Saturday, March 31, 2012

Joey's Small Bites: Fearless Forecast For The 2012 Mets

Hey, everyone!  This is Joey Beartran.  After nearly six long months of waiting, the 2012 season is almost upon us.  Are you ready for some baseball?

I hope you’re looking forward to the 2012 season as much as I am.  What do you mean, no?  Surely, there must be something you’re looking forward to seeing the Mets accomplish in 2012?  Still no?

Aren’t you looking forward to the return of Banner Day?  What about the induction of John Franco into the Mets Hall of Fame?  (And no, before you ask, there is no truth to the rumor that Franco will come out of the bullpen during that game to pitch to Lance Berkman in a tight spot.)

Well, I’m certainly looking forward to the 2012 season.  In addition to all the new menu items at Citi Field, (buttermilk-marinated fried chicken with gooey mac and cheese and cornbread?  Yes, please!) the 2012 season has plenty of storylines worth talking about.

Will Johan Santana return to form after missing the entire 2011 season?  How will Ruben Tejada perform at shortstop after replacing one of the most popular players in Mets history?  Is Andres Torres this decade’s Rey Sanchez, merely holding a spot warm until Kirk Nieuwenhuis is ready to take over as the Mets’ everyday centerfielder?  Will the Mets score some runs for R.A. Dickey before he’s forced to write a book about his lack of run support?  And is this the year the Mets finally pitch that first no-hitter?

I don’t need a Magic 8 Ball like my colleague has used in the past to predict the outcome of the Mets season.  Instead, I’ll just consult with my baseball cognoscenti to come up with my predictions for the 2012 Mets.  Baseball predictions are never an exact science, but just like Carlos Beltran’s health, I feel 85% confident that my predictions will become reality for the Mets in 2012.  So what are we waiting for?  Let’s get this prediction party started!

My crystal ball atop a replica of Shea Stadium will help me forecast the Mets' future.

In their 51st season of existence and third ballpark, a Met will finally hit three home runs in a home game.  This will finally put an end to Gary Cohen and Howie Rose talking about how no Met has ever swatted three longballs at home.  However, they will probably move on to discussing how no right-handed batter has ever collected five hits for the Mets in a home game.  For the record, six Mets have five-hit games at home, all at Shea Stadium.  Four of them swung from the left side of the plate (John Milner, Rusty Staub, Dave Magadan and Carlos Delgado) and the other two were switch hitters (Wally Backman and Jose Reyes).  You can look it up!

Daniel Murphy will break the single season club record for doubles.  Prior to 2012, only six Met hitters had ever accumulated 40 doubles in a season and all of them were either right-handed batters or switch hitters.  Murphy will become the first left-handed swinger to eclipse the 40 double mark (John Olerud is the current single season leader with 39 in 1999) and will then double his pleasure by surpassing one-season wonder Bernard Gilkey, who set the franchise record with 44 two-baggers in 1996.  Gilkey might have surpassed his mark in 1997, but was never the same after being hit in the head by a fly ball during a close encounter at Shea Stadium.

It's keep your eye on the ball, Bernard.  Not keep your head on it.

Jonathon Niese will make the National League All-Star team.  He will also become only the tenth pitcher in team history (after Tom Seaver, Jon Matlack, Jerry Koosman, Dwight Gooden, Sid Fernandez, David Cone, Al Leiter, Pedro Martinez and Johan Santana) and fifth southpaw (Matlack, Koosman, Leiter and Santana were the others) to strike out 200 batters in a single season.  As a result, his new nose will be voted team MVP.

Jason Bay will have his finest season as a Met, hitting .270 with 21 HR and 80 RBI.  Of course, astute fans will realize that these were the exact numbers produced by Jeff Kent in 1993 and will continue to be upset at Bay for not living up to his contract and for reminding them of Kent.  The sensitive Bay responds by promising a Rico Brogna-type season in 2013, wisely remembering that Brogna was actually liked at Shea Stadium despite producing Kent-like numbers during his one full season in New York (.289, 22 HR, 76 RBI in 1995).

Frank Francisco will go 20-for-20 in saves by early July, but when a shocking exposé reveals that he is actually Armando Benitez’s second cousin, once removed, the pressure of having to perform like his family member will cause Francisco to wilt in the summer heat.  Francisco will indeed pitch like Benitez, protecting a few three-run ninth inning leads against the non-contending Pirates and Astros, before blowing saves against the contending Phillies and Marlins to eliminate any hopes of the Mets claiming the second wild card spot.

After spending most of the season below .500, Terry Collins motivates the team by telling them he will end his unintentional tribute to Steve Urkel by not wearing his uniform pants so high, but only if the team can finish the season with a .500 record.  The team responds with a hot streak in September to pull to within one game of .500 entering the season finale in Miami.  But after an unexpected pep talk from his cousin Armando, Frank Francisco blows the save in the team’s final game, resulting in an 80-82 final record (and clinching a playoff berth for the Marlins).  Collins is then seen giving Benitez an undisclosed amount of money after the game, thanking him for his surprise appearance.

Well, that’s it for my 2012 predictions.  Which ones will come true?  Which ones will you wish you had thought of first?  For that, we’ll have to wait until October 3, when the Mets’ 50th anniversary season comes to a close.  But one thing’s for sure.  The Mets will be a fun team to watch in 2012.

Over the past three seasons, the Mets have gone from being an overpriced team of underachievers to a young team playing above its collective head.  They might not be ready to compete in the National League East yet, but Terry Collins will make sure that all 25 players on the roster give their best effort on the field, with or without the help of Armando Benitez. 

Before long, the Mets will be Amazin’ again.  But for now, ya gotta believe that the team is headed in the right direction, even if that direction is temporarily keeping them near the bottom of the NL East.  So try not to pay too much attention to the standings and enjoy one game at a time.  Somewhere along the way, the Mets will give you a reason to smile.  I’m 85% sure of that.

15 Years Later: The April Fools' Day Eve Massacre

It was 15 years ago today.  On March 31, 1997, the Mets made a trade from which they have yet to recover.  It rivals the Ryan-for-Fregosi trade in 1971 and the Midnight Massacre deal of Tom Seaver in 1977 for worst trades in Mets history.  You know the trade I'm talking about.

I'm talking about the Tim Bogar for Luis Lopez trade.

Tim Bogar, we hardly knew ye!

Tim Bogar came up to the Mets in 1993 and fit in immediately, hitting .184 over his first 22 games.  But then Bogar caught fire, hitting .364 over his next 24 games.  After cooling off in August (if such a thing is possible), Bogar saved his best for last.

On August 14, 1993, Tim Bogar started at second base for the Mets against the Phillies at Veterans Stadium.  The game looked like any other for Bogar, as he flied out to center in his first at-bat.  But what he did in his next four at-bats turned him into an instant Mets legend.

In the third inning, Bogar doubled to right and later scored on an error.  Two innings later, Bogar doubled again and scored on a Dave Gallagher hit.  It was only the second time in Bogar's career that he had picked up multiple extra-base hits in the same game, having accomplished the feat on June 19, 1993 against the Pirates.  But against the other team from Pennsylvania, Bogar wasn't quite finished.

With the Mets holding on to a slim 5-4 lead in the sixth, Bogar unloaded a three-run homer off reliever Mike "Mitch is the other guy" Williams.  It was Bogar's second career home run and gave the Mets and Bobby Jones (who was making his major league debut in the game) a four-run cushion. 

Finally, in the ninth inning, with the lead cut to 8-5, Bogar came up one last time.  And we do mean one LAST time, as he hit a fly ball that eluded centerfielder Lenny Dykstra.  By the time the play was over, Bogar had scored on an inside-the-park home run, giving him four extra-base hits on the day.  However, that would be Bogar's final at-bat of his rookie season, as he injured his hand sliding into home plate and did not play again until the following season.

Despite the fragile ending, Bogar did become the first Met to hit an inside-the-park and an outside-the-park home run in the same game.  He also became the third Met to collect two doubles and two home runs in the same game, joining second basemen Tim Teufel (July 5, 1987) and Gregg Jefferies (September 7, 1989) on that exclusive list.  Yes, you read that correctly.  All three men who accomplished the two-double, two-homer feat played second base for the Mets.  If this was an episode of Sesame Street, this paragraph would be brought to you by the number 2.

