Thursday, January 27, 2005

One True Thing

After the flurry of activity this winter, the Met starting lineup may finally be all set for the 2005 season. I’m not entirely convinced of this, but it is pretty safe to say that the infield is now set with the acquisition of Doug Mientkiewicz. The upside of signing the Mientkiewicz is the Gold Glove caliber defense that he brings to the right corner of the infield. The conventional wisdom is that this will have a steadying influence on the Mets' young infielders. The truth is that these players - Kaz Matsui, Jose Reyes, and David Wright – hold the key to the Mets’ fortunes in the upcoming season. Perhaps this is most true of Reyes, the dynamic but oft-injured shortstop who has teased Met fans with his raw athleticism. When Reyes first came up to the Mets in the summer of 2003 I felt much the same way as I did when I first saw Michael Vick playing football at Virginia Tech. It was amazing to me that an athlete playing at such a high level could be so obviously more gifted than his peers. All of us in Metropolitan Nation thanked the gods for our good fortune, while at the same time pleading with them to allow this one good thing to flourish and prosper in the barren wasteland that had become Shea Stadium. Of course, the gods are a cruel and arbitrary group. They smile on the unworthy in the Bronx, they bless the indifferent in Miami, they shed sunshine on the sun drenched in Arizona. We asked them, we implored them, for this one thing. Let this flash of brilliance, this sublime gift – let this one true thing be. Let him be our Jeter, our Pujols, our Vlad. And how have the gods answered us? With a resounding maybe, of course. Now, on the verge of what should be Reyes’ 3rd big league season, we still wait and wonder what will become of our fondest hope.

Well, I bring you good news of great joy. For unto us a child is born . . . Oh, my mistake, wrong story. But I do have good news anyway. Jose Reyes is tearing it up in the Dominican Winter League. Yea, yea, you knew that already. Big deal. Reyes is putting up big numbers against middle-aged factory workers and under-aged wannabes in the jungles of the Caribbean. Your reaction is understandable, if uninformed. You see, the Dominican League is a very good league filled with big time talent and major league players. And many of these big time talents and major league players are not performing nearly as well as Reyes is. In fact, none of them are. The Dominican League is currently finishing up its playoffs. Each playoff team has played 18 games. Below are the playoff averages for some of the recognizable talent in the league:

Tony Batista .190
Miguel Tejada .322
Charles Thomas .167
Julio Franco .293
Ron Belliard .214
Jose Guillen .267
D’Angelo Jimenez .250
Jose Offerman .288
Carlos Pena .045
Timo Perez .308

Jose Reyes .422

That’s right, .422. That’s 27 for 64. Throw in 9 stolen bases in 9 attempts. The next highest average on that list is Miguel Tejada, and I’ve heard he’s pretty good. He’s .100 points behind Jose. Actually another recognizable name has a playoff average even closer to Jose’s. Victor Diaz, .355.

To further validate the high quality of baseball in the Dominican League, let’s look at some regular season numbers for a group of major leaguers:

Tejada .250
Timo Perez .256
Eric Byrnes .273
Raul Mondesi .192 (I particularly like this one)
Willy Mo Pena .202
Angel Berroa .256
Pedro Feliz .227
Juan Uribe .227
Enrique Wilson .231


Jose Reyes .302

That .302 is based on a 38 for 126 regular season. This time throw in 11 bags in, you guessed it, 11 attempts. Let’s put it together now. Playoffs and regular season combined, Reyes is 65 for 190, a batting average of .342. In stolen bases he’s 20 for 20. Are you excited yet? I am. It seems that Jose Reyes, combining regular season and playoffs, has been the best player in a league with some pretty good players. And he’s been healthy. Now, one of two things is happening here. Either the gods are setting us up for the inevitable fall, or they have decided that we have suffered enough and are going to grant us this one true thing.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Tick, Tick, Tick

For the second time this January, a Texas team is on the clock. And for the second time the Mets are hoping for a buzzer beater. We are all in the dark as to actual numbers, but unlike my fellow writers in the mainstream media I won't make any uneducated guesses as to what each team is offering Carlos Delgado. It is being reported that Texas wants an answer by Sunday. If true, this is good news for the Mets. Other reports claim that Omar Minaya is pondering whether or not to try to outbid the competitors for the left-handed slugger. Delgado's agent, a guy who issues press releases each time he gets a phone call, had this to say today:

"I had extensive telephone conversations today with representatives of the Mets, Orioles and Rangers and a face-to-face meeting with the Marlins due to the proximity," agent David Sloane, who lives in Florida, said in an e-mail.

