effort count for much, he will execute the offensive turnaround the team needs.
Josh Thole did not convert to catching for any meaningful time until 2008, but since then he has emerged as the Mets’ catcher of the future. Thole made the most of his promotion in late June, hitting .277 with a .357 on-base percentage, though he hardly ever played against lefthanders. That’s fine, though, because the new backup catcher, veteran Ronny Paulino, mashed against lefties with a .358 average. Paulino started 84 games for the Marlins last season, so he is durable enough to handle a greater workload if Thole struggles.
The Mets’ bench is certainly not a strength. But veteran Scott Hairston brings some professionalism, versatility and spark. The loser of the second base battle will have a backup role as well. But mostly, the bench figures to be occupied by low-ceiling prospects with a specific skill: Lucas Duda’s lefty power, Tejada’s glove, and so on.
Another disappointing season convinced Mets owner Fred Wilpon and his son, chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon, to make sweeping changes. With the blessing of Bud Selig, the Mets hired Alderson away from the Commissioner’s office, giving Alderson his first GM job since his days with Oakland in the 1990s. Alderson, 63, is the oldest GM in the majors but remains open to new ideas and has surrounded himself with forward-thinking executives like J.P. Ricciardi and Paul DePodesta, both former Oakland assistants with GM experience of their own. The intense Collins, who managed the Astros and the Angels in the 1990s, hopes to bring discipline and energy.
The Mets’ new management seems to understand the first rule of what to do when you find yourself in a hole: Stop digging. But cleaning up for past mistakes does not put much sizzle into a marketing campaign. Everything points to 2011 as a transition season. Even if all their hitters stay healthy, their pitching is simply not strong enough to seriously contend.