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March 23 2007

The Mets' domination of the National League East last season was complete.  They jumped out early with a 16-8 April and never looked back, finishing an NL-best 97-65 and 12 games ahead of the second-place Phils in the East. 

Powered by Reyes, Wright, Beltran and Delgado, the Mets offense had no trouble scoring in 2006 and aren't likely to in 2007 either.  They scored 834 runs, which was third in the NL behind only the Phils and the Braves.  Unlike the Phils and the Braves, the '06 Mets had the pitching to go with their high-powered offense.  They allowed just 731 runs, which was the third-fewest in the NL.  Their pen, led by fireballing former Phil Billy Wagner, threw to an NL-best 3.25 ERA. 

The bad news for the Phils and everyone else in the NL is they're bringing back most of the same guys this season.  Cliff Floyd is gone, but 40-year-old Moises Alou has been added coming off a year where he hit 301/352/571 with 22 homers in 345 bats.  As long as he stays healthy he seems sure to produce.  The Kaz Matsui experiment is over.  Coming off a strong season Jose Valentin looks like he'll get most of the work at second.  What problems the Mets do have could be with their pitching.  Steve Trachsel made 30 starts last season and is now an Oriole.  Health questions are still the issue with Pedro Martinez, who may return in mid-July.  In the pen, Chad Bradford is now in Baltimore and Duaner Sanchez continues to battle health issues.  Guillermo Mota, who was lights out down the stretch for the Mets last season, has been put in time out for 50 games.

It kinda sounds encouraging when you put it all the pitching problems together like that.  If you take a minute to picture Antonio Alfonseca trotting in to pitch the eighth in a tie game you should be back in the right frame of mind.

Here are some of the guys in the mix for the 2007 Mets:

 

C Paul LoDuca
   
1B Carlos Delgado
   
2B Jose Valentin
   
3B David Wright
   
SS Jose Reyes
   
OF Carlos Beltran, Moises Alou, Shawn Green, Endy Chavez, Lastings Milledge
   
SP Tom Glavine, Orlando Hernandez, John Maine, Oliver Perez, Mike Pelfrey, Pedro Martinez
   
Key Pen Billy Wagner, Aaron Heilman, Duaner Sanchez, Pedro Feliciano, Jorge Sosa, Ambiorix Burgos, Guillermo Mota
   

Mike Steffanos writes about the Mets at his excellent blog Mike's Mets.  He took some time to answer some questions about how things were looking for New York.

What remains to be decided for the Mets this spring and what's the latest on how things are looking in the starting rotation?

Who will fill out the starting rotation is the only real major decision left to be made.  Barring injury, Tom Glavine and Orlando Hernandez will lead the rotation.  John Maine, who is having a good spring and has impressed everyone with his maturity, is a lock for the third spot.  The front runners for the other two slots are Chan Ho Park and Oliver Perez.

Park had a decent year with San Diego in 2006, and seems to have enough left to have a realistic shot at a job.  His numbers have slipped since he left the Dodgers, of course, but I think the Mets will give Park every chance to prove he can be a solid veteran innings eater for the rotation.

Perez is the quintessential project.  He has tremendous upside to be an above-average major league starter, but he also has two season worth of struggles to overcome.  He showed real poise in the playoffs last year, and seems to have the right attitude to pitch in New York.  So far this spring his mechanics look better, but he'll be a work in progress heading into the season, and there certainly are no guarantees with him.

If either Park or Perez falters, Mike Pelfrey is the clear front-runner among the remaining candidates.  He's really looking good in camp.  He's a groundball machine and has been showing a solid changeup and slider to complement the great fastball.  Even if he doesn't win a job out of camp, it's only a question of when he comes up, not if.  Jason Vargas, who came over from the Marlins, and 2004 first round pick Philip Humber give the Mets some depth for the rotation.

