There’s some expression about hope and spring and baseball (perhaps the expression is a cousin to Alexander Pope’s bromide that hope springs eternal) which neatly expresses my optimism about the 2010 Mets. Usually, my spring optimism is founded in self-interest; as a season ticket holder, I have a financial stake in the team’s success. As a Mets fan, I also tend to rationalize our chances for the coming season to overcome my and every Mets fans’ natural cynicism.
Certainly my optimism for this coming season in particular includes the usual doses of economic self-interest and cynical self-delusion. But in pondering the Mets’ realistic chances for battling for a playoff spot in 2010, I actually came up with 10 reasons to believe I’ll be over-paying for playoff tickets come September.
1. Ignore 2009. It didn’t happen. Tom Seaver threw out the first pitch, then Mike Pelfry’s third pitch to Jody Gerut froze midway to plate and â€“ now it’s spring 2010. But whatever may have happened between April 13 and October 4, 2009, does not indicate a trend; it was an aberration. Many good teams suffer fallow seasons between bounteous ones, including two others this decade. The White Sox won 99 games and the World Series in 2005 and 90 games in 2006, then fell of a table with just 72 victories in 2007. A trend? Nope â€“ the pale hose bounced back with 89 wins in 1989. A starker example: In 2003, the Diamondbacks won 84 games; the next year, they won just 51 (including a Randy Johnson perfect game), but came back in 2005 to win 77 games (a 26-game improvement), 76 in 2006 and 90 in 2007. Despite the disappointments of 2006-2008, the Mets are still a good team and will bounce back.
2. Mets Are Pre-Disastered. In the World According to Garp, Robin Williams, after watching a small plane crash into the house he and Mary Beth Hurt were about to buy, happily proclaimed they were safe because the house had been “pre-disastered.” I don’t want to jinx anything by saying “nothing else can go wrong,” but you have to admit that last year’s bizarre litany of disability was akin to a small plane crashing into a house you were about to buy. And I’m ignoring Carlos Beltran missing the first month or so of 2010 â€“ A-Rod missed a month with the Yanks last season, and their season turned out just fine.
3. All-Star Lineup: Met fans may be cynical about a lot of things, but five of the Mets’ eight position starters have combined to earn more All-Star elections/selections, 16, than any other team in the NL save one: the Washington Nationals, who have 18, but 14 of these belong to Ivan Rodriguez. Unlike I-Rod, the Mets all-stars â€“ Reyes (1), Castillo (3), Beltran (5), Bay (3) and Wright (4) , their 1-5 hitters â€“ are all in what should be the prime of their careers. And remember: even with the Mets’ depleted lineup, they tied the Dodgers for the league lead in hitting (.270) in 2009. What about batters 6-8 you ask?
4. Jeff Francoeur, Daniel Murphy, Omir Santos Get Full Undistracted Seasons: The first two guys were the Mets’ leading home run hitters last season. Francoeur, who suffered through an emotionally traumatic trade from his home-town team and away from his best friend mid-season, had a combined 15 homers between Atlanta and New York, 10 in 75 games with the Mets (vs. 5 in 82 games with the Braves). In fact, Francoeur drove in 41 runs and hit .311 for the Mets, vs. 35 RBI/.250 with the Braves, which says to me he likes it here. Murphy led all players wearing only Met uniforms the whole season in HRs with 12 â€“ after surviving the public ignominy of his disaster in left field and then trying to figure out how to play first base. Santos, who was asked to fill in for a fill in for a starter, produced 7 HRs and 40 RBI in essentially a half season of at bats. Extrapolated to a full season means 14 HRs and 80 RBI, not bad for a fourth-string catcher, if he gets the bulk of the catching ABs. With each of these three now relaxed and settled in his new city and positions, and no longer under pressure to provide all the offense, the Mets could potentially get at least 15 HRs from seven of the eight position spots in the order.
5. Tony Bernazard Is Gone: And everyone’s hitting should improve. According to the Daily News’ John Harper, Bernazard forced an opposite field hitting philosophy throughout the organization that apparently screwed up everyone’s swing. If everyone’s swing returns to their natural pull-hitting proclivities (and it seems the easiest way to hit a ball out of CitiField is down one of the lines), the Mets home run output could double this year.
