It can’t all have been bad luck. Bad training regimens, bad contracts, bad outfield dimensions, bad fundamentals, no doubt.
But the good news for the Mets is that, unlike bad luck, those can all be reversed. Even better news: the once-depleted Mets’ farm system is starting to shine (Ike Davis, Jenrry Mejia, Ruben Tejada).
Still, as Monday’s season opener against the Marlins beckons, questions linger.
First base: D+
Daniel Murphy’s 12 home runs provided most of the power last year and he hit .313 in 2008, so he’ll start while Davis gets seasoning in Triple-A. But Murphy’s leash will be short. Davis is John Olerud 2.0 (Olerud averaged .315 with a total 63 home runs in his three years as a Met). He’s a lefty bat with power to all fields and a stellar glove, and who also hits for average: .480 to Murphy’s .136 this spring.
Second base: C+
Luis Castillo quietly hit .302 and posted a respectable .982 fielding percentage in 2009, yet all that’s remembered is his June 12 dropped pop-up off A-Rod’s bat in the bottom of the ninth at Yankee Stadium. The three-time Gold Glover and two-time stolen-base leader has lost range at second and more than a step on the basepaths but in 142 games, he stayed on the field last year. Ruben Tejada, Mets’ 20-year-old middle infielder of the future, has hit .321 and provided sparkling defense this spring.
Third base: B
David Wright hit .307 last year and at 144 games, seemed like the only reliable presence while those around him faltered. He was conscious of his power outage, with 10 home runs (vs. a career-high 33 in 2008), and that was evident in his never-ending plate adjustments, which included slap-hitting. Overcompensation for Citi Field’s cavernous outfield, and injured teammates, resulted in pressing, lowering his first-half .324 average nearly 50 points after the All-Star break.
Hitting Jose Reyes third until Beltran’s return (as Jerry Manuel has proposed) would instill bad swinging-for-the-fences habits. Manuel shouldn’t change how Reyes runs, shakes hands or gets on base. The mantra of the Mets’ all-time leader in steals and triples should be patience, not power. Eliminating that first-inning leadoff run could be the difference-maker in 20 wins.
Rod Barajas, 34, was brought in primarily to catch Oliver Perez, whom he handled with aplomb during the World Baseball Classic last year. He throws out 34 percent of base stealers and hit 19 long balls in Toronto last year, but he’s a career .238 hitter. Henry Blanco, 38, a career .228 hitter, is a great receiver and the former personal catcher of Greg Maddux and Johan Santana. Omir Santos deserves to backup, especially given his fine hitting (.318) this spring. Instead he will likely backup Josh Thole in Buffalo.
Left field: A
Jason Bay is a grinder and a gamer. He replaced Manny Ramirez in Boston, belting 36 home runs and driving in 119 runs in 2009, earning him a four-year, $66 million deal with the Mets. Bay has hit .295 with two home runs this spring. Pencil him in for .280/30/100.
Center field: B-
Carlos Beltran had knee surgery on January 13 and is expected to return mid-May. Even hurt, he put up a team-leading .325 average last year and is a rare, genuine five-tool player whose value exceeds his ongoing leg ailments. The 32-year-old three-time Gold Glover is in the penultimate year of his seven-year, $119 million deal. Competing for backup, Angel Pagan is hitting .269 this spring, compared to Gary Matthews Jr.’s .279, each with two homers. Both offer good range in center and can hit leadoff in Reyes’ absence. After being injury-prone and overmatched by major league pitching in 2009, outfielder Fernando Martinez will return to Triple-A. But the 21-year-old has led the Grapefruit League in average (.391) most of this spring and was named MVP of the Caribbean Series, where he hit .348.
Right field: B+
Jeff Francoeur, a badly needed breath of fresh air, was a midseason replacement for Ryan Church. He struggled in his hometown Atlanta but thrived in Queens, lightening the clubhouse mood and hitting .311 with 10 home runs in 75 games. He’s also a defensive asset, quick to the ball with a strong, accurate cannon.
Starting rotation: D+
Santana performed as advertised, posting a 3.13 ERA (career ERA is 3.12) and a 13-9 record in an injury-shortened season. He was shut down for arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips in his left elbow. When Santana underwent the same procedure after the 2003 season, he won the Cy Young award for his 2004 performance. The Mets needed to, but did not, add a new arm to their rotation. The slightly more stable John Maine should be the No. 2 starter, not the fourth. Sinkerballer Mike Pelfrey and power pitcher Oliver Perez have shown occasional flashes of brilliance (Perez had 15 wins in 2007 and Pelfrey had a particularly good second half in 2008) but both are unable to consistently keep the ball down in the zone. Jon Niese is the likely No. 5 starter; his 5.65 spring ERA leads all Mets starters, including Santana.
Middle relief: C+
Pedro Feliciano returns as lefty specialist; every other role is in play. In 2009, Bobby Parnell was gangbusters, then fizzled; his spring has been inconsistent. Sean Green has dropped his sidearm angle to Chad Bradford-like depths, limiting his role to righty specialist. Igarashi, a closer in Japan, has tinkered with a slider and struggled this spring. Pat Misch has had a great camp (1.38 ERA) but Fernando Nieve (4.15 ERA) is the likely long man. Mejia’s electric 94-97 mph heater will eventually set up K-Rod. Expect typically lights-out lefty (but lit-up for 4 runs on Saturday) Hisanori Takahashi in the eighth for now, although his best use may be as a starter, his role for 10 seasons with the Yomiuri Giants.
Frankly, perfection was expected from Francisco Rodriguez. At $37 million and a record 62 saves, Mets fans didn’t anticipate bases-loaded palpitations that reached Armando Benitez proportions. But closers usually struggle in non-save situations, which is where K-Rod often found himself in 2009 after the All-Star break: his 6.75 second-half ERA differed starkly from a first-half 1.90 ERA – and in many respects, was a snapshot of the Mets’ season.