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
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
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
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.
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
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 re
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.
Regardless of whether the Mets
actually advance to the playoffs though, they are turning heads by playing hard,
making bold moves (
Now if they could just get a new stadium ...
Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by sitemail at adamo112.