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The Amazin' Mets

 

Okay, maybe Amazin' is a little too much, but still ...

 

By Adam Hoff

 

It has come to my attention that the Insider column has been too fixated on the NBA game.  Let me just say a couple of things: 1) I do like the NBA, which I know puts me in the minority.  2) I wasn't aware of this fact.  3) My bad.  There's no excuse for writing more about basketball than about baseball when it is, in fact, baseball season. 

 

Now that we've got that settled, here is the first pure baseball column of hopefully many: an examination of how the New York Mets have gone above .500 despite having no middle relief to speak of, nobody in the starting rotation that can throw harder than 90 mph, and a vaunted middle infield duo that is hitting about a combined .240.  I know, it sounds impossible.  But it's not, and here's why:

 

Richard Hidalgo.  You have to start here.  I picked this guy in a home run pool at the beginning of the season to fill out my “wild card” entry and things looked good through week one.  He had four dingers through six games and looked like a great pick.  Then he went about a thousand games without going deep.  I know I was frustrated and I could tell that fantasy owners were frustrated at the rate they were dropping him in all my leagues, so I can only imagine how the Astros felt.  It's no surprise they dealt him away and the Mets wound up being the lucky recipients.  Since arriving in New York, Hidalgo has been a house of fire.  He's hit 8 home runs and driven in 15 runs through 17 games and is hitting .348 with a 1.191 OPS while wearing orange and blue.  For a team that was struggling to score runs he's been a godsend.  He's always been talented and now he seems comfortable, so there's no telling what kind of stats he could pile up in the second half of the season.  Remember though, if the elements don't defeat him, his opponents will.  (Please tell me you remember those horrendous previews for “Hidalgo” that were everywhere about six months ago.)

 

Mike Piazza.  The man isn't going to win any Gold Glove awards, no matter where you stash him on the diamond.  However, his bat is finally heating up.  After hitting .286 with only 11 home runs during an injury-plagued 2003 campaign, Piazza is up to .310 with 16 jacks and a .930 OPS over the first three months of 2004.  His presence in the Mets lineup will be critical if they are to make a run for the NL East title.  And even more important than Piazza's role in the divisional race is the fact that he's the starting catcher in the All-Star game.  Since it appears that Roger Clemens will be getting the starting nod (never mind the fact that Jason Schmidt and Randy Johnson both deserve the honor more), we could have one of the most intriguing sets of battery mates in the history of the game.  In case you've forgotten, Clemens almost ended Piazza's career a few years back with some high heat to the helmet and then followed that up by flinging the barrel of a bat at him in the World Series.  Beyond the fact that this clearly proves Clemens' insanity, it also offers up one heck of a backstory.  Will Clemens intentionally cross up Piazza with some heat after getting the “two” signal?  Will Piazza fire one into the Rocket's dome after Ichiro takes off for second  on a steal?  I doubt it, but we can only hope.

 

A 3.66 Staff ERA.  The Mets have been pounding the ball lately and the improved offense is definitely a key, but the fact that the pitching staff is allowing almost a full run less each game is probably the biggest difference between the 2003 Mets and the '04 version that is currently heading into a battle for first place with Philadelphia.  Tom Glavine has bounced back from one of his worst seasons with one of his best and is the ace of the staff.  Even after a recent rough outing, Glavine still ranks among the league leaders in ERA (2.49), WHIP (1.05), and innings pitched (122.2).  You can't ask for much more than that.  The top of the rotation has also received outstanding performances from veterans Al Leiter and Steve Trachsel.  Leiter continues to bide time until he can become the best broadcast analyst in the game by posting a 2.05 ERA to go with a 1.18 WHIP.  He doesn't collect strikeouts like he used to and he still struggles with his control at times, but he's a perfect #2 starter and a terrific weapon should New York reach the postseason.  Trachsel is also posting nice numbers with a 3.36 ERA and nine wins, serving as a great option in the middle of the rotation. 

 

The bullpen has also been better than anyone could have realistically hoped for.  After getting kicked to the curb not once (in favor of Urbina), but twice (to make room for Benitez) in Florida, closer Braden Looper is thriving in New York.  You can't really blame the Marlins for those decisions, considering that Urbina helped deliver a World Series and Benitez has been arguably the best closer in the game this year, but what a pleasant surprise for the Mets.  Looper has 17 saves, a 1.91 ERA, and a ridiculous 7.00 K/BB ratio.  It's safe to say that he's been one of the five best closers in the National League over the first half of the season.  Mike Stanton has also been solid, joining with Ricky Bottalico, the antique John Franco, and Orber Moreno to provide some decent middle relief.  If the Mets are going to outpace the Phillies, Marlins, and Braves down the stretch, they'll probably need to add one more arm in the bullpen, but this group has done an admirable job with limited talent.

 

The big problem for the Mets' pitching staff is the back end of the rotation.  The likes of Jae Weong Seo (4.79 ERA), Matt Ginter (4.56), and Tyler Yates (7.22) just isn't getting it done.  Ginter looks like a batting practice pitcher.  Either that or a wind-up doll.  What's important is that he does not look like a big league starting pitcher.  New York is going to need to address this at some point.  Which leads us to ...