Sesame Street's favorite double play combo would appreciate Tim Bogar's signature game as a Met.

After his season-ending monster game, Bogar played three more years for the Mets, but only collected 286 at-bats over the three seasons, hitting a combined .241 from 1994 to 1996.  Since Bogar was just taking up a roster spot without giving much on the field, the Mets traded him to Houston for Luis Lopez.  What did Lopez do in his three seasons in New York?  Not much more than Bogar did.  Lopez (.250, 5 HR, 54 RBI in 548 at-bats) and Bogar (.241, 6 HR, 57 RBI in 491 at-bats) were basically the same player, except that Lopez was four years younger than Bogar.

Lopez didn't do much for the Mets, except become part of the Tim Bogar Trade Chain (popularized by Jon Springer in Mets By The Numbers).  Bogar went on to become a minor league manager before joining the Boston Red Sox as their first base coach after the 2008 season.  One year later, Bogar became the team's third base coach, and was present for Jacoby Ellsbury's inside-the-park homer, waving the Red Sox outfielder toward the plate as he rounded third.  This time, no hands were broken on the approach to home plate.

Currently, Bogar is the bench coach for Bobby Valentine and the Red Sox, reuniting with the last man to manage him as a member of the Mets.  With his minor league managing experience (Bogar had a .601 career winning percentage as a minor league manager) and his time as a coach in the majors, it would come as no surprise if Bogar were one day managing a team at the big league level.  Meanwhile, Luis Lopez has not been seen since retiring after the 2005 season.  Presumably, he is now walking the Earth like Caine in Kung Fu.

Tim Bogar was traded 15 years ago today, in what can now be called "The April Fools' Day Eve Massacre".  When Bogar was traded on March 31, 1997, an era in Mets baseball ended.  It was an era that featured beloved players like Jeff Kent, Bobby Bonilla, Carlos Baerga and others.  The Mets have not been the same since Bogar left.  Who knows when they'll ever be able to recover?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Tim Tebow Could Fill The Holiest of Holies In The Mets' Bullpen

With the uncertainty surrounding the lefty specialist role in the bullpen, the Mets have been considering a number of options.  Tim Byrdak was originally supposed to fill that position for the team.  Oops.  The Hulkamaniac needed surgery to repair a torn meniscus and was lost for the season opener faster than Randy Savage could snap into a Slim Jim.  Garrett Olson was then supposed to be the favorite to replace Thunder Lips.  Instead, he became a human baseball magnet, attracting line drives whenever he stepped onto a mound.  He has since been reassigned to the minors.  Robert Carson?  He was injured as well, plus no one really knew who he was when he wasn’t wearing his “Hi, my name is Robert Carson” nametag.

Remember Daniel Herrera?  He pitched well in his late-season tryout last year after the Mets acquired him for Francisco “Frankie Knuckles” Rodriguez.  But alas, the lilliputian lefty will only be considered for the specialist role as a last resort.

On Monday, Joe Beimel was released by the Texas Rangers.  The soon-to-be 35-year-old had been on the Mets’ radar for many years now, but he did not pitch well for the Pirates last year, finishing the year with a 5.33 ERA.  So who’s left to consider as the first lefty to come out of the bullpen when the situation presents itself?  No divine intervention needed here.  The answer to the Mets’ prayers might be across the Hudson River in New Jersey.

He wore blue and orange in Denver.  Might he do the same as the lefty specialist in Flushing?

Tim Tebow was traded to the New York Jets to be their backup quarterback.  Why should this news be of interest to the Mets?  Because...

  • 1) He won’t be doing anything in April, as the Jets are in the middle of their offseason.
  • b) He’s a quarterback, meaning he’s experienced using his arm.
  • iii) He’s a lefty.

Considering that the Mets are in dire need of a lefty specialist in the bullpen while Byrdak recovers from his injury, why wouldn’t they consider the left-handed Tebow?  After all, he’s going to need to keep his arm in shape so it can be ready for clipboard-holding duties once Jets training camp opens.

As a quarterback, Tebow has been much maligned.  He throws too many incomplete passes.  He tends not to be able to throw passes of more than 30 yards.  He spends too much time running with the ball.  He drinks too much milk on the sidelines.  Yada yada yada.  But as a left-handed reliever?  Now that’s where his future might be.

