It’s been almost three months since my last missive (it gets old using the word “blog”) because once the hot stove league season ended (another campaign the Mets lost, by the way), I didn’t think it would be healthy or productive to comment on every twist and turn of spring training or even the first couple of weeks of the season. But let me tell ya, reading this and other Mets-related websites every day, and wading through the opinions, the angst, the venting, and the anger hasn’t been that healthy, either.
After three years of utter agony, I guess I can understand and sympathize with a dynamic where there is an intense visceral fan reaction to every error, every o-fer, every Castillo slap grounder to short. I’m feeling it too, but decided to hang back and watch and keep my mouth shut until the predictable loss of two-thirds of the first 12 games had passed and we hit the homestand that could determine the future of the entire Mets’ front office and coaching staff (my vote is for an almost total house cleaning–from Omar to Jerry, from Razor to Warthen, from Hojo to Horwitz).
That said, 13 games into a season is way too early to start jumping off Shea Bridge. On May 27, 1969, the Mets were 18-23 and ended up with 100 wins. Yeah, I know, Johan Santana and K-Rod would be the only guys to make that pitching staff, but you get my drift. Call me crazy, but in spite of all the signs to the contrary, I still think this team can make a run at a wild card spot. But only–ONLY–if the manager and some coaches go and there are more personnel moves besides bringing up Ike Davis (man, I hope they didn’t pull the trigger on that one too soon).
In no particular order, here are some things that are fundamentally (no pun intended) wrong with this ballclub:
1. Jerry Manuel: If Jerry was my Rabbi or my Yogi, I’d worship him. As my team’s baseball manager, not so much. When Manuel first took over the team, he seemed warm and wise and his post-game press conferences were a welcome relief from the cold, stiff evasions of Willie Randolph. But now, he’s becoming Art Howe lite and rambles through post-game comments like Omar Minaya with a bigger vocabulary. I could accept the cliches and the interminable “that’s a very good question” response to every reporter’s comment if he had a clue about putting a lineup together or managing a bullpen (the 20-inning game, notwithstanding). The lineup craziness has been discussed up the wazoo, but I’ll add my two cents. I’m willing to give Jerry the benefit of the doubt on the playing of Matthews Jr. and Jacobs in the first few games. If Omar was saddling him with the dregs of the waiver wire, he had to play them to see if these guys had anything in the tank. But why compound the problem by batting them so high in the order? Before Jacobs was mercifully released, batting him fourth based on this “want-to-break-up-the righties” reasoning was idiotic, especially given Franceour’s hot start. I don’t see Tony LaRussa having a problem with hitting Ludwick, Pujols and Holliday together without a lefty breaking them up. And here’s the kicker: Every analysis of David Wright’s inconsistency last year was predicated on D-Wright not having any support around him in the lineup. So what does Jerry do this year? He puts a human strikeout machine behind him the first week and a half of the season. Brilliant.
2. Luis Castillo: I’m transitioning to “Slappy” because this also relates to another moronic Manuel decision: to keep this mediocrity in the two hole, reportedly because Mr. Range isn’t “comfortable” hitting eighth. Memo to Jerry and Omar: this isn’t your father’s Castillo, he’s an aging, creaky, punch-and-judy hitter and you don’t bat him second, I don’t care how little he strikes out. The number two slot should go to a speedy, solid offensive player with some pop who can maximize hitting behind a Reyes and in front of a Wright; someone who can be a consistent doubles guy with some gap power (which was why Daniel Murphy would have been a good choice for that slot and why Angel Pagan is the guy until Beltran returns). And by the way, how come Omar or Jerry or even Hojo couldn’t summon the guts to tell Mr. Pop-up to Short Left that he isn’t a switch-hitter any more? With about a week of batting practice, I’m sure Mr. Double Steal could get the hang of batting right-handed against right-handed pitchers and take advantage of that vicious power stroke he has from the right side. But talking about Luis is like howling at the moon when we all know why he hasn’t been replaced: $12 million for two more years.