It is, and has been, my firm belief that Delgado wants to play for the Mets. I don't think this was true in December, but the sudden ascension of Met fortunes has grabbed Delgado's attention. For these reasons the Mets are now attractive to Carlos. But, like most humans, he will chase the money. In Delgado's case, however, I don't believe he'll make this his sole consideration. If the Rangers offer $48 million for 4 years, and the Mets offer $33 million for 3 years, I believe Delgado will don a 10 gallon hat and tatoo a lone star on his arse. But, if the Mets offer $45 million or something close to the Ranger offer, then I believe that Carlos Delgado will become a Met. Why do I believe this? Well, mostly because I want to. Also because Delgado is a guy who has languished in what has become a lukewarm baseball climate. New York would offer him the most exciting atmosphere to spend the latter days of his possible Hall of Fame career. He is good friends with Carlos Beltran. He is, by all accounts, a cultured, intelligent person. New York just seems right for him.

To prove the extent of my delusional ponderings, I also am reading into his agent's statement. Why are the Mets mentioned first? There was a 25% chance of this happening. Shouldn't the Marlins be first? They met with him face to face. What about Texas? They have the most money on the table. Why the Metropolitans? Because this is where Delgado wants to be. And if Omar is thinking about raising the ante, then my strong hunch is that he will do so. The truth is, however, that we have no idea what Omar is doing. This has been true all winter. To me, this proves the extent of his power and influence in the Met organization. He has changed the entire culture. It used to be an amateurish, gossipy, loose-lipped organization. Now they operate with the secrecy of the CIA. This is a welcome change and a sound negotiating strategy.

Why is Texas even in this thing? They don't need Delgado at all. They are a good team that needs pitching. Their tussle with the Mets should have been for Pedro Martinez. They have a great, young, slugging first baseman in Mark Texiera. It just seems that their owner woke up one day this week and decided that he had to have a free agent and Delgado was the only sexy one left. Well, Mr. Hicks, I don't think you're getting him. Sometime next week, let's say Wednesday or Thursday, the Mets will break out the good china and hand a jersey with #25 on it to a very large gentleman named Carlos Delgado. He'll smile, we'll all smile, and then we'll bide our time until pitchers and catchers report.

Monday, January 17, 2005

An Early Look at the N.L. East

New York has certainly been the hub of hot stove activity this winter, with probably the three biggest off-season maneuvers – the signings of Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran, and the trade for Randy Johnson. Surprisingly, the Mets have garnered most of the headlines by successfully recruiting both the most desirable free agent pitcher and position player. This is part of a greater trend in the National League East. Every team in the N.L. East has made major acquisitions over the winter, making this division the most balanced one in major league baseball. Any one of 4 teams could realistically win this 5 team division, which has been locked up by the Braves since Warren Harding was President. None of the teams looks like a world-beater, mind you, but each of the 4 contenders could win as many as 95 games if all breaks well for them. On the flip side, any of the 4 could also win as few as 75 games if their best laid plans go astray. The 5th team, ostensibly called the Washington Nationals, is far from awful and is my bet to be baseball’s best last place team in 2005.

Let’s take a look at where each team stands as currently constituted:

Atlanta Braves

Key Acquisitions – Tim Hudson, Danny Kolb, Raul Mondesi

Safe Bet – Hudson will pitch outstanding baseball and contend for the NL Cy Young Award. Has-beens and never-weres flourish under the genius of Leo Mazzone. In this case Mazzone has a big time talent in the prime of his career. Look for 20 wins and a sub 3.00 ERA.

Burning Question – How will John Smoltz adapt to his return to the starting rotation? My guess is that it will be a difficult transition for Smoltz. He’s been a closer for several years now and he has a history of arm trouble. A few stints on the DL wouldn’t surprise me at all.

Most Likely to Flop – Raul Mondesi is a very strange person. He will self-destruct in Atlanta, just as he did in New York, Arizona, and Pittsburgh. And, somehow, it won’t affect the Braves at all.

Question Mark – Can Danny Kolb be a big time closer for a contender? Danny Kolb saved 39 games last season for a bad team. That’s impressive, but not the most interesting stat from Kolb. That would be his 21 strikeouts in 57 innings pitched. Trust me, this is the only time in baseball history that a guy with that kind of K ratio saved 39 games. Is there a message in those numbers? I would say yes, and that message is that Danny Kolb does not have 39 save stuff, and that this number will decline significantly.

Florida Marlins

Key Acquisition – Al Leiter

Safe Bet – Miguel Cabrera will continue to mature into an absolute superstar. What I wouldn’t do to have this guy on the team I root for. Let me put it to you this way; baseballreference.com has a section on each player’s page that tells you the most statistically similar player to the player you are looking at. It’s called a similarity score. Cabrera’s most similar player at this point in his career? A guy named Henry Aaron.

