Monday, March 31, 2008

Starting Over

For a ballplayer, the year doesn't end on December 31, but in October. It doesn't begin on January 1, but in April. Next April. Whether we like it or not, the season defines our lives.

-Keith Hernandez
from "If At First..."

I guess some of you might look at the header today and think of the classic 1979 movie with Burt Reynolds and Candice Bergen. In the movie, Reynolds is embroiled in some degree of internal conflict. He'd rather love his new girlfriend (Jill Clayburgh), but can't seem to get his mind past his ex-wife (Bergen), and her attempts to somehow win him back (resulting in Bergen caterwauling for a few minutes in a wholly scarring scene). The movie handles Reynolds' plight with light humor, despite it being a situation that isn't so funny if you happen to go through it yourself.

It seemed to be a similar conflict to one I had at the end of the 2007 Baseball season.

I had, throughout much of the 2007 season, been romantically involved with a woman. The relationship had actually developed during the latter part of the 2006 season, but that's neither here nor there at this point. She wasn't a Mets fan; in fact she wasn't much of a baseball fan, though she did profess an allegiance to the Red Sox since she was from Boston (although she did say she would root for the Mets unless they played the Red Sox in the World Series, which was a definite possibility through much of the season). It seemed that, despite some differences we might have had, we were heading in a positive direction. At least, that was certainly how I felt, and she never had indicated anything to the contrary.

Then, for no particular reason, she suddenly stopped speaking to me. She only e-mailed me after I left a message on her voice mail wondering if she was still alive. This was on August 23rd, after sitting through a rather miserable Mets loss to San Diego. Her message was terse and empty; no real explanation was offered, only repeated apologies. I wrote back, said my peace, and that was that. We haven't spoken since.

In September, the Mets collapsed, rather suddenly. Too many empty explanations were offered. The day after that miserable final afternoon, I received an e-mail that read simply, "Message from the Mets." I'm sure we all received it.

Dear Mets Fan:

All of us at the Mets are bitterly disappointed in failing to achieve our collective goal of building upon last year's success. We did not meet our organization's expectations -- or yours. Everyone at Shea feels the same range of emotions as you -- our loyal fans -- and we know we have let you down. We wanted to thank you for your record-breaking support of our team this year.

Equally important, Ownership will continue its commitment in providing the resources necessary to field a championship team. Omar will be meeting with Ownership shortly to present his plan on addressing our shortcomings so that we can achieve our goal of winning championships in 2008 and beyond.

You deserve better results.

Many thanks again for your re
cord-breaking support.


The first, last and only thing that went through my mind when I read the e-mail was that it was basically the same damn thing my ex-girlfriend had written to me a month earlier. As if this was going to somehow make me, us, feel better after everything that had happened.

When Keith says that the season defines our lives, it's not just for the players. Sometimes, it's for the fans as well. Yes, many of us go on with our regular, day-to-day lives. We carry on as if nothing has happened. But we carry the season with us. And for the past 6 months, we've had to carry the outcome of those final 17 games on our shoulders. The calendar says 2007 ended on December 31. I was still carrying around the bad feelings, from the Mets, and from my Ex. In New York, Baseball season never really ends. There's just an interim period between games. In that interim, we waited for something to happen. Some sort of sign that this team was actually trying to give us the results they told us we deserved. For most of the winter, it seemed like this promise that Omar and the "Ownership" was nothing but empty words. It wasn't until January 29th that hope finally re-emerged.

Hope coming in the form of this afternoon's starting pitcher.

See, unlike my Ex, the Mets always get back to me. Unlike Burt Reynolds, we always take them back. It's a relationship that is always cathartic, abusive and sometimes beautifully tragic. More often then not, they usually drive me to drink or do things like yell at nuns. But I can't ever turn them away. So for me, Opening Day is about wiping the slate clean on all fronts. Don't forget about last year, but don't continue to be ruled by it.

Today is New Year's Day for Keith Hernandez and the rest of us. Ready to wipe the slate clean and move forward, with a keen eye to the past, and how it can't ever happen again. There's a new attitude, a team that understands its responsibility and knows what it needs to do. They're not going to forget about last year, either.


Friday, March 28, 2008

Final Preparations

There's no one particular thing to write about today, but I do have a few odd items that bear being addressed before the season begins on Monday. Consider this the final brush-up before the storm begins.

Thanks to Dan from Mets Refugees for answering my question about the ramp from the 7 train. As it turns out, there's not going to be a ramp at all. Instead, there's a staircase being built rather hastily in preparation for the impending Home Opener. These Photos are courtesy of Chris S. (aka Islandxtreme26), taken from inside the future home of the Mets. Here's a wide angle shot of the new steps, and a pair of close-ups showing the construction work being done. I still think a major renovation of the station is in order, and I don't know whether or not this is a temporary staircase simply for the '08 season, but it's a staircase nonetheless and it would appear that it might actually make life easier for all of us going to Shea this season.

(The full photo gallery can be seen here, and contains a number of nice shots inside Citi Field, shots of Shea from Citi Field, and a panoramic video of the future ballfield itself)

Tuesday evening, I was listening to Steve Somers on WFAN as I usually do, and sometime around Midnight I heard with half an ear him saying something about Endy Chavez being put on waivers. This nearly gave me a heart attack, given the favor Endy has drawn upon himself during his time with the Mets, and given his standing as the late-inning defensive replacement/4th Outfielder supreme. What could Omar be thinking?

What Omar was thinking was that Steve wouldn't confuse Ruben Gotay with Endy Chavez. Somers corrected himself shortly after Midnight, and all was right with the world. There are a number of people who don't seem to like the move, I don't particularly care, even if it does leave the Mets without a true backup SS. The fact is that although Gotay did show some flashes of brilliance with the bat in a few spots last season, he, like Endy, would be inevitably exposed over a larger sample. This has already been proven during his time with Kansas City. He exhibited an inability to hit lefties, and his defense was also less than desirable. And with the Mets ready to carry 12 pitchers, plus Anderson, Endy, Castro, Pagan and apparently Fernando Tatis or Brady Clark, Gotay became expendable. Neither Randolph or Minaya seem to be fans of his, either. Perhaps, as Gotay feels, this is undeserved. But clearly he didn't fit this team. I'm not going to go nuts over this one. You shouldn't either.

Speaking of Tatis, it appears that he and his ears are going to be making the trip north with the Mets (and put out an alert, MBTN, he's wearing #17!). It's an interesting move, to say the least, and I suspect he'd only last as long as Alou is on the shelf, and the Mets need the extra righty bat. However, he hasn't played in the Majors since 2006, and outside of the 28 games he appeared in that season hasn't played regularly since 2003. He was also named in the Mitchell Report. I'm not sure what he'll bring to the club, but apparently he impressed enough people despite being in camp for 5 days after Visa trouble. Like many other aspects of this version of the Mets, I'm skeptical. Then again, if Tatis hits 5 HRs in April as a fill-in, I take it back. Radar ears and all.

Thanks to Rays Index for giving my AL Preview a shoutout the other day. When I said that my AL Preview wasn't very well informed, I wasn't kidding. As I mentioned, I am very NL-centric, so much so that I wasn't even aware that my pick for the AL Cy Young Award is going to miss just about all of April with a triceps injury. Lackey even talks about it in his own blog. Shows how much attention I've been paying. Nobody even mentioned that at my Fantasy League auction. If I can have a do-over, perhaps I'll say Erik Bedard for AL Cy Young.

Speaking of the Rays, I haven't heard any information on the status of my doppleganger over the past few days. The last I heard was this nugget on stating that Eric Hinske was the leading candidate for a roster spot. I'm still pulling for him, though. I'd rather be associated with him than with this guy.

Finally, just to keep everyone aware, votes are still being counted for your favorite Lost Classics. Although nobody seems particularly interested in a 2004 Lost Classic, the turnout has been very solid for 1997 and 1998, and in each case, the leading game does not hold more than a 2-vote lead. So it's too close to name a winner for any season at this point. Keep those votes coming!

It's the longest weekend of the offseason, so enjoy it, folks. Come Monday, time begins anew!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Not Especially Well-Informed (2008 American League Preview)

Sunday evening was the Auction for my Fantasy Baseball league. In the past, particularly over the past few years when I was co-owning a team with the Former El Guapo, we would have long study sessions, breaking down positions and deciding which players, specifically, we should be targeting.

This year, I'm owning by myself. I bought The Sporting News Fantasy Baseball guide like I always do, sometime in late February. But I really didn't have much time or energy to really study for the draft like I usually do. In fact, outside of skimming the magazine a few times, I really didn't prepare for the draft at all. I went in pretty much cold. On some level, you can get away with this, since it is an auction, and you already pretty much know who's good and who's not. But you can only get by so much using this strategy, especially when the auction comes down to dollar players and scrubs at the end of the draft. Usually, I've done well at this point in the draft, but then again, I've also done a really good job at finishing in 9th place in my league every year. So, why not not study for the draft? I actually ended up with a team I'm relatively happy with (and includes, among others, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Miguel Cabrera and John Maine). And, although it remains to be seen, I have this feeling I might actually do better this season than in previous years. But then, that could just be gas.

