I asked my friend and MVN colleague Jessica Bader, of the Mets blog Take the 7 Train (she frequently interviewed me last year), to answer five questions about the outlook for the 2009 New York Mets, whom we'll face today.
1. What's going on with Johan Santana? Is he going to miss significant time in 2009, and if he does, is the Mets rotation, anchored by multimilliondollar man Oliver Perez, deep enough to keep them competitive in the NL East?
Given what we know, there seem to be two likely scenarios regarding Santana. One is that the Mets are once again mishandling an injured player (the original plan a week ago was to send Santana to New York for an MRI, but they changed their mind when it snowed, because it's not like there are any MRI facilities in Florida or anything). The other is that the extent of any health issue Santana may have had was exaggerated to justify keeping him out of the World Baseball Classic. He threw BP on Saturday and reportedly feels fine and is on track for the Opening Day start, suggesting that the latter scenario is what we're dealing with.
Should Santana miss any significant amount of time, things would get a bit dicey in the rotation. The middle three doesn't have any of what I would call the "solid mediocrity" class of pitcher, with each member of the trio having high upside (Mike Pelfrey made great strides with his control last year and could be the sort of groundball-machine workhorse that the team can rely on for years to come; John Maine has solid peripherals and seems to be one of those pitchers who can consistently post a lower-than-normal BABIP; while I tend to be more gung-ho about Oliver Perez than most, those shiny pretty strikeout rates are hard to ignore) but also high risk (Pelfrey doesn't miss a lot of bats, was worked well past the Verducci line last year, and is dealing with some sort of leg issue this spring; Maine is one of the least efficient starters in the major leagues - 95 pitches with one out in the sixth is the norm; for every Perez gem against an elite offense there's a stinker against a sub-.500 team).
As for the fifth starter, what I've seen from Tim "I faced six batters on a college team and five of them scored" Redding, Livan "3.35 K/9 last year" Hernandez and Freddy "84 MPH fastball" Garcia has made me more interested in Pedro Martinez's WBC performance than I would like to be.
2. Because of Luis Castillo's precipitous decline, many people were calling on the Mets to eat his salary and sign Orlando Hudson. As it is, Castillo's signed through 2011. Can the Mets continue to afford to keep him in the lineup? What should they do about second base?
In my happy little fantasy world, the Mets ate Castillo's contract and gave the second-base job to Daniel Murphy (who played there in the Arizona Fall League), grabbing some defense-first guy for the days Pelfrey (the lone groundball guy in a fairly extreme flyball rotation) starts (of course, I also wanted the Mets to let Castillo walk after the '07 season and go with a Ruben Gotay/Damion Easley platoon for one year before nabbing Hudson).
In the real world, Castillo is probably still acceptable at the bottom of the order, where he can at least help clear the pitcher (he still managed a decent OBP last year), but his inability to hit the ball out of the infield and his rapidly diminishing ability to beat out the ground balls he does hit make batting him at the top of the order a mistake. In the likely event that Castillo gets off to a slow start, he will probably get booed out of town Kaz Matsui-style, and as much as I'd be happy to be rid of Castillo, I don't think I want to see Alex Cora as the everyday second baseman.
3. Is Carlos Delgado finally done, or, after a resurgent second half, does he have one more year in him? If he is done, is there any help on the way?
I think Delgado still has another good year left in him. It's worth remembering that he suffered a broken hand from being hit by a pitch during the final game of the 2007 season, an injury that probably contributed to his awful start in 2008 (.186/.276/.256 from March 31 to April 26, compared with .285/.366/.563 from April 27 on). He's 31 home runs away from 500, and I would not be surprised to see him reach that milestone this year. If Delgado is done, the in-system help would come in the form of Nick Evans, who hit .311/.365/.561 as a 22-year-old in AA last year and kept his head above water during his time with the big-league team.
4. The Mets' biggest offseason acquisitions were J.J. Putz and Francisco Rodriguez. Was this a good use of resources? Were the Mets just a bullpen away from going deep into the playoffs? How do you feel about the way Omar spent his offseason, and how confident are you in him?
I do think that going after Putz and Rodriguez was a good use of resources. When conducting an autopsy of the 2008 season, there are a couple of numbers that just jump off the page. The Mets scored exactly as many runs as the Phillies did. Their starting pitchers gave up 31 fewer runs. Their relief pitchers gave up 66 more runs. When you factor in the home ballparks of the two teams, it really makes it clear which parts of the team deserve the credit for keeping the Mets in contention and which deserve the blame for the team ultimately falling short. The bullpen was a serious problem last year, and Omar responded by getting the two best relievers on the market without overpaying for either one (I was all about settling for Brian Fuentes when K-Rod was looking to get 5/75) and getting rid of last year's worst offenders (good riddance, Scott Schoeneweis).
I'm also more than happy with the decision to re-sign Oliver Perez. Again, I'm one of the bigger Perez boosters out there, but between his youth and his high strikeout rate, if the choice was between him and Derek Lowe I'm going with Perez. I'm less happy with the decision not to eat Castillo's contract once it became clear that Orlando Hudson wasn't going to get the big contract he wanted, and I do have to blame Omar there for the decision to give Castillo that bloated four-year deal in the first place.
I know some fans are upset over the Mets not really going after Manny, but I don't think that was Omar's decision - the Wilpons are extremely image-conscious and there's no way they would have signed off on Manny given the circumstances of his departure from Boston. Overall, I'm fairly confident in Omar - he does lean a bit too heavily towards "proven veterans" and players he had with the Expos for my taste, but he does have a talent for picking up good players off the scrap heap to go with the big-ticket free agents, and the two front-office moves that have pissed me off the most (trading Lastings Milledge and refusing to go over slot in the draft) bear the owners' fingerprints.
5. What was the most surprising thing about the Mets' 2008? What will be the most surprising thing about the Mets' 2009?