2004 New York Mets Preview

Sunday, March 07 2004 @ 07:24 AM EST

Contributed by: Gwyn

Whisper it, but maybe you can rebuild in the Big Apple.

The 2003 Season
66 wins 95 lossesscored 642 runs, 28th in MLB
Finished 5th and last in the NL Eastallowed 754 runs, 15th in MLB
Attendance: 2,140,599Pythagorean record: 69-92

The Mets' first game last year was to provide a fitting summary of the rest of the season, as new ace Tom Glavine lost to the Cubs 15-3. Injuries picked off Mo Vaughn, Jeromy Burnitz (who was playing well) and Mike Piazza in the first few weeks, and when combined with the struggles of Glavine and Armando Benitez, by the end of May it was clear the Mets were going nowhere fast.

The disappointments on the field looked all the worse as GM Steve Phillips, the king of the quick fix, had been preaching unbridled optimism in the pre-season, convinced his big-ticket, big-risk, low-reward veteran signings were going to propel the Mets back into contention. Convinced and convincing, it seems, as even the more informed of baseball observers were predicting
an 86 win season.

In June, Phillips was fired and Jim Duquette (cousin of Dan) was promoted from his assistant GM post. At the same time, the Mets announced a change in direction: the old and overpriced would be moved, and there would be a new emphasis on pitching and defense. Duquette was quick to start the process, moving Roberto Alomar, Jeromy Burnitz, Graeme Lloyd, Rey Sanchez and Armando Benitez to various spots on the baseball map for varying returns that included minor league standouts Royce Ring and Victor Diaz. Regardless of the returns, these moves could all be seen as addition by subtraction for the club's long term...but in the short term, things got ugly. The team limped through the rest of the season and by September Art Howe was running out a lineup that wouldn't have looked out of place in AAA.

Good things

Jose Reyes came up in June. He had put up numbers in the minors of the sort that gets one ranked as the #3 prospect in baseball by Baseball Prospectus. If anything, he might have been better than that billing would have predicted.

Jason Phillips had some time behind the plate and some time at first, and showed he was ready to move into a full time role in 2004.

Steve Trachsel was again better than expected, and ended the season as the team's unlikely ace.

Bad things

Almost everything else.

Ace pitchers looked like they would struggle in a mop-up role, the bullpen blew leads like they were going out of style, no one could get on base and the only hitters with any power were on the DL.

Glavine was particularly awful. He signed a 4-year, $40 million contract before the season and was expected to do for the Mets what he had spent doing so long doing against them. Instead, his main contribution was in whining and moaning, mainly about the Questec machine, as he produced a 9-14 record and a 4.52 ERA.

The offseason
Kazuo Matsui (Seibu Lions)Marco Scutaro (A's)
Mike Cameron (Mariners)Matt Watson (A's)
Karim Garcia (Yankees)Tsuyoshi Shinjo (Japan)
Todd Zeile (Expos)Tony Clark (Evil Empire)
Shane Spencer (Rangers)
Scott Erickson (Orioles)
Shawn Sedlacek (Royals)
John Franco (Re-signed)
Braden Looper (Marlins)
Scott Strickland (Re-signed)
Timo Perez (Re-signed)
Joe McEwing (Re-signed)
Pedro Feliciano (Re-signed)
Jeremy Hill (Re-signed)

Fiscal sanity (well, fiscal sanity by New York standards), defence and drafting are back in favour in the Mets' front office. The two big signings are Mike Cameron and Kaz Matsui, and both come to Shea with reputations as defensive wizards; neither cost any draft picks. For all their defensive excellence, Cameron and Matsui will actually not be a big defensive upgrade for the Mets over what they had last year in the opinion of Joe Sheehan (reg req), who figures Cameron to be a ten-run improvement at centre and Matsui to be about a wash at short. The arrival of Matsui does, of course, allow Reyes to shuffle over to second, which should be a substantial improvement. The pitchers should be smiling, except probably Glavine -- who will be busy sticking pins in his Questec voodoo doll.

Elsewhere, Karim Garcia and Shane Spencer signed on to form what should be a low-cost low-risk platoon in right and, in the one rather baffling move, big money was handed over to Braden Looper to be the "Proven Closer." Perhaps Duquette hasn't read his Moneyball properly.

The most excitement for Mets fans was a rather half-hearted dabble in the Vlad Guerrero sweepstakes. Lots of other big name free agents moved around without much interest from Shea for the first time in some time, as Duquette was clearly set on the youth/defence movement and not with keeping up with the Jones' or Steinbrenners'.

