Monday, June 06, 2005

Catch-Up & Check-Up

Games 52 through 57 and Fiftysomething-Game Check-up - Mets

Diamondbacks 7, Mets 0
Mets 2, Diamondbacks 1
Mets 6, Diamondbacks 1
Mets 5, Giants 1
Giants 6, Mets 3
Mets 12, Giants 1
Record: 30-27

NL EAST -------- W L - GB
Washington..... 31 26 -
NY Mets..........30 27 1
Atlanta.......... 30 27 1
Philadelphia..... 30 28 1.5
Florida........... 28 26 1.5

Ridiculous. But what's most ridiculous?
  • The other divisions feature last place teams anywhere from 9.5 to 20.5 games out.
  • Every other first-place team outside of the AL West has a buffer of 3.5 games or more between themselves and the second-place team.
  • The Marlins are in last place.
  • The Phillies aren't. (Well, they weren't when I started writing this yesterday.)
  • The Nationals are in first place.
  • The Braves aren't.
  • The Nationals have scored the fewest runs of the NL East teams and have given up the 4th-most runs.
  • The division is excitingly tight, and I haven't bothered to say anything about it.

What's become obvious in the last two weeks is that this is anybody's division. Yes, even the Phillies, even though I took to mocking them some weeks ago. They'd won 9 of 10 before yesterday, and I haven't the vaguest sense of how -- though I did see a bogus home run call go in their favor Sunday, which says a lot.

Through most of the first two months, the Braves and Marlins had fired a few flares signaling that this would eventually become a two-team race. Suddenly, the division is closing in around them, and they've got to feel like Luke and Han being squashed in the compactor amid trash named Phils, Mets, and Nats. The Mets have done their part in this divisional equivalent of communism, winning 4 of 5 and 7 of 10. Beating the foes you should beat, winning the winnable games -- these are the baby steps that make me think the Mets aren't a toe-stub away from plummeting into the abyss of another 90-loss season. (Even if they just might be.)

The interesting truth about the NL East as it's shaken out is that nobody is great, and nobody's terrible. This is NFL-style parity. They're all two games or more over .500, so it's not like the NFC (L)east of a few years back. Still, while there may not be any Devil Rays to beat on in this quintet of clubs, neither is there a dominant team like the . . . Orioles??? Didn't I boldly predict about a month ago that the O's would soon collapse like the house of cards their pitching staff seemed to be? Well, maybe it's not all card tricks, smoke and mirrors, and sleight of hand going on in Baltimore, and until they do tumble from the top, I won't slight their arms any further.

Back to the topic at hand: How can anyone make any sense of this mess? The current standings are just silly, oddly bringing to mind the song "fat guy in a little coat." We need another month, at least, for these jokers to figure themselves out before we can try to gauge who's for real. Right now, the Nationals and Phillies have won 7 and 8 of their last 10 (like the Mets) while the Braves and Marlins have dropped 7 and 8 of 10, respectively. These streaks will subside, and what happens soon thereafter could be a good indicator. The Braves have been wracked with injury (breaks my heart, it does), while the Marlins seem to be in disarray. The Phillies look to have been playing over their heads for the past two weeks; they're far from devoid of talent, but I just can't see them maintaining this consistency for that long. (Phillies insiders predict they'll hang in there just long enough so they don't trade Billy Wagner for a valuable prospect, then take a nosedive.)

The team that, beyond all comprehension, impresses me the most, is the local Washington Nationals. These guys started with a subpar base of talent ($47 million roster) and suffered a spate of injuries (their bullpen's been decimated), but they haven't paused for one moment to point out their shortcomings. Instead, they've managed a quiet, tortoise-like march through the first two months, nickel and diming opponents out of wins here and there. Once they manage to find an owner (it's currently slated for August of 2013), they might be able to add some real talent, which could make them an even more viable contender . . . still, that's no guarantee for success (see Mets 1993, Mets 2003, etc.), and right now it's a lot of fun to watch ol' Frank steer these scrappers towards a winning record. Digressing from a digression is usually a bad sign, but here goes: the current Washington Nationals are a nearly exact negative image of the current Washington Redskins, with the only feature a Hall of Famer at the helm. Of course, there's a big difference between Frank Robinson and Joe Gibbs these days: one's pleased as punch with his players, the other one would be pleased to punch his players.

So where does all of this leave the Mets? Despite their current whereabouts (2nd place, 1 GB, at Shea for the next six games) I have a vaguely uneasy feeling about them. The Braves, Marlins, and Nationals have mustered the same or a similar record as the Mets while enduring downtime for key players -- "downtime" meaning guys getting hurt or struggling through slumps. Meanwhile, the Metmen have fared no better while operating at nearly 100%. This doesn't bode well.

The Marlins haven't been bitten by the injury bug too badly, but their closer was shelved early, and Luis Castillo and Paul LoDuca have missed time. They've been killed more by guys slumping, though, with Mike Lowell currently throwing up .218/2/20 numbers, Juan Pierre's .311 OBP, and Al Leiter's 6.45 nightmare. If these guys do start to turn it around, you have to like the chances of a Willis-Beckett-Burnett trio down the stretch.

