Ah, the Mets. You know, they’re not really that bad of a franchise. They’ve won four pennants while no other expansion team has won more than two. They were the first expansion team to win the World Series, and also the first to win a second (no expansion team has won more). They’ve followed every stretch of losing with a period of winning of similar length, having made four complete cycles in their 48-year history. Their new ballpark, in which they’ll host the Yankees for three games this weekend, is a gem.
Still, they just never seem to get things quite right. They’re baseball’s equivalent of Jerry on Parks & Recreation, a decent, well-meaning, hard-working city employee, who nonetheless botches everything he does and is the subject of merciless ridicule and scorn from his fellow employees.
The Mets have been in full-blown Jerry mode since September 2007, when they suffered a momentous collapse and lost the division to the Phillies on the final day of the season. In 2008 they suffered a similar, though less extreme September collapse, again coughing up the division to the rival Phillies. Then last year everything fell apart. Despite debuting their handsome new ballpark (which bizarrely celebrated the legacy of the Brooklyn Dodgers rather than the Mets’ own history and prompted the creation of the worst sleeve patch in Major League Baseball history), the Mets were a disaster. Everyone got hurt except David Wright, who inexplicably stopped hitting for power, the owners spent the season fending off rumors of Bernie Madoff-induced poverty, and everyone in the front office lost their damn minds.
That was how I opened my first Yankees-Mets series preview a year ago on Bronx Banter, amid yet another embarrassing, frustrating, and disappointing season for the crosstown Muts. The Madoff rumors proved to have a significant amount of truth to them. The rotation imploded both physically and emotionally, with Jon Maine and Oliver Perez butting heads with the team over arm injuries that would limit them to a combined 16 starts and ultimately lead the team to non-tender Maine in December and release Perez during spring training. In January, Carlos Beltran had knee surgery against the teams wishes and didn't return to action until July. Soon after Beltran's return, the team's big free agent addition, left fielder Jason Bay, suffered a concussion, ending his season with just six home runs in 401 plate appearances. In August, closer Francisco Rodriguez was arrested for assaulting his own father-in-law at Citi Field and missed the rest of the season with a torn thumb ligament that he suffered during the altercation. In September, Johan Santana had surgery to repair a torn capsule in his shoulder, the same surgery that derailed Chien-Ming Wang's career.
The off-season finally brought a complete overhaul of the team's baseball management as general manager Omar Minaya was fired and replaced with the highly-respected Sandy Alderson, who hadn't held a GM position since passing the A's over to Billy Beane in 1998, and Alderson, in turn, replaced field manager Jerry Manuel with the similarly rusty Terry Collins, who last manged in the majors for the Angels in 1999. The new Mets administration is swooping in like Rob Lowe and Adam Scott in an attempt to bring responsibility and focus to the organization, but there's still a lot of Jerry.
Santana will miss most of the season, and while Bay is back in action, K-Rod is back to being a dominant closer, and the 34-year-old Beltran, who is in the final year his contract, is hitting like Carlos Beltran again (albeit as a right fielder who doesn't steal bases), the three bright spots from 2010 are all hurt or struggling. Sophomore first baseman Ike Davis (son of former Goose Gossage set-up man Ron) was raking before tripping over David Wright while both chased after an infield pop-up, badly spraining his ankle and landing on the disabled list. Angel Pagan, who ably replaced Beltran in center last year, wasn't hitting at all before suffering an oblique strain that ultimately pushed him to the DL, and as you'll see below, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who starts tonight against Freddy Garcia, has gone back to being R.A. Dickey after spending a season as Charlie Hough. Joining Davis, Pagan, and Santana on the DL is David Wright, who has a lower back stress fracture, which sounds worse than it is, or worse than it should be, these are the Mets, after all.
I won't bother to include off-season addition Chris Young to that list as the 6-foot-10 righty hasn't made 30 starts in a season since 2007. Still, he's having the same surgery Santana had, and that puts the Mets starting corner infielders, center fielder, and two very talented starters on the DL. Jose Reyes is having a nice season, but that only brings up the issue of his impending free agency and what kind of contract the cash-strapped Mets can or should offer him, particularly given his own less-than-rosy injury history. Adding insult to injury (well, really injury to injury to injury) the team's top pitching prospect, Jenrry Mejia underwent Tommy John surgery this past Monday.