Burning Question – How will the lefties pitch? Dontrelle Willis and Al Leiter are key lefties in the Marlin rotation. Willis fell off considerably from his stellar rookie season, posting an ERA over 4.00 and giving up more hits than innings pitched. Leiter, as every Met fan knows, pitched very well at times last year, but threw a ridiculous amount of pitches, causing him to be removed from most games by the 6th inning. Both of these guys are capable of having excellent years. The Marlins will need them to.

Most Likely to Flop – Guillermo Mota will close for the Fish. He’s got a great arm, but closing games requires a certain attitude that Mota might not possess. Will he be able to take on the pressure that goes with being the last line of defense?

Question Mark – Can Josh Beckett and AJ Burnett stay healthy? Last year they combined for a record of 16 wins and 15 losses and only 280 innings pitched. Both of these strong-armed righties have had more difficulty with their arms than a UN weapons inspector. Will both of them stay off the DL in 2005? If they do, the Marlins will be very tough to deal with.

Philadelphia Phillies

Key Acquisitions – Kenny Lofton, John Lieber

Safe Bet – Bobby Abreu will continue to be baseball’s best kept secret. This guy needs Scott Boras to put together a binder on him. Maybe 5 players in baseball are better than Abreu. Maybe.

Burning Question – How will the players respond to easy going new manager Charlie Manuel after the firing of uber-jerk Larry Bowa? Well, honestly this question is really not burning. In fact, it’s not even lukewarm. It’s actually quite easy. Would you rather work for an absolute maniacal tyrant or a mild-mannered, professional gentleman? You see, it really is an easy question.

Most Likely to Flop – Shortstop Jimmy Rollins rode a hot September to post decent enough stats last year. I’m not sold on him. In his previous seasons he had a very difficult time getting on base, with OBP’s of .323, .306, and .320. This is a key season for Rollins. He is still young and very athletic, which could mean he’ll turn the corner and be a productive major league hitter. I just don’t like the quality of his at bats. My hunch is that he returns to his previous numbers.

Question Mark – Will several key Phillies have bounce back years? Billy Wagner, Pat Burrell, and Randy Wolf are very important player for the Phils. All of them suffered through injury plagued 2004 campaigns. All are expected to be ready for 2005. Wagner, the dominating closer who regularly touches 100 miles per hour on the radar gun, is the most important of the three. I believe he is also the most likely to return to form. That’s very good news for the Phillies.

Washington Nationals

Key Acquisitions – Vinny Castilla, Christian Guzman, Jose Guillen

Safe Bet – Livan Hernandez is a very good pitcher, even if I am one of the only people who thinks so. For quite some time I have wanted the Mets to acquire him. To be honest, last winter I suggested that the Mets trade a prospect to get him, some guy named David Wright. OK, sometimes it is a very good thing that the Mets front office does not listen to my ideas. Well, I am no longer suggesting that the Mets trade David Wright to get Livan, but I am still saying that this guy is a horse, an innings eater, and a very good pitcher.

Burning Question – Will anyone in Montreal notice that they left?

Most Likely to Flop – Vinny Castilla should never leave Coors Field. Ever. He should only sign contracts with the Rockies and not even go on road trips. At Coors Field he hits like Mike Schmidt. Away from Coors he hits like Jason Schmidt. Check out his career stats. In 14 seasons he has posted 6 seasons of 30 or more home runs and 5 seasons of over 100 RBI’s. All were as a Rockie. In two seasons with the Braves he averaged 17 homers and 69 RBI’s. Look for Vinny’s stats to return to these pedestrian numbers.

Question Mark – What’s next for Jose Vidro? This is a player that I really liked. Great approach, high on base percentages, good power for a middle infielder. Last year two interesting things happened to Vidro – he turned 30 and he had knee surgery. These are not necessarily alarming events, but Vidro has never struck me as a guy who stays in great physical shape. Can anyone say Carlos Baerga? I hope Vidro bounces back. He’s a fun guy to watch play baseball.

As the Mets still have at least one gaping hole to fill at 1st base, my analysis of them will come at a later date.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Beltranscendental Meditations