The Braves haven't been bitten by the injury bug so much as stomped on by the injury elephant. Mike Hampton, John Thomson, Chipper Jones, and (last night) Johnny Estrada have all gone down; these guys are integral to the Braves' success, obviously. Meanwhile, Horacio Ramirez has been very disappointing, Tim Hudson and John Smoltz have been slightly less than their stellar selves, and closer Dan Kolb has made Braves fans pine for John Rocker. Rafael Furcal is hitting .222, Marcus Giles has been unimpressive (3 HR's, 46 K's), and Julio Franco has been showing his age. These are guys they counted on not as question marks with an upside but as keys to their success. And yet the Braves are but one game out. They've been relying on scary young talent like Wilson Betemit and Kyle Davies -- if and when some of the other cats rebound or get back from the DL, Atlanta will very easily vie for yet another NL East title. I'd love to revel in these Braves misfortunes, but until they drop lower than second place, it's going to be difficult.

Then there are the Mets. The Mets' unforeseen woes consist of . . . what, again? They had a few wounds early on in Mike Cameron, Kris Benson, and Kaz Ishii, but those guys have all been back for a while now, and performing about as well as can be expected. (Moreso for Cameron.) Who's vastly underachieving? Maybe -- maybe -- Tom Glavine was, but he's pitched wonderfully enough over his past few starts to almost get me retracting statements. (Almost.) A 4.63 ERA is about as much as anyone can ask of him these days. Zambrano's been spotty, the bullpen has sucked, and Pedro's been on fire. This we knew coming in -- in fact, Pedro's been better than we knew. There have not been any supreme disappointments in the pitching; in fact, given the emergence of Aaron Heilman and the resurrection of Roberto Hernandez, you could argue that the Met arms have had more pleasant surprises than letdowns.

On the offensive side of the street (where I always reside), the only real eyesore is Doug Mientkiewicz's .205 average, and (a) he could only have projected a fair bit higher, plus (b) he has hit seven taters. David Wright's been great, Cliff Floyd began on fire and has only chilled a tad, and the aforementioned Cameron is hitting 110 points higher than his '04 average. Reyes and Piazza have done about what we could expect. The bench has been surprisingly effective, with Marlon Anderson on pace to break pinch-hit records, Victor Diaz having filled in brilliantly for Cameron, Chris Woodward playing all around the diamond while hitting .323, and Miguel Cairo close to supplanting Kaz Matsui at second base. Speaking of the Kataztrophe, he has stunk up second base and the 2-spot in the lineup with equal amounts of stank. And yet, going into this season, who among us was convinced he'd be better? This is, sadly, who Kaz Matsui is, and who he'll probably remain, at least while he's in New York.

There is, actually, one guy you can point to who's made noticeably less of an impact than he was supposed to this year. Carlos Beltran was the biggest fish Omar landed, and while he's dodged the heavy criticism by registering solid stats, I think, if pressed, most of Mets Township would say we're a little bit disappointed in what he's brought to the Mets thus far. He was great out of the gate (another reason he's relatively unscathed), but the fact that it's June 7 and he hasn't homered in a game where Pedro didn't pitch has sunk below bizarre to downright annoying. He doesn't lead the Mets in any offensive categories -- not a one. Floyd, Wright, Reyes, and Cameron can all claim some statistical lead. Even the decidedly downhill Piazza has more doubles and as many RBI's. The "five-tool player" has one stolen base in three tries. It's all fairly weak -- for him.

As much as the numbers tell the story, there's more to it than that. Beltran has not been clutch for quite a while. He came up huge a few times early on, but lately he's seemed to thrive when the Mets need him the least. Again, it hasn't been chronic, and it's probably only obvious in the shadows of Cliff Floyd's heroics, David Wright's ascent towards the elite, and Jose Reyes's flash. Beltran has been pretty good, and his numbers do reflect it (.291/.348/.460), but "pretty good" will never meet the inevitable expectations that come with his much-heralded arrival. The biggest worry is whether this is slumping for Beltran (in which case . . . wow) or if this is generally what we can look for from him in the long run (in which case . . . also wow). If he were out-and-out terrible, we'd have a deep-rooted fear that New York was gobbling him up like a Mallomar and spitting him out like an Alomar while actually believing that before long he'd bust out like he did in Houston and thrill us to the nth. The way it is now is nearly as perplexing.

It all adds up to a general discomfort that the Mets are very nearly living up to their potential at 30-27. When the inescapable potholes in the road of the next four months rumble the Metwagon, a drop-off seems likely, sad to say. A big injury or a deep slump from someone with higher expectations than Doug the Freshmaker could unsettle what hasn't exactly been a picturesque landscape so far. A fierce Carlos Beltran surge in the coming weeks could assuage those very fears almost completely. I've got a fever, and the only cure is more Car-Bel.

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