Five Questions: New York Mets

July 30, 2004… Known in Met fans land as Black Friday. After that fateful day, Met fans became disenchanted with a front office that they didn’t trust. Well, that is until Omar Minaya came in as the new GM, replacing Jim Duquette.

And after an exciting and active off-season that included signing two of the biggest free agents out on the market, the optimism is back in Met fans. But just how excited should they be? Well, that depends on how they feel about the many question marks on this team. So, with that said, let’s tackle a few of them…

1. So, those big time free agent signings of Pedro and Beltran… Just how big are they?

In two of the biggest off-season moves made, Omar Minaya signed Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran, hoping to have them as the centerpiece of a great Mets team. Pedro Martinez comes in to Shea off his worst year ERA-wise of his career, posting a 3.90 ERA in 217 IP for Boston last year, which was still good for a 125 ERA+. Most Met fans are optimistic that a move to the National League (which means facing the pitcher’s spot instead of a DH) and from Fenway to Shea should help to lower his ERA.

Of course, the Mets gave him four years, which many Met fans fear will look like a bad contract by the tail end because of Pedro’s perceived durability problems. Some of these fears are legitimate, some of them aren’t. It is true that Pedro has a partially torn labrum, which is something that really can’t be fixed. How bad it is depends on just who you ask. Pedro is also said to have problems going past the 100 pitch mark, and though our eyes tend to support that theory, the data seems rather inconclusive. But the biggest criticism of Pedro is that he won’t be able to go deep into games and is now a six-inning pitcher at maximum. And, well, that’s just not true…

Year: IP/GS
2002:  6.64
2003:  6.41
2004:  6.58

As you can tell, there isn’t much difference between Pedro’s ability to go deep into games in 2004 as there has been the last few years and he has posted ERAs in the 2.2‘s in those years. For his career (including 02-04), he has averaged 7.15 IP/GS, but once again, a move to the NL and seeing the pitching spot a few times a game makes Mets fans hope he’ll have to throw a few less pitches per batter (His P/IP in 2004 matched the second highest total of his career).

But, Pedro is also replacing Al Leiter, who did post a 3.21 ERA for the Mets last year. Take a look at the VORP for each pitcher last year…

Pitcher:   VORP
Pedro:     51.2
Al Leiter: 46.2

Win Shares has Leiter at 14.3 and Martinez at 16.7, which is about 2/3 of a win difference, similarly close to the .5 win differential that VORP indicates. Either way, neither system sees Martinez as a huge upgrade to the Mets rotation based on last year’s numbers, but going forward, this should benefit the Mets, considering Al Leiter’s horrible peripherals (especially K/BB and BB/9). Whether Martinez was the best possible upgrade is not clear, though considering his career you would have to think he is. Regardless, Martinez should be a considerable upgrade on what Al Leiter would have been for the Mets this year if they had picked up his option.

The other big free agent signing was Carlos Beltran, the big ticket of the off-season. He brings great defense to CF, a great baserunner (he is a career 89% basestealer) and a great young bat to put in the middle of the lineup, emphasis on young for a Mets team that has been very old as of late. Carlos has seen his IsoD and his IsoP go up every year of his career (in 2004 his IsoD was .100 and his IsoP was .281) and at 28 is in the middle of his peak. Expectations for his hitting might be a little tempered by his move to Shea (from the hitters paradises of Kauffman Stadium and The Juice Box), but after his performance in the playoffs last year and the big contract the Mets gave him, Met fans expect big things from him and it’s hard to believe they won’t get them.

Of course, Carlos Beltran did displace Mike Cameron, the Mets CF who was signed as a free agent last year, to RF. And that leads us nicely into our next question…

2. Will all of these position changes work for the Mets in 2005?

The Mets are making three position changes this year: Mike Cameron is moving to RF, Mike Piazza is moving back to catcher and Kaz Matsui is moving to 2B (with Jose Reyes going back to SS). In terms of controversy, the biggest deal was moving Mike Cameron.

