01/01/10 10:00 AM EST
Mets enter new decade with uncertainties
Questions about Wright's power, health surround team
By Marty Noble / MLB.com
Modest as it may be, it's a streak. And what DiMaggio and Ripken achieved was measured merely in games. In this case, we used decades.
So here the Mets stand, months away from a new season in a new decade. A challenge awaits. Can they extend their streak to six decades? They've got 10 years to get it done. The suspense is overwhelming. A look at how the may fare in the first year of a new decade follows.
1. Can the Mets prosper in 2010? Pending Jason Bay's physical, can they be a genuine contender without at least another high-profile personnel addition to plug at least one of the holes that have developed?
No. They must acquire a veteran catcher, preferably one who has made his bones as a receiver and pitching-staff tutor. For all that Brian Schneider didn't provide offensively in two seasons with the Mets, he was a quite legit receiver who had the confidence of his pitchers. His departure via free agency developed a need that may not be as high profile as the team's need for a power hitter or a No. 2 starter. But the Mets can move forward and perhaps prosper without a new starter, but not without a skilled replacement for Schneider.
2. Will manager Jerry Manuel make it through the season, and, if not, who would be his most likely replacement?
If the team plays well, i.e. -- fundamentally sound baseball as it wasn't able to do so last season even before the injuries -- or even if it falls seven or eight games behind the leader in the division race before the All-Star break, Manuel will survive. The Mets' hierarchy recognizes the Phillies are a well-equipped team that plays with resolve and purpose, so it is more likely to judge Manuel by how his team performs rather than where it stands vis-a-vis the Phillies. But a repeat of the sloppy, inattentive play that undermined the team last summer will put Manuel -- and possibly general manager Omar Minaya -- on baseball's unemployment line.
One factor working in Manuel's favor is that the club is still paying Willie Randolph. Dismissing Manuel would have the team paying three people to do the same job -- or actually two not to do the job and a new man to handle it. The Mets are opposed to doing business that way.
If a change is necessary, the most likely candidates to succeed Manuel are, in order, Wally Backman and either Tim Teufel or Ken Oberkfell. Backman is considered ready, at least partially because he was in position to manage a big league team in 2005 before his past denied him an opportunity. The choice of a new manager often is influenced by what prompted the dismissal of his predecessor; that is, if a team is stumbling because of uninspired play, the new man most likely will be a motivator. Or if a team is not performing because of too much stress prompted by the manager, the man will be a more passive man.
If Manuel's 2010 performs anything like his '09 team, Backman will be brought in to make the offending players uncomfortable. He will be an arsonist of sorts, lighting fires as he did as a player. The longer the Mets go without a change -- so long as Backman is not involved in any on-field incidents -- the more prepared he will seem, but the stronger Manuel will be, too.
3. Will David Wright hit more than 20 home runs?
Yes. But more important is whether he drives in runs as he did in each full season before 2009. His power plunge was a curious and troubling development for the team. He seemingly became spooked by the dimensions, shape and karma of Citi Field in '09. His RBIs dropped from a four-year average of 112 to 72, partially because his home run total decreased from an average of 29 to 10. But he also missed two weeks because of a concussion, returned without a full sense of comfort in the batter's box and struck out 140 times. All that undermined his RBI and home run production.
4. Whither Johan Santana?
He underwent surgery for bone chips in his elbow for the second time. So nothing is guaranteed. But Santana is a warrior, as much as any Mets player ever. Had the team not crumbled around him last summer and had it contended into the late summer, he would have tried to pitch through his pain. The surgery didn't affect his resolve. He may be lacking a few mph and that may diminish the effectiveness of his changeup, but chances are he'll find the missing mph and find a way. Santana is a situation, not a concern.
