What Went Wrong: New York Mets

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The following completes a series profiling some of 2009’s biggest disappointments.

New York Mets

Record: 69-92 (4th in NL East)

How It Happened:

The Mets entered their inaugural season at Citi Field with legitimate
questions about the back-end of their rotation and their corner
outfield spots, but with four of the best players in the game and a
retooled bullpen, it appeared that they were in fine position to
reclaim the top spot in the National League East. The baseball gods had
a different plan in mind.

The team has endured injuries to nearly every significant player on
their roster (David Wright, Johan Santana, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran
and Carlos Delgado among them). Reyes hasn’t appeared in a game since
May 20 (hamstring) while Delgado has been sidelined since May 10 (hip
surgery). And J.J. Putz, who was expected to be the bridge to new
closer Francisco Rodriguez, hasn’t thrown a pitch since June 4 (elbow).
Oliver Perez, who was signed to a mind-boggling three-year, $36 million
deal over the winter, was limited to just 14 starts (knee). But with an
awful 6.82 ERA and 58 walks in 66 innings, that’s probably for the
best. Even their top minor league reinforcements (Jon Niese and
Fernando Martinez) suffered season-ending injuries.

Their depleted lineup has managed a major-league worst 95 home runs,
the franchise’s lowest output since another over-hyped, over-priced
flameout in 1992. Daniel Murphy leads the team with just 12 homers.
Critics have been quick to blame Citi Field for Wright’s power outage
(career-low 10 home runs), however his home-road splits are even. With
140 strikeouts in 533 at-bats (26.3%), he’s clearly changed his
approach at the plate with a lack of protection around him. He plans to
work with hitting coach Howard Johnson during the offseason to round himself back into
shape for 2010.

While the off-field distractions were utterly embarrassing (Tony
Bernazard, Omar Minaya-Adam Rubin, Jerry Manuel’s very public rivalry
with Ryan Church), what was left of the product on the field set new
standards of losing in the most epic and painful ways possible. From
missing third base (Ryan Church) to a dropped pop-fly by Luis Castillo
against the Yankees in June to a pair of walk-off grand slams served up
by Francisco Rodriguez (the first ever to do it in one season), the
Mets were not satisfied with simply slipping into unremarkable
mediocrity. They lost. A lot. And they wanted you to remember it.

Silver Linings:

After his unforgettable drop against the
Yankees, I wondered out loud if Luis Castillo could survive the
blunder. Well, he’s done that and then some, batting .316/.398/.351
with 25 RBI, 44 runs scored and 14 stolen bases since June 12. With an
overall line of .304/.389/.347 with 77 runs scored in 141 games
(shockingly, the third most among Mets position players this season),
Castillo is no longer the fans’ favorite whipping boy. While Omar
Minaya can now claim that the signing isn’t a complete disaster, he
should be looking for a taker during the offseason.

Angel Pagan has earned himself a spot on the Mets’ bench next
season. Plugging a hole while Carlos Beltran was on the mend, the
28-year-old outfielder has batted .298/.343/.469 with six home runs, 32
RBI and 14 stolen bases in 339 at-bats. He surprisingly ranks fourth in
the league with 10 triples.

Looking to shake things up, Omar Minaya acquired Jeff Francoeur in
exchange for Ryan Church in a classic “change of scenery” trade on July
10.  Apparently Minaya was enamored with Francoeur’s ability to play in
a lot of games, an underrated quality in a season like this. Francoeur
actually played quite well in what was effectively an audition for a
new contract, batting .311/.338/.498 with 10 homers and 41 RBI in 289
at-bats. There has been talk about buying out his arbitration years,
but the Mets would be wise to take it a year at a time with a player
who is just as likely to revert to being one of the least valuable
players in the league.

Looking Ahead:

There’s no perfect elixir to what ails the
Mets. They will have to fill significant holes at first base, catcher
and left field. Though they have shown flashes, Daniel Murphy, Omir
Santos, Josh Thole and Angel Pagan shouldn’t be expected to carry the
load at those respective positions if they want to be competitive.
After a disappointing year by Mike Pelfrey, who looked downright lost
at times, it’s imperative that the Mets find a No. 2 starter.

Not counting arbitration candidates (Francoeur, Pagan and Pedro
Feliciano, among others) the club has roughly $105 million tied up in
contract commitments for 2010. In this post-Madoff world, they will
likely have somewhere in the vicinity of $20-25 million to improve. For
an organization exposed as lacking in major-league ready prospects, it
will be difficult to upgrade via trade.

The injuries are a convenient excuse, but no manager who leads his team to a lifeless 20-48 stretch deserves to be
considered “safe.” That’s why I expect and urge the team to replace
Jerry Manuel before next season. In recent weeks, there’s been a
movement building for Bobby Valentine to return as manager in 2010.
Nostalgia? Sure. But what it reveals is a longing among the fanbase.
They want an overhaul. Not just someone who pitches every five days
(Johan Santana) like after they collapsed in 2007; not just someone who
pitches the ninth inning every couple of days (Francisco Rodriguez)
like after they collapsed again last season. They want a change at the
top. Valentine wouldn’t be a long-term solution, mind you, but they
could find a worse steward to change the culture of the clubhouse and
restore some faith heading into an uncertain future. Fred Wilpon and
company shouldn’t expect fans to line up with the same leadership in
place, no matter how much they cut ticket prices.

Jharel Cotton to undergo Tommy John surgery

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Athletics right-hander Jharel Cotton will undergo Tommy John surgery, per an announcement on Saturday. Cotton initially experienced some elbow soreness during a Cactus League start earlier this week and was officially diagnosed with a strained ulnar collateral ligament and strained flexor muscle on Thursday. He’ll be out of commission until 2019 at the earliest.

This isn’t the first time Cotton has dealt with elbow issues. According to MLB.com’s Jane Lee, he had screws inserted in his right elbow after sustaining a stress fracture in 2013 and suffered some minor elbow discomfort again last fall. Prior to his diagnosis, the 24-year-old was poised for his third run with the A’s in 2018. He pitched his first full season with the club in 2017, turning in a 5.58 ERA, 3.7 BB/9 and 7.3 SO/9 in 24 starts and 129 innings.

Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle adds that the team is open to adding pitching depth this spring, though they’ll wait to see if the price goes down on some free agents first. Barring that, right-handed long reliever Andrew Triggs could be tabbed to fill the fifth spot in the rotation.