Springtime storylines: Will the Mets look the same in September?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: The Sandy Alderson-led New York Mets.

The Big Question: Will the Mets look the same in September?

There are many questions facing the Mets this season, but this is probably the most relevant one. In addition to the tenuous ownership situation and the pending Madoff lawsuit — more on that later — the Mets have a number of players who may find themselves in different uniforms before the end of the season.

Jose Reyes, now the longest-tenured Met, is set to become a free agent for the first time in his career this winter. New GM Sandy Alderson has repeatedly said that he would like to see how the shortstop performs before discussing a potential contract extension, but there is some risk attached to a bounceback season. Reyes doesn’t turn 28 until June, so taking into account his dynamic ability at the shortstop position, he could find $100 million on the open market, potentially pricing the Mets out of the bidding.

If the Mets are out of things this summer, Alderson may seriously have to consider trading Reyes before the deadline. While it would be a bold and polarizing move — in fact, it would probably define Alderson’s tenure as general manager in New York — many projected contenders (Red Sox, Reds, Twins, Athletics, Giants) would likely have interest.

And now we move to Carlos Beltran, who is also in the final year of his contact. This is a pretty simple one to understand. If his knees hold up with the move to right field, he’ll be an attractive piece for a contender, especially in the American League, where he could be used at DH. The no-trade clause could allow him to decide his destination, but I think he’s more likely to go than Reyes.

Perhaps the most interesting situation to watch is how the Mets will handle Francisco Rodriguez, whose $17.5 million option for 2012 becomes guaranteed if he finishes 55 games. While the Mets would be wise to limit his appearances to just save opportunities, you can bet that the MLBPA will be watching their every move. K-Rod can block deals to 10 clubs, but the best solution might be to trade him to a situation where he will not be saving games, thus ensuring that his new team will not be on the hook for 2012.

Of course, none of this will matter if the Mets can hang around in the standings. Expectations are pretty low right now, but if Reyes and Beltran stay healthy and Jason Bay can return to form, new manager Terry Collins will field one of the better lineups in the National League. Reyes, Pagan, Wright, Beltran, Bay, Davis. That’s a pretty good top six. Remember, on-base blackholes Jeff Francoeur, Rod Barajas, Gary Matthews Jr. and Alex Cora combined for 966 plate appearances last season, so it might not take much for them to be better, at least offensively.

So what else is going on?

  • Oh yeah, the starting rotation. That might not be as good. Johan Santana hasn’t even pitched off a mound yet and the best-case scenario is that he’ll return somewhere around the All-Star break. That leaves Mike Pelfrey, R.A. Dickey, Jon Niese, Chris Young and Chris Capuano holding things down for the foreseeable future. While offseason additions Young and Capuano have looked pretty good this spring, it’s hard to rely on them given their past injury issues. Dickey has quickly become a fan favorite, but there are questions about whether he’ll be able to repeat his success from last season. Do they have the potential to surprise? Yes. But this staff is no match for the Phillies and Braves or even the Marlins.
  • Following the release of Luis Castillo, the Mets appear poised to give the second base job to Rule 5 pick Brad Emaus, someone who has never played in a major league game. He put up some solid numbers with Triple-A Las Vegas last season, but played his home games in Cashman Field, a place that is known to inflate offense. The options aren’t great if Emaus falls flat on his face — Daniel Murphy, Chin-lung Hu and Justin Turner, among others  — but it’s a nice change of pace to see the Mets take a chance on a young, cheap asset as opposed to repeating past mistakes.
  • The new front office let Type-B free agent Pedro Feliciano walk over the winter, which netted them a supplemental draft pick in June’s First-Year Player Draft. While it will be darn near impossible to replace Feliciano’s durability in the bullpen, his exit was met with overwhelming approval from a fanbase that would like to see the Mets build through the draft. Alderson has indicated a willingness to go overslot in order to sign draft picks — a strategy used by many other clubs — so it will be interesting to see how they spend, especially given the current ownership situation.
  • Did you hear the Wilpons are having some cash flow issues and are trying to sell a minority part of the team? OK, cool. Thought you may have missed it. I don’t want to speak for too many Mets fans, because I’m sure there are those who obsess over it, but I can tell you there’s already some Madoff fatigue going on here. I have no idea where this situation is headed — the Wilpons might have to sell the team completely before long — but the games will be a welcome distraction, at least for a little while.

So how are they going to do?

If all goes well with the big “ifs” — Reyes, Beltran, Bay and Santana — the Mets could be in the conversation for the Wild Card. That probably won’t happen, though. I tend to think they’ll be right around .500, finishing ahead of the Nationals, but only good enough for a third straight fourth place finish.

The Japanese playoffs are super unfair

Hiroshima Carp
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I know a little about Japanese baseball. Not a lot, mind you. Like, I couldn’t hold my own with people who actually watch it or report on it or whatever, but I could explain some of the broad differences and similarities between the NPB and the U.S. majors.  I can say a few things about how the two leagues compare competitively speaking. I can name some stars and (I think) all the clubs. But there’s, quite obviously, a ton I don’t know.

A thing I did not know until today: the NPB playoffs are really messed up.

The NPB is divided into two leagues, the Central and the Pacific, with the winner of each league facing off in the Japan Series. Like the U.S. majors, they have preliminary playoff rounds in each league. Each league has three playoff teams, with the second and third seed teams playing a series first, and the winner of that series playing the top seed — the team with the best record in the league — in what is called the Climax Series.

Here’s the weird part: the higher-seeded team in the Climax Series — the team which won the league in the regular season — gets every single playoff game at home. What’s more, that team begins the Climax Series with an automatic 1-0 advantage. So, yes, it’s a seven-game series on paper, but one of the teams only has to win three games to advance to the Japan Series.

Oh, in Japan, they also have no problems ending a playoff game early if it rains. That’s what happened in the Central League Climax Series last night, where the lower-seeded Yokohama BayStars took on the league champ Hiroshima Carp. Here’s the report from Jason Coskrey of The Japan Times:

The rainy conditions in Hiroshima caused the umpires to stop play for over 30 minutes and ultimately call the game after five innings, minutes after the Carp put three runs on the board. Just like that, it was over. The Carp won 3-0, with Yokohama robbed of the four innings (at least) it would’ve had to try and rally.

Even better: as Coskrey notes, there are five days in between the end of the Climax Series and the beginning of the Japan Series, so there is no reason they could not suspend a game and resume it the next day. They just choose not to. The upshot: the Carp were staked to a 2-0 series lead despite the fact that they had only played five innings of baseball. UPDATE: they played a full game today, the BayStars won, so now it’s 2-1 Hiroshima.

Imagine if that happened in the NLCS. Imagine if the Dodgers began the series with a 1-0 lead over the Cubs and played all of their games in Los Angeles. Imagine there was a freak L.A. storm and it ended one of the game in the fifth inning, right after Justin Turner hit a homer. I’m pretty sure people would riot.

Kinda makes our complaints about the replay system seem rather quaint, eh?