You're probably wondering where I'm going with all this.

Last year, I pretty much trashed the AL as Fatboy Baseball, and Commie Baseball. El Guapo pointed out that the AL is more Reagan Baseball rather than Commie, but he couldn't deny me the Fatboy part. To be blunt, I'm not a fan of AL Baseball. I don't like games that require 4 hours to play despite an inherent lack of managerial strategy. True, the AL boasts a better stock of teams. But that's academic, and runs in cycles. I don't pay too much attention to the AL as a whole, and therefore, I tend to stay away from predicting it. But then, maybe knowing less about a league might make it easier for me to handicap it.

(As with the NL, Win-Loss records are approximations and can be taken within a range of +/-5)

1) Boston Red Sox (99-63)
I still think the Red Sox are easily the class of their division, the class of their league, and probably the Class of Baseball this season. They really didn't change much of the team that really romped their way to the World Championship last season. The loss of Schilling for an indeterminate time would likely hurt them, except that they've stockpiled such a talented group of young arms (consider that Clay Buchholz, who tossed a No-Hitter in his 2nd ML Start, is basically buried in AAA for the time being) that Schilling might as well skip the season and it's still very likely that the Sox won't miss a beat. Figure Manny will bounce back from an 0ff-year, Ortiz will be Ortiz, and the production from guys like Youkilis, Lowell and Pedroia remain the same and you've basically got the most loaded team from top to bottom you'll find in the Majors this season. I wouldn't pick against them.

2) New York Yankees (93-69)
For the first time in as long as any of us can remember, this is actually a new-look Yankees team. The Joe Torre era ended with another playoff flop, and the result is that this Yankee team has a markedly different feel to it. Much of the offense has been retained, which is logical since the offense really didn't struggle until the postseason. A-Rod was retained, which means that you can count him in to carry the load, with Jeter providing the intangibles. I also look for a breakout season from Robinson Cano, who might hit himself into a higher spot in the batting order. But the key to the Yankees lies in their pitching staff, which will be asking an awful lot from a questionable rotation consisting of Overrated Wang, Pettitte, Aging Mussina and Unproven guys Ian Kennedy and Philip Hughes. Joba Chamberlain, probably the best of the youngsters, inexplicably remains in the bullpen, and it's unclear if he'll ever make it out. This year will be a year of transition and struggle for the Yankees, but not a rebuilding year, and I still think they'll hit their way into a Wildcard berth. Why wouldn't they? They're the Yankees, after all.

3) Toronto Blue Jays (88-74)
I feel bad for my friends up at the Tao of Stieb. This is a team that's got a ton of talent and some really sharp young pitchers, but they're buried by the Sox/Yankees Arms Race. Put these guys in the NL Central and they'd run away with the damn thing. But stuck in the AL East, they can only think 3rd place unless the Yankees pitching implodes completely. The deal of Glaus for Rolen was basically a wash, but I think Vernon Wells will have a bounce-back season, and I expect Alex Rios to develop into a bigtime stud. Major keys for the Jays, however, include the health and effectiveness of starting pitchers AJ Burnett, Jesse Litsch and Shawn Marcum, and closer B.J. Ryan coming off elbow reconstruction. And, of course, they added David Eckstein.
He's scrappy.

4) Tampa Bay Devil Rays (77-85)
New name, new owners, new identity in Tampa. Maybe, just maybe these guys have finally turned the corner after basically being the Seattle Mariners of the current era. I figure that if the core of the team right now can remain together and mature with experience, they will be contenders within 2 or 3 seasons. I really like the group of pitchers they have right now, even with Kazmir injured, they have guys like Matt Garza, James Shields (All-Star in waiting) and Andy Sonnastine, plus #1 Draft Pick David Price on the farm. The offense still has some holes, and I have my doubts that Carlos Pena can repeat his success of last season. But the outfield of Crawford, Upton and Gomes is one of the league's best, assuming they can stay healthy and hit. I also expect Evan Longoria to ascend before long. They'll be fun to watch. Unlike...

5) Baltimore Orioles (67-95)
...These guys, who will be simply miserable all season long. Even after the Astros basically handed them most of their best pitching prospects in the asinine Miguel Tejada trade, the Orioles still went out and stupidly brought back Steve Trachsel, putting him in with Adam Loewen and the Vince Vaughn of pitchers, Daniel Cabrera, while Matt Albers is sent to the minors. They're backed up on offense by a horrible mishmash of B-level players and Melvin Mora. I swear these guys look to be about as exciting as the 1979 Mets.

1) Cleveland Indians (93-69)
Flip a coin and either one might be right. I figure the Indians and the Tigers will duke it out all season for AL Central supremacy. I give the Indians the slightest of edges based on the depth of their pitching staff. When it counts the most, the Indians can throw a guy like Sabathia, Fausto Carmona, or Jake Westbrook at you and the Tigers don't have dependable arms like that. Plus, the Indians can throw some runs on the board too, with Grady Sizemore leading a powerful bunch that includes established guys like Victor Martinez, but also a couple of young studs in Ryan Garko and Franklin Gutierrez. They're going to take it all the way down to the wire, but I look to the Indians to win the Central again.

2) Detroit Tigers (92-70)
They basically reinvented themselves with the Cabrera/Willis deal. In Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers got, perhaps, the best young player in the game today, provided he doesn't eat himself onto the bench, or worse, the DL. Then, they stuck him in between Magglio Ordonez and Curtis Granderson. Can you say runs galore? They'll have an offense to rival the Red Sox or the Phillies, but they have a pitching staff that could easily turn games 27 different kinds of ugly. This is the kind of staff that will have Jim Leyland eating cigarettes by the pack in early June, if things don't go well. True, Verlander will lead the way, and Willis should be better than he was last year. But guys like Bonderman are erratic, Kenny Rogers is old and Nate Robertson flamed out miserably late last season. Add to that the fact that Todd Jones is still closing for them, and will continue to do so with Zumaya out until July, and you have to wonder if this team can just hit enough to offset their lousy pitching. It'll cost them in the end.

3) Minnesota Twins (83-79)
Carlos Gomez won the CF job, and I'm happy for him. I expect him to do well in the AL, but I can't say as much for the team around him. If the Twins are smart, they'll stick with an OF of Gomez, Delmon Young and Jason Kubel, and with Mauer healthy and Morneau the same, they'll have a nice top of the lineup. But without Santana leading the way, the pitching staff all of a sudden became very, very pedestrian. In addition to losing Santana, the Twins lost Carlos Silva and dealt Matt Garza for Young, so all of a sudden, the Twins are looking at Boof Bonser as their ace, followed by Philip Humber, Scott Baker, and, yes, Livan Hernandez. Sigh...

4) Chicago White Sox (78-84)
I don't really know too much about the White Sox team this year, at least not enough to write an informed description of them, except that I don't have any reason to believe that they'll be very good. Look for a few entertaining blowups from Ozzie Guillen, at the very least.

5) Kansas City Royals (68-94)
I expect that Alex Gordon will blossom a bit this year, after plodding his way through a lousy rookie season. Other youngsters David Dejesus, Billy Butler and Mark Teahen will also actually have chances to play, although I heard that Jose Guillen was the Royals most recent "Useless Veteran du Jour" to hit Royals camp. The pitching staff is still a muddled mess, although Brian Bannister showed flashes of brilliance nobody knew he had in him and Zach Greinke appears ready to turn the corner after some personal problems. They also might let stud prospect Luke Hochevar pitch in the Majors this season, but God forbid they should prevent Kyle Davies from making his scheduled start. I don't know what else to say. Just show up and hope for the best.

1) Seattle Mariners (87-75)
Surprised? Not me. I have the feeling that this will be the year that the pitching staff, led by Felix Hernandez, puts it all together and carries this team through the inevitable 2-month slumps from guys like Richie Sexson, Adrian Beltre and Raul Ibanez. Bringing in dependable starters Erik Bedard and Carlos Silva to bolster the rotation should be enough to put them over the top in the West.

