March 28, 2007

A Look Ahead to Mets’ ’07 Chances

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With the baseball season kicking off this Sunday, the questions regarding the state of the Mets pitching staff continue to mount. Guillermo Mota, who pitched brilliantly down the stretch a year ago after struggling in the American League, will serve a 50-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Staff ace Pedro Martinez will miss the first half with a torn rotator cuff, and at that point, there is no telling how effective he will be. And to make matters worse, reliever Duaner Sanchez, who compiled a 2.60 earned run average last season, recently revealed a hairline fracture in the front of his pitching shoulder, an injury that will keep him sidelined until at least August. The Mets bullpen, which was arguably the best in baseball in 2006, will be without two of its primary set-up men, a potential problem for a club that relies so heavily on its relief pitching.

However, despite their obvious shortcomings, the 2007 Mets will be much better than most prognosticators are expecting. The majority of experts have New York finishing in second place in the N.L. East behind the Phillies, a team that while drastically improved, will not overtake the Mets for the division crown.

Why the confidence in a team with so many question marks? Well, for starters, the New York offense will be even better than a year ago and should lead the National League in runs scored. Jose Reyes is primed for another monster season, terrorizing the opposing pitchers during spring training. A year ago, the Mets shortstop smacked 19 homers and drove in 81 runs, totals that should only improve as he enters his prime and adds bulk to his wiry frame. For his build, Reyes has a surprising amount of pop in his bat, and has the tools to eventually develop in a Rickey Henderson-type weapon at the top of the order.

David Wright will be penciled into the two-hole this season, a spot in the lineup that is seemingly perfect for his skill set. For such a young player, Wright is an exceptional two-strike hitter and has a rare ability to hit to all fields. Reyes should have plenty of opportunities to steal with a patient hitter slotted behind him, creating RBI opportunities for the middle of the order.

Of course, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado will once again provide the power, but the addition of left fielder Moises Alou will only add to an already deep lineup. When healthy, Alou is still a prolific run-producer, batting .301 with 22 homeruns and 74 RIB in just 98 games last season. Of course, the former Giant has been injury prone over the past two seasons, missing 39 more games in 2005. While his durability may be suspect, the signing is low-risk acquisition for a team with considerable depth in the outfield. Endy Chavez has proven to be a more than a serviceable replacement, and Lastings Milledge is ready for more regular duty. In fact, Milledge is batting .352 in 23 spring training games, propelling him into consideration for the starting job in right field. Incumbent Shawn Green is batting just .145 this spring and if he continues to struggle in April, he may find himself on the pine. Personally, I would love nothing more than seeing Green benched, as I think Milledge can put up comparable numbers over the course of the year, while developing his bat for the future.

As for the pitching staff, I have a feeling that it will be much stronger than many think and should compare favorably to last year’s staff, when the trio of Alay Soler, Jose Lima, and Geremi Gonzalez made a combined 15 starts. Tom Glavine and Orlando Hernandez will anchor the front end, with John Maine, Oliver Perez and Mike Pelfrey occupying the final three spots in the rotation. While spring statistics may be a poor predictor of regular season success, the back end of the Mets staff has showed considerable promise over the last month. Maine has posted a 3.07 ERA, following up a postseason in which he filled in admirably at the top of New York’s rotation. After being an afterthought in an offseason trade with the Orioles, I believe Maine can be a league-average starter, with the ability to post an ERA in the 4.50 range.

However, the potential for both Perez and Pelfrey is what makes this rotation very intriguing. Perez has compiled a 2.70 ERA in 20 spring innings, possibly the first step towards recapturing his past success. Just two years ago, the 25-year old left hander posted an ERA under 3.00 in 30 starts for the Pirates, however since that time, he has struggled mightily with his control. Following a midseason trade last July, Perez has worked closely with pitching coach Rick Peterson and the results have been encouraging. In 20 innings this spring, Perez has 15 strikeouts compared to just five walks. Only time will tell exactly how well Perez will pitch this season, but there is no question he has the stuff to be a top-end starter in the National League.

The same can be said for Pelfrey. While he has struggled with his control at times, he seems poised for a breakout year after adding a slider to go with his devastating sinking fastball. A top prospect out of the Mets’ farm system, the potential is certainly there for Pelfrey to develop into a frontline starter, and he can be expected to show flashes of brilliance throughout the season.

As for the bullpen, with Billy Wagner, Aaron Heilman, Pedro Feliciano and recently signed Scott Schoeneweis, the unit should remain one of the stronger in the league. Schoeneweis in particular has shined this spring, while newcomer Joe Smith could replace Chad Bradford as the team’s right-handed specialist.

Overall, I would give a slight edge to the Phillies rotation with the addition of Freddy Garcia, however their offense is not nearly as deep, and their bullpen is suspect at best. Barring injury, I expect the Mets to be claiming their second consecutive N.L. East title come September.

Bryan Pepper is a Sun Senior Writer. Raising The Apple will appear every other Wednesday this semester.