Sunday, March 30, 2008

2008 Season Preview

The temperature is rising, and the March calender on your refrigerator is almost completely covered in X's. Yep, it's time to put away that snow shovel, my friend, and pull out that Johan Santana jersey you just bought. It's baseball season, and after last year, it couldn't have come too quickly. The Mets look a little different, but not to fear! With the season starting tomorrow, everything you need to know about the 2008 installment of Casey's Amazin's is laid out below for your reading pleasure.

2008 Preview: Pitching

To be fair, I really liked Tom Glavine, and I thought people were way too hard on him after the Florida game last year. It's going to be really difficult to replace 200 innings, no matter how ineffective and uninspiring he was at times. Anyone who pitches like Glavine did most of last year is a valuable commodity.

But, the Mets are definitely better in the pitching rotation than they were a year ago. Obviously, Santana is as improvement from Glavine if you want to view it like that, a healthy Pedro is better than an unhealthy one, and Oliver Perez and John Maine will hopefully be more consistent than they were last season.

Maine has said that his goal is to pitch 200 innings, and if he does that he will win at least 15 games and likely be the de facto #2 guy in the rotation. That is a definite improvement from last year's Maine. I'm not sure they will ever get much more from Perez than they did last year, as I think 15 wins is the absolute ceiling for him, so the Mets need him to just pitch like last season. The Mets simply can't afford to rely on Pedro Martinez this year, so they just need him to stay healthy and just be there. If he does this, his experience alone is good for about 10 wins, I would think. Expect Pedro to be around that range- really good sometimes, and really bad others. But if he's healthy, he's tough. That's just the way he is.

As for O.M.V.E.G., Santana will dominate. Mark it down. He will win 15 games easily, probably more like 17-20. This is only the second lefty pitcher ever to be traded or sold under the age of 30 with a winning percentage of .650 or better. The other was Babe Ruth. You're talking about a guy who is in his prime, moving from the American League to the National League (where there are fewer great lineups and no D.H.), and is on a strong hitting team with good defense, a decent bullpen, and a reliable closer. He has a history of great pitching, he is in a vintage pitchers park, and he knows exactly what he's doing out there. He is also a lefty in a weak division who's great hitters, with Wright and Beltran on the Mets and Miguel Cabrera in Detroit, are all lefties or switch hitters (with the notable exception of Hanley Ramirez). Throw in the fact that he loves his teammates, and reportedly likes New York, and Santana is in for a special year.

If Santana can be a true ace, Pedro can stay healthy, Maine can pitch 200 innings, and Perez can repeat last year's performance, then all the Mets need from their fifth starter, likely Orlando Hernandez with Mike Pelfrey failing to impress in the spring, is for him to be servicable. El Duque has a new wind-up to take pressure of his injured foot (oh, how we'll miss the pure sweetness of the Duke's old leg kick), and although it seemed to be completely unhelpful at first, he seemed okay in his last spring start. Hernandez is not going to pitch 130 innings this year, but they need him to be reasonably serviceable when he is on the mound. He's not going to be healthy all season long, either, so they also need Pelfrey to be flexible, and decent when he pitches this season. I predict that Pelfrey will start the season as the fifth starter while Hernandez continues to prepare for the season on the Disabled List. If Pelfrey is solid for the time he has, it will give the Mets six good pitchers and five open spots - a very good problem to have in the rotation. But if Pelfrey fails to impress, which is far more likely, El Duque will take the spot when he can and hopefully be slightly better than bad. Really, if everything else goes right, that's all they need from the fifth spot in the rotation.

The bullpen will be interesting. Aaron Heilman was once again not traded this off-season, despite persistent rumors about his market value. Believe it or not, I think this will really benefit the Mets in the long run. Heilman is a solid bullpen pitcher, and although he seems to be a perennial butt of every Met fan's joke, he is the best they've got. Heilman needs to be reliable, and give up fewer home runs than he did last year. He will likely be the Mets' setup man, unless Duaner Sanchez really pitches well early on.

The Mets lost long man Aaron Sele, which is probably better said as the Mets finally got rid of long man Aaron Sele. However, no matter how useful he was (which he wasn't really), they still need to replace him. There are two likely candidates for long reliever on the roster: Jorge Sosa and Matt Wise. Sosa pitched well from the bullpen at times last year, and I would think they would rather have Sosa pitch in critical situations in the sixth and seventh innings, so I would put my money on Wise as the Mets long man. Wise enjoyed some really good years with the Brewers, but he is not all that great. He could thrive in the long man's role, though. And if Pelfrey does well, I could envision either Hernandez or even Pelfrey taking over here. On second thought, never mind about Pelfrey. He's painful enough as a starter.