5. How much can be expected of Mike Pelfrey?
Pelfrey, entering what ought to be his third season as a 30-start pitcher, is as critical to the Mets' renaissance as any of the higher-profile players -- Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes, Francisco Rodriguez, Santana and Wright. After a step-back season, he could evolve into the starter the Mets have tried and failed to acquire this offseason. The only other starter with so high a ceiling is Oliver Perez. But he seems permanently anchored to the floor. Off what he has shown in his still brief big league tenure, Pelfrey could produce an 18-6 record, a 6-18 record or a 12-12 record, and no reasonable observer could claim surprise. Considering his uneven 2009, a 14-10 record with more consistent performances would be quite satisfactory.
6. Is any Mets rookie likely to have impact in 2010?
The way it looks now, the Mets are likely to begin the season without a rookie on their roster and play deep into the summer without the promotion of a plebe. All bets are off if multitudes of injuries happen again. But who can say? No one expected Daniel Murpy to reach the big leagues in 2008, much less bat .313 after he arrived. Come September, Ike Davis may sip from a coffee cup.
7. Will Angel Pagan get a chance to play regularly if the Mets don't sign an impact left fielder?
Maybe, but probably not. The club sees Pagan as a fourth outfielder or, in NBA terms, a sixth man, capable of generating offense. But of what Pagan showed last season, overexposure is an issue. He plays with energy, athletic skill and heart. But his baseball acumen is an obstacle.
8. How can the Mets avoid a run of debilitating injuries like they endured last season?
Drink more water, stretch properly before games, avoid walls, slide feet first and never slide into first base. Abandon the split-finger fastball, hang around with Ripken, keep the dugout steps clear (see Luis Castillo last summer). Reach back for something extra only if something extra is available. Improve bunting technique (see David Cone, 1987), don't take Dave Kingman swings in batting practice, learn how to cut the bases properly. Abandon all maple bats. Don't bat against Perez in intrasquad games. Keep the oblique muscles stretched and strong. Avoid collisions -- no, avoid all contact with Padres first baseman/outfielder Kyle Blanks (he's 6-foot-6, 285 pounds). Don't wrestle with Santana -- he's Kingman strong. Never play catch with Jeff Francoeur at distances fewer than 250 feet. Heed the warning track. Don't accept assignment to the Citi Field lockers assigned last season to Santana, John Maine, J.J. Putz, Ryan Church, Reyes, Beltran, Alex Cora, Carlos Delgado, Fernando Nieve, Gary Sheffield, Jon Niese, Schneider, Wright or Pagan. Don't sign Ben Sheets. Don't smoke. Cross at the green, not in between. Duck, get out of the way and, if at all possible, rub the belly of Yogi Berra, the luckiest man ever to play the game.
If all that fails, play hurt.
9. Who is the most likely bridge to K-Rod?
At this point, no one. Only two bullpen roles are established at this point -- K-Rod's the closer and Pedro Feliciano gets to face Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder, Chase Utley, Brian McCann and, come May 21 -- Yankees at Mets -- Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano and their left-handed-hitting brethren.
Unless the Mets bring in another pitcher with late-inning resumé, the likely candidates for the role Putz was to fill last season are the new recruit Ryota Igarashi, Bobby Parnell, Brian Stokes and Sean Green, in that order. Manuel sometimes advocates establishing set roles for his relievers. And he often speaks of the need for a "crossover" reliever. But he has yet to afford any pitcher an extended chance to become one.
10. What would be the Mets' most likely rotation if the season were to begin today?
There isn't a most likely; there are only least unlikely possibilities. Santana is a given, and Pelfrey will be given every chance. So will Perez, only because the club wants a chance to gain some dividend from its unwise investment in him. The club would love to have Maine's high-in-the zone fastball providing a different look in the rotation. That leaves Niese and Nieve. A left-handed pitcher with a big curve, Niese would add to the different-look mix. That would leave Nieve as the spot starter.
That alignment seems to make the most sense. But December and April are as different from each other as Santana and Perez. It's a go figure at this point, and Minaya wants to bring in another candidate.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.