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.

And That Happened: Wednesday’s scores and highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Brewers 9, Reds 4: Milwaukee beats the Reds for the sixth time in seven tries this year. Orlando Arcia homered and drove in three. Jett Bandy had three hits and two RBI. The Brewers had 14 hits in all. Some bad news: Eric Thames left the game with a tight hamstring. He says he’ll be OK, however. And get manager Craig Counsell’s explanation of the injury is quite the humble brag:

“It just kind of tightened up over the day,” Counsell said. “It is really the on-base stuff. He’s just been on-base a whole bunch, running the bases, scoring from first, so just a whole bunch of baserunning.”

“He’s just been so awesome that all of his awesome beat-the-Reds muscles are tired. Maybe he’ll be better when he’s done beating the hell out of the Reds.

White Sox 5, Royals 2: It was tied at two until Avisail Garcia’s two-run home run in the sixth. Jose Quintana struck out ten in only six innings of work, allowing only an earned run. Rick Renteria said he was going to let Quintana pitch the seventh if the game was tied, but took him out once Garcia hit that bomb. At only 99 pitches I’m sure a veteran like Quintana would’ve been OK for another inning, but I always do scratch my head when the W is what determines when a starter is taken out.

Indians 7, Astros 6: Michael Brantley had an RBI double in the first inning and added a two-run single in the fifth. He’s hitting .318/.384/.561 with four homers and 15 driven in in 17 games. They should probably just award the Comeback Player of the Year Award now.

Yankees 3, Red Sox 1: It was Aaron Judge‘s birthday. In celebration he hit a two-run homer and made this spectacular catch, diving into the stands at Fenway:

The ump initially said it was no catch, but it was overturned on replay. The Yankees have won 11 of 14.

Orioles 5, Rays 4: Not a great night for the Rays. First, they gave up two runs on this little league homer of a disaster of a play:

 

Then, with a 4-3 lead in the 11th inning, they let the O’s come back and win it like this:

single
single
walk (bases now loaded)
sac fly (run scores)
walk (bases now loaded again)
walk

Alex Colome did everything until the second-to-last walk, then Danny Farquhar came in and walked in the winning run on four friggin’ pitches. I’m guessing Kevin Cash put his foot through a soda machine or something. At least I would’ve.

Phillies 7, Marlins 4: Maikel Franco hit a grand slam and the Phillies won their fifth game in a row. Franco had three hits in all. Sellout crowd too. No, not because the Marlins were in town. But because it was $1 hot dog night.

Pirates 6, Cubs 5: Pittsburgh needed six pitchers to get through this one, but they got through. Jon Lester allowed five runs on six hits and still hasn’t won a game this year. I suspect we’ll soon be hearing a lot about how it’s all attributable to David Ross being gone, whether there’s any truth to that or not. The game was most notable for Pirates second baseman Gift Ngoepe becoming the first player from Africa to play in the majors. He singled in his first at bat, too. The South African said this after the game:

“To accomplish this only for me but for my country and my continent is something so special. There are 1.62 billion people on our continent. To be the first person out of 1.62 billion to do this is amazing.”

Pretty cool.

Mariners 8, Tigers 0: James Paxton has been one of the few bright spots for the M’s in the early going. Here he tossed seven shutout innings, striking out nine and allowing only four hits. Two driven in a piece for Jean SeguraGuillermo Heredia and Nelson Cruz.

Braves 8, Mets 2: Julio Teheran allowed only two runs while pitching into the seventh while Mets starter Robert Gsellman didn’t fool anyone, allowing five runs in the first inning. In all he allowed six runs — five earned — on ten hits without making it out of the fifth. The Braves end a six-game skid.

Rangers 14, Twins 3: The Rangers avoid a sweep. It was relatively close until late in the game when Ryan Rua hit his first career grand slam and Shin-Soo Choo hit a three-run homer in Texas’ eight-run eighth inning. The Rangers also had a four-run sixth inning in which they only recorded two hits. A hit-by-pitch, a wild pitch and a passed ball helped things along.

Nationals 11, Rockies 4: On Tuesday night Trea Turner hit for the cycle. Last night he fell a triple short of doing it again. Bryce Harper had four hits as he continues his early season tear. The top of the Nats’ order is brutal for opposing pitchers. Adam Eaton, Turner, Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Daniel Murphy combined to go 13-for-24 with three homers and all 11 RBI on the night. It’s not surprising the Nats have the best record in baseball right now.

Padres 8, Diamondbacks 5: Down 5-3 in the ninth, San Diego put up a five-spot to come from behind. Ryan Schimpf did most of the damage, hitting a go-ahead, three-run homer off of Fernando Rodney. You’ll be shocked at his strategy in that situation:

“Just try not to do too much, really. Just trying to get ready for something to hit, trying to square something up.”

No word on whether he’s happy to help the ball club.

Angels 8, Athletics 5: Matt Shoemaker picks up his first win since being cracked in the skull with a comebacker last season. He tossed five innings, allowing two runs while scattering seven hits. Cameron Maybin helped his cause by going 3-for-4 with three driven in.

Giants 4, Dodgers 3: L.A. had a three-run lead heading into the bottom of the seventh but the Giants came back. Michael Morse, back with the Giants for the first time since 2014, hit a tying, pinch-hit homer in the eighth inning. Then in the 10th, Hunter Pence hit a game-winning sacrifice fly with the bases loaded.

Blue Jays vs. Cardinals — POSTPONED:

I can’t sleep tonight
Everybody’s saying everything is alright
Still I can’t close my eyes
I’m seeing a tunnel at the end of all of these lights
Sunny days, where have you gone?
I get the strangest feeling you belong
Why does it always rain on me?
Is it because I lied when I was seventeen?
Why does it always rain on me?
Even when the sun is shinning I can’t avoid the lightning

Video: Gift Ngoepe singles in his first major league at-bat

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
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Pirates infielder Gift Ngoepe, just called up from Triple-A Indianapolis, singled in his first major league at-bat on Wednesday evening against Cubs starter Jon Lester. It was a well-struck ground ball up the middle in the bottom of the fourth inning. Unfortunately for him, the Pirates could not bring him around to score.

Ngoepe, who was pinch-hitting, stayed in the game to play second base.