2) Anaheim Angels (85-77)
I toyed with picking the Angels by default, but I think they're easily the most overrated team in the AL. Outside of Lackey and Weaver, the pitching staff is incredibly shaky. Ervin Santana was one of two things last season: Brilliant, or horrendously miserable, with no common ground. Jon Garland enters the fold, although what he brings, I'm not quite sure. Kelvim Escobar is, of course, just another injury waiting to happen. Guys like Nick Adenhart would likely be pressed into service, though I think he's a year or two off from really being effective. The offense is pretty boring, Vladimir Guerrero and Chone Figgins aside. But everyone seems to love these guys. I guess it's because nobody thinks Seattle will be a viable competitor, and that's really the only viable competitor they've got. I still don't think they're as good as people think they are, and I think they can be had. You hear that? THEY'RE NOT WHO YOU THINK THEY ARE!!!

3) Texas Rangers (81-81)
Look, it's the American League's answer to the Cincinnati Reds!

(No, seriously, take a look at those rosters. They're carbon copies of each other, just with different names.)

4) Oakland Athletics (73-89)
I looked at the lineup the A's threw out there against the Red Sox for the game in Japan this morning before I left for work. When I don't know more than half of the names comprising a team's starting lineup, it's probably not your year.

AL MVP: Miguel Cabrera, DET
AL Cy Young Award: John Lackey, ANA
AL Rookie of the Year: Joba Chamberlain, NYY

ALDS: Red Sox over Mariners (3), Indians over Yankees (4)
ALCS: Indians over Red Sox (7)

Yeah, that sounds good enough to me.

Monday, March 24, 2008

But Where Do We Go?

In November, I had read a post on Loge 13, assisted by photos from NYMDan at Mets Refugees, about the tearing down of the ramp from the 7 Train stop at Shea. I have to admit that it was rather shocking, considering not only the heavy foot traffic it had seen over the past years, but the tradition of the ramp itself. But there it was, gone, nothing left but a heap of scrap metal. That's kind of a shame. I didn't even know that my last trip over it following the last game of '07 would be my last trip over the ramp. My last trip was, needless to say, an angry, indignant stomp, rather than a victory march.

More recently, I had seen photos from NYMDan of the Walk-Up ticket booth by Gate E, a familiar meeting spot, no doubt, with its trees and benches and Newsday booth. That's pretty much gone, too. The benches and trees pulled up, the area now barren.

But it was the absence of that ramp that was digging at me. I wrote, last Opening Day, about how the crowd crush on the ramp was ridiculous. But, still, it was the best way out of Shea, and directly onto the subway platform. The crush had gotten better once the MTA had figured out the proper traffic flow, moved the turnstiles and put Express service into Manhattan after games. Then, they tore down the ramp! I was puzzled as to why they would do that now, as opposed to re-building it altogether after the 2008 season. Were we, then, supposed to cram ourselves by the dozen into the puny little sidewalk entrance onto Roosevelt Avenue?

The answer was, of course, no.

Here, again courtesy of NYMDan and Mets Refugees, we see that they are, indeed, building a new ramp from the platform to the street. But there is one thing that concerns me. And I'm sure I'm not the only one who is concerned. As of March 15th, this ramp is still pretty skeletal. Opening Day is April 8th. Less than a month away. Now, I'm not 100% sure who's in charge here, whether it's the Mets, or the MTA, as far as the ramp is concerned. It's safe to say that I'm a staunch advocate of re-designing the station altogether, and perhaps adding a second, more convenient exit to ease the bottlenecking that goes on. But they seem to only be replacing this one ramp, and at the rate they seem to be going, it might not be there by the time people start showing up. I can only imagine that I'll be sauntering into the Shea stop at 10:30AM on April 8th and stepping in wet concrete. That's if I don't walk out the door and fall directly onto Roosevelt Avenue. Hopefully, they'll work this all out. Hopefully, the ramp will be designed with a better traffic flow in mind. We'll see how this works out. I'm skeptical.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Choose the Lost Classic!

In the interest of getting back to the roots of The Ballclub, and providing some new Lost Classic games for the upcoming season, I'd like to put the decision into the hands of the loyal readers. There are a large number of games that I have in mind for some Lost Classics, but I'm not sure which ones to choose. So, let's have a vote! Which games would you like to read about? I'll offer up 4 games each from 3 separate seasons that I have somewhat fond memories of, and let you decide. The winners will, of course, have their own Lost Classic writeup. So, here goes:

Yes, I've been on a big 1998 kick lately. Perhaps because it's the 10th Anniversary. Perhaps it's because of the acquisition of Piazza. Perhaps it's something else. But here's 4 games I think are worthy of Lost Classics.

1) June 8, 1998 - Mets 3, Devil Rays 0. Rick Reed retires the 1st 20 Devil Rays in order before allowing a hit. Mike Piazza hits his 1st HR as a Met at Shea.

2) August 1, 1998 - Mets 2, Dodgers 1. Matt Franco belts a PH HR off of Jeff Shaw in the last of the 9th.

3) August 4, 1998 - Mets 7, Giants 6. Lenny Harris draws a walk-off walk in the bottom of the 10th.

4) September 16, 1998 - Mets 4, Astros 3. Mike Piazza's 9th inning HR off Wagner temporarily gives the Mets the lead, Hundley's final HR as a Met in the 11th wins it.

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1) May 5, 2004 - Mets 8, Giants 2. Piazza breaks the record for HRs by a Catcher.

2) July 2, 2004 - Mets 11, Yankees 2. Kaz Matsui hits 2 HRs off Mike Mussina, putting the Mets on the way to sweeping the Yankees.

3) July 15, 2004 - Mets 3, Phillies 2. Ty Wigginton gets the walk-off hit in the 11th inning.

4) September 14, 2004 - Mets 7, Braves 0. Kris Benson's finest Met moment.

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1) April 22, 1997 - Mets 7, Reds 2. Rick Reed's coming out party.

2) May 13, 1997 - Mets 4, Astros 3. Butch Huskey wins the game with a mammoth 7th inning HR.

3) June 3, 1997 - Mets 2, Expos 1. Bobby Jones outduels Pedro Martinez.

4) June 14, 1997 - Mets 5, Red Sox 2. Mark Clark takes a No-Hitter into the 8th inning and hits a HR.

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Happy Voting, everybody!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Calculated to Prove Nothing In Particular (2008 National League Preview)

I wonder if writing a National League preview is even worth my time. If there's one thing that's been proven over the past few years, especially in the National League, it's that Parity Rules. I can make my picks to the best of my ability, and do a halfway decent job of it, but chances are I won't be anywhere close to correct.

Case in point: Last season, I picked the Mets, Cardinals, Astros and Dodgers as the NL Playoff teams. Of those 4 teams, only the Mets even had a sniff of a pennant race, and even they managed to cock it all up at the end. I laughed at the Cubs, scoffed at the D'Backs and basically treated the Colorado Rockies as if they didn't exist.

So, basically, it proves one thing: What the hell do I know?

After the season, I figured, well, you could just throw a bunch of teams in a hat, pull out some names and that would be as good a pick as any. In November, the Former El Guapo and I picked our 2008 Playoff teams.

His picks, the Mets, LA, Chicago and Philly, were pretty logical. I decided that I should pick like the NFL, and choose some obscure teams to win. So I said the Mets, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Florida.

I'm not going to stick by those picks now, but at the time, those teams seemed to be as good a pick as any.

At any rate, here's the Preview (Records are inexact and can be taken at a range of +/-5):

1) New York Mets (95-77)
The Mets are clearly still smarting from their collapse last season, but rather than let the bad feelings and negativity fester, the Mets went out and added a silver bullet in Johan Santana, basically tilting the power in the NL East, and likely the NL altogether back in their favor. The team still has its flaws. The Bullpen is far from perfect, and the offense is old, shaky or injury-prone at several positions. But there are certain instances where Starting Pitching, and very good starting pitching can carry a team for a large chunk of the season, and the Mets certainly boast the horses to do this. David Wright is pretty much All-World and Jose Reyes appears determined to correct his attitude problems. The questions have been addressed at various places in this blog and elsewhere. They're not going to walk away with the division like they did in 2006, and they're going to have to deal with a chippy Philadelphia team all season long. But this Mets team has come in pissed off and ready to take back what they believe was rightfully theirs. I wouldn't bet against them.

2) Philadelphia Phillies (92-70)
Once again, I'll go ahead and say Jimmy Rollins is out of his mind. He was out of his mind like a fox last season, when his cup runneth over and his preseason prediction came true. But the Phillies are nowhere close to a 100-win team. They might be a 1,000 run team, but not 100 wins. With Rollins, Utley, Howard and Burrell anchoring the offense in their piddling little bandbox of a ballpark, they will score, score and score some more. But can they pitch? Cole Hamels is clearly the ace, and for the moment, Brett Myers will be in the rotation with him, along with Adam Eaton, Jaime Moyer and Kyle Kendrick. Guys who are decent, but wholly unspectacular, and no pitcher can be guaranteed a great deal of success in Steroid Field #2. The bullpen is suspect as well. Yes, they brought in a flamethrower in Brad Lidge, but Brad Lidge, who has been susceptible to getting killed on pitches up, combined with the ballpark is likely bad news, and if he falters, the other options are Tom Gordon, who turns 50 this season, I believe, and Myers, which would leave a hole in the starting rotation.