Given all that, the Mets are doing well by hanging close to .500 in a talented division. Yes, the injuries to Wright and Davis are fairly recent developments, but then they as well as Pagan and reliever Bobby Parnell could all be back in action by early June. The Mets have gotten good work from their late-inning relievers thus far, and a lineup with a healthy core of Reyes, Wright, Beltran, Bay, and Davis could keep the Mets in the top half of the league in run scoring, provided Wright and Bay start hitting. The Mets aren't a terribly old team (Wright and Reyes are 28, Davis and catcher Josh Thole are 24, starters Mike Pelfrey, Jonathon Niese, and Dillon Gee are 27, 25, and 24, respectively, Frankie Rodriguez is 29, Mejia will be just 22 when he's ready to return to action), and they have some real talent, but changing the culture and the fortunes of the team remains a monumental task for Alderson and his administration.
Freddy Garcia (2-3, 3.22) vs. R.A. Dickey (1-5, 5.08), Friday, May 20, 7:05, Ch. 9/MLBN
Dickey is a great story, or at least he was last season. Born without an ulnar collateral ligament (you know, the one that, when ruptured, costs pitchers a full season via Tommy John surgery), Dickey was nontheless a first-round draft pick way back in 1996 (Rangers, #18), but fought injuries and bounced between starting and relieving, including some time spent as a minor league closer, before reinventing himself as a Charlie Hough-tutored knuckleballer at the age of 30 in 2005. He made just one appearance in the major leagues in 2006 (a start in which he allowed six home runs in just 3 1/3 innings) and none in 2007 before re-starting his career as a swing man with the Mariners in 2008, but his results were no better there or with the Twins the following year. Then, last year, he went to Mets camp as a non-roster invitee, made four strong starts for Triple-A Buffalo to start the season, was called up as a spot-starter when Jonathon Niese strained his hamstring (again), turned in a pair of quality starts, and has been in the rotation ever since.
Throwing his mid-70s, "hard knuckler" more than two-thirds of the time, and alternating it primarily with a mid-80s fastball (by comparison, Tim Wakefield throws his knuckler roughly 90 percent of the time, and both that pitch and his fastball are ten miles per hour slower than Dickey's), the 35-year-old Dickey effectively matched Johan Satana's performance across the board in 2010, rivaling the superstar lefty for the title of the team's best starter. In fact, with Santana out for most of the season due to a torn shoulder capsule, Dickey was considered the veteran anchor in the rotation coming into this season, but thus far his chariot seems to have turned back into a pumpkin. Dickey has just three quality starts in eight tries, and in his last three outings has allowed 16 runs (one unearned) and four home runs while striking out just six in 18 1/3 innings, good for a 7.36 ERA. A former English literature major at the University of Tennesee, Dickey is thoughtful and eloquent and hard not to root for, but it's also hard to believe that last year wasn't his Aaron Small season, and that the best we can hope for from him going forward is a career as a broadcaster and maybe a self-penned book or two.
Incidentally, I've been trying for years to build a limerick around R.A. Dickey's name, but it's just not working. Same for the town of Metuchen, New Jersey. I open the floor (though perhaps to keep things family friendly, you should tweet your entries to me, @CliffCorcoran, rather than leave them in comments, email also accepted).
Freddy Garcia's odyssey through ill-timed injuries, a significant drop in velocity, and non-roster invitations is dull by comparison. Garcia seems to be finding his level. Since turning in a pair of scoreless six-inning outings to start his career as a Yankee starter, he has posted a 4.63 ERA over four starts while allowing six home runs in 23 1/3 innings (a whopping 2.3 HR/9 and an average of less than six innings per start). His opponents have hit .305/.380/.537 against him over that span and 27 percent of the balls put in play against him are line drives (the league average is 20 percent), and in his last two starts he has struck out just seven men in 11 1/3 innings (the resulting 5.6 K/9 is right in line with his strikeout rate with the White Sox over the last two years).
A.J. Burnett (4-3, 3.99) vs. Chris Capuano (3-4, 4.78), Saturday, May 21, 7:10, FOX
Lefty Chris Capuano won 18 games for the Brewers back in 2005 and made the NL All-Star team in 2006, but things went south in 2007, and his ulnar collateral ligament went sproing in 2008. That led to Capuano's second Tommy John surgery (his first came while he was a minor leaguer in the Diamondbacks' system in 2002), and he didn't pitch in the majors at all in '08 or 2009. Capuano returned to the Brewers as a 31-year-old swingman last year, albeit with his solid pre-injury peripherals intact. Desperate for starters in the wake of the 2010 injuries to Johan Santana, Jon Maine, and Oliver Perez, the Mets gave Capuano an incentive-laden major league deal in January and, after a rough April, are starting to get some positive return on their minimal investment. Capuano hasn't allowed more than two runs in any of his three may starts, two of which were quality, and one of which fell just an inning short, but saw him strikeout six men in five frames. Capuano gets his best results with a changeup and slider that both sit around 80 miles per hour, mixing them with a mid-80s fastball and the rare cutter. He's very much in the Freddy Garcia class, but is two years younger, left-handed, and has a more forgiving home ballpark.
