Sunday, April 4, 2010

2010 Season Preview: Are We Kidding Ourselves?

My true feelings about the upcoming season may have been betrayed by my initial reaction to the rotation announced for the first week.

I'm attending game three on Thursday, and when I learned that Jonathan Niese would be the Mets' starter, I was thrilled and relieved, primarily because I wanted to avoid seeing Ollie Perez. And nothing against John Maine and Mike Pelfrey, who have not impressed this spring (then again, who has), but other than Johan Santana, Niese is probably the most exciting starter the Mets have.

That's right, Niese, the fifth starter who is coming off an injury (like seemingly everyone else).

Is that a bad sign?

When spring training began, I felt nothing but optimism. Jose Reyes was healthy and in camp, Jason Bay was in the lineup, and we figured we'd survive six weeks or so without Carlos Beltran. The vibe was positive, which is how spring training should be.

Reyes' thyroid acted up, which turned out to be an annoyance and not a crisis. But then the pitchers started, you know, pitching, and the results were less than positive.

Of the five starters' spring ERAs, Pelfrey's was the best, at 6.15. Santana had some rough outings, but no one's too worried, mainly because Santana is Santana and spring stats mean nothing. That, and if Santana really is having trouble, we may as well all jump off a bridge.

Pelfrey has been inconsistent and has been unable to find his inner Randy Johnson, prompting Jeff Francoeur to joke that he wanted to punch Big Pelf in the face before every start. Ollie has been mostly Bad Ollie, and it looks like an attempt is being made to improve his command, which has left his lively fastball lifeless. Probably better to let Ollie be Ollie and let the chips and home runs fall where they may.

Niese had his own share of troubles but showed signs of life, and scouts generally feel that he has a good future in the league. Let's hope so. Maine, meanwhile, has struggled, but there is hope that he'll get back to the pitcher who has come up big in big games.

That word, hope, has a lot riding on it. The Mets had an opportunity to improve the rotation but passed after John Lackey took his spotty medical history and ran to the Red Sox and their monster contract offer. There were others the Mets could have signed (why not roll the dice on Chien-Ming Wang??), but they stood pat, and we are where we are.

Some have suggested the bullpen is worse, but Pedro Feliciano has been outstanding against lefties, and two seasons ago, he held righties to a .215 average. If he can get closer to that number, maybe he can be the eighth-inning bridge. Or perhaps it's Hisanori Takahaski, who has been terrific so far and could even be a fallback starter.

What the Mets lack is an effective right-hander out of the pen (it isn't Sean Green), unless you're talking about Jennry Mejia, who has been lights-out. I'm on record saying that Mejia should be starting in the minors, but if the Mets want him to get his feet wet in the majors in the bullpen, then so be it. There were recent references to how the Cardinals developed Adam Wainwright in that fashion, and it turned out quite well for them -- but Wainwright had more than 100 minor-league starts before they brought him up. Mejia's minor-league experience is much less, and his numbers there were underwhelming.

On offense, the Mets will miss Daniel Murphy at first base, and as a result Mike Jacobs is the starter.

That, to me, is as depressing as any of the recent Mets developments. Not so much because I think Murphy is going to be gangbusters (though I do think he will have a solid year), but because Jacobs is going to not only going to play first, but apparently bat FOURTH.

Why Jerry Manuel is hitting him fourth is beyond me. If anything, he should just fill whatever spot Murphy was going to have, sixth or seventh. But in an attempt to go right-left-right in the absence of Beltran, he's got Jacobs and his donut-hole swing batting cleanup. Insane.

Why not have a top five of Angel Pagan, Luis Castillo, David Wright, Bay and Francoeur? In the sixth spot, I'd have used Chris Carter instead of Jacobs, who should be in the AL or in the minors somewhere. Carter is younger (not very young, I know), hungrier, a better fielder and had a much better spring. Jacobs is a retread. Period.

Bay will be fine at Citi Field, which is a pitcher's park but not the death valley the media makes it out to be. In fact, had the Mets not lost so many games to injury last season they likely would have finished around the league average in home runs. Francoeur was resurgent in trying times and has quickly become a positive clubhouse presence. Pagan is a capable fill-in for Beltran (as long as it's only for two months), and Castillo doesn't deserve half of the flak he gets, even for his defense, which is limited.

Wright should bounce back from a season in which the injuries, the stadium and an altered plate approach conspired to knock down his power, and contradictorily raise both his batting average and strikeout totals. The key, as always, is Reyes. If he stays healthy, and I think he will, that makes a tremendous difference in a lineup that will get a similar jolt when Beltran returns.

Which brings us back to pitching. Had the 2-4 section of Pelfrey, Maine and Perez looked strong in the spring, there might have been more hope, even though the past is littered with spring training heros turned regular-season bums. It's just that we needed to see SOMETHING, and instead got nothing but more questions on the mound. Someone has to step up to make K-Rod worth what they're paying him.

One thing I do like is the underdog status. For the first time in five years, the expectations are low. No one anticipates the Mets to make the playoffs or do much better than .500, and maybe this group will respond to that. Maybe Perez swings back to his Good Ollie self, and Maine bounces back, and Pelfrey gets mean, and Niese is the real deal.

Maybe. Hey, it's something.

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