 

Pitching Help on the Way.  The #4 and #5 starters problem could be solved in a matter of weeks.  First, comeback kid Scott Erickson appears to be ready to come up from Triple A and join the rotation.  I'm not sure he can ever get back to top form or be good for more than five or six innings, but anything is an improvement over Ginter.  Pencil him in as the #5 starter.  The #4 spot could be taken care of by Cuban defector Alain Soler.  Supposedly he's 6'3” and almost 240 pounds and throws gas.  He's also rumored to be between 23 and 26 years old.  Which means that he's 26 ... at best.  Nevertheless, even if he turns out to be a 5'11”, 32-year old, junkballer, he's still going to get a shot on this staff.  I have the feeling he's going to be pretty good though.  I'm picturing a guy a lot like Jose Contreras: great stuff and imposing build, but shaky consistency.  We'll see.  If he's a stud, the Mets instantly become the second-best team in the division.

 

Grit.  There's no easy way to measure toughness and intensity, but the Mets really seem to have it.  Kaz Matsui hasn't been the five-tool star that everyone hoped he'd be, but he's been a gritty player at the top of the order.  A recent hot streak has lifted his average to .272, he's scored 55 runs, and has some nice power and speed potential with 7 home runs, 25 doubles, and 12 stolen bases in 15 tries.  Now that fellow middle infield phenom Jose Reyes is back in the leadoff spot, Matsui seems far more comfortable hitting second and playing defense with his Spring Training double play partner.  Another example of the Mets' toughness is infielder Ty Wiggington.  The guy is the modern day Charlie Hustle.  Without the prolific hitting ability and raging gambling problems, of course.  Wiggington is hitting .271 with 11 home runs, playing second and third base, and generally setting the tone with his style of play.  Plus, what a name.  Even backup second basemen Danny Garcia has been a sparkplug.  With his terrific batting eye (.386 OBP despite sporting only a .228 average), cocky attitude, and outstanding work ethic, Garcia has been part of a new look to this team.

 

Defense.  Matsui is probably better defensively than he is offensively.  Reyes has almost unlimited range at second.  Piazza is still weak defensively, but he's far less of a liability at first then he was behind the plate.  With guys like Timo Perez and Roger Cedeno gone, the Mets just have a more cohesive and committed defensive lineup.  And the main reason for that has been the addition of Mike Cameron.  They guy still struggles with strikeouts and plummeting batting averages, but there is no mistaking his impact in center field.  He shows up on Web Gems every day, sells out for every ball, and has probably single-handedly lowered NY's team ERA by at least .40.  Plus, despite hitting only .221, he does have 14 home runs and 11 stolen bases.  You could do worse. 

 

Potential.  The crazy thing about the Mets is that despite overcoming preseason predictions of catastrophic failure, they still have room to improve.  Most surprise “feel good” stories have an air about them, that eventually things are going to revert back to normal and they'll come back to earth.  Teams like the Reds, Devil Rays, and Tigers definitely feel that way.  On the other hand, the Brewers, Rangers, and others join New York as surprising success stories that might just hang around for a while.  The reason the Mets can legitimately hope to continue their success is that they have several players with more to give.  Matsui seems to be coming around and showing flashes of brilliance.  Reyes is battling back from injuries and is currently hitting only .218.  You have to believe that's going to improve pretty dramatically.  Hidalgo is on board.  Cliff Floyd is finally healthy and already has 13 home runs in 54 games.  There's no reason to think he won't rake the rest of the way.  Erickson and/or Soler could give the Mets that one starter they really need.  As you can see, it's far more likely that the Mets will get better as the season progresses than it is that they will get worse.  That's pretty huge.

 

So what are their chances?  Can the Mets shock the world like they did in 1969 when the won the World Series?  Or perhaps they can just stun everybody as they did in 2000 when they reached the World Series as the wild card and battled the Yankees in the Subway Series.  Even reaching the playoffs would be a remarkable accomplishment. 

 

I think they can do it.  Reyes and Matsui are a dynamic combination in the middle of the infield and at the top of the order and you have to believe they will hit their stride.  The trio of Floyd-Piazza-Hidalgo in the middle of the order has suddenly become one of the top 3-5 combos in the league.  We're not talking Pujols-Rolen-Edmonds here, but still, pretty good.  Then you throw in the defense of Cameron, the emergence of Looper in the pen, and the possibility of more talent being infused into a successful starting rotation and you are looking at a legit team.  

 

Unfortunately, even after all that, I don't think they will win the NL East.  Florida has better and younger pitching (although Beckett's blisters could swing that one), Atlanta's deal with the devil seems like it just may remain intact, and the Phillies simply have better players than anyone else in the division.  It's not that I believe the Mets have a worse chance to emerge victorious, but when you've got a race up for grab and four teams all have realistic shots at it, it's safer to bet against any one team than for them.  If I had to put money on one of these teams I'd take the Phillies.  Guys like Millwood and Meyers can't possibly pitch worse than they have, Wagner is finally getting healthy, and with Thome and Abreu on offense, they seem to have the horses.  Still, as long as Larry Bowa is managing this team, I'll never have much faith in them.

 

Regardless of whether the Mets actually advance to the playoffs though, they are turning heads by playing hard, making bold moves (Hidalgo, Soler, etc.), getting great pitching from guys left for dead, and doing things the right way.  They are shedding bad contracts, improving their defense, and trying to get younger.  I think things like bright for the Mets, not just for the second half of 2004, but for the years to come as well. 

 

Now if they could just get a new stadium ...

 

Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and can be reached at adam.hoff@pepperdine.edu or by sitemail at adamo112.

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