(Long Island, N.Y.) The window of opportunity for this core group of New York Mets may have slammed shut on their fingertips with Carlos Beltran looking at a called third strike in Game 7 of the 2006 National League Championship Series.
Sure, general manager Omar Minaya has tinkered with the roster and has made a noble effort in trying to keep the team in contention. But he has relied too long on the likes of Carlos Delgado and let potential younger replacements pass on by without obtaining them, resulting in a team with not much power to speak of, especially in the all-important corner spots in the infield and outfield.
The Mets were still clinging to the possibility of bringing Delgado back in the winter and are left with a collection of first baseman that are second stringers on a good day. This will not bode well for a team playing in a division with the defending NL champions (Philadelphia Phillies), a constant thorn in their side (Florida Marlins) a team in transition but always a rival (Atlanta Braves) and a team that has made numerous off-season improvements (Washington Nationals).
The Mets will be relying heavily on Johan Santana (13-9, 3.13 ERA) once again, but the difference is that their ace will be coming off of surgery. He had some up and down moments in Spring Training but should shake off the rust in time for the regular season. He is not the question mark.
The rest of the starters are and a collection of middle-of-the-rotation arms will make up the two through five slots. On any given day, Mike Pelfrey, John Maine and Oliver Perez can be lights out. But there are days when their performance makes you want to turn out the lights. All are 10-10 type material and that is not what gets a team into the postseason.
Francisco Rodriguez was brought in on what was described as a discounted contract and that was a good thing, especially after he started blowing saves. The former Angel converted 35 out of 42 opportunities and had a 3-6 record. He can still get the job done but this Mets team does not figure to have a ton of games that need to be closed out. The rest of the bullpen is a hodge-podge of mediocre relievers.
David Wright is still the face of the franchise, but had a golden opportunity last summer to grab the reigns and make this really ‘his’ team. He failed to do that and his home run total went down to a dismal 10, hardly what a team expects from its third baseman. He did hit over .300 but only drove in 72 runs in 144 games. Wright will still excel at getting big hits, even if the majority of them stay in the ballpark.
When you have a team that appears snake bit, you lose your shortstop and table setter (maybe, pending manager Jerry Manuel’s idea of hitting Reyes third) to a thyroid condition. But Jose Reyes has come back and should be fine to start the season up north. He has missed a lot of time throughout his career and has had the ‘overrated’ tag on him for quite some time. Reyes does not exactly bust it every time out of the batter’s box, another strike against him. But when he is on, Reyes can be one exciting player.
Take away the dropped pop up at Yankee Stadium and Luis Castillo may have had the best season of any Met in 2009, hitting .302 with 12 doubles and 20 stolen bases. Minaya tried his best to trade the second baseman during the winter but either found no takers or the right deal, so he’ll be back.
When you think of first baseman, a converted second baseman/left fielder hardly comes to mind. But right now, it appears that Daniel Murphy is going to get the nod. Small ball is one thing, but you need to have at least one of your corner infielders capable of hitting 20 or more home runs in this day and age. Murph hit a very pedestrian .266 with 12 home runs and 63 RBI.
Minaya’s big offseason catch, Jason Bay, is going to be relied upon as the cleanup hitter. That is not what his role has been throughout his seven-year career. He has had some decent power numbers, but spacious Citi Field will not be as friendly as PNC or Fenway Park. While he may be a talented player, the question remains if Minaya threw a lot of money at Bay because he is on the hot seat and the top free agents were already gone. Bay did have a big walk year in Boston, knocking out 36, driving in 119 but hit only .267.
You know that a black cloud is following you when not only your centerfielder is sidelined, but also there is a disagreement over if he had knee surgery without the team’s knowledge and permission. Carlos Beltran insists that Minaya knew all about it and even wished him luck the day before he went under the knife, while Minaya said otherwise.
Until Beltran returns, either Gary Matthews, Jr. or Angel Pagan will hold down the fort. Neither will put a scare in the opposing pitcher.
One of the bright spots during last year’s 70-92 debacle was Minaya bringing in Jeff Francoeur for Ryan Church. The former Atlanta Brave led the team with 15 home runs and became a fan favorite.
Having to settle for your third choice at a position as important as catcher is not always the best situation, but Rod Barajas is the starter behind the plate by default. Once a promising youngster with the Texas Rangers, he has now become a backstop with a batting average (.226 with Toronto in 2009) barely higher than a pitcher.
Both could be gone by the All-Star break and a fresh start may not be the worst thing for this ballclub. Manuel was promoted from bench coach because Willie Randolph presided over a monumental collapse, one that was repeated with Manuel at the helm. He may be well-liked by his players and the media, but Manuel does not get the most out of his team.
Minaya did a great job putting together a team that was one win away from the pennant, but has been a disappointment since. His star has lost its shine with Fred and Jeff Wilpon and it is only a matter of time before he is let go.