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

I rarely quote Queen songs. Trust me. But what is a Met fan to do? Giddiness, breathlessness, dizziness – these side effects and more are associated with signing Carlos Beltran. Did the Mets really sign the most sought after free agent on the market? Thank you Omar, thank you Mr. Wilpon, and thank you Mr. Steinbrenner for sitting this one out. Now, I’m not going to lie to you. All winter I have been saying, some might say adamantly, that Beltran is not the best hitter on the market. Based purely on performance, both Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Delgado have more impressive track records with the bat. Of course, Magglio has to be scratched from the debate due to his injury. Delgado is a stone cold masher, and OBP machine, and a fearsome slugger. But, he is not as desirable as Beltran for several reasons that are obvious – age and defensive position being primary among these.
Omar Minaya obviously decided that Beltran would be a better buy than both Ordonez and Delgado. He could have had both for just a little more than Beltran cost per year. There are several factors that support his strategy. The first is Shea Stadium itself. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s not exactly a hitters’ paradise. It favors versatile gap hitters over pure sluggers. Think of the few hitters who have excelled at the Big Shea. Piazza can hit to all fields and does not rely on the home run. The Straw man posted high OBP’s and also brought speed to the table. Edgardo Alfonzo, for his brief shining moment as an elite hitter, hit line to line. Beltran is more of this type of hitter, not so much prone to park factors as a pure slugger. Beltran’s age and health also had to be a vital factor. At the end of this contract Beltran will be the current age (34) of the best centerfielder in baseball (Jim Edmonds).
So now the Mets have signed the best free agent pitcher and the most coveted free agent position player. Quietly, they have also stocked up on every bullpen arm from here to East Asia. This is always the best strategy when it comes to middle relief. There are no good middle relievers, there are only middle relievers having good years. Stockpiling arms makes it more likely that you’ll have one of the latter. The Miguel Cairo signing was also solid. He is to Joe McEwing what Barry Bonds is to Benny Agbayani. Cairo actually belongs in the big leagues, unlike Super Joe. He was the starting second baseman for an excellent team last year. He can also play the outfield if needed. And, although I am not advocating it, if an attractive trade materializes for Kaz Matsui, Omar can pull the trigger knowing he has Cairo.

Now, let’s tackle some post-Beltran questions:

Did the Mets overpay for Beltran? Well, yeah, judged by any acceptable moral standard of justice and fairness. Since neither apply to professional sports, let’s suspend reality and enter this magical fairy land where mediocrities are paid millions. Ten players have signed $100 Million contracts. Beltran is obviously better than five of them. The five are Derek Jeter, Mike Hampton, Kevin Brown (insert laughter here), Jason Giambi, and Ken Griffey, Jr. I believe that three are better than Beltran. They are Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, and Albert Pujols. This leaves Todd Helton, and I’ll call that one a push. Helton is awesome, but that whole Coors Field thing is a tough one to evaluate. I think on a neutral field Beltran gets the edge. Remember, the Astros pushed their offer to $108 Million. That shows you how badly they wanted him back, maybe the best sign that the Mets spent wisely.

What should the Mets do about Floyd and Cameron? Nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing. These two are pretty good players. That’s been their problem since they joined the Metropolitans. We needed them to be great players and they are not. As complementary players, however, they are very valuable. Cliff Floyd as a number 6 hitter is pretty imposing. Mike Cameron as a number 7 hitter is solid. How many 7 hitters hit 30 home runs last year? Don’t trade these guys just for the sake of trading them, especially for lesser players who have been rumored (Eric Byrnes, Shea Hillenbrand, Doug Mientkiewicz). Are Cameron and Floyd untouchable? Of course not. Floyd for Manny? Yes, please. Cameron for Zito? Yes, please. Floyd for Sosa? No thank you. Cameron for some middle reliever? No thank you.

Who will play first? The Mets have three options.
1) They can sign a big ticket item.
2) They can sign a bargain bin item.
3) They can trade for a serviceable player.
I’m a fan. I vote for number 1. The best answer is Carlos Delgado. As mentioned before, he is the best free agent hitter. He has the 24th highest OPS ever. That’s right, that says ever. He is in baseball’s middle age (32) and in excellent physical condition. He also is a lefty slugger. Indeed, he is a mediocre fielder. Umm, who cares? That’s kind of like saying that Barry Bonds doesn’t throw well. Delgado would perfect the lineup:

Reyes
Beltran
Delgado
Wright
Piazza
Floyd
Cameron
Matsui

That’s pretty potent. I acknowledge that it will also not be the Met lineup if Delgado is signed. It is, however, the way I would hit them. Willie Randolph will pencil it in this way:

Reyes
Matsui
Beltran
Delgado
Piazza
Floyd
Wright
Cameron

I can live with that, although I suspect that the third best hitter is batting 7th. If the Mets go with choice 2, the bargain bin item, I vote for Travis Lee. Good power, great glove, relatively young. For choice 3 I vote for Nick Johnson. His biggest problem is that he’s out of shape. That can be fixed. He gets on base and has a good glove. Notice I have not mentioned Doug Mientkiewicz. There’s a good reason. He is a pitiful hitting corner infielder.

Can Carlos Beltran handle New York? Of course he can. We all saw how he shrunk from the spotlight of the playoffs last season. Now, if he assaulted a camera man on his way to his physical on his first day in New York, I might be worried.