The Mets have two left-handed specialists in the bullpen, and both of them had their up and downs last year. Pedro Feliciano was more up than down, and Scott Schoenweis was more down than up. But they each had their moments of blowing the game in the eighth inning, so let's view them equally to spare ourselves the argument. These are guys who will have to come into the game in critical situations to face guys like Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Mark Teixeira, and Prince Fielder, so they obviously have to be somewhat reliable. Because of his ridiculous first half of the season, Feliciano's numbers were slightly skewed by the end of the year. You know, if he had a 1.00 ERA in one month, and has a overall 3.00 ERA the next month, it doesn't look so bad. But that is because no one thinks about the fact that he has a 5.00 ERA in the month itself. So I think he got a bit more credit than he deserved, considering how poorly he pitched at the end of the year. Schoenweis is the exact opposite. He pitched so badly the first two months, nobody really bothered to pay attention when he actually started doing a pretty good job. And when they would start to notice, he would lay another stinker. The guy has a career ERA in the 5.00 range, so don't expect too much from him. A salmon can't be a shark, no matter how hard he tries.

Joe Smith made the team at the last minute, but that is only because Duaner Sanchez is not quite ready and everyone else was really bad. As soon as Sanchez is healthy, I expect Smith to go down south and work on his consistency. Don't forget about this kid, though. He's got a lot of talent.

As for Sanchez, the Mets really need him to pitch well, but don't hold your breath. He hasn't pitched for two years, and I'm not sure he will ever regain the success he enjoyed in 2006. He lost a lot more in that taxi accident in Miami than we originally thought.

Billy Wagner is the closer. He's lost some heat over the last couple years, but he still throws somewhere from 96-98. Add in there a devastating slider and a brand new change-up he's developed in the off-season, and Wagner will be fresh and new. Whether that will lead to saves remains to be seen. Stay tuned.

2008 Preview: Batting Order

1. SS Jose Reyes
Everybody and his brother knows about how Jose Reyes struggled at the end of last year, and almost as many people have proposed ideas as to why he struggled. But if you want my opinion, which you clearly do because you're still reading my stuff, Reyes struggled because he plays baseball. Everybody goes through slumps, everybody slaves through periods where they couldn't hit a beach ball if they had to. What is unfortunate is that Jose Reyes went through his slump at the time he did. When the Mets needed him the most, Reyes was playing his worst. And nobody is more upset about that fact than Reyes himself. So he has taken radical steps toward remedying the problems. He's going to focus on baseball, he says, which to him means to stop focusing on other things that don't have much to do with baseball. This means goodbye to all the dugout dances and complicated high-fives with each player. Reyes is a-changin'. From the man himself:

I'm going to slow down with that a little bit. I'm going to focus a little more on baseball. A lot of people say with the handshakes, the other team can get mad. People say that because of the way we finished last year.

So Reyes will be a bit more serious, a bit more composed, a bit more predictable, and hopefully a bit better in the process. He's better be, because he's going to be a lot less fun.

2. 2B Luis Castillo
Castillo came to the Mets at the trade deadline last year and gave fans a nice picture of what it looks like to have two spark plugs at the top of your batting order. Unfortunately, that picture went all Dorian Gray on us and turned very ugly very quickly as soon as Reyes started popping out on first pitches and Castillo started hobbling around the basepaths. Castillo was worked on in the offseason, and the Mets hope he will be able to be healthy all season long. If he is, the Mets will be the better for it. Castillo is like a second leadoff hitter in the lineup, so in the times when Reyes gets out to start off an inning (rare, I know), Castillo will be there to do the same type of thing Reyes did, but ideally better. He brings solid defense and a veteran presence the Mets can certainly use. Oh, and he knows all about Johan Santana, because they played together in Minnesota.

3. 3B David Wright
There wasn't really anyone better than David Wright last year. He had a 30-30 season, won the Silver Slugger, won the Gold Glove, and had a phenomenal year in just about every sense of the word except one. His team missed the playoffs. Wright has no business taking any kind of personal responsibility for the mess that was September, because he played so well throughout the entire second half of the season. However, Wright has also become something of the team leader, though he rejects this label, which makes him even more worthy of it. I'm not one for sentimentality (actually I am, but let's pretend I'm not), but Wright has been just about everything any Met fan could dream of. Let's see if he can put another superb year together, and perhaps even win an MVP award, though he would tell you he's much more interested in World Series trophy. If the team were to win one, I guarantee that Wright would have a critical role to play in getting it.

4. CF Carlos Beltran
Carlos Beltran is quiet. He is reserved. He doesn't really say anything controversial to the media. Heck, he hardly talks to the media, and when he does, he's a human platitude. So there was surprise galore when Beltran declared on the first day of spring training that the Mets were "the team to beat". Mets fans say that this is unveiling a killer instinct in the Mets that they didn't have last year, thus pretty much guaranteeing a National League pennant, while other fans say that he is full of himself not all that original in using Jimmy Rollins' phrase from last spring. Beltran acts like he's ready to take a leadership role, so we'll see what happens. Beltran started last season off really strong, but he tapered off toward the middle of the year. The Mets really need him to be more consistent and to stay healthy if they are to make good on his words.

5. OF Moises Alou
Sure, he's always hurt, but when he is healthy, the dude can flat-out rake. He'll start the season on the disabled list, so Spring Training sensation Angel Pagan will start in left and likely platoon with Endy Chavez if Alou is out for a long period of time. The Mets need his right-handed bat to counterbalance the three lefties that follow him in the batting order, so Alou needs to get healthy soon and stay healthy. The Mets would love to get 120 games out of him, but a realistic expectation for Alou is that he will probably not even play 100. But as long as the Mets reach the playoffs and he is healthy for the series they play in, Mets brass will ask for no more from the guy. He's just one of those people who can step to the plate, flip a switch, and start swinging. And that's always good to have, no matter how rarely.

6. 1B Carlos Delgado
I don't think there is any question that Carlos Delgado is at the twilight of his career. He is struggling with constant injuries, and he has seemingly lost the ability to turn on the inside fastball. It is unlikely that the Mets will resign him at the end of this season, and it is altogether possible that the first baseman could retire at the end of the year. But Delgado has every intention of playing well this year, and the Mets could really use his bat. In 2006, Delgado showed that he had the ability to carry the team at times, especially in the playoffs. Last year, however, Delgado proved that he has lost that ability. The key is that Delgado simply has to adapt. He is never again going to be the superstar slugger that we saw in Toronto, and the sooner he realizes this fact, the more useful he's going to be. He needs to focus on hitting in the .270, 25 homer, 90 RBI range. If he can provide this, and perhaps just a fit more, perhaps 30 homers, he will have played his part. To expect for from this aging star is simply asking too much.

7. OF Ryan Church
Ryan Church came to the Mets in the Lastings Milledge trade, and I think that it was a pretty good deal for the Mets. They got both a starting right fielder and a starting catcher (Brian Schneider), and all for the price of a once-touted prospect who never lived up to his potential and, with all the outfielders who play for the Mets, was rather replaceable. Church is more consistent than Milledge (and less controversial), and just plain better than Shawn Green in so many ways. His acquisition allows Endy Chavez to serve as the team's fourth outfielder, a spot he thrives in. Church is your quintessential doubles hitter, a guy who loves to aim toward the gaps and fire away. He's got some pop, but that is his specialty. He is a young guy who has a bright future ahead of him as a Met if he can perform this season. Again, all they need from him is a .275-.285 batting average, lots of doubles, solid defense, and the ability to hit lefties at least a little bit.

8. C Brian Schneider
He's not much of a hitter, but defensively, Brian Schneider is as good as they come. If we still lived in the baseball era where that great catcher were always good defensively, but not necessarily offensively, he would have been a very well respected player. Although this is an area the average fan doesn't really understand, Schneider is very good with the pitchers. He works well with all of them, and he will make every one of them better. No, he's not going to remind anyone here of Mike Piazza, but that's not what this team needs. They have plenty of bats. They need a guy who can play great defense, throw runners out, and be a reliable battery mate for them pitcher. Schneider does this better than anyone else in the business.

The bench for the Mets is deep again this year, but I spoke about most of them in my previous post, so I won't take up more space than I already have. I will say that Fernando Tatis will not be on the team, as young outfielder Brady Clark beat him out for the final spot on the roster. We'll see how that works out. Enjoy the season, everyone!

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