I don't think the Mets starting rotation is in the dire straights that it is portrayed to be in some quarters.  They have some good young pitchers who can have a real opportunity to win a job, and there is a good amount of depth in the system.  The Mets aren't asking their starting rotation to lead them in 2007, but rather simply keep them in the game until the bullpen takes over.  Can the lack of an established rotation derail their chances in 2007?  Of course it can.  Every team in the NL east is vulnerable somewhere, and the Mets certainly are vulnerable in the rotation.  But I think some baseball writers are completely writing off the Mets because of it, and I really think it has a decent chance of working out okay for  the club.

Lesser questions to be decided involve the bullpen and the right fielder.  Duaner Sanchez, who pitched the eighth inning most of last year before getting into a taxi accident, will not be ready for the beginning of the season.  The Mets are actually quite deep in the bullpen, and there are several good candidates for the job.  Joe Smith, a third round pick last season, is pitching well enough to possibly win one of those jobs.

Shawn Green has shown no signs so far of recovering the stroke that made him one of the better power hitters in the game as recently as 2002.  Lastings Milledge has had a good camp both on and off the field, and has a chance of taking the job away from Green.  My best guess is that Green gets the job out of camp, but will need to hit in April to keep it.  The Mets RF will bat seventh in the lineup, which takes some of the pressure and sense of urgency off this decision.

Lastings Milledge's name always always seems to be out there among the trade rumors.  Do you expect the Mets to trade him?  The Mets also have a big group of top pitching and outfield prospects.  Will any of them be in the mix at the Major League level in '07?

There was a perception out there in the media that the Milledge was some sort of clubhouse cancer that the club was desperate to dump.  The Mets insisted that Milledge was just immature and would be fine.  This has proven to be the case this spring.  The publicity surrounding Milledge has undoubtedly lowered his value around the league, however, and I don't think the Mets feel that they could get enough value in return for Lastings at this time.  I do think if someone made them a decent offer, particularly for young pitching, they would consider it.  Right now it's probably more likely that he stays with the Mets and begins the year in Triple-A.

I think Mike Pelfrey has a chance of making the rotation out of camp.  If not, barring injury, I think he'll be there at some point during the season.  Phil Humber is another young pitcher who has a very good chance of contributing this season.  If Milledge isn't traded I think he'll be the first guy up from the minors if either Moises Alou or Shawn Green gets hurt.  If Milledge is gone, Carlos Gomez would get that call.  Fernando Martinez is the best of the outfield prospects, and may even start the year in Double-A despite only being 18 with one year of pro experience.  He's on the fast track, but even a September call-up might be a little too fast.

The National League East features some of the best infielders in all of baseball.  What's your opinion about how David Wright and Jose Reyes stack up against the Marlins' duo of Miguel Cabrera and Hanley Ramirez and the Phillies' Ryan Howard and Chase Utley?

I know this is a popular topic among fans, but it's something I always take a pass on.  I like all of these players a lot, and feel fortunate that there is a level of young talent in this division that will be fun to watch for years to come.  You can throw Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann into the mix, too, and feel pretty secure that the NL east will be fun to watch over the next few years.

As a Mets fan, I'm also simply grateful that the team finally has a commitment to developing some of its own young talent rather than overpaying for mediocre veterans.

If you held a gun to my head and told me I had to give up Wright and Reyes but could have one of the other pairs in return I would take Utley and Howard.  Cabrera is the most talented player in the group, but I don't love his work ethic.  Utley impresses me with both his talent and that he respects the game.

After leading the Mets to 97 wins in his second year at the helm, Willie Randolph looks to have emerged in the minds of many as one of the best managers in baseball.  What do you see as his strengths as a manager?

Willie's strength as a manager is his people skills.  He has a knack for reading and motivating his players and creating a winning atmosphere -- no small feat in New York where mediocrity or worse has ruled for most of the last decade and a half before he came here.  He's only an average in-game manager, both with his strategy and handling of the pitching staff.  He has improved in those areas, but that's never going to be his strength.  He's a winner, and also a professional, and he has managed to instill those qualities in his players.

