Oh, baby! Spring Training games start Wednesday – meaning that in less than 24 hours, we’re going to be checking out boxscores. It doesn’t get any sweeter than that. Well, except checking out boxscores while being hand-fed Twinkies by scantily-clad 18-year-old ladies, of course.
Our previous installments:
New York Mets
Given a second straight September meltdown that cost them a post-season berth, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the Mets actually improved in 2008 (albeit, by a single win). Really, the bottom line here is that the Mets were a mediocre team other than July and August when they went on a 36-19 run. The team’s “disastrous” September (13-12) was no different than the club’s record in April and was in fact better than how they fared in May and June.
Still, it’s time for the Mets to wipe all that away and focus on the future, which means the christening of a brand new stadium – Citi Field – and hopefully, with it, a new era.
The team may certainly have a different look this season, as manager Jerry Manuel — about to begin his first full season in charge of the Mets — is considering some major tinkering to the lineup. Luis Castillo may shift to the top of the order, with Jose Reyes dropping to the three-hole and Carlos Beltran moving up to the second spot. Carlos Delgado would slide up to cleanup, while David Wright would drop from third to fifth.
Hmmm…taking one of the best leadoff hitters in the game and shifting him? Uh, okay.
But the Mets are looking for a big recovery from Castillo after he sucked in his first season with the team. He’s dropped 17 pounds and the expectations for a major recovery are large – enough so that I’m reconsidering my plan to dump his sorry ass this spring.
Another change in the lineup could occur in left field, where Daniel Murphy is being pegged as the new starter, a move that would certainly cut into the value of Ryan Church.
Offense was the Mets’ calling card last season, as they ranked second in runs and steals. Beltran has been sliding for a couple of seasons, but remains a force in centrefield, and may see a bump in value batting out of the two-hole. Expect more runs, but less RBI. Reyes rebounded after an off year in 2007, but had his lowest stolen base total since he’s been a full-time player.
The pitching was middling as best last season, ranking seventh in WHIP. In fairness, other than Pedro Martinez – who looked toast – the starting rotation was pretty good; the bullpen, however, was the bane of the Mets’ existence in 2008. That’s a situation that has been addressed in a big way with the signing of Francisco Rodriguez and the acquisition of J.J. Putz.
With 11 free agents this offseason, the Mets had plenty to deal with as they attempt to take the next step and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2006. Fortunately, the offense was barely affected, with just one key bench player among the free agent class; the pitching free agents, however, included two members of the rotation.
Moises Alou, OF: One of the most injury-prone players of his generation, Alou was limited to 15 games thanks to calf and hamstring problems, the latter of which ultimately necessitated season-ending surgery in July, just the highlight of a season filled with injuries to Met outfielders. He remains unsigned, but it’s possible Philadelphia or Toronto (looking for a temporary replacement for Vernon Wells) may come calling.
Tony Armas, Jr., RHP: Armas never looked worse than he did last season during his brief time with the Mets, but at Triple-A, he showed great control and posted strong hit rates, hinting at the pitcher who was once a top prospect in the Expo system. But the fact is, he hasn’t been useful since early in 2006, and as usual, injuries derailed him that season. Anyways, the Mets must have liked what they saw of Armas in the minors, and re-signed him to a minor league deal. You never know when all of a sudden everything will click for a pitcher, but the fact that he is experiencing Visa problems for the second straight spring doesn’t bode well for him to enjoy any success in 2009.
Luis Ayala, RHP: Ayala started the season in Washington, but was too hittable in a set-up role. Dealt to the Mets in August, he was slightly better, and did have some value down the stretch when he took over the closer role after Billy Wagner got hurt and Aaron Heilman failed. With the Mets’ big bullpen additions, Ayala was no longer needed, and he’s landed in Minnesota.
