BUFFALO, NY - After two years of virtual seclusion in the Pacific Coast League, the Mets Triple-A…
The Mets Are Whole Again
Assuming they're as good as their track records suggest, the Mets -- who blew 29 saves last year and lost seven games when leading after eight innings -- should be just fine.
In fact, last year's weakness has become this season's strength, with lefty Pedro Feliciano the lone holdover among last year's regular relief corps.
Gone are Billy Wagner (Tommy John surgery), Scott Schoeneweis (traded to the Diamondbacks), Aaron Heilman (traded to the Mariners and then the Cubs), Duaner Sanchez (released, signed by the Padres), Joe Smith (traded to the Indians) and Luis Ayala (free agent, signed by Twins). In their place, in addition to K-Rod and Putz, the Mets added sinkerball right-hander Sean Green in a trade with the Mariners. They're also high on rookie right-hander Bobby Parnell, who made his major league debut in September.
The rotation looks comparable to last season, at least in the first four slots, with ace Johan Santana followed by Mike Pelfrey, Oliver Perez and John Maine. Innings-eating Livan Hernandez won the fifth starter's spot, beating out Freddy Garcia, who accepted an assignment to minor league camp.
Santana had surgery after last season to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, but he showed no effects from that injury during spring training. He was briefly idled early in camp by elbow tightness, but there were no signs of trouble as the season approached.
Perez re-signed for three years at $36 million; he will always be a project because of erratic control. Maine struggled in the Grapefruit League after undergoing Sept. 30 arthroscopic surgery to remove a bony growth from his right shoulder socket, but he insisted the difficulty was mechanical and not health-related.
Aside from tweaks to the bench, the Mets' position players should be nearly identical to a season ago. Team officials maintain that's just fine, since the Mets scored 799 runs last season, tied for second with the Phillies in the National League.
Alex Cora replaces unsigned free agent Damion Easley as the backup middle infielder, while ex-Mariner Jeremy Reed succeeds Endy Chavez as the late-game defensive replacement in the outfield. Otherwise, it's status quo, with the lone adjustment being a full year of Daniel Murphy in left field after he excelled in 131 at-bats last season.
Manager Jerry Manuel experimented in camp with using shortstop Jose Reyes in the No. 3 hole in the order, but he backed off and suggested Reyes would return to his customary leadoff spot come Opening Day in Cincinnati. After Murphy batting second, the Mets boast three 100-RBI players in the Nos. 3-5 positions with Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado and David Wright.
Rodriguez arrived at camp and declared the Mets the "team to beat" in the NL East, unintentionally repeating a phrase Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins had used two years earlier. Anything short of a division title and unseating the Phillies would be a bitter disappointment for the Mets, who are projected to have the league's highest payroll at roughly $145 million.
THE METS WILL CONTEND IF ...: They don't gag in September again. More seriously, if 1B Carlos Delgado has a season comparable to the second half of last year, and not the first half. Delgado was hitting just .228 entering July, and it seemed a foregone conclusion that the Mets would not pick up his $12 million option. Then he exploded at the plate. During the second half, Delgado hit .303 with 21 homers and 63 RBIs in 251 at-bats.
PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: LF Daniel Murphy hit .313 in 131 at-bats as a rookie last season. The Mets passed on pursuing Manny Ramirez as a free agent this winter despite fans clamoring for the slugger, and now Murphy will be asked to produce at a comparable level to 2008 over a full season. A converted infielder, Murphy has impeccable strike-zone discipline for a young player.
ON THE DECLINE: C Brian Schneider turned 32 this winter, and Mets officials will have to think hard about re-signing him or backup Ramon Castro, who are both free agents after the season. Schneider will receive the bulk of the work behind the plate. He hit .257 with nine homers and 38 RBIs in 110 games in 2008.
--RHP Livan Hernandez won the fifth starter's job with the assignment of RHP Freddy Garcia to minor league camp, just days after LHP Jon Niese was optioned to the minors. Garcia had been the pre-camp favorite to grab the role, but had a 16.71 Grapefruit League ERA.
Even though Garcia did not have an out in his contract, the Mets did not intend to force Garcia to go to minor league camp and were willing to grant him a release. Garcia plans to remain in extended spring training in Port St. Lucie, Fla., rather than pitch for Class AAA Buffalo.
--RHP Rocky Cherry, a Rule 5 selection from the Orioles, signed a minor league deal with the Red Sox after being released by the Mets. The Mets had expressed interest in re-signing Cherry, but they felt compelled to release him rather than pay him the $177,000 he was owed under his original contract.
--SS Jose Reyes will return to the leadoff role in 2009, manager Jerry Manuel said. Manuel had experimented with Reyes in the No. 3 hole this spring, but he opted to keep Reyes where the shortstop felt most comfortable.
--RHP John Maine was so distraught about poor recent spring performances, he canceled a golf outing with teammates he had scheduled for the team's final off day of March and came to the otherwise-sleepy complex to work with pitching coach Dan Warthen on his mechanics.
Maine felt as if he made strides, including with his stride. He increased the amount he steps forward off the mound by eight inches, hoping to generate more follow through with his pitches. Maine also tweaked the grip on his slider to use more seam in hopes of restoring the bite he used to have with the pitch.
--RHP Brandon Knight cleared waivers and will pitch for Class AAA Buffalo. Knight, who pitched for Team USA at the Olympics in China last summer, went 1-0 with a 5.25 ERA in four games (two starts) for the Mets in 2008.
--LHP Ron Villone was released by the Mets, while RHP Nelson Figueroa, RHP Carlos Muniz, INF Andy Green, OF Cory Sullivan and C Rene Rivera were sent to the team's minor league camp. Villone, a non-roster camp invitee, allowed six runs in five innings this spring.
BY THE NUMBERS: 16 -- Players the Mets sent to the World Baseball Classic. The final returnees to the Mets' camp were David Wright and J.J. Putz from Team USA and Francisco Rodriguez from Venezuela, who were eliminated in semifinal games at Dodger Stadium.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's on again." -- Phillies SS Jimmy Rollins, lightheartedly to World Baseball Classic teammate David Wright, as they parted after sharing a cross-country flight to return to their respective National League East camps.
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