3. The Bench: In an era where major league benches have been reduced from 7 or 8 to 5 (thanks to 12-man pitching staffs–I WANT THOSE ROSTERS INCREASED TO 26 PLAYERS!), those spots on the pine are more precious than ever. And when one of those slots has to be your backup catcher, a team really has to maximize the reserve corps. Given the bench we started out with this year, is there any evidence at all that Omar had a plan? This is a GM who after taking over the team constantly harped on his policy “to upgrade the team at any position at any time.” With the exception of Henry Blanco (not great, but necessary), the bench is brutal and anybody who thought it would be otherwise should never be a talent evaluator. How can one characterize Omar’s bench decisions than being predicated on anything other than cronyism (Cora and Tatis), budget (Matthews, Jr.) and sentiment (Jacobs and Catalanotto)? These guys brought almost nothing to the table (and I don’t want to hear about Cora’s “leadership” skills) and it’s hard to believe Omar couldn’t find better and younger and cheaper guys in our own system or another team’s (Felipe Lopez? Hello!). I wouldn’t bring up Fernando Martinez until he absolutely kills minor league pitching for at least a half season, but Carter and Evans should be up here now. I know Cora isn’t going anywhere but if the rest of that bench isn’t overhauled by the time Beltran and Murphy get back, I will force Omar Minaya to listen to Joe Morgan for 72 straight hours.
4. The Starting Staff: The only second guess on Omar’s decision to pass on this year’s entire free-agent pitching is Joel Piniero. While I would have loved Lackey or Sheets, they both over-priced themselves, even if the Wilpons were willing to pay. Piniero should have been the play and that’s not just because he’s off to a good start. Omar needed to import one good middle of the rotation starter knowing that Maine and Ollie were damaged goods. How good would Piniero look between Pelfrey (I’m pleasantly surprised by his maturity so far this year) and Niese (looking like a poor man’s Jon Matlack) right now, especially in Citi Canyon? And can you tell me how John Maine is not in Buffalo right now working out his nonsense, which includes his horrendous on-mound demeanor? Hey, as an intense college pitcher in my youth, I can relate to Maine being tough on himself. But whenever I cursed myself out on the mound for making a bad pitch, my coach would take me aside between innings or even come out to the mound and he would give me one message: NO EMOTION. Maine has to grow up and calm down or get him the heck out of here. Buffalo should be the first stop. If it was good enough for Steve Trachsel, the human rain delay, it’s good enough for the Maine Man. As for Ollie, discussing him is a fool’s errand. You throw him out on the mound and pray and if he continues to be clueless into June, you bite the bullet banish him to Buffalo, too. Omar should be working overtime right now to identify potential trade prospects he can pull the trigger on before the All-Star break, especially if the Mets somehow find themselves in the wild card race.
5. The Bullpen: Before the season began, I actually thought this area would be a bright spot and so far, so good. There are some good arms out there (the Japanese guys have been a revelation) and they all seem to be able to pitch under pressure. I would still consider Nieve for a return to the rotation should Maine and Ollie spit the bit. But Omar, please, please, PLEASE! get Jenry Mejia back to Buffalo where he can hone his craft as a starting pitcher. We finally have a young guy who throws heat and we’re giving him mop-up innings in the majors when he should be blowing away Double or Triple A guys for a full season. We cannot risk delaying this guy’s development or hurting his arm when he can be at least a number three starter by next season.
6. David Wright and the Offense: So exactly what did he and Howard Johnson work on in the off-season? Whatever it was, it produced an opening day opposite field home run and that’s been about it. And as much as I would like to give David the benefit of the doubt because of the lack of lineup support, at some point he’s got to take the blame for striking out on out of the zone sliders and curve balls. Look, I love David, but he’s not focal point of the team or captain material. And he definitely isn’t a three-hole hitter–not with those Ks on his resume. For that matter, neither is Jose Reyes. For about five minutes I thought hitting him third was an inspired idea by Jerry, but I’m not convinced that Jose will have better pitch recognition, patience or smarts even when he is back up to speed. What frightens me about this lineup now is that like a few years back, it’s packed with high strikeout guys, from Jose to Wright to Bay to Francour to Barajas, there’s more wind coming from Citi Field at home plate than from behind Shea Bridge. If any of you can tell me what exactly Howard Johnson has done to improve this offense and prove it, I’ll treat you at the Shake Shack.
All that said, if Beltran comes back effective, Davis is for real and we produce another effective starter, I think this team can be a wild card contender . . . but not with Jerry Manuel bringing out the lineup card.