Monday, May 02, 2005

Mets 25-Game Check-Up, But I'm Still Not Sure What I'm In For

The 25-Game Check-Up is a time-honored institution here at MLC, alongside such staples as the case of beer bet, the Tigers Watch/Expos Watch/the soon-to-be unleashed Rockies Watch, and the usage of annoying, punny nicknames in lieu of actual worthy commentary. Unfortunately, the prognosis delivered in this edition of the Mets' Check-Up will flow something like the one provided by my child psychologist after six weeks under his care: "I really have no idea what the problem is. Wait a while and see what happens." After these words of wisdom arrived, I naturally grew out of my phase where I shirked responsibility, lacked discipline, and sought out trouble . . . and if the Mets follow my lead, they'll wind up a frustratingly underachieving mess. Uh oh. Whoa, we're delving a little deep here, so let's stick to problems of a baseball nature, shall we?

The Mets are crouched at 12-13 now, disappointing for even the most tepid of Mets enthusiasts. The excruciatingly tired mantra "It's still early" does indeed apply, if only for the fact that the Braves and Marlins sit atop the division in a three-game striking distance. The next couple of series, however, could provide a real look at whether the Mets intend to participate in what could be an exhilarating divisional race down the stretch. The Metmen host the decidedly down-sliding Phillies for four games starting tonight, then head to Milwaukee and Chicago for three apiece. The Cubs are clicking on one cylinder these days, so it may be the right time to face them, and Milwaukee is . . . well, they're the Brewers, you see. The latter half of June features a minefield of opponents named Cardinals, Yankees, Braves, and Marlins, so the next two weeks appear to be a time to stockpile wins. Of course, every time in the past two seasons that I've proclaimed that it was "Go Time" for the Metropolitans, they've answered the call with all of the verve and vigor of a tea party with doll-babies in Robby Alomar's basement. Tea for two - and two for tea - I hit .332 - then .233 . . .

The good thing about exhorting the Mets on in the next two weeks is that there seems to be plenty of room for improved execution -- again, with this team, it doesn't seem to be a dearth of talent, just results. If you had told me before the season started that Aaron Heilman would have proved capable of the brilliant games he's had -- even accepting the shellings that were interspersed, that Cliff Floyd would be crushing the ball with the tenacity he's shown -- even accepting the inevitable DL trip he took, and that we'd actually be concerned about how to get Victor Diaz at-bats with Mike Cameron coming back, I'd have projected 15-17 wins at this point. Of course, it hasn't worked out like that. It never does, does it?

Reasons for Hope

1. Heilman. Floyd. Diaz. As above. See, I'm not that wordy.

2. David Wright. He's gone through little mini-slumps, and his defense still needs work, but he's clearly the bright young spot of this organization. Trade him at your bodily health's peril, Omar.

3. Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez. Long-term deals can't be declared successful until the big picture plays out, but these two guys have provided not only the upgrade in performance but also a big reason to watch -- they're entertaining as all get-out.

4. The Bench. One feeble-minded analyst pointed out a "startling lack of depth" on the Met roster before the season. (Please don't scroll down to find out who that idiot was.) Miguel Cairo is bucking for a starting spot, Chris Woodward has a key to every door in the place, Ramon Castro is more than a placeholder behind Piazza, and Marlon Anderson is merely getting a hit every time he comes up. When Cameron comes back, Eric Valent may find his way back to AAA and Diaz will be another weapon off the bench. It's all been a very pleasant surprise.

Reasons to Mope

1. Tom Glavine. See last week's diatribe on Mr. Glavine. He hasn't pitched since then, so there's really no reason to pile on more . . . just because he's been tremendously mediocre for a while.

2. Braden Looper. "Never a dull moment" should not be the slogan of your closer. 1-2-3 innings and save situations: never the twain shall meet. Senior citizens and fans with a history of heart disease are encouraged to leave the park while Looper warms up. I'm not saying I don't have any confidence in him . . . well, I'm not saying it out loud.

3. Kaz Matsui, Mike Piazza, Victor Zambrano. Same old stories.

4. The Jose Reyes leadoff dilemma, and upon this I'll expound. He's a young talent who needs time to learn, as Willie Randolph explained last night, but I'm not sure the Mets need learning curves on their already mountainous road ahead. That it's May 2 and he hasn't taken a single walk this season is staggering. Seriously. Tom Glavine walked once. So did Jae Seo, and he was in Norfolk for the first few weeks. David Wright has walked 15 times already, and he's just as young and raw. (Wright is actually leading the league right now with 4.43 pitches per plate appearance, while Reyes sees 3.68 and Kaz Matsui sees 3.57.) If Reyes really can't stop swinging, he might not be deserving of the leadoff spot and the PA's that come with it.

Perhaps the problem is that Jose Reyes never took the SAT in his Dominican high school. One of the guiding principles of mastering that test helps a lot of hitters in the big leagues. The SAT prep people always said that if you don't think you have a goos shot at getting a question right, don't answer it. If you don't think you can make good solid contact, don't swing at it. Sure, you can take a wild swing at it and maybe things will work out for you, but the percentages say that you'll be rewarded a lot more often if you lay off the especially tough ones. (Not sure where the cultural bias comes into play on baseball swings; that's a topic for a rainy day.)

Jose Reyes is a good hitter hamstrung by his own free swinging. He can hit pitches in and out of the strike zone, and he often does. He's capable of the 13-pitch at-bat, fouling off pitch after pitch and frustrating the pitcher. Then on the 13th pitch, he'll strike out. "Productive K's" is a sliver of a silver lining; it's still not getting it done in the top spot. Carlos Beltran has come up in far too many bases-empty situations so far this season. He's got 30 hits, leading the team, and he has 14 RBI. Willie Randolph has two lineup-related missions where Beltran is concerned: protect him with good hitters behind him, and make the most of his drives with good hitters in front of him. With Cliff Floyd destroying the ball of late, the skipper made the adjustment to move Mike Piazza down and give Floyd the role of protector. Well executed. Now it's time to give Beltran some RBI chances.

Reasons I'm a Dope

One of the problems with getting a bead on these guys even this far into the season is that their performances seem to turn on a dime. It was never more evident than in the 5-loss/6-win launch of the '05 campaign, but it's gone well beyond that. Guys have looked intermittently superb and hapless on any given night. Piazza is done, then revitalized, then done again, within a few games. Matsui is finally settling into a groove . . . nope, he's horrible. Glavine seems to have things worked out -- scratch that, he's getting hammered again. Granted, it's the nature of the oft-humbling sport that hot and cold spells happen to every player throughout a 162-game season, but the Mets seem to be all over the map at any given time. I promise to have more of a true read of this ballclub at the 50-game mark -- that is, if their scattershot glimmers of hope and glimpses of decay don't have me scrambling back to that psychologist in the next few weeks.

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