Last week at Chelsea Piers, while a small group of Mets, including Mike Piazza, John Franco, and newcomers Mo Vaughn and Shawn Estes, conducted a baseball clinic for some Staten Island kids who lost parents in the World Trade Center attacks, Bobby Valentine was asked if he thought that all the recent wheeling and dealing by General Manager Steve Phillips had resulted in the Mets now having all the pieces to the puzzle. “They’re not a puzzle yet,” Valentine replied with characteristic edge. “The pieces have to fit for it to be a puzzle.”
Here we are, just a few weeks away from the ever rejuvenating “pitchers and catchers reporting” images of the start of spring training for the 2002 baseball season, and it’s a fair bet that even Bobby Valentine might have to pick up a program to find out exactly who he’s managing at this point. While Hillary Clinton could tell you that Bill probably rounded third and headed home more times than the Mets last year, GM Phillips’s response to trying to improve his team’s anemic 2001 offense has resulted in a metamorphosis of nearly Kafkaesque proportions. An astonishing total of 11 of last year’s Mets were sent packing by Phillips (that’s 44 percent of the basic day-to-day roster, for all you stat hounds out there)—an even dozen if you want to include up-and-down prospect Alex “Ruben Rivera in Training” Escobar. Yes, we all know the Mets needed to do something, anything, to beef up the lineup, but anyone who thinks that Phillips’s wholesale remodel job means that the Mets are automatic 2002 contenders need look back no further than, say, 1992, when a couple of broody boppers named Bonilla and Murray were ostensibly going to return a similarly power-challenged Mets team back to home-plate prosperity.
And speaking of beef and plates, it’s interesting how little is being made of the humongous-sized gamble the Mets are taking with the humongous-sized Mo Vaughn. Let’s see: If Jerome Bettis is “The Bus,” then what’s Vaughn? “The Van”? Caption from a January 11 New York Times article on the man: “The Mets’ Mo Vaughn, who spends his winters working out and taking batting practice at his health club, is down to 270 pounds.” (Rumors that Vaughn’s Hit Dog Training Center in Easton, Massachusetts, was secretly funded by Cecil Fielder remain unconfirmed at press time.) “The Van”—that does have a nice ring, doesn’t it?—is coming off an entire season on the disabled list, courtesy of a torn left bicep tendon, and, at age 34, there’s no guarantee he’ll be the same player he was in 2000 with the Anaheim Angels (36 HR, 117 RBI), let alone the Red Sox slugger he was throughout most of the ’90s.
A few things to worry about: Like most other lefties, he’s a low-ball hitter, and Vaughn, who struck out a distressing 181 times in 2000 (since he became a bona fide slugger in ’95, he’s averaged 150 whiffs a season), is now not only coming off a year of inactivity, but to a new league (more often than not, good for pitchers, bad for hitters) and baseball’s new, higher strike zone. But let’s look on the bright side: He says he’s given up strip clubs. The other new left-handed home-run threat is, of course, Jeromy Burnitz, who once upon a time (’93-’94) was a young Met prospect—that is, until he got buried by that great motivator of men, Dallas “General Patton” Green. Burnitz comes back to New York after five-plus years with the Brewers in which he averaged 33 HRs and 102 RBI—and, oh, yes, 133 strikeouts. Let’s just say that, situated as it is on the first-base side of the Shea Stadium diamond, the Mets dugout may need to order team scarves to ward off chills from all the breezes that’ll be whipping their way from the lefty batter’s box.
Between them, Vaughn and Burnitz are also due to be paid over 20 million bucks in 2003, by which time the best offensive player the Mets acquired this winter, Roberto Alomar, may not even be a Met. Amidst all the hubbub about Phillips “stealing” the perennial All-Star second baseman from the Indians, the fact remains that Alomar is in his walk year. Which means he may well have one of the best seasons of his already Hall of Fame-worthy career, but also will be playing for a new contract that the Mets may be hard-pressed to afford, as they’ll be even further up the $100 million salary scale. (Which reminds me: They’re still paying Bonilla, aren’t they?) And unlike, say, Barry Bonds or Jason Giambi, Alomar doesn’t have to play the “I need that championship ring” game, as he got his early on with the Toronto Blue Jays teams of the ’90s. Yes, he can be a leader, but he’s also got a rep as something of a clubhouse lawyer, and with head cases like Armando Benitez and Timo Perez wandering around the Mets’ locker room, bad situations could get downright ugly if the team gets off to a less than rousing start.
Still, productive lineup or not—and granted, it certainly won’t hurt to have speedster Roger Cedeno in there at the leadoff spot—the history of winning ball clubs at Shea Stadium (just like anywhere else, really, when you get right down to it) revolves around pitching and defense more than it does offense. And it’s hard to see how the Mets’ pitching staff, especially its projected rotation, looks better, on paper at least, than it did at this time last year. Would you take Al Leiter, Shawn Estes, Steve Trachsel, Bruce Chen, and (gulp) reclamation projects Pedro Astacio and Jeff D’Amico over Leiter, Rick Reed, Kevin Appier, Trachsel, and Glendon Rusch? It’s certainly no given that this reupholstered group will do better than last year’s troupe; they could well do worse. And as for defense, while Alomar is a terrific infielder, neither Vaughn, Cedeno, nor Burnitz is noted for glove work. Burnitz, for example, has a good arm, but he also plays nearly on the warning track because he’s fearful of balls going over his head; that means dunkers galore—though, hey, maybe it’ll make Big Mo have to move on down the line enough to truly keep him “down to 270.”
I don’t know. Call me crazy, but I still don’t get the Mets having no interest in keeping lefty power hitter David Justice (a one-year commitment for a guy with something to prove, especially in New York? Why not? They could’ve tried him at first base, too), or failing to go after right-handed power-hitting outfielder Reggie Sanders, who jumped to the Giants from the Diamondbacks for (again) a one-year deal for, reportedly, less than $2 million. And don’t even get me started on the Mets’ all but non-existent farm system, which continues to flounder under Phillips’s utterly disinterested eye. Long as he keeps treating the Mets’ player-personnel process like the stock market, it’s going to indeed be hard for Bobby Valentine to figure out just how to go about working on that puzzle. Jigsaw, anyone?