Friday, April 1, 2011

Are You Ready For Some Baseball?

The Mets will raise the curtain on their 2011 season tonight against the Florida Marlins, the team that finished ahead of them by one game in the 2010 National League East standings and won one too many games against them at the end of the 2007 and 2008 seasons. Despite the fact that most prognosticators (including this spherical one) have the Mets finishing around the .500 mark and no higher than third place, does that mean fans should give up on the season before the Opening Day player introductions are made?

Opening Day is the one day of the season when all teams are tied for first place, when every team believes this will be THEIR year. The Mets are no different. Why can't the Mets compete in the National League East or for the wild card? When the umpire tells the players to "play ball", is he writing it on paper? No, he is not. That's because the games aren't played on paper. So when everyone concedes the division to the Phillies and their R2C2 pitching staff (Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels), they're doing it because they're the sexiest team on paper. When so-called experts say teams like the Braves, Cardinals, Brewers, Padres and Rockies are all going to be contending for the wild card (if not their division title) come September, they're doing so on the proverbial paper.

No one foresaw the San Francisco Giants winning the World Series last year. They had good pitching, but they still had an offense that rivaled the 2009 Mets in futility, at least from a power standpoint. During the season, their good pitching became great and their supposed lack of power produced eight players who finished in double digits in home runs. The same could be said for the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds hadn't made the playoffs since 1995 and hadn't been a serious contender since the Mets eliminated them in a one-game playoff for the 1999 National League wild card berth. They had good hitters, but atrocious pitching. How did people know this? Because they saw it "on paper". Naturally, Cincinnati won the National League Central because their good hitting became exceptional, led by NL MVP Joey Votto, and their so-called atrocious pitching was actually better than decent.

What teams look like on paper don't always represent what they look like between the foul lines. A team might have a great offense "on paper" and then sputter on the field (see 2008 Detroit Tigers). Similarly, a team might think they have the makings of a fantastic pitching staff "on paper", but once those pitchers step on the mound, they pitch like Charlie Brown. (Does Generation K ring a bell?)

So the Mets look like a team that will finish in the middle of pack or lower in the National League East. That's what people are saying right now. On paper. What if Jose Reyes reverts to his 2008 form, especially now that he's playing for a contract? What if Angel Pagan continues to improve in all aspects of his game and hits .300 with 15 HR and 40 SB, while winning the Gold Glove? What if Carlos Beltran stays on the field all season and plays like a man who's in his walk year? What if more of Ike Davis' bombs target the Shea Bridge and the Pepsi Porch? What if Jason Bay only misses one week and comes back as Jason Bay, pre-2010? What if R.A. Dickey wasn't a fluke and shows what he can do over a full season instead of just 26 starts as he did last season? What if the other members of the Brainy Bunch (Chris Young and Chris Capuano) give the Mets a combined 50 starts and pitch the way they're capable of pitching when they're healthy? And I haven't even mentioned Johan Santana...

On paper, the Mets probably can't compete with the Phillies and some of the wild card contenders. But when they take the field tonight against the Marlins, that paper will have found its way into the shredder. It won't matter what people think the Mets are going to do. The Mets will go as far as their players will take them. That's the beauty of baseball. Any team can surprise the experts, especially those experts with lifetime subscriptions to "the paper". Maybe it will be the Mets, maybe it'll be another team.

Don't give up hope just because some paper says we should. Just sit back, relax and enjoy watching the Mets as they try to make the authors of the paper eat their words.

Happy Opening Day, everyone!

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