The brave new world of sabermetrics was embraced with the low-key hiring of Ben Baumer to the front office. This hasn't gotten much play in the usual circles, as nobody had heard much of him before his signing. He must be a good interview, though, as he was hired ahead of someone (name unknown) who was recommended by Bill James. Baumer follows the tradition of the Laws and DePodestas in having a strong academic background (Math postgrad from UC-San Diego). He's also a big Simpsons fan apparently, which can't be a bad thing.

And they have already had their first big win of the year, kicking the crap out of the British Met Office.

The new season

The Lineup:
Reyes Floyd PiazzaPhillips Wigginton Cameron Garcia Spencer
Batter Age Pos Bats ABs OBP SLG EQA WinShares
1Matsui 28 SS S n/a .368 .549 n/a n/a
2 20 2B S 274 .334 .434 .274 12
3 31 LF L 365 .376.518 .309 15
4 35 C/1B R 234 .377 .483 .301 11
5 27 1B/C R 403 .374 .442 .287 13
6 26 3B R 573 .318 .396 .256 15
7 31 CF R 534 .344 .431 .278 21
8 28 RF L 244 .302 .422 .274 5
8 32 RF R 395 .328 .392 .2393

Catcher/First Base

2003: Jason Phillips/Vance Wilson/Mike Piazza
2004: Piazza/Phillips

For all the fuss it caused last year, it appears this is that the year Mike Piazza agrees to share the catching duties. Piazza will have a lot less value at first, but he might be able to stay healthy there. The best guess is that Piazza will split his playing time, two-thirds at catcher and one-third at first. Phillips will alternate with Piazza between first and catcher, and he's just entering his peak. He could, and should, be good for a .290/.350/.480 year and should upgrade the defense behind the plate.
Mo Vaughn will not play baseball in 2004, and some (such as fools, like me, who owned him in fantasy leagues) would argue that that's exactly like 2003.

Second Base

2003: Cast of thousands, all best forgotten as quickly as possible
2004: Jose Reyes

Reyes will have to survive the sophomore slump syndrome and adjust to a new position. He clearly has talent and athletic ability to burn, and he did post an .848 OPS in his last 200 ABs last year. He couldn't be blamed for taking a step back this year, but the early indicators are that a fantastic career awaits. At second, he represents a big upgrade offensively and defensively over last year.

Third Base

2003: Ty Wigginton
2004: Wigginton

"'Tom Brookens looks pretty steady at third base', one elderly Tiger usher said to me probingly. 'He's awful,' I said. 'In fact, he's worse than if he were bad. He's just the kind of competent nice guy who clogs up an important power position for years and keeps the Tigers a peripheral contender but never a winner.'"

Thomas Boswell -- Why Time Begins on Opening Day

I'm being a bit flippant with that quote. Given what's behind him on the farm and given that he's originally a second baseman, Wigginton should be all set for a very nice Dave Berg-style career with the Mets for the next few years.


2003: Jose Reyes
2004: Kaz Matsui

A lot of guesswork has gone into what little Matsui will do in the majors. In Japan, his lifetime numbers are .309/.362/.486. He strikes out a lot and doesn't walk particularly much. His power (and strikeout) numbers increased over the last five years as his stolen base numbers sharply dropped off, coinciding with a move from hitting leadoff to hitting third. The Mets plan to move him back to the top of the orderm and are presumably hoping that he can cut back on the strikeouts and maintain the OBP level he reached in Japan.

Rob Neyer hazards a guess that he will put up a .275/.326/.450 line. ZIPS is a little kinder and has him at .284/.349/.445. Put that together with what will apparently be above average defence, and that's a package that compares well with the winter's other big-name free agent shortstop, Miguel Tejada -- who signed for lots more green.

Left Field

2003: Cliff Floyd
2004: Floyd

Another Cliff Floyd year - great numbers, but sadly not enough time on the field and healthy. A real asset if he can stay healthy, he played over 140 games in 2001 and 2002. If he can do that again and put up his usual OPS+ of 130+, he will be a powerful partner for Piazza in the middle of the order.

Centre Field

2003: Timo Perez
2004: Mike Cameron

Much is expected of Cameron. His defence can be confidently expected to stay at its stellar level, and the Mets front office trotted out an analysis that said he would have caught 70 flyballs that dropped in last year. In a park that is death to flyballs, Cameron should put up kill rates worthy of the Red Baron. His offense however is more open to question.

Our good friend Mr Gleeman has suggested that Cameron was unduly affected by hitting at Safeco. He had a .701 OPS at home and an .878 OPS on the road over the last three years. While this may be so, those road numbers have been in a steep decline (a .983 OPS in 2001 to a .789 figure last year) and Shea bears considerable similarities to Safeco.