6. CitiField Is A Year Old: Everyone is now used to the place. More importantly, let’s finally debunk the canard that CitiField is the ballpark equivalent of Death Valley. The Mets actually hit more homers at CitiField (47) than away (46), and more home runs were hit in Met games at CitiField than in Met games on the road. And out of the 30 major league parks, CitiField was actually only the 12th hardest stadium to hit a HR in. With a completely healthy lineup and a half-height lowered centerfield wall, well, let’s just say the HR apple will have a lot more ups and downs (in a good way) in 2010.
7. Starting Pitching: I know this is supposed to be the big question mark for the Mets, and maybe my pre-season optimism has run amuck here, but I keep thinking about the years Maine, Perez and Pelfry had in 2007-08, which lets me know what they’re capable of. In 2008, Santana won 16, Pelfry 13, Maine 10 and Perez 10, and the Mets still won 89 games. I don’t think it’s overly optimistic to believe each one of these guys will equal or surpass 2008′s modest individual or cumulative totals (remember, I’m completely tossing last year as if it didn’t happen). And then there’s Jonathan Niese. I’ve been telling anyone who’d listen throughout this miserable winter â€“ and before his impressive two-inning inter-squad stint earlier this week â€“ my belief Niese is going have a breakthrough season. Add Niese to the mix, plus a powerful starting eight producing plenty of power, and I don’t think it’s far-fetched to project Santana, Perez, Maine, Pelfry and Niese combining to win 65 games. By comparison, the top five starters on last season’s 103-game-winning Yankees combined to win 63 games.
8. Frankie Rodriquez Will Be Busier (But Hopefully Not Too Busy): Frankie started last season with 16 straight saves and looked like a lock for 17 until Luis Castillo dropped a certain infield pop-up at Yankee Stadium. Frankie thrives under regular work, which the Mets failed to provide as the season wore on and down, and ended up with an ERA a run-and-a-half higher than his record-setting 2008. If â€“ oh, I mean WHEN â€“ the Mets provide Frankie with regular work (and if Manuel doesn’t over-use him), his ERA should sink back to his usual stingy level.
9. Jason Bay. I’ll admit I didn’t like this signing. I think Bay strikes out too much, is too streaky, may have health issues long term, and could be a defensive liability. But a couple of odd notions clacked into my consciousness. For instance, all four times the Mets have played in the World Series, they batted a right-handed cleanup hitter (Donn Clendenon 1969, Cleon Jones 1973, Gary Carter 1986, Mike Piazza 2000). I’m just sayin’. More concretely, having a right-handed cleanup hitter means the Mets are much less vulnerable to lefty pitching (i.e. Hamels and Happ)â€“ obviously, right-handed hitters hit righty pitching better than left-handed hitters hit lefties. Plus, last year Bay played at Fenway Park, where left fielders play shallow because of the Green Monster looming behind them. As a result, a lot of soft liners and bloops caught at Fenway will drop in for hits at CitiField, especially since left fielders will have to play deep for Bay. Bay’s .267 average is his second-worse career low, and his 162 Ks are a career high, so I’m not concerned by either of these as I was immediately post-signing. Bay is a .280 career hitter and averages around 30 HRs and 100 RBIs. He may not hold up the full four years of his contract, but those numbers will be plenty for 2010-11.
10. Low Expectations. The best thing about winning only 72 games? Everyone thinks you’ll continue to suck. Good. High expectations seems to be a curse where the Mets are concerned. No or low expectations means the players will be more relaxed (the only white-knuckled Met will be Omar) and we’ll be happy with any success the Mets provide. And I’m optimistic they could provide success at least 90 times, if not more, out of 162 in 2010.
And if things don’t quite work out the way I’ve laid it out here, I don’t want to know.
Apropos of nothing, I highly recommend “The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs,” by Bill Jenkinson, who meticulously documents what many of us have sadly forgotten (including myself) â€“ under ridiculous conditions and batting in behemothic ballparks that make CitiField seem like a Little League field, Babe Ruth was an insanely great baseball player and a tape measure home run-hitting freak of nature.