During the off-season, before the Mets started to make a big run at Carlos Beltran, Mike Cameron said that he would be willing to play RF if the Mets were to sign Beltran. Judging by his reaction after the Mets completed the Beltran signing, Cameron probably thought the Mets would never actually land Beltran. Well, the Mets called his bluff, and after many rumors about Cameron being traded and his unhappiness with playing RF, Mike Cameron will finally be the Mets starting RF. So, what exactly does that mean? Well, Cameron plays a mean CF defense (even with his slightly down year last year), so you can only expect that he’ll be just in good in RF (though his arm is a little weak). But that’s not the concern among Mets fans… they are worried his offense won’t be able to carry the load in RF.

Mike Cameron was seventh in VORP among NL CFs last year (which includes Carlos Beltran’s half season in Houston) with 27.0. Considering that, one would expect that a move to RF would affect his VORP considerably. But consider two things…

1. Cameron played most of last year with a wrist injury that really seemed to affect his hitting. He had surgery this off-season to fix the problem (which is why he could possibly be on the DL opening day).

2. Carlos Beltran should put up a big hitting line in CF, which would almost be like a RF line, meaning that the Mets are still getting the big offensive production, just not from a position that normally has it, which is why the Mets can afford to put up for defense and decent hitting in RF.

Those reasons should allow Met fans to feel more optimistic about Cameron’s hitting this year and make them happy that the Mets held onto Cameron, despite the rumors.

The next player moving positions isn’t moving to a new one, but back to an old one. That would be Mike Piazza, who is moving back to catcher after an unsuccessful transition (to put it nicely) to 1B. His UZR last year was -18 and just from seeing him on TV, I could have honestly believed he was worse than that. But, with Piazza moving back to catcher, the onus once again goes on his offense (his defensive issues are overrated and only believed to be really bad because the one thing he’s really bad at is throwing). And the decline hasn’t been pretty…

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.
Mike Piazza
Year:   OPS
2000: 1.012
2001:  .957
2002:  .903
2003:  .860
2004:  .806

And the decline can be seen in his batting averages and especially his IsoP (his BB/PA was actually the highest of his career last year), which went from .290 to .178 from 2000 to 2004. So, just what can Met fans expect from Piazza? Honestly, no one is quite sure. The guy can still hit, but how much is not known and most Met fans are hoping he can keep above an .800 OPS. Of course, they also hope he can give them at least 110-115 games behind the plate without injury, but that is also questionable at this point. Really, Mike Piazza and his bat and health, at age 36, might just be the biggest question mark on the entire Met team.

The final position change is by far the most watched, as Kaz Matsui moves to 2B, allowing Jose Reyes to move back to SS. Kaz Matsui’s offensive production as a shortstop disappointed, as he put up a .272/.328/.396 line, not at all what was expected from the supposedly great 28-year-old Japanese import. But, his VORP at SS was still 23.7, good for 8th in the NL and a number that wouldn’t change much if he put up the same numbers at 2B. Of course, Met fans are hoping for a breakout from Kazuo, much like the other Matsui’s improvement in his second year. And they can hold their hope in Kazuo’s July numbers: 116 AB, .336/.384/.500

After that, Matsui had a few ABs in August (He hit .308, just with no power) before getting injured, and he came back from his lower back strain in the last weeks of the season, getting 28 ABs, which didn’t amount to much. Still, based on that July output, the last time Met fans really saw Matsui hit, there is reason to hope that he will put up the line he was expected to put up coming over here (which would not be his July line, but something better than his end of season mark).

As for his advertised gold glove defense at SS… well, it wasn’t true or at least wasn’t last year as he had a horrible year. His range wasn’t that bad (though he had big problems moving to his left), but his hands were suspect at times and his arm was just flat-out weak. The Mets get the cannon arm they want at SS by moving Reyes back there, but what about Matsui at 2B? Well, the shorter throw should definitely help with the arm problem (which was by far the biggest problem) and from the early returns and from what I’ve seen of spring training games, Matsui has looked very good at the position. Met fans can only hope that this time he really is as good as everyone says he’s going to be.

