By Bruce Markusen
Spring Training Edition
From Madness To A Miracle?
After the stench of last yearís odious mess at Shea Stadium, fans of the New York Mets should be excused for excessive hyperventilation this spring. For the first time since the pennant-winning season of 2000, the Mets have a team that borders on the likeable. More importantly, they may have the makings of a club that can set a reasonable goal of competing for the National Leagueís wild card berth. Yes, itís amazing what can happen when a new front office adds one of the gameís three best defensive center fielders, finds a powerful rookie shortstop who resembles nothing close to the feeble limitations of Rey Ordonez, and fortifies a shredded bullpen with a playoff-tested veteran and a group of hardball-humming youngsters.
At the very least, the Mets will be a much improved defensive team in 2004. Mike Cameron, whoís used to playing spacious outfields, should have little trouble making the transition to the tricky winds and mind-numbing airplane noise of Shea Stadium; the Mets can point to pages of statistical analysis that declare Cameron as the gameís best defensive center fielder. With Japanese sensation Kaz Matsui and sophomore stud Jose Reyes (assuming his hamstring problems donít become chronic) manning the middle infield, the Mets may have the kind of athleticism and range that the rival Yankees can only dream about at second and short. (Letís just hope that Super Joe McEwing receives a minimum of playing time this summer.) The decision to flip-flop Mike Piazza and Jason Phillips is long overdue, improving the teamís catching while doing minimal damage to first base. And if Shane Spencer and Karim Garcia end up platooning in right field, theyíll be more than adequate (and better than wrong-way Roger Cedeno); both are limited in range, but are surehanded and can throw, with Garcia possessing one of the gameís most underrated outfield arms.
All of the past transactions aside, the Mets may have some options on the trading block for future improvements. Several teams have called to inquire about the availability of Vance Wilson, one of the National Leagueís better backup catchers. The Mets are saying no for now, but theyíll change their minds for the right price, knowing that they have both Phillips and Piazza available to catch immediately, with top prospect Justin Huber primed for arrival in 2005. The Mets also have depth in their bullpen, thanks in part to the luring of ex-Marlin Braden Looper, which is always a nice springtime commodity. Some members of the Metsí brass would like to make room for 26-year-old Orber Moreno, who has resuscitated his career after suffering a torn labrum during his days with the Royals. (And no, heís no relation to “Omar the Outmaker,” the original O. Moreno.) The much improved Grant Roberts is one pitcher who has drawn interest from other teams; he could end up as the Metsí fifth starter, in the bullpen, or in some other major league market during the season. Tyler Yates is another attractive commodity to rival clubs, but the Mets have no intention of trading the hard-throwing right-hander, who will probably start the season at Triple-A Norfolk.
With catching and pitching to spare, what do the Mets want in return? Theyíre still on the lookout for outfield help and have talked to the Blue Jays about Jayson Werth, whoís out of options but is still only 24, and to the Pirates about Sabermetric favorite Craig Wilson, who just canít seem to win the favor of manager Lloyd McClendon. Both Werth and the underrated Wilson would make sense in right field, either as everyday players or in a platoon with Garcia. Another possibility is Baltimoreís Jay Gibbons, who can be had for the right package of young pitching. A left-handed swinger, Gibbons could platoon with Spencer, who has never mastered right-handed pitching (a .313 OBP and a .371 slugging mark over the past three years)