Right Field

2003: Roger Cedeno
2004: Shane Spencer/Karim Garcia

There are probably words to describe how bad Cedeno was last year and to express what the average Mets fan thinks of him, but I think you have to be a member of The Cabal to use them on Da Box.

Spencer is not quite the lefty masher he was a couple of years ago, but he still hit .277/.335/.446 against them last year. Garcia, meanwhile, hit .291/.335/.476 against righties -- almost double the numbers he put up against southpaws. Put them together and they should be able to combine for a decent enough .800(ish) OPS out of the 8th slot, and to hold the fort until something better comes along. They say in the hockey world that the team that fights together and drinks together, wins together. Spencer and Garcia are working on this but they obviously haven't quite gotten it right yet.

The Bench:
Batter Age Pos Bats ABs OBP SLG EQA WinShares
Roger Cedeno 29 OF R 484 .320 .378 .248 8
Timo Perez 29 OF L 274 .301 .364 .236 5
Vance Wilson 31 C R 268 .293 .373 .234 7
Todd Zeile 37 1B/3B R 299 .308 .385 .232 3
Joe McEwing 31 Lots R 278 .309 .291 .221 5
Danny Garcia 24 2B/SS R 56 .274 .357 .221 0

Not the most inspiring bunch. You would think it would be pretty hard to put together a group of players that features Roger Cedeno as the big bat. Wilson will be the backup catcher for the Phillips/Piazza first base platoon but is unlikely to start except in interleague games or in the event of a Piazza breakdown. Cedeno's primary job is probably filling in for Floyd who is almost bound to miss a number of games. McEwing and Zeile are the middle infield and corner infield backups. Moving swiftly along...

The Rotation:
Pitcher Age Throws Innings ERA ERA+ K BB HR
Glavine 38 L 183.3 4.52 94 82 66 21
Leiter 38 L 180.7 3.99 106 139 94 15
Trachsel 33 R 204.7 3.78 112 111 65 26
Seo 27 R 188.3 3.80 110 110 46 18
Heilman 25 R 65.3 6.75 63 51 41 13

DIPS rather dislikes the Mets top three starters.

Glavine - 4.98 dERA
Leiter - 4.40 dERA
Trachsel - 4.75 dERA
(numbers from The Futility Infielder)

Tom Glavine

Glavine had a spot of injury trouble for the first time in his career, but his struggles cannot be blamed on that. He showed the Mets a brief glimpse of the pitcher they thought they had paid for in August when he posted a 1.95 ERA. Overall, however, Glavine was a bust and has too many years left on his contract for the comfort of Mets fans. Many have suspected that he cannot live without the called strike 3 inches off the outside of the plate; when couple with a loss of a couple of miles an hour from his fastball, his strikeout rate slumped to under 4 per 9 IP. Hopefully he has been studying videos of Jamie Moyer over the offseason.

Al Leiter

Had his troubles along with the rest of club in the early part of the season, but went on to have a strong second half. He apparently battled a knee problem in the first half, but in the best traditions of Cliff Politte, he didn't tell anyone. Leiter couldn't be accused of being in the first flush of youth, but he should be able to grimace his way to another good year.

Steve Trachsel

Trachsel did a Roy Halladay in 2001, getting sent down to the minors to sort himself out. His numbers weren't quite as bad as Halladay's when he was sent down and they haven't been as good since he came back up, but the turnaround has been quite remarkable in its own right. The last two years he has posted ERA+ figues of 116 and 112. It seems quite reasonable to expect another season something like the last two and an ERA+ around 110. He's a nice #3 starter.

In honour of Steve I took twenty minutes to type the above paragraph.

Jae Weong Seo

A 9-12 record did not do justice to a strong season. His ERA rose markedly in the second half (from 3.09 to 4.55), as did his walk rate. A similar rise in his strikeout rate probably stopped his second half numbers looking even worse. If he can pitch like he did in the first half he will be very good. An extreme flyball pitcher, expect to see Seo gazing fondly at Mike Cameron quite a lot this year.

Aaron Heilman

Heilman is as good a bet as any to finish camp as the fifth starter, but the job still appears to be up for grabs amongst a number of candidates including Scott Erickson, Shawn Sedlacek, Grant Roberts, Tyler Yates and Jeremy Griffiths. If the Mets are committed to the youth movement, though, one would think Heilman should have the edge. He was a first round pick in 2001 and gets consistently good write ups for his mechanics and unflappability.

