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.

Tigers release Francisco Rodriguez

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Tigers’ right-handed reliever Francisco Rodriguez was released on Friday, per a team announcement. The club recalled fellow right-hander Bruce Rondon from Triple-A Toledo in a corresponding move.

The former closer got the boot after losing his closing role in early May, giving left-hander Justin Wilson a chance to impress at the back end of the bullpen. It’s been a rough year for Rodriguez, who manufactured six blown saves and a 7.82 ERA, 3.9 BB/9 and 8.2 SO/9 over 25 1/3 innings for the Tigers. The final straw, it seemed, came with Robinson Cano‘s grand slam in the seventh inning of the Tigers’ 6-9 loss to the Mariners on Thursday.

While the demotion to a clean-up role and an apparent lack of communication caused Rodriguez considerable frustration, he’s two years removed from his last dominant performance as a major league closer and has shown few signs of returning to form. His recent slump doesn’t diminish the impressive totals he’s racked up over his 16-year career — 437 saves and six All-Star nominations among them — but if he can’t break out of it soon, he may not receive the kind of high leverage role he’s seeking with another big league team, either.

The Red Sox sign Jhonny Peralta

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The Red Sox have signed third baseman Jhonny Peralta to a minor-league deal. He’ll report to Pawtucket.

Peralta, 35, hit a paltry .204/.259/.204 in 58 plate appearances for the Cardinals this year. But with Pablo Sandoval on the disabled list — and ineffective when he hasn’t been — the Sox could use some infield depth.

This is the second former Tiger that former Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski has picked up today, after signing Doug Fister. No word if he’s kicking the tires on Andy Dirks or Brennan Boesch.