Sandy Alderson AP

Springtime Storylines: How long will the Mets spend in baseball purgatory?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The New York Mets.

The Big Question: How long will the Mets spend in baseball purgatory?

How much hope can there be for a team who is coming off three straight losing seasons, slashed payroll by a record amount and let their best player, Jose Reyes, sign with a division rival? Not a whole lot. The Marlins and Nationals are on the rise while the Braves are bringing back most of the same players and the Phillies still have “The Big Three.” Realistically, finishing in fourth place would be both a surprise and a significant accomplishment.

Most Mets fans have resigned themselves to this gloomy short-term fate, but this month’s settlement with Irving Picard in the Madoff case has at least changed the tone a little. The Mets’ owners were also able to close sales of 12 minority shares in the team, repaying loans to MLB and Bank of America in the process. The focus is back on the players on the field for the most part. However, this infusion of cash doesn’t mean the Mets will sign Cole Hamels or Matt Cain next winter. The intention was to cover team debt and operating expenses (or losses). And with expectations pretty low, attendance is likely to suffer once again. There’s also the team’s annual interest bond payments on Citi Field. I’ll admit there’s a lot we don’t know about their situation — for instance, what impact will the Dodgers’ sale have on their ability to refinance? — but it doesn’t look like the Mets’ owners are out of the woods yet.

I don’t think that the Mets need a mega payroll to contend again, but Sandy Alderson’s flexibility figures to be limited in the short-term. Johan Santana and Jason Bay are still owed a total of $90 million on their contracts. That’s a tremendous amount of payroll dedicated to just two players, so it’s unlikely they will make any major signings until those players are officially off the books. Of course, doling out massive long-term contracts is what got them into this mess in the first place.

The Mets will probably remain in this weird state of baseball purgatory until around 2014, but this is still a very important period of evaluation for the on-field product. This is the time to find out whether homegrown players like Lucas Duda, Ike Davis, Ruben Tejada, Daniel Murphy, Jon Niese and Josh Thole will play significant roles on the next contending team in Queens. With top prospects like Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler and Jeurys Familia inching closer to the big leagues, the Mets may actually have a pretty good (and cheap) core for the future.

What else is going on?

  • The Mets altered the dimensions and heights of the fences at Citi Field over the winter in an effort to make the park play more neutral. David Wright’s old sweet spot in right-center field was moved in by 17 feet while Jason Bay will no longer have to put up with the 16-foot high “Great Wall of Flushing” in left field. I’ve heard the argument that Mets’ hitters will get a psychological lift with the changes and I suppose that’s true to a certain degree, but I’m not sure that gives them any real advantage. If the Mets’ pitching is bad and the opposing hitters are better, well, it doesn’t matter where the fences are.
  • I wouldn’t have believed this if you had told me even a month ago, but it appears Johan Santana will take the ball on Opening Day. While his velocity was down in his most recent outing, the rehabbing southpaw has a 3.44 ERA and 13/7 K/BB ratio over 18 1/3 inning this spring and hasn’t had any setbacks with his surgically repaired shoulder. He probably isn’t anything more than a six- or seven-inning pitcher right now, but it would be a huge boost if he could make even 20-25 starts.
  • You know how Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Francisco Rodriguez were discussed as trade possibilities last year? Now it’s David Wright’s turn. The only difference is that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to deal him. At least right now. Wright can void his $16 million option for 2013 in the event of a trade while the new CBA stipulates that the acquiring team would not be able to offer him arbitration as a free agent. However, if the Mets pick up the option and trade him next offseason, the acquiring team would be able to offer him arbitration since he would spend the full season with his new club. In other words, don’t look for a trade unless the Mets are blown away by a desperate contender. I still think there’s a chance the Mets will keep him for the long haul, though.
  • The bullpen was the only area of the team that was improved over the winter. Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch were added as free agents while Ramon Ramirez was acquired from the Giants in the Angel Pagan deal. Francisco has looked terrible this spring and Rauch is on the decline, but they should be better than a group which was 28th in the majors last year with a 4.33 ERA and was a complete disaster after the All-Star break.
  • R.A. Dickey. That’s all.

How are they gonna do?

Oddly, for a team that is projected to finish last by nearly every baseball writer out there, the Mets entered camp with every spot in the lineup and rotation pretty much settled. The big issue, aside from a very shaky defense, is that they have little-to-no depth beyond those projected starters, especially in regard to the rotation. The Mets actually look like a pretty respectable team at the moment, but injuries at key positions could set them back in a big way. And I don’t think they have the reinforcements to compete in an improved division. I’m predicting 70-74 wins and a last-place finish.