Last season, the Phillies basically couldn't get out of their own way for most of the season. Except when they played the Mets. And when they finally got their act together, the Mets were falling apart. That won't happen again. But I think the Phillies will be able to do enough to hang around again, and although they might not top the Mets for the Division, they'll be good enough to win the Wildcard and return to the Playoffs.

3) Atlanta Braves (83-79)
The most ballyhooed offseason acquisition for the Braves involved bringing in a 41-year old pitcher whose last start involved him getting blasted for 7 runs in .1IP. They're throwing him in with another aging veteran pitcher, and an injury-prone headcase who hasn't pitched in two seasons. Then, there's Tim Hudson, who somehow turned into this generation's Bret Saberhagen, up one year, down the next.

On the other side, the offense should be only marginally exciting. Andruw Jones departs after 13 seasons, and will be replaced by Mark Kotsay, who boasts a great arm and a spotty bat. The thunder will come from Larry and Mark Teixeira, and Yunel Escobar looks like an All-Star in waiting. Francoeur and McCann will also return to round out a lineup that really doesn't jump off the page at you.

Overall, the Braves have some good individual players, and they might hang around into September, but a team can only be as good as the sum of its parts, and altogether I just don't see these parts adding up to much. They'll fade late.

4) Washington Nationals (77-85)
The Nationals open their new ballpark this year, and they will be better than last season. It will, again, be the offense that will be the strength on this team, and with Nick Johnson returning from his gruesome leg injury, there is a 1B controversy between Johnson and Dmitri Young. No longer in cavernous RFK Stadium, the Nationals ought to generate some more offense, good news for guys like Ryan Zimmerman, Austin Kearns and Wily Mo Pena. Their crowded Outfield also includes talented headcases Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes. They're very young in the outfield, but old on the infield (save Zimmerman). But the pitching isn't quite there; even if John Patterson has indeed healed from injury problems that have limited him to 15 games over the past 2 seasons, they're still a few years away from seriously contending.

5) Florida Marlins (68-94)
Here we go again. After the Marlins finished strong and really kicked the Mets in the nuts at the end of last season, I thought the Marlins were a bat and a pitcher away from being a major player in the NL East. In fact, my November Wildcard pick for the NL was the Florida Marlins.

Then, they turned around and dealt Dontrelle and Miguel Cabrera for 6 prospects. So much for that thought.

The young nucleus of Willingham, Hermida, Jacobs and Uggla remain, and they will all be good. So will Cameron Maybin, if he ascends. But the pitching rotation is pretty much devoid of experienced Major League talent, and looks to consist of Josh Johnson off Elbow Reconstruction, Sweaty drunk Scott Olsen, Anibal Sanchez off a major shoulder injury, and someone out of a pool of names that includes guys like Henricus Vanden Hurk, Mark Hendrickson, Ricky Nolasco and Andrew Miller.

It's going to be a long season for the 14,000 or so fans who show up at that football stadium this Summer.

1) Milwaukee Brewers (88-74)
The NL Central is probably the most difficult division to predict. I'll pick the Brewers here, if only because they did start strong last season, but faded late when injuries and ineffectiveness hit their pitching staff. The rotation remains mostly the same, with Sheets, Capuano and Suppan leading the way, and the bullpen did take a hit losing Cordero and replacing him with a giant question mark in Eric Gagne. They are built similar to Philadelphia, with a great offense led by Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, and adding some pop with Mike Cameron will also be a boost. They'll have to peck and scratch at times, but I think they'll be able to hold off Chicago and win the Central, making their first appearance in the Postseason since 1982.

2) Chicago Cubs (87-75)
They hit an awful lot in the NL Central, but don't seem to be able to pitch much. This seems to be a recurring theme across the board. Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano and newcomer Kosuke Fukudome will lead this team that seemed to make the playoffs by accident last season and were swept away by Arizona. Outside of Carlos Zambrano, I don't see any pitcher who will really light anyone on fire this year, although Rich Hill could ascend and surprise a bit this season. Guys like Carlos Marmol, Sean Marshall, Jason Marquis and Jon Lieber can only stem the tide so much and it'll be difficult for the offense to carry the load when the pitching across the board is such a big question mark. They'll keep it close, and for all I know they could win, since they do boast the most talented roster in the division. But I don't think they have enough, and the Cubs will successfully manage to go 100 years without winning a World Series.

3) Houston Astros (84-78)
Offense, offense, offense, once again. Assuming Miguel Tejada isn't suspended or indicted in the whole Steroid mess, he's going to be the new anchor of this offense, taking some of the pressure off of Lance Berkman, Hunter Pence and Carlos Lee in the middle of a lineup that will score runs in bunches, but outside of Roy Oswalt really won't pitch much. I mean, who are we kidding here? Wandy Rodriguez? Brandon Backe? Woody Williams? The deal to bring in Tejada certainly helped the offense, but they dealt several talented pitching prospects to Baltimore to get him, and basically left themselves very, very thin on pitching, and this is a case of, as I am apt to say, Bad Idea Jeans.

4) St. Louis Cardinals (81-81)
Getting Chris Carpenter back after missing just about all of the 2007 season will help, but the Cardinals are still a low, leaky team outside of Albert Pujols. They're pinning an awful lot on some major question marks like Mark Mulder and Matt Clement as far as their starting rotation is concerned, and that's puzzling because it blocks guys like Adam Wainwright to really have a solid chance to show what they can do. The offense is a muddled mishmash of aging veterans and fringe prospects once you get past Pujols, and it's conceivable that opponents could exploit this to the point of embarrassment. Couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of guys.

5) Cincinnati Reds (79-83)
Wow, another team that hits and can't pitch. You could basically copy and paste the capsules I've just written for Milwaukee, Chicago or Houston and swap in the names Adam Dunn, Edwin Encarnacion, Brandon Phillips and Ken Griffey, Jr in for the offense, and Bronson Arroyo, Aaron Harang and Homer Bailey in for pitchers. Guys like Norris Hopper, Jeff Keppinger and Joey Votto will also contribute heavily to the cause at the plate.

The Reds are intriguing, however, if only because they seem to have a lot of young talent. They are very much in the vein of the Nationals, with a solid mix of young, upcoming players combined with their established veterans. They also added Francisco Cordero to shore up what was a truly awful bullpen last year, ensuring that they will have a real closer, not David Weathers at the end of games. The middle relief is still suspect. But I'd look for the Reds to surprise a few people. They're still a year or two off from challenging seriously, but they've got guys who can play and could be good with a little more experience.

6) Pittsburgh Pirates (75-87)
The Pirates are, in my opinion, the only team in this division that can pitch. They've got a pair of truly unheralded, un-noticed studs at the top of their rotation in Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny, and Zach Duke is good too if he can stay healthy. But outside of Bay and Freddy Sanchez, they really can't hit at all. They're really the anomaly in the division, and given what the rest of the teams can throw at you, that's not going to work to their advantage. They have the beginnings of what could be a successful team at some point, but there are too many if-thens right now to take them seriously, and I knew that when I picked them to win the Central in November. They have a lot of hitters that are more nuisances than real threats, guys like Chris Duffy, Nate McLouth, Adam LaRoche and Nyjer Morgan. But they're the kind of team that you could go to sleep on and then they'll bite you in the ass and you'll go into Pittsburgh, lose 2 of 3 and leave thinking, "How the hell did they beat us with guys like that?"

I'm intrigued by these "bottom feeders" in the NL Central if only because they're not as lousy as your typical last place teams. The Central as a whole is going to really be bunched up because of this, and, in all honesty, I'd call it any team's division right now. None of these teams would surprise me if they somehow won the Division.

1) Arizona Diamondbacks (93-69)
They're much more for real than I initially gave them credit for, especially now that they added Dan Haren behind Brandon Webb to lead an excellent pitching rotation. The offensive nucleus is still very young, but they've all got some pop, especially guys like Stephen Drew, Chris Young and Justin Upton, who could very well be the best of the bunch. A healthy Randy Johnson would only serve to bolster what is already perhaps the best starting rotation in the NL, mixed in with Doug Davis and Micah Owings. This is going to be a tough, tough team to play on most days, and they're easily the best team in the NL West.

2) Colorado Rockies (90-72)
Nobody thought the Rockies were going to do what they did last season. And now that they did, they're not going to sneak up on anybody this season. Teams are going to look at what they did last season, and gear up for them. True, much of the team remains, and guys like Holliday, Helton, Hawpe, Tulowitzki and Atkins are going to lead a very talented group that will score their share of runs. The pitching will also be good. I look, in particular, to guys like Ubaldo Jimemez and Franklin Morales to ascend and see some degree of success, even pitching in Colorado, to compliment Jeff Francis at the top of the rotation. But given that they rode a magical wave of success all the way down to the World Series last season when nobody thought it possible at all, they will find that it is just about impossible to do it again.

