While the Mets solved the single largest question about the team’s roster with the acquisition of Johan Santana, there are still a number of issues at the margins of New York’s makeup that spring training will help to answer.
Ultimately, the number of at-bats or innings pitched in the spring is too limited, and the competition too uneven, to make any educated baseball decisions based upon the statistics compiled in Port St. Lucie. But here are a few indicators that will begin to answer the question of whether this team can be great, or merely good:
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No factor did more to sink the Mets in 2007’s final month than the failures of the team’s bullpen beyond Billy Wagner, Pedro Feliciano and Aaron Heilman, who return as a competent top three.
But Guillermo Mota has been exiled to Milwaukee, and a number of intriguing options should allow Willie Randolph to use Scott Schoeneweis and Jorge Sosa as God intended: against lefties and righties, respectively.
Duaner Sanchez, whose brilliant first half in 2006 has led to nearly two years of pining by the Mets as he recovered from injuries sustained in an automobile accident, looks healthy, and even pitched in Monday’s intrasquad game. But don’t look at just ERA—see if his velocity is consistently at 92-94, as it was before the injury, and look at his control. He walked the bases loaded in his intrasquad outing, and some rust is to be expected. How quickly he sheds that rust will determine if he is ready to assume a late-inning role, or merely inspire Mota nostalgia.
Other bullpen options include Juan Padilla, who was brilliant when healthy for the Mets, but is not expected to be ready by Opening Day. If he’s on the mound in March, it is a good sign. The newly signed Matt Wise was dominant last season before beaning a hitter. His season, and control, never recovered. If Wise is throwing strikes, he is another dangerous option out of the bullpen, especially since he has been tough on both lefties and righties in his career.
The Fifth Starter
If he is healthy, Orlando Hernandez will almost certainly occupy this spot. When he was intact, El Duque was very good for the Mets last season.
But he can go down at any time. He’s as old as—well, no one knows, exactly—and there should be no assuming that he will be ready to pitch on Opening Day. Reports are that Hernandez did not have bunion-removal surgery, as the Mets claimed he did this past offseason, and that instead, he had an operation to shorten one toe—which, as you might assume, has left him off-balance and behind the other pitchers.
Stepping into the breach should Hernandez falter is Mike Pelfrey, and if he breaks camp as fifth starter, it should seem familiar—he did so to start 2007, too. But Pelfrey’s superficially strong spring did not translate to regular season success. While he had a 2.84 ERA last spring, he struck out just five batters in 19 innings. If his strikeout rate is similar in 2008, he is extremely unlikely to succeed—missed bats are the result of batters getting fooled. And no matter how good his fastball is, no one succeeds as a starter with just one pitch—he needs to throw off hitters with his off-speed pitches.
If Duque comes up lame and Pelfrey struggles, the list of alternative options includes Tony Armas Jr. or Jorge Sosa. So the pressure is on Hernandez and Pelfrey.
The Knees of Carlos Beltran and Luis Castillo
This is an easy one to follow. Watch the way Beltran and Castillo, who both had offseason knee surgery, move in the field and on the base paths.
Both are expected to be ready well before Opening Day, and both are largely irreplaceable for the Mets, who don’t have strong alternatives at either position.
But beyond merely maintaining a presence in the lineup, if both Castillo and Beltran are pain-free, they can provide additional stolen base threats to complement Jose Reyes and David Wright. Both players have not only stolen plenty of bases in their careers, they both do so at high rates of success. The difference in value between 15 steals and 35 steals from each would be significant.
We will quickly know if the real Carlos Delgado is back in 2008—expect him to improve over last year. But also expect that he simply can’t hit lefties anymore—he hasn’t since 2004. And the Mets’ new right fielder, Ryan Church, has three career homers against lefties.
So who will fill in for Delgado and Church against tough southpaws? Marlon Anderson and Endy Chavez are both left-handed. Ramon Castro can’t play first or right.
That leaves three options: Damion Easley, Angel Pagan and Brady Clark. Clark is solid but unspectacular. While Pagan is terrific defensively, he has never hit much, not even in the minors. And Easley is 37, coming off of a difficult ankle injury, and was already stretched defensively in the outfield.
A dark horse could be Olmedo Saenz, who the Mets brought in as a non-roster invitee. Saenz struggled in 2007, but throughout his career he has absolutely murdered left-handed pitching. While he has never played the outfield, Saenz could provide a caddy for Delgado and power off the bench. If Saenz is shagging fly balls in mid-March, it is a sign he might be in New York’s plans.
The 25th Man
As of right now, this looks to be a battle between Ruben Gotay and Jose Valentin. Both play a host of different positions; Valentin has outfield play on his résumé, though it isn’t a skill that should be relied on too often at this point in his career. But somebody needs to back up Jose Reyes at shortstop, and chances are it will be one of these two, especially if Willie Randolph doesn’t keep Pagan.
So watch and see which player travels with the B squads on March road trips, and which player stays behind in Port St. Lucie with the regulars. See if either player is getting extended time at shortstop, or if the Mets try to give Gotay reps in the outfield. And as of right now, Valentin, despite being merely a non-roster invitee, has a coveted reserved parking spot. If and when that changes, assume that Gotay has won the day.