2004 was another disappointing year for the Mets. The team found itself in a division race in July, although not playing particularly well. Short 2 starting pitchers, the club traded away top prospect Scott Kazmir and Ty Wigginton in separate trades for Victor Zambrano and Kris Benson. Zambrano developed arm troubles and the team collapsed down the stretch to finish with 71 wins.
In the off-season, the Mets hired Omar Minaya as General Manager. After years of dealing with microscopic budgets in Montreal, Minaya must have been thrilled by the resources in New York. He promptly signed Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran, and hired Willie Randolph to manage the club. With these additions, the Mets are considered by many to have a legitimate chance at winning the division. Do they, really?THE OFFENCE
In 2004, the offence scored 684 runs, a below average total for a neutral park. The major problem, as it has been for several years, was a shortage of hitters at the top of the lineup who could get on base. For 2005, the following changes have been made to the starting lineup:
-Doug Mientkiewicz will play first base, and Mike Piazza will move from first base to behind the plate and take over most of the catching duties from Jason Phillips,
-Jose Reyes was injured for most of last season, and will return to play shortstop with Kaz Matsui moving over to second,
-Carlos Beltran will play centerfield, Mike Cameron will move over to right, and Richard Hidalgo and Karim Garcia are gone.
How will these changes impact the team's offence? We'll start with the informal calculation. Doug Mientkiewicz had a poor year at age 30 in 2004, going .238/.326/.350, after 3 successive good years from age 27-29, averaging .289/.375/.432 over that span. Somewhere in the middle would be a significant improvement over Phillips' .218/.298/.326 line. Add 10-15 runs. Carlos Beltran should go .270/.360/.520 in New York, whereas Hidalgo/Garcia went roughly .230/.290/.440. Add 30 runs. David Wright and Ty Wigginton shared the third base job, and while Wigginton was good, Wright is better. Add 5-10 runs. Jose Reyes was injured and had an off-season. Add 10 runs. Kaz Matsui should be a little better in his second year in North America. Add 5 runs. Toting it all up, the Mets should score about 750 runs this year.
Catcher- Mike Piazza and Jason Phillips
Mike Piazza is now 36 years old, and is coming off another bleah, for him, season of .266/.362/.444, but he did manage 523 plate appearances. He'll probably manage comparable numbers this year, but somewhat fewer plate appearances. My past-performance projection for him is .272/.360/.475 in 425 plate appearances. He threw out only 17% of baserunners, but seems to be an adequate handler of pitchers.
Jason Phillips hit an unexpected trough at age 27 in 2004, with a miserable .218/.298/.326 line. His prior success in the high minors in 2001 and 2002, and in the majors in 2003 (he hit .298/.373/.442) suggest that a recovery in 2005 is likely. My projection for him is .255/.320/.380 in 225 plate appearances. Phillips threw out 22% of baserunners. Don't bet on a Met to win the catching Gold Glove.
First Base- Doug Mientkiewicz and Eric Valent
Minky is another comeback candidate. After posting consistently good numbers from 2001-2003, Mientkiewicz slipped to .238/.326/.350 at age 30 last year. My projection for him is .265/.355/.395 in 475 plate appearances. He has a great glove, and should help an already fine Met defence.
Eric Valent was chosen by the Mets in the December, 1993 Rule 5 draft. Although he had performed poorly at triple A in 2002 and 2003, he surprised everyone by putting up a fine .267/.337/.481 line in the majors in 2004. He was 27 years old last year, and so his ability to replicate this performance is in doubt. I have him at .240/.310/.420, and getting just a few pinch-hit opportunities.
Second Base-Kaz Matsui
Will Kaz emulate Hideki in his second season in North America? Kaz had demonstrated significant power in his prime years in Japan, hitting over 30 homers in his last two years. His signing with the Mets last year was big news, but Kaz delivered a low key .272/.331/.396 at age 28. All his numbers were consistent with his performance in Japan, save for the drop in power. This was Hideki Matsui's pattern, and it is quite understandable that a player in a completely different culture and baseball environment might be cautious in their first season. My projection for him is .280/.350/.430. It is hard to imagine a better manager for Kaz than Willie Randolph, and I expect him to flourish over the next few seasons.
A stress fracture of his left fibula (and that aint no joke), put a damper on Reyes' 2004 season. Reyes played in 55 games, and hit .255/.271/.373, but I prefer to look at his combined 2003-2004 statistics. He has played 3/4 of a season over that period and gone .283/.307/.407. Like many young players, his knowledge of the strike zone is casual. He turns 22 in June, 2005 and there is time for him to learn. If he hits .280/.315/.420, and continues his fine base-stealing (32 thefts in 37 career attempts in the majors), the Mets will have to be satisfied with his offence. He is a fine defensive shortstop.
Third Base-David Wright
It's always fun to guess who might be the Hall of Famers for a rookie class. David Wright is my nominee from last year's class. After a fine season in the Florida State League at age 20 in 2003, Wright dominated the Eastern League to the tune of .363/.467/.619 in half a season, played a month at triple A Norfolk and went .298/.378/.589, and then got the call to the Show in late July. His .293/.332/.525 debut set hearts a-flutter. And he's not one-dimensional. He steals bases at an 80% clip, and fields his position well.
That said, anything is possible in his sophomore season. His numbers prior to 2004 did not scream superstar, so some regression is certainly possible. Or it may be that he's ready to be Mike Schmidt Jr. I'd suggest a consolidation year where he hits around .275/.350/.480.