3) Los Angeles Dodgers (84-78)
Before he managed the Yankees, Casey Stengel was mostly unsuccessful as the manager of the Boston Braves and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Moving to the AL, Stengel won 10 pennants, and 7 World Championships. Then, he returned to the NL, and, even though he was managing the expansion Mets, returned to losing regularly.

Casey Stengel, meet Joe Torre. Joe, welcome back to the National League, where strategy, not brute strength, is required to win.

4) San Diego Padres (80-82)
San Diego could conceivably bounce back from being 1 strike from a playoff berth and then losing it. But they didn't really do much to change their team, which didn't hit much, and outside of Peavy wasn't particularly exciting. They seem to be banking an awful lot on Mark Prior who hasn't pitched in 2 years, I believe, and replacing Mike Cameron with Jim Edmonds isn't going to help matters. The Padres have had a nice run over the past few seasons surviving with a nucleus of talented, unheralded players that ran out there day after day and played really hard, and won. But the rest of the division has caught up with them. Without a major change, this success won't continue.

5) San Francisco Giants (63-99)
The key comes down to whether or not Alex Smith can return from his separated shoulder and prove that he is indeed an NFL-caliber QB. Otherwise, this team is left having to re-build the team that they've been re-building for 3 years already. Frank Gore can only carry so much of the load, and he clearly wore down at the end of last season. On Defense, the revamped unit played well for much of the year last season, but also suffered from the league's most vanilla offensive unit. If Smith can play well, and preserve Gore's legs, and sustain drives, thereby keeping the Defense fresh, then this team will be good for 7, perhaps 8 wins. If they can be more opportunistic on defense and work in more big plays on offense (having Martz as the new offensive coordinator will certainly help), then 9 or 10 wins and perhaps, perhaps a playoff berth is a definite possibility.

(I thought it might be more interesting to write about the 2008 San Francisco 49ers than the 2008 San Francisco Giants. Just a thought.)

NL MVP: Prince Fielder, MIL
NL Cy Young: Johan Santana, NYM
NL Rookie of the Year: Joey Votto, CIN

NLDS: New York over Milwaukee, Arizona over Philadelphia
NLCS: New York over Arizona

So, there you have it. The National League in a nutshell. Now, let's go out there and play the games.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Clearing the Air

I have been getting e-mails about this from friends all day today, so I felt I should address the matter in a public statement.

It's always a little weird when someone with whom you share a name ends up receiving some sort of notoriety. I've been aware of Jon Weber, the Minor League Outfielder for several years, as he's bounced around between Oakland, LA, Arizona and now Tampa Bay. On Wednesday, some news bits began to break about Weber having a fairly decent shot, with the injury problems of Rocco Baldelli, to make the Rays as a backup Outfielder. There's a real nice story in the Bradenton Herald about Weber and his grandmother. He seems like a nice guy, even if he's never managed to make the Major Leagues in 10 seasons. He even managed to sneak his way onto a baseball card, in the 2006 Bowman set. I have the card. It can be yours, too, for the price of 40 cents.

On Thursday, Weber strengthened his chances of making the Rays when he hit his first HR of the spring off of Bartolo Colon. This was followed by a post on the DRaysBay Blog begging the question, "Who is Jon Weber?"

Most people have no idea. Many more will still have no idea, even if he makes the team.

But I just wanted to clear the air and let everyone know, it's not me. Jon Weber of the Rays is a few inches taller, a year older, a native of Lakewood, CA, and bats and throws lefty.

Jon Weber of The Ballclub, a native of New York, NY, hasn't played Baseball since High School, although he's been known to participate in a softball game every now and then. And he wasn't ever what you would consider a Major or Minor league talent. You're more likely to see him on stage than on the Ballfield (though you will often find him near a ballfield in Queens between the months of April and September). But he can switch-hit, and throws righty. And he hasn't been writing under a pseudonym for the past several years to hide his Pro Baseball Career.

I felt that this should be made clear before more people get confused. I certainly wish Jon Weber well. I hope he makes the Rays and sticks around. And if this other Jon Weber somehow has a closeted desire for Theater, well, maybe we can switch places someday.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Back in Black

My Birthday passed recently, and, on my birthday, I happened to be looking on eBay at Mets jerseys, when I should have been working. I didn't actually plan on buying anything. I only own one jersey, a snow white David Wright "Genuine" Jersey that I bought in 2005, and recently sewed the shoulder and neck patches onto so it would appear more like the "Authentic" jerseys that the players supposedly wear (Yes, if you can believe it, I know how to sew).

There wasn't any particular player I was looking for, although I've always wanted to get a Piazza jersey, but I've always been outbid on those, and the John Maine jerseys just look a little too fishy for my liking. If I'm going to buy a jersey, I'd at least like it to look real.

Which is why I was skeptical when I happened on a Black Carlos Beltran "Authentic" jersey, with a Buy it Now price of $38.00 (with shipping). New, with tags, yes. The seller was based out of Seoul, South Korea. He very likely turned it out in his Basement. But he had plenty of photos of the jersey, and it certainly looked real enough. Good feedback rating, too.

There was another dilemma I faced. There is, at least among the circle I run in, a bit of taboo about the Black jerseys. Just about everyone I know hates them, and wishes they would go away. One friend in particular will only acknowledge the pinstriped jersey as "real." For a while, there was even a petition running to get rid of the Black Jerseys. I put my name on it, although for what it was worth, I never had anything against the Blacks. In fact, when the Mets first introduced them in 1998, I kind of liked them. Yes, they were a trendy marketing ploy, but so what? The Black and Blue cap that accompanies it has been my official Game Hat for the past two seasons, and it's primed to ring out Shea this upcoming season.

But I had to ponder whether or not I should purchase this particular jersey. My father used to tell me, "What does finding the right price mean if it isn't the right thing to do?" Well, the price was certainly right. But in addition to wondering if the jersey would actually make it from Korea to New York, I had to think about whether or not it was worth it to potentially ruin my credibility and actually be seen out in one of those oh-so-shameful black jerseys. I thought long and hard about it, staring intently at the computer screen, ready to click that "Buy It Now" button that was singing out to me.

"Screw it," I said. I bought the Jersey. Street Cred be damned. Got it in 10 days. Happy Birthday to me!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Always Be Closing...

This is #5 of 5 Key Mets Players for the 2008 Season.
In 2006, Billy Wagner had what was for him, a normal, outstanding season, replete with 40 Saves, a 2.24 ERA, 94 strikeouts in 72.1 innings, and his usual agita, particularly at some bad moments.

In 2007, Wagner began the season at an even better clip, allowing only 3 earned runs entering June, and not having blown a save all season. Even after he did blow one, annoyingly to the Phillies, Wagner continued on a seemingly dominant clip, making the All Star team and providing little concern.

Then came a game on August 10th against Florida. With the Mets leading and seemingly cruising along, Wagner came in to close out the bottom of the Marlins lineup. No problem. Except that he gave up a hit to Miguel Olivo, walked Jason Wood, and then, out of nowhere, Hanley Ramirez turned around Wagner's best fastball and smoked it off the center field fence, scoring both runs and giving the Marlins the lead and, eventually, the win.

Following that game, Wagner became downright frightening to watch pretty much every time out. Even when he didn't blow the save, he gave me John Franco flashbacks and when he did blow it, well, it was just ugly 10 different ways.

Then, in September, we just didn't know what to expect. Wagner was alternately good and horrible at the same time, ended up missing a key stretch with back spasms, and became more or less an afterthought when things fell apart completely. Billy certainly didn't have a bad season all told, but the majority of his 34 saves and 2.63 ERA were accomplished at early points in the season.
Basically, I don't know what we'll get out of Wagner this year. This is inasmuch as we know what we'll see out of him, which is that he'll do his little Alpaca-hop from the Bullpen as "Enter Sandman" blares, and he'll throw 95MPH fastballs and mix in a slider and whatever that other pitch he was working on but rarely used last season was here and there, but will he? He'll be 37 on July 25th, and he's made a career on throwing the ball hard and with a lot of torque on that small frame.

Yes, yes, I know. He's done it for years, and why should this year be any different? Well, I'm not saying that it will. But last year brought into question whether or not he's going to be able to hold up over the course of a full season, now that he's getting older and the mileage is beginning to take its toll. In '06, he remained consistent throughout the season, with a stinker sprinkled in here or there, so it really wasn't much cause for concern. Last year, the bad outings really clumped up late in the season.