3. The Mets left side of the infield is extremely young. What can the Mets expect from Jose Reyes and David Wright?

Well, for Jose Reyes, the Mets expect health. Hamstring problems have hampered Jose Reyes for a long time, but they have finally seemed to clear up between winter ball and spring training this year. As for his actual game, well, it’s somewhat questionable too…

Jose has all the defensive tools: Range, speed and a cannon for an arm. He just has to put it all together without making too many young player mistakes. Doug Mientkiewicz should be a great help, especially on slightly errant throws, so Met fans should look forward to seeing Reyes flash his stuff on the defensive side of the ball.

As for his offense, it’s been suspect since he came up, but Met fans hold out hope in the fact that once he has gotten a chance to consistently play for a while in the majors the past two years, he has hit eventually. Here is his progression in 2003…

     Jose Reyes in 2003
Month:      AB  AVG/ OBP/ SLG
July:       73 .205/.211/.342
August:     91 .330/.340/.418
September: 110 .355/.408/.509

As you can see, as Reyes got a chance to adjust to the major league level his rookie year, he was really able to get a handle with the bat. The same occurred in 2004, after he finally got on the playing field after his hamstring mishaps last year…

     Jose Reyes in 2004
Month:      AB  AVG/ OBP/ SLG
June:       42 .119/.172/.262
July:      110 .318/.318/.418
August:     36 .250/.270/.417

And then he got injured in August (placed on the DL on the 13th), killing all the momentum from a month when he hit .318. But you will also notice something else… he didn’t walk once during that July. And well, that’s another concern on Reyes’ offensive game.

      Jose Reyes
Year:        PA   BB/K
2003 (ML):  292  13/36 
2004 (ML):  229   5/31

Even though he was injured and in and out of the lineup quite a bit, his extremely worse K/BB numbers in 2004 are a bit discouraging for the Mets. His minor league BB/K, 101/217, isn’t great, but his 2003 numbers at least reflected something close to that.

Reyes is a free swinger and a guy that does use his speed (he has a career 87% SB too) to help himself get on base, so he’s never been expected to walk much, but the Mets are instilling in him to be more patient, in hopes that he will draw a few more walks, since they want him to be their leadoff man (with a high OBP) for many years. Reyes seemed to work counts better and deeper later in last year than he did earlier in the year, but no one is really quite sure whether he will add a few walks and cut down the strikeouts.

As for Reyes’s partner on the left side of the infield, the sky seems the limit for David Wright at this point. Expectations are high on Wright, both for next year and for the next 10 years and it’s all because of his breakout last year…

   David Wright in 2004
League  AB  AVG/ OBP/ SLG
AA     223 .363/.467/.619
AAA    114 .298/.388/.579
MLB    263 .293/.332/.525

David Wright had a huge offensive year last year, even having much success in the majors. Met fans expect his walk rate to improve this year (to go more in line with his minor league numbers) and probably think they can get a similar average and power out of him this year, which would make for an amazing year for a 22 year old and could help fend off any declines from the likes of Mike Piazza and possibly Cliff Floyd.

As for Wright’s defense, all the reports have always been good on it (The Scott Rolen comparisons were a little out of hand though) and he has solid tools. He has the chance to be an above average fielding 3B and like Reyes, should be helped out by the addition of Doug Mientkiewicz to the Mets infield.

