Dare We Believe?

shearubblecollage Dare We Believe?

While much has been made of sideshows this spring ranging from Johan Santana’s brief elbow troubles to the signing of bench-bat Gary Sheffield, the outlook for the 2009 Mets is…not that bad.

The team won 89 games last year despite a horrible bullpen due to strong contributions from both the lineup and the starting rotation. And while both the lineup and rotation essentially intact, the bullpen has been upgraded considerably.

A team with a 5.02 bullpen ERA in the second half of 2008 now possesses a pair of late-inning stoppers, Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz. Both have closed effectively, and both excel at striking out hitters and getting both lefties and righties out—two skills missing from the Mets’ bullpen last season once Billy Wagner got hurt.

This allows both lefty Pedro Feliciano and righty Sean Green to be used as more specialists, though Pedro Feliciano still could be more if he reverts to his 2006-2007 form. Young arms Darren O’Day and Bobby Parnell also offer bullpen upside, with Brian Stokes and a number of backend fillers at AAA ready if need arises.

But put the arrival of Putz and Rodriguez in perspective: the Mets lost 29 games in 2008 when leading after six innings. In 2009, opposing teams will struggle to score after the seventh.

Meanwhile, there are other areas of improvement possible for New York, with few reasons to expect regression from 2008. An offense that scored 799 runs—second in the National League—returns largely intact. Jose Reyes, David Wright and Carlos Beltran are each superstars both at the plate and in the field. All three are healthy.

At first base, some wonder if Carlos Delgado can repeat his 2008. This is usually asked skeptically in reference to his torrid pace beginning on June 27, after which he hit .308/.392/.636 in the season’s final 84 games. What is ignored is Delgado’s pace of .229/.306/.396 in the first 78 games—and that his season total of .271/.353/.518 is well within the expected range of his career performance. Had his awful numbers come in the second half, the concern would be justified—but he further put them to rest by hitting nearly .500 this spring.

The remaining offensive positions are unlikely to regress and stand a good chance of improvement. Mets left fielders posted on OPS of just .730 last year. While Fernando Tatis and Daniel Murphy may not repeat their 2008 OPS of .853 and .871, respectively, their regression should still leave them well ahead of the 2008 mark of .730.

At catcher, a healthier Ramon Castro can keep Brian Schneider from getting overused, spot him against left-handed pitchers, and dramatically improve New York’s catcher production without costing anything on the defensive end. And second base was such a wasteland last season, between Luis Castillo’s .660 OPS and Argenis Reyes’s .504 OPS that merely a healthy Castillo or Alex Cora, the free-agent backup, should improve upon those numbers—while a healthy Castillo and Cora can upgrade the defense, too.

In the rotation, starting with Johan Santana means the Mets can send out a pitcher who likely would have won the 2008 Cy Young Award had the bullpen not cost him seven wins last year. But the entire group finished with the fourth-best ERA in the National League.

And while pitchers are particularly difficult to project, the Mets front four of Santana, Mike Pelfrey, Oliver Perez and John Maine are all between 25-30, with only Maine carrying any injury history. And again, with his shoulder surgery behind him, Maine could well provide more than the 140 innings he gave the Mets in 2008—even with just 140, New York’s starters were quite good.

Fifth starter Livan Hernandez isn’t likely to dominate, fresh off of a 6.05 ERA last season. But with his velocity up and his location strong, Hernandez can provide innings out of the fifth spot as well. And keep in mind—Hernandez posted that ERA pitching much of the year in hitter-friendly Colorado, while the man he is replacing—Pedro Martinez—pitched to a 5.61 ERA last year in pitching-friendly Shea Stadium.

Simple logic hasn’t worked particularly for the Mets as a franchise the past two years. It’s hard to believe in a team capable of blowing a seven-game lead with 17 to play.

But both the 2007 and 2008 teams had fatal flaws—the manager and the bullpen, respectively—that have now been addressed.

There is hope.