Left Field- Cliff Floyd
A great hitter in his prime, Floyd has battled various injuries the last 2 years, and has missed 1/3 of each season. In 2004, he went .260/.352/.462, his worst performance since 1997. Most disconcertingly, his K rate increased dramatically, while his walk rate deteriorated. His power remained, but it looks like he may not be a .290-.300 hitter any longer. He is only 32 years old, so it would certainly be possible for him to bounce back some if he is healthy this year, but it is pretty clear that his decline has begun.
The Mets should be happy if Floyd posts the same numbers as last year, but stays healthy enough to play 135 games or so.
Center Field- Carlos Beltran
Carlos Beltran was the prize of the free agent market, and he did right well by himself, securing a rich 7 year contract. He turns 28 in April, and possesses a world of talent. He is easily the finest base-stealer of the time, posting remarkable 41-4 and 42-3 SB/CS ratios the last 2 years. He's not likely to hit for the average that he did in Kansas City (it was an extreme hitters' park during 2000-2003), but the power he showed last year will likely continue indefinitely. My projection for him is .270/.360/.520. He is a fine centerfielder, but then the Mets already had one of those in Mike Cameron.
Right Field- Mike Cameron
He'll give you great defence, a .230 average, 30 homers and 60-70 walks. It's not exactly what you want in a right-fielder, but it'll do. There has been considerable speculation that the Mets have Cameron on the trading blocks, presumably hoping to convert an excellent defensive centerfielder and good hitter into an even better offensive corner outfielder (or perhaps to add depth to the pitching staff.
The Mets acquired Miguel Cairo who backs up second extremely well (Kaz can move over to short, if needed), to go along with Valent and Phillips.
THE PITCHING STAFF
Pedro Martinez (replacing Al Leiter), Tom Glavine, Kris Benson, Steve Trachsel and Victor Zambrano will be the Mets' rotation. All the starters benefit from the excellent Met defence, probably the best in the majors with the additions of Beltran and Mientkiewicz. DiPS ERA figures are courtesy of Jay Jaffe at futilityinfielder.com.
Pedro's ERAs the last 6 years are 2.07, 1.74, 2.39, 2.26, 2.22 and 3.90 (DIPS- 3.70). His peripherals remain excellent, except that he allowed more home runs than usual last year. I see no reason why he cannot return to his former level, with the benefit of facing a pitcher at least twice per game and having Beltran and Cameron to track down the many flyballs he surrenders.
Tom Glavine turns 39 in 2 days, and there are some negative markers for him. His K rate is very low at 4.5 per 9 innings, and he walks too many to be effective at this rate in most environments. Fortunately for him, this defence and this ballpark are kind, and he should squeak by with an ERA probably around 4, after a fine 3.6 (DIPS- 4.41) season last year.
Kris Benson was the first overall pick in the 1996 draft, and he's about to show why. He should do very well this year, as a fly-ball pitcher with respectable walk and K rates. His career ERA is 4.28 , and I expect that this will be the first of several where he's around 3.5 (last year's DIPS- 3.87).
Steve Trachsel somehow survived completely mediocre pitching to escape with a 4.00 ERA last year. He's probably a greater risk than Glavine, although he's 5 years younger. It wouldn't shock me if his ERA is over 5 in 2005 (last year's DIPS-4.98).
In 2001, Victor Zambrano was outstanding in 50 innings of relief for the D-Rays. They moved him to the rotation, and his control went AWOL. He's got good stuff, but also a sore arm. I don't like the odds that he gets healthy and finds the strike zone in 2005.(last year's DIPS-5.19)
All in all, the rotation may be 10 runs better this year than last, with Pedro's excellence being offset partially by likely declines from Glavine and Trachsel.
Braden Looper is your basic closer. He's not a great pitcher, but he gets the job done. At age 29, he had the best season of his 8 year career in 2004, but it was no fluke. His walk rate was down without any impact on any of his other rate statistics. Mike DeJean is a serviceable middle reliever and Aaron Heilman and Heath Bell may become ones, with Heilman likely moving to the rotation in the event of injury. Felix Heredia is a less than ideal LOOGY. The Mets fell 5 games short of their Pythagorean projection last year, and it would not be a shock if they fell short again due to the weakness of the pen.
Yusmeiro Petit is a short right-handed pitcher, who is well regarded by both Baseball America and John Sickels. He dominated the SAL last year, and had two fine starts at double A. He pitched very well in the Venezuelan Winter League. He'll probably start in double A, and if all goes well, he'll make it to Shea Stadium as a late August or September callup. So far, it looks like he'll be good from arrival, as he's got good control and he strikes out hitters in bunches.
Phillip Humber was the Mets' first draft choice in 2004; he's another fine right-handed pitcher, but he's at least 2 years away. Lastings Milledge, a very young toolsy outfielder, was the Mets' first draft choice in 2003, and has performed quite well in the low minors. He looks very good, but his estimated time of arrival is the middle of 2006 at the earliest.
The Mets have some fine front-line talent, but there are big holes at the back end of the rotation and at the back end of the bullpen. It's a tough division, so I figure they'll score 750, allow 740, win 81 games and finish fourth. To do better, they'll need better than expected progress from Wright, Reyes and Matsui. However, if Petit, Humber and Milledge continue to develop, they should be in very good shape for 2006 and 2007. 71 wins in 2004...81 wins in 2005...the next number in this progression would be more like it for long-suffering Met fans.