Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Joey's Soapbox: The Calm Before The Storm

Have you noticed that I’ve stayed silent about the Mets in 2012?  I haven’t climbed on my soapbox in over a month.  Why haven’t I gone on a chicken nacho-fueled rant in some time?   The answer is simple, really.

Shhhh.  Be vewwy, vewwy quiet.  The Wilpons are hunting wabbits.  Or at least it seems as if that's what they're doing.

Things have been very quiet around Citi Field this offseason.  Other than a brief flurry of activity at the Winter Meetings to solidify the bullpen and the continuation of the OWS movement (Operation Whittling Salary) by replacing Angel Pagan with Andres Torres, the Mets have not added many players to the team that succeeded in furthering the tradition of fourth place finishes in Flushing.

Instead, they’re going by the time honored tradition (and by time honored, I mean since 2009) of adding players from within.  These players are the ones coming off injury-shortened seasons or seasons in which they didn’t take the field in a game at all.

Every player scheduled to start in the infield in 2012 did not play full seasons in New York.  First baseman Ike Davis missed the rest of the season after playing footsie with David Wright at Coors Field in May.  Second baseman Daniel Murphy might have competed with Jose Reyes for the National League batting title had he not been spiked while trying to lay a tag on the Braves' Jose Constanza.  Third baseman David Wright injured his back against the Astros and missed two months.  At least shortstop Ruben Tejada didn’t get hurt.  But he did start the 2011 season fielding grounders hit by minor leaguers in Buffalo.

The starting rotation is also counting on the walking wounded from 2011 to make a triumphant return in 2012.  The last time Johan Santana pitched in a major league game, the Texas Rangers were still in search of their first American League pennant.  Jonathon Niese is also attempting to pitch an entire season without checking in to the DL Hotel.  Both pitchers expect to be on the mound during the Mets’ first homestand in April.

With David Wright entering the final guaranteed year of the contract he signed an eternity ago (2006 is an eternity to Mets fans such as myself who have memories, however faint, of a time when the team was a legitimate contender), he should have a bounceback campaign in 2012.  Maybe.

Daniel Murphy could resume doubling opponents to death (Murphy hit 28 doubles in only 391 at-bats before suffering his season-ending injury), assuming his defense at second base doesn’t send him back to the bench.

And what about Jason Bay?  (Thought I had forgotten about him, didn’t you?)  The walls at Citi Field have been lowered and moved in.  But how will that help him on the road, where he hit .215 with only seven doubles, six homers and 28 RBI in 2011?  In addition, with Reyes (39 steals) and Pagan (32 steals) gone, is Bay going to have the added responsibility of being one of the top base stealers on the team?  He’s quietly reached double digits in steals in each of his two seasons as a Met.  Who else is going to steal bases on the team besides David Wright (13 steals in 2011) and Andres Torres (19 steals as a Giant in 2011)?

Is this a celebration for a two-run homer or a double steal?  In 2012, it could be both.

Despite all the injuries that have beset the Mets since they moved across the parking lot to Citi Field, they’ve still managed to win at least 70 games in each of the last three seasons and have averaged 78 wins over the last two campaigns.  That may not seem like much, but think of all the walk-off losses created by the shaky bullpen, the balls that clanged off the former Great Wall of Flushing instead of going over it, not to mention all the (you know it’s coming) INJURIES!  Surely, this team can find a way to add four wins to what they’ve averaged over the past two years, right?  If they do, that would give them 82 wins.  And what does 82 wins give you?  A WINNING RECORD!

It may be easier said than done, but why can’t the 2012 Mets win 82 games?  Sure, it seems as if every team in the National League East improved by leaps and bounds.  But remember that just seven years ago, the Washington Nationals played in an über-competitive NL East.  The Braves won their 14th consecutive division title with 90 wins.  The Phillies and Mets were up-and-coming teams who were on their way to becoming the rivals they were over the next three seasons.  Even the Marlins finished with a winning record and were just two years removed from their second World Series championship.  Despite all the intense competition in the division, the little team that could in Washington still managed to win 81 games.

It’s not impossible for the Mets to finish with a winning record in 2012.  They just have to be consistent and play the game.  All teams go through their share of injuries and cold streaks.  But it’s the good teams that find a way to overcome those obstacles.  Right now, the Mets are not a great team.  They don’t have the personnel to pose a legitimate threat to the Phillies in the NL East.  But why can’t they be a good team?

Eighty-two wins.  That’s all the Mets need to be a winning team.  The 2005 Mets won 83 games after finishing with losing records in each of their previous three seasons.  The following year, they were one win away from the World Series.  This year’s Mets are also coming off three consecutive losing campaigns.  I’m not crazy enough to assume that winning 82 games this year will push the Mets near a pennant in 2013.  But it would be a step in the right direction.

There are many question marks surrounding the 2012 Mets.  Will the infield be able to stay together for a full season without succumbing to the injury bug?  Will Jason Bay realize that it’s okay to hit a ball over the wall every once in a while?  Will Ruben Tejada, Lucas Duda and Dillon Gee - all members of the 2011 Buffalo Bisons’ Opening Day roster - be able to continue their development now that they’re assured a spot on this year’s major league roster?  And then there’s the Johan Santana question…

All teams have question marks.  Although the front office was mostly quiet this offseason, some questions have been answered, particularly in the bullpen.  Now it’s up to the players to provide the other answers, or else the quiet offseason will lead to a quiet summer at Citi Field.  Oh, well.  At least the line for chicken nachos won't be very long if that happens.

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