Mets Banking on Rookies More As of Late

Impact Rookie in '03...Could Be Better in '04

The Mets, whether they liked it or not, began an influx of young talent and relying on rookies last season. Entering the 2003 season, the veteran-heavy Mets were counting on production from two, maybe three rookies all year. Ty Wigginton, who hit .308 in limited at bats in 2002, won the third base job out of Spring Training, beating retreat Jay Bell for the position.

They knew that they would be seeing then 19-year old phenom Jose Reyes at shortstop by mid-June, and they were right, with Reyes making his debut, a day short of his 20th birthday, on June 18th. Coincidently, the day that the Mets future emerged was the day before their past was put behind them, in the form of the firing of former General Manager Steve Phillips.

Wigginton went on to put up solid numbers and win fans with his all-out style of play, smacking 39 doubles and swatting 11 homeruns. He also drove in 71 runs. However, as the season hit the dog days of August and September, Wigginton's numbers went down, from a mixture of fatigue and a penchant for flailing at sliders out of the strike zone. He ended the year with a .255 AVG and a .318 OBP. He is the incumbent at the hot corner in 2004, and will hold the job at least one more year, as top prospect David Wright may be ready by the beginning of 2005.

Reyes, after initial struggles, validated his enormous hype before ending his season a month early with a severely sprained ankle. He hit .307 with five homeruns, 32 RBI and 13 stolen bases, along with a .334 OBP. He was at his best during the month of August, hitting .355 with ten walks. He also hit four homeruns during that month, driving in nine and scoring 24. In addition, he showed his Gold Glove potential, ending the season with a 35-game errorless streak, the most for a shortstop in the Majors last year.

One of the few bright spots of the dreadful 2003 season for the Mets was that they received significant production from two unexpected rookies last year, 26 year olds Jason Phillips and Jae Weong Seo. Phillips, a catcher throughout his minor league career, filled in for Mo Vaughn at first base starting in late May, and quickly showed a solid line drive stroke, hitting above .300 for much of the year. Only a late season swoon kept him below that mark, ending his season at .298. Phillips pounded 25 doubles and 11 homeruns while batting mostly third in the Mets' lineup. His .393 OBP paced the team. Now entering camp as a starter for the first time, he must increase his power production, which is below average for a first basemen. He'll also see time at catcher, with Mike Piazza shifting over to first for about a third of the games this season.

Seo, once a top prospect, came back from Tommy John surgery in 2002 and was a long shot to make the Mets out of camp in 2003. Seo started the season in the rotation though, due to injuries to other pitchers, eventually slotting into the fourth starter's role. He went on to log 188 innings pitched, showing impeccable control, walking only 46 while striking out 110. If not for mid-season struggles with a broken fingernail, his nine wins could have easily been 15. His 3.82 ERA was solid but misleading, as he ran a 6.61 ERA and a 5.34 ERA in July and August, respectively, as he struggled with the broken nail and lost six straight. He enters 2004 as the Mets' fourth starter, but could be as high as number three or even two in 2005.

They were expecting more out of 2001 first round draft pick Aaron Heilman, who started the year at AAA Norfolk but received a significant look at the big league level. He battled himself mechanically, sometimes changing his arm angle between every pitch. Heilman was 2-7 with a 6.75 ERA, walking 41 and striking out 51 in 65.1 innings pitched. He allowed 79 hits for an even .300 BAA. New pitching coach Rick Peterson took Heilman to Alabama to pinpoint the problems in his delivery, and he will get another shot at sticking in the rotation this spring.

This year, the Mets are expecting a large contribution from Kazuo Matsui, the 28-year old Japanese shortstop who, without any MLB experience, is technically a rookie. They hope that he can provide a power/speed combination from the leadoff spot and stellar defense from the shortstop hole, which he displaced Reyes from. Reyes will move to second base to form what the Mets hope will be a dynamic middle-infield combination.

Tyler Yates, a hard throwing Hawaiian reliever whom the Mets acquired from the A's in the Mark Guthrie deal before the 2002 season, came back from 2002 Tommy John surgery as a starter in 2003 to build up stamina. He was fairly effective at Norfolk, and will get a shot at the bullpen and fifth starter's role. He should see some time at the ML level, if not as a regular than as an injury call-up.

Lefty Royce Ring, acquired for the disappointing Robbie Alomar in GM Jim Duquette's first trade in July, profiles as either a closer or, more likely, as a Mike Stanton-type reliever. He dominated AA Binghamton and has a bulldog mentality, calling for the ball at the end of the game. He and 27-year old Orber Moreno, tabbed as the Royals' closer of the future before arm troubles derailed his career, could see time out of the ‘pen.

As of now, 2004 looks like a year to bridge between the arrivals of promising young farm products. The 2005 season could bring Wright, lefty Scott Kazmir, who profiles as an ace, and righthanders Matt Peterson and Bob Keppel, also middle-to-top of the rotation starters.

Jordan Zakarin covers the Mets for NYFansonly.com. He can be reached at JDZakarin@yahoo.com.

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