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Open Season

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It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. The infield, one of the league’s strongest. The outfield, more of an abyss than a place where power numbers are born and flyballs go to die.” So might read the prologue to the 1999 Mets.

Indeed, going around the horn, the Mets are superior. Two-time Gold Glover Rey Ordonez is stellar at short and John Olerud is steady at first. Edgardo Alfonzo should make a smooth shift to second, having played the position in the minors, while five-time Gold Glove winner Robin Ventura takes over third. Defensively, they are solid. Offensively, they’re, well, not too shabby.

Though Olerud flirted with .200 this spring, he’s the same hitter who pursued .400 in Toronto a few years back and finished last season at .353, or 13 points higher than the Mets’ previous all-time high. In ’98, Ventura hit 21 HRs with 91 RBIs for the White Sox, while Alfonzo drilled a career-high 17 jacks to go along with 78 RBIs for the Mets. As for Ordonez, he showed last year that hitting .246 will do just fine for this Mets infield.

Mr. Franchise, on the cover of The Sporting News and GQ this month, rounds things out for the Mets front six: Mike Piazza and his $91 million contract sit behind the plate and hit cleanup. Last year, Piazza hit .348 with 23 HRs in 109 games for the Mets, slugging over .600. Though Piazza hit .355 last year with the bases empty and only .302 with runners on— not to mention 41 points higher on the road than at home— boo birds will probably stay away from the greatest hitting catcher of the modern era.

They’ll be flocking to the outfield, which is filled with aging veterans and ex­ (and we mean ex­) All Stars. Rickey Henderson is 40, Bobby Bonilla is 36, and Brian McRae never was.

Henderson can still steal bases— last year he swiped 66 for the A’s— but the left fielder’s power stick has long since puttered out. Henderson hasn’t hit more than 15 home runs in a season since ’93, while his batting average has trended downward in recent years: .300 in ’95, .241 in ’96, .248 in ’97, and .236 last year. Rickey struck out 114 times last year, 20 more than his previous career high for whiffs.

Like Henderson, Bonilla’s production numbers have seen better days. Bonilla’s slugging percentage has dropped every year since ’95, as the once and current Met hit .249 with 11 home runs in 100 games split between the Dodgers and Marlins last year. In ’97, his home run total fell to 17 after hitting 28 in 1996 for the Orioles. Though he’s no Todd Hundley in the outfield, the 240-pound Bonilla (heaviest on the squad, largest amongst NL outfielders) will inspire calls for the DH in the NL. As manager Bobby Valentine said immediately after the Mets acquired “Bobby Boo,” “The risk is whether he’ll catch the ball when it comes down.”

The Royals and Cubs both gave up on McRae during the ’90s, and so too might Met fans. McRae hit .264 last year while drilling 21 home runs, the first time he hit more than 20 in his eight-year career. He switch-hits, but McRae is an average center fielder at best.

The Mets pitching staff finished last year with the fourth-best ERA in the NL at 3.77, boosted by Al Leiter’s stellar 17-6, 2.47 season, which included 174 Ks. The addition of Orel Hershiser, who brings a career record of 190-133 along with an average of over 200 innings per season, gives New York the second-best staff in the East (to you-know-who in Newt land).

Whether Leiter, rich new contract in hand, can repeat last season’s performance remains to be seen, as the lefty’s numbers have been Bret Saberhagen­ like since ’95. His ERA of 3.64 fell to 2.93 in ’96, then rose to 4.34 in ’97. Strikeout totals during the same span: 153 to 200 to 132. It’s an odd-number year, so expect Leiter’s numbers to retreat once again.

Rick Reed’s strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5.28:1 was tied for tops in the league last year; his 16 wins second on the team (he’s still a scab, though). Masato Yoshii’s numbers (6-8, 3.93 ERA) may look okay, but the hard-throwing righty has burdened the bullpen with his inability to reach the seventh. Bobby Jones adds durability and youth to a well-rounded staff built on speed, finesse, junk, and experience.

In the bullpen, key off-season acquisition Armando (He of High Heat) Benitez adds another righty to accompany the duo of Greg McMichael and Turk Wendell. With Hershiser in and Nomo out, lefties Dennis Cook (age 36) and John Franco (38) will benefit from having to work fewer innings. The underrated Cook, the East’s top set-up man, will lessen the strain on Franco, who last year showed signs of wear with an ERA of 3.62 and a record of 0-8 with eight blown saves. Yes, he saved 38, but Franco, a team leader in the clubhouse, cannot handle closing duties by himself.

It’s been 30 years since the Miracle Mets ascended to champions of the world. Will they party again in 1999? With a wild bunch like this, who knows?

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