How do you see the NL East shaping up this season?

I think it's going to be a tight division this year.  I made the point on my blog that you could easily make a case for anyone except the Nationals winning the division, and make a worst case scenario of any of those teams -- including my Mets -- finishing fourth.  All of the contenders have strengths and weaknesses.

The Mets have a terrific lineup and one of the better bullpens in baseball.  They have talent in their rotation.  On the other hand, they are somewhat old and their young pitchers have yet to prove themselves.  If it works out with the young pitchers it could go really well, if not we'll all be wearing paper bags over our heads by June.

The Phillies will also score, and have the best top to bottom starting rotation.  Their bullpen is scary, however.  They will need to keep their starters healthy and pick up a really solid reliever to maximize their chances.  I don't see Tom Gordon holding up physically
all season, and it's a question whether the bullpen is deep enough to hold the leads the rotation hands them.

The Marlins have a terrific young rotation, but the sophomore year is often a little tougher.  Their bullpen is a mirage at this point.  Still, with the high quality of young players they have both on the team and in the system they are likely to be in the mix all year.  I still think they come up short.

The Braves have the potential to field the most balanced pitching staff in the division, but they have already lost Hampton for a while and both Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez have a history of injury problems.  I just don't believe they are very deep, and think that things have to go really perfectly for them to contend.

I still like the Mets to win it.  Their pitching is better than people think.  Phillies second, Marlins third, Braves in fourth.

Many thanks to Mike.  Don't forget to make the necessary lifestyles changes required to follow the Mets daily at his site, Mike's Mets.

This article from the Phillies web site says that the injuries to Freddy Garcia and Ruiz aren't serious.  Garcia's injury is so unserious the Phillies don't know when he will throw again.  Both players will be re-examined tomorrow. 

This article says Garcia will miss at least one start.

This article gives a better list of injured Phils than I gave yesterday.  It adds Matt Smith (groin), Geoff Geary (hamstring) and Greg Dobbs (wrist).

The same article also suggests a possible trade that would send Rowand to the White Sox for Mike MacDougal and Rob Mackowiak.  If the Phillies had a chance to make that deal and chose not to I would be surprised.  Given the worries the White Sox have about closer Bobby Jenks, you have to wonder how willing they would be to give up MacDougal who is no doubt their backup plan.  It would be a good deal for the Phils.

I don't think we'll ever see Werth catch in a game that counts in the standings.  He did yesterday in a minor league game.

The Phillies and Red Sox played to a 4-4 tie in a ten inning game yesterday.  The Phils are 8-13 with two ties this spring.

Chase Utley hit another home run, his fourth of spring training.  He was 1-for-4 with two RBI.  Nunez was 3-for-4 with three singles.  Howard and Burrell combined to go 0-for-8 with five strikeouts.    Rowand went 0-for-3 to drop his average to .172. 

Karim Garcia was back in the outfield where he belongs.  He went 3-for-4 with a double and an RBI but made an error in right.  Bourn was 0-for-2. 

Jamie Moyer got the start for the Phils and went five innings, allowing four runs on five hits and a walk.  Moyer struck out the side in the first but Wily Mo Pena led off the second with a home run.  In the third the first two men reached on a walk and a single before Youkilis hit a three-run shot.  Moyer gave up a double and a single in the fourth but kept the Red Sox off the board.  He returned for the fifth and set Boston down 1-2-3.

Jon Lieber got a taste of relief work.  He entered the game in the top of the sixth and threw two scoreless innings, allowing two singles while striking out three.  Lieber lowered his ERA to 1.12, which is the lowest of the nine pitchers that have started a game for the Phillies this spring.

Joe Bisenius followed Lieber and went three innings, allowing just a single walk.  He lowered his spring ERA to 1.80 as he continues to demand consideration for a spot in the pen.

The Phillies play the Braves this afternoon.

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