The Bullpen:
Pitcher Age Throws Innings ERA ERA+ K BB HR
Braden Looper 29 R 80.7 3.68 109 56 29 4
David Weathers 34 R 87.7 3.08 138 75 40 6
Mike Stanton 37 L 45.3 4.57 93 34 19 6
John Franco 43 L 34.3 2.62 162 16 13 5
Grant Roberts 26 R 19 3.79 112 10 3 0

The Mets don't seem to have realized that it's possible to play without John Franco. There must be some program in the front office systems designed to send out Franco a new contract every year -- and no one can figure out how to uninstall it.

Looper will close this year, as he did for a time with the Marlins last year. He racked up 28 saves last year before Urbina arrived, but pitched hurt in the second half which should explain the 5.35 ERA after the break. Far from a "normal" closer as he doesn't have dominating stuff and consequently doesn't rack up the high strikeout numbers, he was pretty good in the role at the end of 2002 and for the first half of last year.

At $3 million, this year and next, Mike Stanton has definitely reached the overpaid and underachieving period of his career. His strikeout rate recovered a little last year, but he's still nothing like the pitcher he was. He figures to start the year with David Weathers as the setup tandem.

Roberts is apparently in the battle for the fifth starter's spot this spring, but seems to me to be better suited to the bullpen, as he doesn't have much to back up his excellent fastball. If he has overcome his problems with tendinitis, he should develop into the right handed setup man as the season moves on.

The Management

Art Howe lived right down to his Moneyball reputation, as he did not seem to have a clue how to handle the New York media. Early in the season, he made a throwaway remark about playing Piazza at first some of the time that blew up in his face and became a season long soap opera of extreme tediousness.
In the words of The Eddie Kranepool Society: "Wrong man for the job. Hes overmatched here in NYC. He gets rattled by the media to the point he does not give you any kind of information about the team. Always has a goofy grin and is way to happy a guy with all the losing and inept play that was going on around him. His handling of the Piazza to first base was atrocious."

Rick Peterson joined his old skipper in the off-season. Peterson is a favourite of Will Carroll for his innovative preparation and conditioning methods, and he has already started working with the Mets' young pitchers on his program. He took a number of the Mets' bright young things to work with Dr. James Andrews for a session of biomechanics analysis. Mets fans have had a relatively quiet off-season by New York standards, and Peterson's hiring has given them something to feel jazzed about. "If you ask me, and I'll pretend you did, this is the most significant move the Mets made this off season..." Michael of Michael's Mets Ramblings. Given that the Mets are expecting a lot of the young arms in the system (the top three starters are not going to be around and effective much longer) Peterson's hiring looks like a great move, as long as the Mets give him the necessary authority over the work regimens of pitchers in the minors the same way the A's did.

The Farm

I figured this preview should at least have a small part that was informed and well-written, so I invited Avkash Patel of The Raindrops to step into Da Box and pinch hit:


"Rebuilding, eh?

Even after losing Jose Reyes to the big club in 2003, the cream of the system is still in good shape. Scott Kazmir has the highest upside, sporting a 12.65 K/9 rate in 127 minor league innings to date. The near thirteen number jumps out, but so should the 127 innings across two seasons and thirty starts. The Mets have done about as good a job as can be expected in regards to their crown jewel's pitch counts. Considering Rick Peterson is now on board (Kazmir has already had his first biomechanical evaluation at the American Sports Medicine Institute) and the fact that he will make his debut with a strong defense behind him in a pitchers' park, it looks like Kazmir may be the one who finally erases the memories of Jeff Torborg, Dallas Green, and the whole Generation K debacle from the minds of the Flushing Faithful.

For all you TINSTAAPPers out there, the Mets have been kind enough to produce Mr. David Wright. Mister because in 2003 Wright, despite the fact that he was moving into a considerably more difficult hitting environment in the Florida State League, improved his already above average discipline numbers from 2002 (76 BB/114 SO in 496 at-bats) to 72 BB/98 SO in 466 at-bats in 2003 -- all while adding about 50 points of ISOP (SLG -AVG). His glove, base running, work ethics, coachability, hustle, anything and everything you can imagine are all pluses, and both analysts and scouts can't get enough of him. He'll be 21 in '04 while moving into the best hitters' park in the Eastern League, and the biggest knock against his game is that he sometimes works too hard. Seriously.