Yu Darvish will be on 85-90 pitch count in 2016 debut on Saturday

FRISCO, TX - MAY 1:  Pitcher Yu Darvish #11 of the Frisco RoughRiders warms up in the bullpen before taking on the the Corpus Christi Hooks at Dr Pepper Ballpark on May 1, 2016 in Frisco, Texas. Darvish is on Major League rehabilitation assignment with the RoughRiders, the Double-A affiliate of the Texas Rangers.  (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
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Yu Darvish will be limited to 85-90 pitches when he makes his 2016 debut for the Rangers against the Pirates on Saturday, MLB.com’s T.R. Sullivan reports. Darvish hasn’t pitched since August 9, 2014 after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Pitching coach Doug Brocail said, “That would be a good pitch count. It all depends on how he looks during the game and how many pitches he has. We’re not going to have him go out there and throw 150 pitches. Hopefully he gets out there and uses his fastball to get early outs and uses his pitches wisely and keeps us in the game.”

Darvish has made five minor league rehab appearances beginning on May 1. Over three starts with Double-A Frisco and two with Triple-A Round Rock, the right-hander yielded four runs (two earned) on nine hits and six walks with 21 strikeouts in 20 innings.

Francisco Rodriguez becomes the sixth to join the 400-save club

BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 15:  Francisco Rodriguez #57 of the Detroit Tigers pitches in the ninth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on May 15, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. Detroit won the game 6-5. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
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Tigers closer Francisco Rodriguez protected the Tigers’ lead in the ninth inning for what turned out to be a 3-1 victory. In doing so, he notched his league-leading 14th save of the season and the 400th save of his 15-year career. Rodriguez gave up a leadoff double to Freddy Galvis followed by a Maikel Franco single. However, he was able to retire Tommy Joseph on a sacrifice fly, Ryan Howard on a 4-3 ground out, and Carlos Ruiz on a strikeout to end the game.

Rodriguez is the sixth member of the 400-save club, joining Mariano Rivera (652), Trevor Hoffman (601), Lee Smith (478), John Franco (424), and Billy Wagner (422).

Rodriguez blew a save opportunity on Opening Day, but has gone 14-for-14 since. He carries a 3.57 ERA and a 16/6 K/BB ratio in 17 2/3 innings on the year.

Jose Canseco will participate in a softball home run derby contest in June

LONG BEACH, CA - JULY 16:  Jose Canseco #33 of the Long Beach Armada fields ground balls before the Golden Baseball League game against the Fullerton Flyers on July 16, 2006 at Blair Field in Long Beach, California.  (Photo By Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Former major leaguer Jose Canseco will be a guest at the Frisco Rough Riders game against the Springfield Cardinals on June 4. After the game, he’ll participate in a Home Run Derby Challenge in which he takes on local challengers and attempts to break his own world record for the longest softball home run at 622 feet.

Here’s the link to the Roughl Riders schedule, which offers details on the event.

For those who might not know, the Rough Riders are the Rangers’ Double-A affiliate. Springfield is the Cardinals’ Double-A affiliate.

Matt Harvey’s struggles continue

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 24: Starting pitcher Matt Harvey #33 of the New York Mets works the first inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on May 24, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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The Mets considered skipping Matt Harvey‘s start against the Nationals on Tuesday, but the right-hander said he wanted to make the start, so the club relented. Harvey has struggled mightily this season, entering the start with a 5.77 ERA and a 43/15 K/BB ratio in 48 1/3 innings.

Harvey was slammed for nine runs (six earned) in 2 2/3 innings in his most recent start against the Nationals last Thursday. He failed to finish the sixth inning in six of nine starts.

Things didn’t get any better for Harvey against the Nationals on Tuesday. He yielded five runs on eight hits — including three home runs — with two walks and a strikeout in five innings. Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, and former teammate Daniel Murphy each clubbed homers against him. Meanwhile, Stephen Strasburg continued to dominate.

One wonders, if there isn’t anything physically wrong with Harvey — and there’s reason to suspect there might be, particularly due to a decline across the board in velocity — the Mets might just put him on the disabled list to give him a couple of weeks to clear his head. Harvey was booed by the home crowd last week, and failing to live up to expectations in New York can put a lot of pressure on a person.