A.J. Burnett gave up one hit, a solo home run, in seven innings in his last home start. In his one start since then he gave up six runs, five of them on a trio of home runs, in 5 2/3 frames. So it goes.
Ivan Nova (4-3, 4.33) vs. Mike Pelfrey (3-3, 5.11), Sunday, May 22, 1:05, YES/TBS
Big Pelf is nothing special and something of a Citi Field phenomenon (career: 3.50 ERA, 0.5 HR/9 at home; 5.58 ERA, 1.0 HR/9 on the road). He's a tall (6-foot-7) sinker/slider pitcher who throws 91, doesn' t get an excess of ground balls, and has trouble missing bats (career 5.1 K/9, down to 4.4 thus far this year). His two starts against the Yankees last year tell the same story: one run in six innings and a win in Queens, five runs (four on home runs by Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira) in seven innings in the Bronx, seven strikeout in 13 innings (4.8 K/9) overall.
Ivan Nova has allowed more than two runs in just one of his five starts since his long layoff in mid-April, going 3-1 with a 2.54 ERA over that span, but he's been a bit lucky on balls in play (.247), isn't generating ground balls at a rate that would support such luck (which was supposed to be one of his talents), and has a Pelfrey-esque strikeout rate of 4.7 K/9 over that span, with 15 Ks against 11 walks. Per the Pitch f/x information at TexasLeaguers.com, he has been almost exclusively a two-pitch pitcher over those last five starts, alternating a 92-mile-per-hour heater with an 80 mph curve, and hasn' t been missing bats with either. He'll occasionally split the difference with a changeup, but that magic slutter, which he was using without much success in early April, has vanished like the Cheshire Cat.
New York Mets
2011 Record: 21-22 (.488)
2011 Third-Order Record: 20-23 (.460)
2010 Record: 79-83 (.488)
2010 Third-Order Record: 77-85 (.475)
Manager: Terry Collins
General Manager: Sandy Alderson
Home Ballpark: Citi Field
Bill James Park Indexes (2009-2010):
LH Avg-95; LH HR-95
RH Avg-97; RH HR-83
Who's replacing whom:
• Sandy Alderson is replacing Omar Minaya
• Terry Collins is replacing Jerry Manuel
• Daniel Murphy (mL) is replacing Luis Castillo
• Carlos Beltran is taking over Jeff Francoeur's playing time
• Josh Thole has inherited Rod Barajas's playing time
• Ronny Paulino is replacing Henry Blanco
• Scott Hairston is replacing Chris Carter and Jesus Feliciano
• Willie Harris is replacing Ruben Tejada (mL) and Alex Cora
• Tejada is filling in for David Wright (DL)
• Justin Turner (mL) is filling in for Ike Davis (DL)
• Fernando Martinez (mL) is filling in for Angel Pagan (DL)
• Nick Evans is replacing Fernando Tatis and Mike Jacobs
• Ronny Paulino is replacing Henry Blanco
• Chris Capuano is filling in for Johan Santana (DL)
• Dillon Gee is filling in for Chris Young (DL) who was replacing the starts of John Maine, Oliver Perez, Hisanori Takahashi, and Gee himself
• Taylor Buchholz, Jason Isringhausen, and Pedro Beato replace Elmer Dessens, Manny Acosta, Fernando Nieve and Jenrry Mejia (mL)
• Tim Byrdak and Michael O'Connor are replacing Pedro Feliciano, Raul Valdes, and Hisanori Takahashi's relief innings
• Pat Misch is filling in for Bobby Parnell (DL)
1B - Daniel Murphy (L)
2B - Ruben Tejada (R)
SS - Jose Reyes (S)
3B - Justin Turner (R)
C - Josh Thole (L)
RF - Carlos Beltran (S)
CF - Jason Pridie (L)
LF - Jason Bay (R)
L - Willie Harris (UT)
R - Scott Hairston (OF)
R - Nick Evans (1B)
R - Ronny Paulino (C)
L - Fernando Martinez (OF)
R - Mike Pelfrey
L - Jonathan Niese
R - Dillon Gee
R- R.A. Dickey
L - Chris Capuano
R - Francisco Rodriguez
R - Taylor Buchholz
R - Jason Isringhausen
R - Pedro Beato
L - Tim Byrdak
L - Michael O'Connor
L - Patrick Misch
3B - David Wright (stress fracture in lower back)
1B - Ike Davis (left ankle sprain and bone bruise)
CF - Angel Pagan (point tenderness in left side)
RHP - Chris Young (torn anterior capsule in right shoulder)
RHP - Bobby Parnell (blood clot in right middle finger
LHP - Johan Santana (torn anterior capsule in left shoulder)