Damion Easley, 2B: Can you believe it’s now been almost six years since the Tigers released Easley, eating over $14 million in salary in the process? He’s been a part-time player since, but at the age of 39, is still hanging around. In fact, when Castillo was so awful last season, Easley saw more action than normal down the stretch, resulting in 85 hits – his highest total since 2001. Easley no longer has any power, but drew interest from Arizona earlier this offseason. However, he remains without a job, and we know the Mets won’t be asking him back – they’ve moved on by signing Alex Cora to take over Easley’s role.
Orlando Hernandez, RHP: Hernandez’s 2008 season was a disaster as he got a late start to the season because of foot surgery – something that concerned us early in the year when we wondered if he’d be healthy at all. Well, we were bang on, as the injury never healed sufficiently for him to take the mound, and then he opted for season-ending surgery in August to remove a bunion on his big right toe. While his strikeout rate slipped and his command was weak in 2007, Hernandez has always been a consistent winner (lifetime 90-65 mark), so you’d think someone would bite. He’s willing to continue his career as a reliever, but there’s been no interest in him at all.
Pedro Martinez, RHP: Well, Martinez was healthier last year than he was in 2007. There, now that I’ve said something good about his 2008, I can take the gloves off. The dude was simply shelled and his shoulder problems resurfaced in September, keeping him winless for the remainder of the season. This former Expo great wanted to re-sign with the Mets, but that isn’t expected to happen. Instead, Martinez will use the WBC as a platform to try to generate interest as he seeks a 2009 contract.
Ramon Martinez, 2B: Thanks to injuries and ineffective at Triple-A last season, I wondered whether this vet was done altogether. He wound up in the Met system and after a September call-up, he actually saw some time as the starting second baseman in New York. And although he hit decently, this spoke more to Castillo’s ineffectiveness rather than Martinez’s prowess. At any rate, the Mets liked what they saw enough to re-sign him to a minor league deal, but I expect him to again spend plenty of his time at Triple-A.
Trot Nixon, OF: Since his career year in 2003, Nixon’s slugging percentage has dropped five straight seasons, and after last season’s debacle – hernia surgery limited him to a mere 35 less-than-impressive at bats – he looks old before his time. Nixon started the season in the Arizona system and hit well at Triple-A, but was dealt to the Mets when they were dealing with a rash of OF injuries. Of course, he soon joined that mess, getting hurt himself. The Brewers have signed Nixon and he’ll compete for the final outfield spot in Milwaukee. He probably has an edge for the job because he’s a lefty, but man, has his career ever gone downhill steadily.
Oliver Perez, LHP: Perez was unable to consolidate his great 2007 rebound season, setting a career high in walks in 2008 while also experiencing a decline in his K rate. The upshot of his inconsistency was one-third less wins (just 10 after a career-best 15 in 2007). Regardless, the Mets re-signed him for three years and $36 million, a deal that could be awful if Perez starts to revert to his 2006 form. However, it could be a steal if the work that Johan Santana is doing with him to make him a more consistent pitcher pays off. The Mets need Perez to return to the 15-win range for them to have a shot at the playoffs; with one of the best lefties in the game in Perez’s corner, there’s a good chance that may happen. I’m issuing a sleeper alert on this still-just-27-year-old southpaw.
Ricardo Rincon, LHP: Rincon missed most of the 2007 season because of Tommy John surgery, and he worked his way back by pitching in the Mexican League this season before the Mets gave him a look. He earned a September call-up and pitched well in limited action. He’s still a free agent, however, and at the age of 38, looks just about done.
Matt Wise, RHP: When the Mets signed him last offseason, we actually thought this was a wise move. Unfortunately, an arm injury delayed the start of his season, and when he returned, he was far too hittable, suggesting that he wasn’t quite 100 per cent. Sure enough, after just eight appearances, the shoulder started acting up, ultimately leading him to shut it down for the season in August. He’s still a free agent, and will likely remain as such until it’s clear he’s healthy.
Next: We’ll drive 100 miles down the Jersey Turnpike and the I-95 to Philadelphia, to check in the offseason happenings of the World Champion Phillies.