Past the cream, on the pitching side of the ledger, the Mets have some organizational depth. Guys like Aaron Heilman, Matt Peterson, and Bob Keppel aren't going to become top of the rotation starters, but they could turn out a few Jae Seo 2003 seasons, and that has value when you have Scott Kazmir around, as well as the resources for a $100 million payroll if it strikes your fancy. In the pen, Jim Duquette has made it a point to collect velocity. While some of the more enlightened front offices around baseball realize it's important to get hitters out -- instead of worrying about how it's done -- most teams still employ scouts that love nothing more than seeing numbers higher than 92 register on their guns. If things get interesting this season or next, the Mets can use Tyler Yates, Grant Roberts, J. Diaz (it's safest to go with an initial here), Jeremy Hill, Orber Moreno, Jason Anderson, Royce Ring, or Kole Strayhorn for trade fodder.

Moving onto the "hitters", infield first, Mike Jacobs, Justin Huber, and Aaron Baldiris give the team an incredible amount of depth at catcher and third base, while Danny Garcia and Rodney Nye could make quality 25th men. Victor Diaz has a high upside when holding a bat, but all kinds of funny things happen when his hands meets leather. In seven words, Craig Brazell is: Soriano's approach without the skill or talent.

In the outfield, an organization wide memo needs to go out. Though I've never actually seen one, I hear scouting reports teams use for an individual player evaluation employs some kind of rating system for "tools". Well, on Mets' scouting sheets across the country, the line rating speed, or foot speed, or whatever they're calling it these days needs to be crossed out. There's some kind of glitch in the formula, with the end result being an army of Jason Tyner wannabes. Ron Acuna, Esix Snead, Jeff Duncan, Wayne Lydon...that's only the most recent batch. The Amazins' turn out a handful of these guys year in year out, and not a one even realizes their highest, most optimistic upside: pinch runner.

With the team's most important draft in years (they actually have picks this time) fast approaching, the Mets need to scrap the whole running and looking good in a uniform part of the evaluation process and concentrate their resources, the picks, on what they need the most: hitters that can arrive quickly. While diversity (college, high school, hitter, pitcher) is fine and dandy, stacking the odds in your favor are more important. Using seven of the first 200 picks on polished college hitters and placing them aggressively (instead of trying to win the New York-Penn League Championship with a bunch of twenty-two year olds) is a must if the Mets want some quality bats joining the quality arms, at Shea or as trade bait, in late 2005/early 2006 to compliment what should be, by then, the Jose Reyes/David Wright/Scott Kazmir Mets."

The Prediction

This team will be better than last year, not that it would be particularly difficult. The hitting will gain from getting some dead wood out of the lineup, and from getting Piazza and Floyd back into it on a consistent basis (although Will Carroll has Piazza as a 'red light' in his Team Health Report). Matsui will be an offensive improvement as will Cameron; the Mets' offence was replacement level at second and centrefield last year. They should be able to score 100 runs more than last year.

The improved defence up the middle will help the pitchers, so there is no particular reason to expect them to concede more runs than last year. Given that, the weakened division (the NL East superstar quotient has dipped drastically over the winter -- Vlad, Javy Lopez, Gary Sheffield, Greg Maddux and IRod have all left) and the planets aligning correctly, things should be good enough to get the Amazin's back to close to the .500 level.

For Mets fans, though, the main focus will be watching and waiting for a year or two down the road (should sound familiar to Jays fans). They will be particularly focused on the development of the defence and offence up the middle, where the Mets' future strength should lie, and in following their young pitchers.

That strength up the middle could be the ace up the Mets sleeves. Don Malcolm has recently quoted Brock Hanke who "postulated that a team that had strong defensive players up the middle was in a great position to contend if those players could hold their own offensively". This, Malcolm argues, was the secret behind the Marlins' success last year. If that is so, it speaks well for the Mets who with Philips, Matsui, Reyes and Cameron have a strong defensive core going forward.

The Bloggers

The Mets blogging scene is both populous and prolific. On the sites below you will find everything from solid sabermetrics to passionate rants. One of the best thing from a Jays fan's perspective are the high DY/P (Digs at the Yankees per Page) figures, for there are few things more fun than taking digs at the Yankees.

The Raindrops
The Eddie Kranepool Society
Jeremy Heit
The Shea Hot Corner
Mets Analyst
Flushing Local
Ducks on the Pond
Mets Ramblings
Betty's no good Clothes Shop and Pancake House
Baseball and Booze
Mets Freak

All the above are well worth reading; I have been lurking on all of them for the last few weeks, busily sucking up information for this preview.
Do not, whatever you do, miss the Shea Hot Corner's brilliant piece on the Yankees - "the most Metrosexual team in the history of Major League Baseball" (Scroll down to February 22nd).

Big thanks to Jonny for correcting many, many mistakes and to Avkash for his excellent farm system analysis.