There's one other thing. Every few years, Wagner seems to get hit with injury problems that knock him out for a good chunk of the season. In 2000, he appeared in 28 games and put up an ERA of 6.18. In 2004, with Philadelphia, he again was hurt and appeared in only 45 games. I have this haunting fear that Wagner's about due for another one of those seasons where he's ineffective and injured, and that's not good, especially given the problems with the Bullpen as it is, and with no clear replacement on the team (yes, I am knocking on wood as I write this). At least not a trustworthy replacement.

Granted, a lot of this is all hearsay. But given that Willie and Peterson really count on their Bullpen—and especially their Closer—to carry a lot of the load over the course of the season, it means that everybody that the Mets trot out after their starters are under scrutiny, and everyone deserves to be looked at as a key to the team. But I consider Wagner separate from the Bullpen because his role is clearly defined and isn't going to change if he performs poorly a few times. Come in for the 9th inning, throw strikes, get outs, finish off the opponent. And do it consistently over the 90+ games the Mets will hopefully win this coming season. His track record would dictate that he's not going to fall into a pattern where he gets routinely hammered. But he needs to stay healthy and he needs to finish the marathon if the Mets are going to win, and advance into October, just as much as the guys who will be the bridge between the starter and him need to get him the ball so he can do so.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Wanted: Offense

In 2004, the Mets made a trade that was monumentally stupid when they dealt Scott Kazmir to Tampa Bay for Victor Zambrano. That's a rather obvious statement in and of itself. But consider this: At the time the deal was made, Jim Duquette professed a need for pitching. Then-Manager Art Howe was quoted as saying, "You know me, I can never have too much pitching."

At the time, the Mets had the third-best pitching staff in the National League. The problem was an impotent offense that could barely plate runs on a regular basis, anchored by players like Kaz Matsui, Eric Valent and Jason Phillips playing major roles. And with their great new pitchers, the Mets went out and proceeded to lose games 2-1 instead of 3-1.

The case could be made that had Kazmir been dealt for a big outfield bat, or even a passable outfield bat, that helped the Mets stay alive in a race they were probably going to lose anyway, it might have been a better deal. I'm not saying that it would have been, I'm just making this argument.

Right now, the Mets are in a similar position. With a major chunk of the offense either inactive or hurting, the Mets really could use another bat. I think this has been addressed more than once, by more than a few people.

Right now, Moises Alou, who we knew would be injured at some point, will be out at least until May with a hernia. Carlos Beltran hasn't played after offseason knee surgery has hampered his quads. Carlos Delgado has been ailing, and even then we don't know what we have with him. Marlon Anderson and Ryan Church have returned from injuries resulting from last weekend's collision. Endy Chavez has also been battling hamstring problems.

This outfield is in a bit of flux right now. Fortunately, it's still March, the games don't count, and there's still time for things to fall into place. But should these problems re-surface during the season, the Mets could find themselves in a bit of trouble. While the Bullpen certainly has garnered a bit of concern (although the emergence of former-prospect Nelson Figueroa has added another arm to the mix I discussed last week), right now, you can't feel too comfortable about the offense, outside of Wright, and the renewed Reyes, and operating under the assumption that Beltran will come around.

How bad is it?

Last Friday, Buster Olney on ESPN actually made a rather convincing argument advocating the signing of Barry Bonds. This blog (ESPN Insider or a friend with Insider who can e-mail it to you required) by Olney, who is always well-thought out, basically states that Bonds will only cost the Mets money, would provide plenty of offense in Alou's stead, and either way, the left fielder would be replaced by Endy Chavez for defense in the late innings.

It's a convincing argument. I wish I could acquire whatever Olney is smoking.

Bringing in the absolute unadulterated Circus that is Barry Bonds would probably make everyone on the team nuts. Bonds is already under indictment and could likely go to jail by season's end. Minaya would probably be excoriated by everybody in New York, filleted by the media, and chuckled at by Yankee fans. He'd hit, yes, but it's nowhere near worth a) what the Mets would have to pay him and b) the headache. And after the Mets dispatched such "troublemakers" like Milledge and LoDuca, what message would this be sending?

Fortunately, the Mets have deemed this report as ridiculous. At least that's what they're telling people.

There are, in the opinion of many, more palatable options, players who can come in and fill roles. A righty bat who could play left when Alou is hurt, play right and spell, or perhaps platoon with Church, or even play first if Delgado falters. But a deal clearly would have to be with someone looking for some excess bullpen help. It's no surprise that Jorge Sosa and Scott Schoeneweis are being shopped around. The Mets can't afford to deal any prospects, certainly after the Santana trade. But there are players who can be had for this price, one would assume. Xavier Nady is the first such player who comes to mind, someone who has already played here and played well, before being forced into another such reactionary deadline deal in '06 (albeit one that has had much better results). Marcus Thames has also been bandied about as an option coming over from Detroit. A third option is Jay Payton on Baltimore, although he'd be acquired as a part-time player, and he has, in the past, complained about a lack of playing time. In camp, Angel Pagan has performed well, and Brady Clark is, well, Brady Clark. Other options might include Reed Johnson or whatever outfielder ends up on the bench on the Washingtons of the world.

Bottom line here is that something needs to be done. It's not a major deal, and it's not a reactionary deal, so hopefully, the Mets won't try to turn it into one. All this takes is a player who is a ridiculous, useless veteran on another team, who would be a perfect fit on the Mets. I'm rooting for Nady, since the Pirates can trot out an outfield of Bay, Nate McLouth and Nyjer Morgan, and Adam LaRoche at first. Nady has no real spot on that team. Let's bring this guy back. I liked him.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A Foolish Arrangement

This is #4 of 5 Key Mets Players for the 2008 Season.

Last season, I named the entirety of the Mets Bullpen as one of the Five Key Mets players for the 2007 season. This unit was one of the strengths of the Mets in 2006. Changes were made before 2007, although many of the major pieces remained. But there were questionable moves made, notably the departure of Chad Bradford, the injury to Duaner Sanchez and the inclusion of Scott Schoeneweis, Ambiorix Burgos and Guillermo Mota.

As we saw, the Bullpen didn't even sniff the success of 2006. In fact, the bullpen as a whole pretty much became a giant liability as the season wore on. Sanchez missed the entire season with a shoulder injury. Heilman was grossly inconsistent. Guys like Schoeneweis, Burgos, Mota and Aaron Sele were either injured, or frighteningly horrible. Even Billy Wagner wasn't immune from shaky performances as the season wore on. And finally, come September, the Bullpen was exposed, beaten down and thoroughly embarrassed with regularity.

It's safe to say that even taking the offensive struggles of Reyes and Delgado into account, the Bullpen was by far and away the leading culprit in the September collapse.

So, moves were made. Not many, but some. Gone were Sele and Mota, given away for songs. Schoeneweis was only retained because of a massive, idiotic contract. Spare parts such as Steven Register, Ruddy Lugo, Matt Wise and Brian Stokes were brought in, if only to give Willie some more faces to look at in the spring. This bullpen will eventually be cobbled together, but it's a gigantic question mark as to how effective they'll be over the course of the season.

Of course, it's a far cry from 2005, when the Mets started the season with Manny Aybar and Felix Heredia, two pitchers whose inclusion on the Opening Day Roster made my blood pressure jump 20 beats. But nonetheless, it's going to be an adventure.

Going down the line, we're going to see:

1) Aaron Heilman

I'll give Heilman credit for not caving in completely after the Molina disaster in '06. I was afraid, briefly, that he might go Brad Lidge on us. But aside from being a little too prone to the longball, Heilman was, for the most part, fairly reliable as the 8th inning guy. But without a reliable compliment to spell him every so often, Heilman eventually hit a wall and wasn't so effective down the stretch. One such game against San Diego in August saw Heilman nibble and nibble against Adrian Gonzalez in the 10th inning, but, unable to put him away, finally grooved a pitch that Gonzalez hit out of the ballpark. Another Sunday in Florida saw Heilman receive a 3-run lead and promptly hand it back to the Marlins. We know what we'll get out of Heilman at this point. But unless there's another righty who can be trusted in a key spot late in games, it'll be up to Heilman to run out there game after game...consequences be damned.

2) Pedro Feliciano

Feliciano has basically re-invented himself over the past two seasons, and has become the most reliable lefty arm in the bullpen, if not the most reliable guy, period. But for some bizarre reason, Willie kept using him as if he were merely a lefty specialist, not allowing Feliciano to finish innings or games at times, when it was clear that he was by far the better option than whoever was replacing him. Feliciano has been effective enough over the past two seasons that I'd feel comfortable letting him face a right handed hitter in a key spot. He's one of the few pitchers the Mets have in the bullpen who actually exhibits a keen head for pitching, and not someone who will just run out there and try to throw the ball through a brick wall. He'd be a good compliment to Heilman if Willie would use him that way. He just needs a chance, that's all.

