Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Curious Case of the New York Metropolitans Base Ball Club

In the local papers there's been a lot of hand-wringing over Mets ace Johan Santana, last season's big haul in the trade market. Santana has won the Cy Young as a Minnesota Twin and his career numbers are sparkling, to say the least. With Santana (only 29), the Mets had one of the stronger pitching staffs of the entire National League: John Maine (27) building on two good seasons, the erratic but talented Oliver Perez (just shy of 27), a (hopefully) healthy Pedro Martinez, and (hopefully) a breakout year from oft-maligned Mike Pelfrey.

Disclosure: I've done my share of the maligning. As usual, I'm an idiot - the kid's only 24, and thanks to his past two months, he's become the second-best starter the team has. (But I still think he needs to strike out more guys to be a reliable front-line starter.) But there are a lot of fellow idiots out there, apparently, since everyone's down on the first-best guy, Santana. Some have even taken to calling him "ace" in scare quotes, as if he should be putting up Gibson's 1968 numbers or something.

The truth is, Santana has been excellent, but has been repeatedly let down by his offense or his bullpen. He's "only" 8-7, so is something wrong? Yes, but not with how the guy is throwing. His WHIP is a little up, but he leads the team's starters; his ERA is right about 3.00 (league average is 4.11). Last night's implosion against the Phillies was more of the same for the guy.

This is what's so curious about the Mets these days. From an objective standpoint, the past decade has been pretty good, all things considered: they made the playoffs three times and won the National League pennant in 2000. They had a downturn during the transition from Piazza/Ziele/Alfonso to Wright/Reyes/Beltran, and have been one of the most competitive NL clubs since 2005. Besides the Red Sox, Cardinals, and Yankees, there aren't really any teams' fans with LESS right to complain about the past ten years, actually.

The fans do it anyway. We look at 2006 as a failure, and 2007 as a debacle, and 2008 as an ongoing antacid commercial. All these are not inaccurate, but they miss the point. This has been a team with a lot to look forward to for the past few years, and a lot to look forward to in the future.

* 2006 was a total upset, not indicative of a fundamentally-flawed team.
* 2007 was (admittedly) terrible, but was it a surprise? Seven of the eight regulars were worse in '07 than in '06 (only Wright improved), the pitching staff was patchwork, the bullpen was overworked... if the Phils had gotten hot in July instead of September it would have been the same thing, only much less dramatic. (Remember the Mets played .500 ball for four solid months.)
* 2008 is hard to watch sometimes, but the team is right in the race despite sacking the manager, suffering more injuries (especially in the outfield), and a bullpen taking turns at being Armando Benitez.

Seriously, would we rather have the past ten seasons of Kansas City, Milwaukee, or Pittsburgh? Would you rather be a Reds or Padres fan right now? I think that people forget results in favor of how (and to whom) those results have been achieved. The 2000 World Series had to be against the #%$^&%$^! Yankees. The Cards were much better in '04, but somehow the '06 guys snuck through their mediocre division and got a hot month when it counted most. And of all teams to cough it up against, the Phillies? Why us? seems to be the reaction.

Last night was a microcosm of that feeling. If the Phils had simply hit a bunch of homers the way Howard and Burrell always do against them, well - that happens from time to time. But Endy Chavez thrown out twice at home? Utley's diving grab with the sacks full? Reyes' brain fart in the ninth, getting nobody out, while Shane Victorino grinned and nodded and made "safe" motions on second base? (I almost punched him in the head through the TV screen.) Then Chavez' late break on Taguchi's double, a ball he could have caught, sealed the deal.

But they're still in it, and it's mostly because of two very good breaks, and good breaks aren't typically noted by fans as such. (People tend to notice the unlucky breaks and credit the lucky ones to themselves.) For one, Pelfrey has pitched as well as he has yet in his big-league career; for another, Carlos Delgado has rediscovered his bat speed and is hitting credibly again. Last month I would have gladly traded the both of them for a decent stick in the outfield (still sorely needed). Now I would probably think twice. (Remember, I'm not sold on Pelfrey's long-term career - this may be the time to sell high, while he's young and has appeal to rebuilding teams trying to part with a good veteran. If he can help bring back a guy like Adam Dunn, make the deal.) (BTW, this is hugely unlikely, but a fellow can dream.)

So, 2008 is not a lost cause. Then next year the Mets still have Wright/Reyes/Beltran, who are an excellent three-man core, with Santana/Perez/Maine fronting the rotation. They have Fernando Martinez in AA and ready to contribute in a couple of years. They can hopefully sign Mark Teixeira and deal Delgado for some sort of prospect - hopefully a catcher, which they'll need soon. (A lot of teams have good young catchers lately, and the Mets have to get with the program.) This is not a team that looks to fall off a cliff.

No comments: