Mets prepared for battle as season nears

Mets fans, it is nearly time to come out from hiding. Yes, that means all of you who have been hiding in a dark corner ever since the final pitch of Shea Stadium’s disgraceful 2008 closing, it is almost time to come out of hibernation. Open those shades and turn on that light — because pitchers and catchers report in only a week.

You can go ahead and buy your favorite player’s jerseys because they won’t be going anywhere. Mets General Manager Omar Minaya made it clear in yesterday’s press conference to announce the return of Oliver Perez that the Mets are finished making big deals and are satisfied with what their roster looks like as the season nears.

The Mets spent the early off-season fortifying their then-disastrous bullpen, especially in the set-up and closer roles. Following a second consecutive September flop, the Mets were forced to make some serious changes to their bullpen-in-peril.

The Mets turned around and acquired two of MLB’s best closers in J.J. Putz and Francisco Rodriguez. With these moves, the Mets also shipped out two relief pitchers who loved to make life miserable for Mets fans: Scott Schoeneweis and Aaron Heilman.

These series of moves significantly improved the Mets’ bullpen, even as the long-relief options remain scarce. More importantly, The Mets were able to patch up the area that needed the most help.

As far as the starting rotation goes, I’m very happy that Omar Minaya didn’t end up acquiring Derek Lowe — it is quite obvious that Lowe too old for a three-year contract, making it a risky move. Oliver Perez was re-signed yesterday, in a deal that was very poorly designed by Omar Minaya. Minaya gave Perez, who is represented by Scott Boras, a 3-year $36 million contract, which is far too generous. When you compile all of Perez’s gems with all of his shellings, it basically adds up to make him a middle to back-end of the rotation starter, certainly not one worth $36 million. Was it a good move? Yes, the Mets were at the point where they had to make this move. Was it a good deal? Of course not. The Mets had virtually no competition for Perez, meaning that there was no reason to go as high as $36 million.

What many Mets fans probably don’t realize is that the re-signing of Perez took some risk off the back end of the rotation, which consisted of possibly Tim Redding at number 4 and Freddy Garcia at number 5. That wouldn’t have been pretty. Now with Perez holding the number four spot, the Mets can push the young Jon Niese by forcing him to compete with Garcia and Redding. With that said, I’m sure that whoever wins the fifth spot out of Spring Training will not keep it for long. Expect it flip flop throughout the entire season.

If only Johan Santana could get some run support from his Mets teammates, he would probably win at least 20 games. In 2008, Santana was 1st in the Major Leagues in ERA. There is not much else he can do. As far as John Maine goes — he had some late-season arm problems last year that could stem from the fact that he hasn’t pitched as many innings in a season in his life, but he has proved to be one of the best in the business.

I was totally against the June of 2008 firing of manager Willie Randolph and pitching coach Rick Peterson. Not only was the whole idea of firing a manager on a west-coast trip AFTER A WIN at around 1 a.m. eastern time absurd, but firing a manger mid-season, unless you are in 30 games out of the wild-card at the All-Star break, has to be one of the worst things you coud do. There are too many factors that need to stay in constant in baseball, and when you mess with routine, you mess with a season. This firing, in my mind, was the main reason why the Mets didn’t make the playoffs in 2008. Here are a few reasons why:

There was talk that former pitching coach Rick Peterson had John Maine on a specific schedule that helped save his arm for the long season. When new pitching coach Dan Warthen took over, Maine’s arm seemed to break down later in the season. I’m not specifically blaming Warthen, but he probably had a big hand in the end result. We’ll see how that turns out in 2009. Mike Pelfrey, who won the fifth starter job out of Spring Training last year, won 13 games in 2008 but was also undergoing changes with the new pitching coach. Warthen worked a curveball back into Pelfrey’s pitch selection, something that Pelfrey used in his earlier years. Pelfrey, who began the year with an amazing start, ended up losing 10 games. I’m not saying Warthen is destroying this rotation. I’m saying that he broke routine a tad bit too much. On a positive note, Oliver Perez, who we all know is rolling in dough for no reason right now, underwent an adjustment to his wind-up that erased his routine of staring down at the rubber when he began his wind-up. This change, which was made by Warthen, will likely be for the better. Perez will now stare at the catcher’s target throughout the course of his wind-up. Another thing that Warthen improved with Perez was his momentum to home plate. As many Mets fans know, Perez would take a step to the side as soon as he began his wind-up. Instead, he now steps back in an attempt to gain momentum.  We’ll see how that works and if he will keep these quirks throughout the course of the season.

Only time will tell if Dan Warthen is the right man for the job as pitching coach in New York. With Rick Peterson’s situation, we all learned that you can go from being known as one of the best pitching coaches in the business, to unemployment, in the blink of an eye.

If the Mets want CitiField to light up in October of 2009, they’re going to have to play to their potential at the plate. The starting pitching will hit their bumps in the road, as will the middle relief. If the Mets are planning on overcoming these problems, this highly-regarded lineup needs to produce. Losing Endy Chavez won’t hurt this team too much, as he was getting worse at the plate with every passing day. If he would only produce some decent numbers at the plate, he would probably be a perennial All-Star. I’d say he’s in the top five in outfielders in the majors. I italicized outfielders for a reason: he’s only good for defense.

On the other hand, does Omar Minaya really think Brian Schneider will automatically poof into a .300 hitter? I don’t think so. The Mets need to let Ramon Castro split the catching duties with Schneider, who hit .253 in 2008. Ramon Castro has a lot of money in his contract, and the Mets should make some of it go to use.

Speaking of putting money to use…Omar Minaya even has admitted that the contract that he gave second-baseman Luis Castillo was his mistake. Castillo and the Mets were locked into a four-year contract, and at this point the Mets are trying to explore other options and figure out what to do with this injury-prone, aging middle infielder. How are the Mets supposed to expect him to be a long-term second baseman when he admitted last season that he would probably only stay in halfway decent shape if he was able to take every other day off. Sorry, Luis, but if that is true, you are screwed.

Let’s hope that young outfielder Daniel Murphy will be able to keep up his lights-out magic from 2008. Murphy, who hit .313 in 49 games for New York last season, was called up in the beginning of August. He played very well this off-season at second base, which makes me wonder whether he will be the one who bumps Luis Castillo to the curb. He was a huge boost to the outfield that lost Moises Alou (no surprise there). Speaking of Alou… who would want him at this point? If only he was able to ride a wheelchair to first base when he hits the ball, he would be amazing. Of course, we all know that isn’t possible. It’s just that Alou is arguably the best hitter in the game when he is healthy.

At first base, Carlos Delgado will be one of the media’s most magnified players of 2009. He slumped his way through the first few months of 2008, bringing his critics to the conclusion that he had nothing left. They argued that his bat speed could no longer catch up with fastballs. He then proved them all wrong by having a breakout second half that brought his home run total to nearly 40 on the season.

Look for Alex Cora, who hit .270 in 75 games in the 2008 season, to take over Damion Easley’s place on the roster. They seem like twins, especially being the veterans they are. If I were him, I’d be prepared for an early-season injury from Castillo. Castillo cannot be trusted.

Overall, I expect this team to compete with a tight NL East in 2009, and expect them to build their confidence with the new stadium. As the Mets get used to the somewhat-odd outfield dimensions of CitiField, look for them to use it as a home-field advantage against teams who haven’t yet stepped foot in the stadium.

With CitiField receiving its finishing touches, Francisco Rodriguez and  J.J. Putz heading to town, and the media watching for another collapse, the 2009 season will certainly be entertaining. How will the players react?

It all begins in Port St. Lucie. We’ll see where it all ends.

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