4. Is you or ain’t you a guru, Rick?

However fairly or unfairly, the trades of Black Friday and their worth now sit directly on the shoulders of Rick Peterson. So, will they work? Let’s take a look at both pitchers…

Kris Benson is a former #1 pick who, before Tommy John surgery that had him miss the 2001 season (after a 3.85 ERA in 2000 at age 25), seemed on the fast track to pitcher stardom. Since then, the results are mixed…

Kris Benson
Year:   ERA
2002:  4.70
2003:  4.97
2004:  4.31

So, considering his last 3 season with 4+ ERAs, why should there be any optimism from Met fans around Kris Benson and his ability to be at the top of the Mets rotation (given his new shiny contract)? Here’s a few…

1. Rick Peterson: Rick Peterson takes a lot of flack from Met fans, but this is still the guy who everyone loved as a pitching coach in Oakland. Add in that Kris Benson wants to work with him and this can be a successful relationship.

2. Defensive Improvement: Flip down to the list of pitchers whose ERA was much higher than their FIP in 2004 in this Studes article. #15 on the list is Kris Benson (those are his Pittsburgh numbers only), whose FIP in Pittsburgh was 0.58 lower than his ERA. Add in the Mets improved defense (which was already pretty good) and Kris’s support behind him should be much better.

3. His performance with the Mets: Albeit small, there is hope. Kris, in 68 innings, had a 6.8 K/9 and a 2.3 BB/9, giving him a 3 K/BB (51/17 ratio), much higher than his career number of 1.91. He gave up less than a hit-per-inning, though he did give up 1.1 HR/9, a number up far from his 2004 stint in Pittsburgh, but when added together, not really off his career line. Add in his superb starts in Spring Training so far this year and things are looking up for Kris.

Victor Zambrano, on the other hand, isn’t doing quite as well. His Spring Training starts have not been very good and Met fans have big concerns over these numbers…

Victor Zambrano
Year:  BB+HBP/9
2003:    6.02
2004:    7.48

In Victor Zambrano’s two years primarily as a starter, he has put up terrible numbers in this category, allowing way too many baserunners on without having to get hits.

Victor Zambrano has the natural stuff, but unless he can control where his pitches go, he is never going to be a very good pitcher and will never be one that can go deep into games (he averaged less than 6 innings per start last year). And Met fans will be very disappointed if all they get for Scott Kazmir is a 4+ ERA pitcher.

So, Rick, is you that guru?

5. Just who is going to make up the Mets bullpen?

Well, for one, Braden Looper is the closer. He had a very solid year last year, with his walks way down and a nice G/F ratio. But who is going to get the ball from the starters to Looper?

Well, the righty set-up man seems to be Mike DeJean. He had a tough year in Baltimore last year, but when he came to the Mets, pitched very well. Rick Peterson likes him and sees tools to work with, so there’s legitimate hope DeJean will do well.

The lefty side looks like Felix Heredia and Dae-Sung Koo. Felix Heredia was terrible last year for the Yankees and there isn’t much feeling that he’ll be much better this year. Koo, a South Korean pitcher who played in Japan last season, has a funky delivery and good splits against lefties in Japan, but no one is quite sure what to expect, leaving the left side of the Mets bullpen as a big question mark.

As for the other righties, even with Orber Moreno and Tyler Yates both on the DL, the list of options is very long. There is the long man, which, after the Kaz Ishii trade, looks to go to Matt Ginter, though Jae Seo and Aaron Heilman are also in competition. The other two righty spots available (word has it the Mets want to go with 7 pitchers in the bullpen) can go to Scott Strickland, Roberto Hernandez, Heath Bell or a few of the other guys hanging around camp.

For Met fans, the hope is that Heath Bell, who has a very impressive minor league track record, had an impressive call-up at the end of last year and lost a bunch of weight this off-season, gets a spot out of Spring Training, since it looks like he is capable of pitching a lot of good innings for the Mets. They also hope that Orber Moreno, one of the impressive arms from last year’s much maligned bullpen, can get healthy soon… and then stay healthy.

Conclusion: Overall, the Mets had a very exciting offseason and Met fans should expect to see a lot of good things out of their team this year. As for the playoffs… well, if a lot of the things listed above break right, it might just happen considering the lack of a runaway team for both the NL East and NL Wild Card.

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