Monday, April 03, 2006

Gentlemen, Start Your Engines

I’ve been meaning to stop by MLC headquarters recently and weigh in on a great number of things, from the (real) WBC to Barry Bonds to the state of the New York Mets as we peer over the edge into the great abyss that is the 2006 baseball season. It hasn’t happened, obviously, and now that it’s Opening Day, it’s all rather secondary. Rob and I have never dabbled too heavily in the off-season banter, something we dismiss as a rash of hypotheticals, theoreticals, and futile exercises reserved for those lucky fools who have more time on their hands than we do. This winter was no exception, but it’s that time of year again where we earn our keep around here. The month of April brings us April showers, April Fool’s Day, and income tax deadlines; that it also rewards us with a new baseball season every year more than atones for the annoyance and idiocy of the other milestones. More talented artists than I emit poetic passages on the national pastime each spring, so I’ll spare you any such trifles. It suffices to say that I am pretty friggin’ jazzed for this baseball season, and specifically this Mets season.

Don’t let that last sentence fool you – I’m not entirely sold on these New York Mets. My family baseball pool illustrates my unwillingness to go all in on them, as I have once again predicted that the Atlanta Braves will finish first in the NL East. Sure, part of that is an emotional hedge; I only want to get but so caught up in a process that has provided a like-clockwork letdown for a very long time. Even rationally, however, I see as many holes in the Mets as any of the teams that provide their stiffest competition. Let’s take a quick gander . . .

The Rotation
Pitching and defense – those oft-mentioned elements that separate baseball’s fundamental overachievers from the ostentatious, casual-fan-pleasing 4th place finishers – the mantra isn’t some trite myth. Those two factors really do serve as the cornerstones of a franchise’s success. While the Mets did improve their defense behind the plate and at second base (only because Kaz Matsui answered the prayers of thousands by getting hurt), they parted with a right-fielder and first basemen who rank among the league’s best with the mitt. More significantly, for all of the ink the Mets drew with another off-season of big signings, they did absolutely nothing to take their pitching rotation to loftier levels.

The 2005 staff of Pedro-Glavine-Benson-Zambrano-Ishii/Seo was solid by the numbers (3rd in the NL in runs/game and ERA), but nobody in Mets Township likely remembers it as dominant. Furthermore, each of them pitched about as well as can be realistically expected of them. Pedro was fairly dominant, Glavine held fast, Benson and Zambrano were similarly mediocre to their career numbers, and Jae Seo was beyond reliable. (Ishii sucked horribly in most of his 16 starts and represents the only bust among the starters.) Will 2006 be as close to reaching these guys’ “upside” as 2005 was? While Pedro’s toe jams up Rick Peterson’s plans, Tom Glavine is a year older, Kris Benson’s in the Charm City, Victor Zambrano still has us gluttons for punishment scanning Tampa box scores, and Jae Seo “Long” is a Dodger. (We wish Jae Seo well; we’ll miss the puns his name lent itself to for sure. Meanwhile, we expect his control to improve there, since nobody walks in L.A.)


On the (very limited) plus side, Steve Trachsel, a favorite of mine, is back. (True fact: watching Mets games in TiVo’s fast forward makes Tom Glavine’s fastball and Steve Trachsel’s delivery resemble normal speed.) Somehow, though, Aaron Heilman is still not in the rotation. What this kid has to do to become a starter – perhaps falter mightily? – is beyond me. Of course I can see his value in the pen, but just imagine Pedro as a middle reliever, too. There’s a reason starters collect more money, fame, and recognition. Handing the ball to Floyd Bannister’s kid has to have fan fave Heilman scratching his head. It sure has me scratching mine.

Again, it’s not so much the pitchers the Mets have on their staff, it’s the guys they don’t. It’s who they didn’t go out and get during the spree. Everyone who marvels at the firepower the Mets purchased in Carlos Delgado and Billy Wagner sees a shoring up of two areas of weakness. When you start to look at the big picture, however – playing for a pennant – you can’t ignore the fact that the Mets have a rotation that’s middle-of-the-pack, and a little-piggie injury away from being downright poor.

The Golden (Girl) Age
Earlier this spring, I revealed a deep-rooted fear that the Mets are all-too-eerily resembling their crosstown counterparts of late when it comes to a business model. They’s spending dollars aplenty to bolster home run numbers, strikeouts, and All-Star appearances, and they’re mortgaging the farm team’s offerings to acquire the heroes of yesteryear. Here’s a stat for you:

Last year the New York Yankees had 85 All-Star appearances on their roster.

The Chicago White Sox had 17, and 5 of those came from Frank Thomas, who
played little to no role in the winning of the World Series.

The Yanks filled out their squad with a bevy of high-priced talent. That these guys’ rookie cards are worth a small fortune says a lot about the veteran credentials they carried; that those rookie cards featured bleached mullets, zubaz, and Z’s shaved into Afro flat-tops says more. When those guys broke down, nobody upon nobody was surprised. Adding 34-year-old Billy Wagner, 33-year-old Carlos Delgado, and 57-year-old Julio Franco means more aged leadership in the clubhouse to accompany Tom Glavine to early bird specials on road trips. What does it mean for the Mets’ future?

That’s it, though. I’m worried about the starting pitching and the ability of older players to tough out another grind of a season. Beyond that, there are meat, potatoes, and, I am hoping, boats full of gravy this season.

Today is Day 1 on a six-month quest for all of us.

Pack a cooler. Could be a wild one.

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