3) Duaner Sanchez

The Most Key Met of the Season, as far as I'm concerned. We don't know what the hell we have here. After his great 2006 season was curtailed because of the now-infamous taxi accident, Sanchez showed up in 2007 overweight and undermotivated, got sent home for oversleeping one too many times, and eventually broke down and missed the entire 2007 season, which was a key blow because if Sanchez had been in the ballpark of his 2006 numbers, it probably would have been the difference between the Mets and Philly come the end of the season. He was, in '06, and should have been in '07, the perfect righty compliment to ease the burden on Heilman in the 7th and 8th innings. One of Sanchez's overlooked strengths was the best rubber arm the Mets could trot out there since Turk Wendell. This year appears to be a different story with Sanchez. This year, he showed up thinner and with a renewed resolve to prove his past behavior an aberration. He says he feels as good as he has in years, and so far, the early results have been encouraging.
But what will it translate to? Can he re-capture his previous success? Does he have anything left? Can his arm hold up over a full season? There's enough questions regarding Sanchez to warrant its own blog entirely. If Pedro Martinez is going to be the key to the starting rotation, and whether or not he can pitch deep enough into games to preserve the bullpen, then Sanchez is the key to the bullpen, whether or not he can answer the bell and be effective after missing a season and a half, and take some of the pressure off the other guys in the bullpen by finishing up what Pedro (and the remainder of the staff) starts.

4) Scott Schoeneweis
I have to talk myself down just to write about him. Schoeneweis was given an absurdly large contract, and then came in and proved himself the second coming of Rich Rodriguez for pretty much the entire first half of the season. Especially at home, Schoeneweis was routinely hammered by both lefties and righties, which was interesting because Willie continued to use Schoeneweis in the role that Feliciano should have been used in. By the end of the season, Schoeneweis had righted himself, somewhat, this after the revelation that he had been pitching with a torn tendon in his leg, and actually came up with a pair of saves in September, which shocked the hell out of me, but they came in instances where he was, quite literally, the last remaining serviceable arm in the Bullpen. The hot word is that the Mets are willing to deal Schoeneweis and the remaining $7+ million he's owed, but I can't imagine any GM is stupid enough to make a deal for him. Then again, someone took Guillermo Mota. Then again, he's left-handed, he's breathing, and we know he can put the ball over the plate...

...It might save my sanity in the process.

5) Jorge Sosa
Sosa pretty much came out of nowhere and pitched better through the months of May and June as an emergency starter than anyone probably thought he would. In fact, after one particular outing in Detroit, Sosa was probably the best starter the Mets had going. Then, he came back to earth. He had some success in the bullpen last year, but again fell into that Heilman-like trap of being the only reliable guy out there for a time, which meant that Willie was going to run him into the ground. And, he did. Basically, I'm not sure how long we can count on Sosa to be effective in any given role. He's likely going to slide into that Aaron Sele long-reliever role for a time, which is fine, but this means that he's likely only going to work in blowout situations. If Sanchez is effective and Heilman is Heilman, then Sosa will certainly be counted on to carry less of a load. That may not be a bad thing.

6) Matt Wise
A lot of people I know seemed to really like the Wise pickup. Although Wise has never posted eye-popping numbers, and he had a pretty bad second half with Milwaukee last year, he's been, for the most part, a guy who has good stuff and gets outs. That's all I really know about him. If the first five guys I mentioned are going to make the team bar none, then Wise is really the only guy here who could conceivably be fighting for a job, despite his experience. That, or he's more likely just here for insurance in case Sanchez can't go or Heilman's arm falls off in May. Or, my theory, he's just here because Omar wanted to have at least one new face in the bullpen to make us think he's done something productive.

7) Joe Smith
I'd like to think Joe Smith has a better chance at making the team this year. He started off like a house afire after surprising the hell out of everyone in Spring Training last year, but the league caught up to him after a while and he ended up back in the Minors, and didn't seem to get much use when he was recalled. He was pretty up and down after May. I'd like to think that was due mainly to hitting the proverbial wall because he hadn't pitched so many innings before, and he might be better conditioned for more use this year. I have a feeling he's going to play a bigger role in the Mets bullpen this year than people are willing to give him credit for right now. Keep an eye on him.

8) Ambiorix Burgos
A co-worker of mine kept asking me if we were going to have some Burgos on the days after Burgos pitched last year. I thought he was making some sort of idiotic reference to Burgers, until I found out that Burgos is apparently a type of Polish Hunter's stew, a horrendous mishmash of ingredients thrown into a pot and boiled until it resembles the structure of Burgos' arm by the end of last season, after he had accomplished little more than reminding us of Kane Davis. Sigh.

The Rest: (Register, Lugo, Stokes)
I would have thought that Register might have a better shot at making the team since he's a Rule V draft pick. He still might make the team, although it may only be holding the baseballs for Billy Wagner out in the Bullpen. Lugo I know nothing about except that he's just another slop-throwing reliever who can put the ball over and might get an out here and there. Stokes managed to get himself booted out of Tampa Bay which really gets me excited about his prospects here. I'd expect to see the three of them at Shea at some point, but they might as well have the staying power of Jon Adkins. There's also Willie Collazo (not Colazzo) and Carlos Muniz, although Willie seemed to think that he would be summoning the furies of hell if he actually let them pitch last season, so that probably means neither of them is ready yet.

Man, there's a lot of crap at the back end of this bullpen.

I don't know. Yes, spring training is supposed to be a time for Optimism, but for some reason, this Bullpen continues to give me a very queasy feeling.

I hope it's just gas.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Lost Classics: August 18, 1998

It has been quite a bit of time since I've done a Lost Classic around here. In fact, I haven't done one since the end of last season. Granted, much of my Historical work went into the 20 Days in October series. But I'd been thinking about August, 1998, pretty much ever since Friday, when Greg over at Faith and Fear offered up his latest Flashback Friday, the second of back-to-back DHs with the St. Louis Cardinals, with Mark McGwire in the heat of the HR chase. That particular month, I was home following my first year of College, volunteering at a specialized school in the Bronx, and going to Mets games pretty much all the time. I made it to 28 games that particular Summer, 9 of them in August. The DH Greg wrote about was one of three the Mets played that week, thanks to a particularly rainy May that saw virtually an entire homestand washed out. Three Doubleheaders in one week. I was at all three.

I've always thought of the 1998 Mets as one of those teams that time seems to have forgotten. They are, much like the 2005 Mets, the prelude to a great era. The 1998 Mets seemed to play out the season in Jekyll and Hyde mode. Sometimes, they hit. Sometimes, they pitched. Rarely, though, could they do both well at the same time. But they hung around, and hung around, and took off once Piazza was brought in, and then, just when they seemed to be on the verge of wrapping up a Wildcard berth, the bottom fell out. But they played a lot of bizarre, interesting and fun games in the process, games which, I believe, we'll be taking some looks at during this season's slate of Lost Classics. Because, as a team that time forgot, they played a lot of great games that nobody really remembers.

These are two such games.

It's a sweltering August night in New York. I'm pretty much whiling away the rest of my summer before heading back to school. Why not go to another game? After all, the Mets and Rockies were rained out last night, the make up game from a rainout on May 1st, and so they're playing two tonight. The Mets currently stand at 66-55, a game behind the Chicago Cubs in the Wildcard race, a hopeless 14 1/2 games behind Atlanta in the NL East. The Rockies are nowhere.
It's a 5:10 pm curtain on this Tuesday night. I'm by myself on this evening, sitting in the Loge, Section 21, Row G, Seat 7. You could afford those seats back then, I wasn't traipsing around like Mr. Gotrocks. Al Leiter faced off against his future teammate, Pedro Astacio in Game 1. Leiter starts off strong, as he did most of the time in 1998. In the first, he's got two quick outs until Larry Walker lofts a fly ball to medium left field. No problem.

Oh, wait. Todd Hundley was in left. Hundley gets there, gets his glove on the ball and it pops right out. Walker scampers to 2nd. No harm, though, as Leiter promptly strikes out Dante Bichette.

On the other side, Pedro Astacio, every bit the workhorse, starts off by running deep counts all over the place. Tony Phillips singles up the middle on a 3-2 pitch. Astacio hits Alfonzo on 2-2. Olerud grounds into a fielders choice on 2-2. Next, it's Piazza, who flares a single in front of Bichette to score Phillips. 1-0, Mets. But the rally is stopped there, McRae flies out on the 6th pitch of his AB, Hundley strikes out on the 7th pitch.

