Given the teeny bit of history that goes along with that other major league baseball team in town, it’s prudent that the New York Mets aren’t making all that big a deal out of their 40th anniversary. Indeed, a quick glance at this year’s schedule—not for the games, thank you, but for the promotional giveaways—reveals just two dates commemorating the Mets’ coming-of-middle-age: Mr. Met’s 40th birthday bash on April 14 (special guest appearance by Phredbird?) and the franchise’s official anniversary celebration on August 17 (Choo Choo Coleman, come on down!). Compare this to three separate bobblehead-doll days—Mike Piazza (April 28), Roberto Alomar (July 14), and Al Leiter (August 3)—and, well, let’s just say it’s pretty clear that history is not the Mets’ strong suit.
That’s because if it were, we probably wouldn’t still be trying to make sense of the overhaul engineered by General Manager Steve Phillips during the off-season. Barring any further shuffling, manager Bobby Valentine starts the 2002 campaign with a grand total of eight players returning from his 25-man Opening Day roster of a year ago—and that’s not counting Timo “Birth Certificates R Us” Perez, whose options-available status doomed him to start the season in Triple-A Norfolk to start the season. Yes, this will definitely be a different Met team. With the addition to the lineup of All-Star Alomar, speedster Roger Cedeño, and big boppers Mo Vaughn and Jeromy Burnitz, it’s a safe bet that the Mets will not be dead last in the league in runs scored, as they were last year. But will it be a better Met team than the one that finished in third place with an 82-80 record last year? Not necessarily.
We found it interesting that the media spent most of its spring training discussing the who-bats-where nuances of the Mets’ revamped lineup. All we’ll say about that is we always liked what Harvey Kuenn did with the ’82 Brewers, which was bat his biggest home-run hitter, strikeout-prone Gorman Thomas, as low down in the order as possible. Assuming that Vaughn has a good season and does not turn into the second coming (or going) of George Foster, we’d bat the Thomas-like Burnitz seventh, behind Jay Payton. It’s better, though, to keep your eyes on the Met pitching staff, which has more question marks than a Matthew Lesko blazer. It is not for nothing that Valentine headed north from spring training carrying a full dozen throwing arms, because outside of the good (Al Leiter), the bad (Steve Trachsel), and the ugly (Armando Benitez), the Met skipper doesn’t really know what to expect from the rest of his mostly new hurlers, especially starters Shawn Estes (a history of too many walks), Jeff D’Amico (a history of too many injuries), and Pedro Astacio (four years in Colorado is the same as contracting pneumonia: never quite curable), none of whom really distinguished themselves during the exhibition season. The unsettledness of the starting rotation explains the presence of three long relievers (Grant Roberts, Bruce Chen, and Satoru Komiyama) to go with set-uppers David Weathers, Mark Guthrie, and possible bull-pen wild card Kane Davis, all of whom may have to hold the eighth-inning fort all year if 41-year-old John “Generalissimo” Franco doesn’t come back from elbow surgery.
While you needn’t be a Texas Ranger fan to know which way the baseball wind blows—i.e., scoring doesn’t win baseball games; pitching does—it is surprising that such little attention has been paid to the precariousness of the Met pitching corps. Especially since the history of the Mets makes such a clear case for pitching and defense being the most important factors in any Shea Stadium team’s fortunes. In their 40 years of existence, the Mets have had 19 winning seasons, coming in three cycles: 1969 to 1976 (excluding ’74), ’84 to ’90, and ’97 to ’01. The ’69 Mets were ninth (out of 12) in scoring, but second in ERA and fielding percentage, and went 100-62. And miracle or not, the formula for winning proved to be no fluke. From ’70 through ’76, the Mets were usually eighth or ninth in the National League in scoring, but in the top three in team ERA and defense, and had winning records. (The pennant-winning ’73 team was 11th in scoring, but third in ERA.) The Mets’ highest-scoring teams came during offense-minded manager Davey Johnson’s ’84 to ’90 tenure, but even then, their pitching was superb. (The 108-54 ’86 team, for example, led the league in runs and ERA, as did the 100-60 ’88 team.) And the correlation has stayed consistent during the past five years as well: The ’00 team went to the World Series with an offense that was 11th of 16, but with the third-best ERA. And, it should be pointed out, the Mets did somehow manage to have a winning record last year, even though they were last in scoring. The reason? The team ERA was the league’s fifth best.
Considering that all the evidence shows that it’s pitching and not hitting that translates into winning, it’s hard to get overly optimistic about the Mets’ chances this season, especially in their own division. The Braves, as always, have a solid team that has a far better balance of older and younger players than the Mets, and youth is the key word for both the Phillies (in terms of position players) and the Marlins (in terms of pitchers). As has been his wont since he got the GM job in ’97, Steve Phillips goes year to year without any indications of long-range goals. The shocking lack of prospects in the Mets’ minor league system may well be exposed if the team gets hit with any significant injuries—and with an abundance of previously damaged goods running around, that could well happen. “Always Believe,” the ads for the 2002 Mets say. Yes, and when we see it, we will.