Back on Track?


Judging from the media coverage they received throughout the winter, you’d hardly know that the 2001 New York Mets are the defending National League champs. Despite a 94-68 regular season record—which included a best-in-baseball home mark of 55-26—and, of course, a postseason run that got them, if not the motorman’s badge, at least their own car on the Subway Series, the Mets have been rewarded with a barrage of complaints over free agents not signed and trades not made. It’s as if the entire city feels like the anonymous Cleveland Indians fan who responded to Willie Mays’s amazing catch in the ’54 World Series with a blaze, “Let’s see him do that again.”

While we’re not prone to dispensing too many accolades in the direction of the headline-conscious Steve Phillips (we still don’t believe there are actual lenses in those glasses he throws on whenever there’s a camera around), it seems that the Mets’ general manager picked a good off-season to keep things in perspective, both fiscally and philosophically, no matter how loud the noise was around him. Mike Mussina notwithstanding, virtually all the highest-profile players who were available over the winter spell team with a capital I; putting a blue-and-orange cap on a Juan Gonzalez, a David Wells, a Gary Sheffield, or an Alex Rodriguez probably wouldn’t change them as much as it would change the chemistry of the Mets. And if you think that’s a meaningless word, we’ll be happy to send you some of the ice chips we kept picking up last year from the freeze-out zone that was Mike Hampton’s locker.

Hypotheticals aside, then—and hype as well—here’s how this year’s edition of Flushing’s Finest shapes up:

Pitching: When it comes right down to it, Mike Hampton meant little more to the Mets than a 15-10 record, and Kevin Appier won that many games last year with a lesser team. And, perhaps more importantly, Appier doesn’t seem prone to attacking defenseless watercoolers at the drop of a bad pitch. After a splendid 2000 (16-8, 3.20 ERA) and gutsy playoff work, Al Leiter is officially the staff ace. And if you don’t want to point out the fact that over the last six years, he’s alternated good and bad years, we won’t either. Hopefully, the dependable Rick Reed will not be as physically brittle as he was last year, newcomer Steve Traschel will figure out that you can actually win games without having to pitch a shutout, and Glendon Rusch—he of the least run-support for all NL starters (3.7 a game)—will have the kind of year that makes the Mets look all the wiser for not being baited into trading him. As for the bullpen, well, we find it intriguing that John Franco’s new contract features language including the words “closer” and “saves,” meaning that perhaps Mets management is as wary of the long-term future of Armando Benitez as the rest of us are. And if the underrated Donne Wall and underused Rick White pitch up to capabilities the Mets can probably live another year with Dennis Cook, who spent most of 2000 still swaggering around the mound like Steve McQueen, but, more often than not, throwing from it like Butterfly McQueen.

Offense: Or, as we like to call it, the Case of the Missing Mojo. If it seemed to you that, throughout last season, as Robin Ventura went so went the Mets, then pour yourself a well-deserved Rheingold dry; the numbers back you up. A close look at the middle of the Mets lineup—Ventura, Mike Piazza, and Todd Zeile—and the team’s won-lost record when each of them did or did not drive in a run, reveals some telling statistics: The Mets went 40-16 in games in which Piazza knocked in a run, but they were still above .500 when he wasn’t productive—36-32. When Zeile batted runners home, the Mets went 36-14, but, again, they were a passable 51-44 when he didn’t. With Ventura, however, there was a big divide: 36-15 when he had an RBI, but only 38-44 when he had none. Moreover, while it was sorry enough that he drove in only 84 runs (down from 120), what wasn’t much publicized was the even more distressing fact that 10 of them came in consecutive games—in mid April. Another lefty bat in the lineup should help, even if it’s just Timo Perez, and there’s no reason to believe that the steady Edgardo Alfonzo, the surprising Jay Payton, and the mystical Benny Agbayani shouldn’t be at least as good as they were last year. The designated wild cards here are Rey Ordoñez and Japanese import Tsuyoshi Shinjo, whose name we simply cannot wait to hear Ralph Kiner try and pronounce.

Defense and Bench: Historically, Shea Stadium has been a pitching- and defense-oriented ballpark, and while the Mets’ collective glovework last year wasn’t as impressive as in ’99, they still rarely beat themselves—even if Agbayani sometimes forgot just how many outs there are in an inning. Right field remains a question mark: After all, who’s going to feed the babies in the stands now that Derek Bell is gone? And we’ll start believing that Piazza can throw out base stealers when he actually starts doing it. The Mets bench is probably the strongest it’s been in ages, with a good mix of veteran bats (Lenny Harris, Darryl Hamilton) and utility players (Joe McEwing, Desi Relaford), and, of course, the coolest backup catcher in the biz in Todd Pratt.

Manager: It seems positively bizarre to be writing a sentence—any sentence—about Bobby Valentine without including the word beleaguered. But such is the case, at least at this particular moment. True, his hair is considerably grayer than it was when he took the job four-plus years ago, but getting to the World Series certainly removed one awfully big monkey from the Met skipper’s back. The last time we saw him, at one of the hot-stove circuit dinners, we remarked that he seemed pretty relaxed; even his smile seemed different. “Yeah,” nodded the man with the new and much-fretted-over three-year contract finally in hand. ” ‘Cause now I really can.”

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