Leiter settles into a nice rhythm, and the Rockies seem to have little answer. A walk in the 2nd, a harmless single in the 3rd. For the Mets, Alfonzo hits a HR just inside the foul pole in Left Field leading off the 3rd. After the Rockies load the bases against Leiter in the 4th, it's Hundley leading off and doing the same, hitting one of his classic Hundley HRs, a rising line drive that clears the fence and lands in the Mets bullpen. It's Hundley's second HR since returning from elbow surgery, but it will also be the last HR he'll hit at Shea while with the Mets. With Piazza aboard, Hundley will be unable to find himself in Left Field, and will be dealt following the season. Although he will have decent seasons, he won't ever come close to the numbers he had in 1996 or 1997. Steroid allegations will also follow him. But his HR gives the Mets a 3-0 lead, which seems to be in good hands with Leiter.

But in the 5th, the Rockies reach Leiter for a pair of runs. After Darryl Hamilton leads off the inning with a double and is sacrificed to 3rd by Neifi Perez, Larry Walker again goes the other way, this time hitting one over Hundley's head for another double, scoring Hamilton. One batter later, Vinny Castilla singles past Ordonez into left, scoring Walker to make the score 3-2.

Drama? Nah. Leiter gives up a short single to Todd Helton before retiring Mike Lansing for the 3rd out. In the bottom of the 5th, Alfonzo walks with one out, and Olerud follows by putting one of his sweet swings on an Astacio curve and pops it deep and out, just in front of the scoreboard. Piazza follows with a strikeout. He's booed, as was sickeningly common throughout this period of time. But those boos go away quickly when Brian McRae, who mysteriously managed to hit 21 HRs and drive in 80 runs in 1998, sends a screamer down the left field line, banging off the retired numbers for the 19th of those 21 HRs, and extending the Mets lead to 6-2.

NOW, with the game in Leiter's hands, the lead is pretty much safe. Leiter gives up a pair of singles in the 7th and another in the 8th before departing after 8 innings and 132 pitches, giving up 10 hits and 2 runs, with 5 strikeouts, good enough to earn his 12th win of the year. The Mets don't mount much in the way of any more rallies, although in the 7th, with Alfonzo on 3rd, Piazza grounds into a fielder's choice, and Fonzie is tagged out. And again, Piazza gets booed by many of the cretins who somehow thought this proper behavior. Turk Wendell comes into the game for the Mets in the 9th, slams the rosin bag down and slams the door on the Rockies, striking out Vinny Castilla for the final out. 4 HRs for the Mets and a tidy 6-2 victory to start off this Doubleheader, in a prompt 2:36.

With about 45 minutes or so to kill in between games, I walk around a little bit. It was rare that I would really get to walk around and explore Shea, except during rain delays, or moments like this. I call a friend, who says I should pick up tickets for the doubleheaders coming up against St. Louis. I walk down to the hidden ticket booth on the Field Level near Gate C and buy tickets to both the Thursday and Friday night doubleheaders. Baseball Summer is in full swing. I walk back to the Loge, look at a souvenir stand, get a Hot Dog and I'm back in my seat, ready for Game 2. Of course, I only managed to kill about 20 minutes or so, so I've still got a little sitting around to do.

Finally, Game 2 gets underway at 8:31 pm, 44 minutes following the 7:47pm conclusion of the first game. It was typical, I had observed, for teams to throw out completely different lineups in doubleheaders, and usually one of them would be loaded with the dregs of the team. This game would be no different. Although the starters would be passable, with Bobby Jones for the Mets, and another future Met, John Thomson starting for the Rockies, the lineups were littered with names like Curtis Goodwin and Jeff Reed for Colorado, and Lenny Harris and Jorge Fabregas for the Mets.

By the start of Game 2, Shea was about as full as it was going to get on this night, with only 21,611 in attendance. The stadium was mostly empty at the outset, as most twi-night DHs are. It would fill by the latter stages of Game 1, and would again empty out as Game 2 progressed. The game started off quietly, as both Jones and Thomson eased through the first. But the Rockies would string together a few hits to start off the 2nd; Todd Helton would single to left for the 3rd consecutive hit, scoring Bichette with the first Colorado run. Following a walk to Mike Lansing to load the bases, Jones would strike out Jeff Reed before allowing a sacrifice fly to Hundley in Left by John Thomson. The collective gasp as Hundley settled under the ball could be heard throughout the stadium.

Meanwhile, Thomson neatly tied the Mets up in knots. Thomson was, I felt, a good pitcher trapped in pitching hell in Colorado. His numbers were never good, but I felt he had talent. When the Mets dealt for Thomson in 2002, I was thrilled. But Thomson proved himself mostly untalented at any altitude, and he was gone following that season, never amounting to much in Atlanta or Texas either, before fading into obscurity. But tonight, all the Mets can get off him are singles. Olerud in the first. Fabregas in the 2nd. Harris in the 3rd. Finally, in the 4th, Carlos Baerga inside-outed a ball down the line in left for a double. Fabregas followed with a weak single to left, moving Baerga to 3rd, where he would score on an Ordonez groundout. But that was pretty much it for the Mets in the 4th. Nothing in the 5th. The Rockies would extend their lead to 3-1 in the 6th, on a Walker walk, a Bichette single, and a a ringing 2B by Helton past Hundley in left to score Walker.

In the bottom of the 6th, the Mets would again start to rally against Thomson. With 2 outs, Fabregas would single cleanly to center for his 3rd hit of the game, which was amazing to me, because Fabregas was, in my opinion, barely passable as a Major Leaguer, a 3rd catcher at best. But here he was, starting in this game and going 3-for-3. Go figure. Some cretins are mumbling that he should be playing instead of Piazza. Ordonez dunks a double just fair down the right field line, and now the Mets have 2nd and 3rd, and Matt Franco is up to hit for Jones. On 2-2, Franco hits the ball hard, but right into the glove of Castilla for the 3rd out. Dammit.

Mel Rojas, or as I liked to call him, Smell Blowjas came into the game in the 7th, and I figured that was probably my cue to leave. Rojas did a good job in 1998, if you can consider routinely blowing leads and incinerating games a good thing. Somehow, Rojas set down the Rockies 1-2-3 in the 7th, setting the stage for the Mets in the bottom half of the inning.

Thomson continued to chug right along, getting Harris to fly out to center, and Alfonzo to pop out to short. But Olerud followed with a sharp single to right, which is something he'd done all season. With Hundley following, Don Baylor took his cue to pull Thomson after 118 pitches, and brought in lefty Chuck McElroy, moving Hundley around to the right side of the plate. But this strategy backfired when McElroy couldn't throw a strike, walking Hundley on 4 pitches. With Hundley, the tying run, now on base, he was run for by speedy Jermaine Allensworth, another one of the mysterious players who somehow surfaced on the 1998 Mets. Brian McRae then followed by chopping one off the plate. The ball bounced high into the air and landed between Lansing and Perez on the infield, but far too late for a play on anyone. Finally, what remained of the crowd was making some noise. Baerga was called back, and Mike Piazza strode to the plate.

Mike Piazza, to this point, the hired gun brought in, who had to this point failed to earn the respect of many of his hometown fans, who was booed loudly during the first game, and who was greeted here with a few groans from the fans around me.

But on the 1-2 pitch, Piazza turned everyone on his side. In typical Piazza fashion, he took an inside pitch, flipped his wrists and unleashed a screaming line drive that damn near went through the fence out in deep right center. It bounced off the wall onto the track, as Olerud, Allensworth and McRae all scored to give the Mets their first lead of the game. And those same fans who booed and groaned were now chanting Mike's name as he stood on 2nd base with a pinch-hit 3-run double.

Luis Lopez hit for Fabregas and struck out to end the inning. In the 8th, Rojas walked Walker with one out, and was removed for Turk Wendell, who did as he did in Game 1, came in, slammed the rosin bag down, and slammed the door on Bichette. Dennis Cook would come in to face Helton after a Castilla single, and Helton rolled weakly to Olerud.

In the last of the 8th, the Mets put the game away. With 1 out, Phillips hit for Cook and hit an infield single between Castilla and Perez against former Met gas can Jerry DiPoto. Lenny Harris followed by drilling a 1-2 pitch deep into the Mets bullpen. Harris raised his fist as he rounded first, and I did the same. Once again, the Mets had come back, and apppeared poised to sweep this doubleheader. John Franco came on in the 9th, and closed the game out with strikeouts of Mike Lansing and Derrick White, capping off the Mets 6-3 victory, giving them a Doubleheader sweep from the Rockies. I pump my fist again as White swings through the last pitch, at 11:54 pm on this Hot Tuesday night that will be a Hot Wednesday morning before I'm even on the 7 train on my way home. It doesn't matter how they do it, or who gets the hit, I'll take the victory any way it comes, especially when the Mets are right in the thick of a pennant race for the first time in forever. The train back is mirthful and merry, full of the spirited few who stuck it out for 6 hours and 43 minutes of Baseball, ready to come back for two more nights of doubleheaders later in the week.