As a pitcher, Tebow wouldn’t have to hit a moving receiver standing 30 yards away.  All he’d have to do is hit a stationary target (the catcher’s mitt) from a distance of 60 feet, 6 inches.  That’s only 20 yards.

Also, anyone who’s seen Tebow throw a pass knows that his balls tend to move quite a bit once his hand releases them.  (You do know I’m talking about footballs here.  Don’t blaspheme Tebow.)  Although the wobbliness of his balls would tend to be disadvantageous in football, as it’s harder for a receiver to catch a ball that’s not thrown in a perfect spiral, Tebow could work that to his advantage as a relief pitcher.  Pitches with movement would probably cause more swings and misses and could also induce the pitcher’s best friend, the double play grounder.

On the football field, a quarterback could get seriously hurt if he runs around too much.  The next time Tebow cuts left on the gridiron, he might experience a close encounter of the 300-pound lineman kind.  On the pitcher’s mound, however, being mobile can be beneficial.  Johan Santana has always possessed cat-like quickness on the mound.  So did former Met and public school enthusiast Mike Hampton.  To be able to move around quickly on and around the mound is tantamount to having a fifth infielder.  Ground balls up the middle aren’t always destined to go into center field.  A mobile pitcher is also the perfect foil for a batter who has a tendency to drop down bunts.  At the very least, a fast-moving pitcher can also get out of the way of line drives easier than one who doesn’t possess keen reflexes.

At Shea Stadium, fans would always get pumped whenever Billy Wagner came into the game to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” from 2006 to 2008.  Some fans even paused on the Shake Shack line when J.J. Putz entered a game to AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” in 2009.  Hard rock songs and relief pitchers go together like Bobby Bonilla and earplugs.  So it would seem like a match made in heaven if Tim Tebow would charge in from the bullpen to Stryper’s “To Hell With The Devil”.  Would the Shea Bridge be able to handle all the fans Tebowing in unison as he made his way to the mound?

"Hey, Tim Tebow's coming in from the bullpen!  Cue Stryper.  No, I'm not kidding.  Honestly."

The Mets improved their bullpen during the offseason, adding Jon Rauch, Ramon Ramirez and Frank Francisco.  But all three pitchers are right-handers.  The only southpaw in the bullpen mix was Tim Byrdak.  Now he more than likely won’t be ready for Opening Day and the Mets are left scrambling for his replacement.

Garrett Olson is back in the minors.  Robert Carson forgot his ID and is not being allowed into the ballpark.  Joe Beimel has cooties.  Daniel Herrera might become Tim Byrdak's replacement by default, but the best option for the interim lefty specialist job might be the guy who knows a thing or two about option plays.

Tim Tebow, left-handed reliever?  Hey, it could be worse.  At least the Mets aren’t thinking of signing Sidd Finch … yet.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Dickeypedia Words of The Week: Sexual Abuse

As regular readers of Studious Metsimus would know, we have occasionally counted on R.A. Dickey to give us words of wisdom for the Dickeypedia Word of The Week piece.  The Mets' knuckler even gave us his blessing and promised to provide us with more fodder for future pieces.

The Dickeypedia Word of The Week is usually a humorous piece.  But there is nothing funny about today's word (or words, in this case).

In his new book, "Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest For Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball" (written with Wayne Coffey), Dickey talks openly about many topics, including his painful memories of being sexually abused as a child.  Although it was difficult to share such intimate details of his life, Dickey did so for those who are unwilling, embarrassed or afraid to discuss similar experiences, to let them know that what happened to them was not their fault.  Dickey goes on to say,

Photo by Simon Bruty/SI

"I hope sexual abuse is never looked at in the same way, as far as something that is taboo to talk about, or something that is tough to discuss."

Sexual abuse is not something that should ever be taken lightly.  In fact, the definition pretty much says it all:

sexual abuse:

  • 1. the forcing of unwanted sexual activity by one person on another, as by the use of threats or coercion.
  • 2. sexual activity that is deemed improper or harmful, as between an adult and a minor or with a person of diminished mental capacity.

Many times, especially in the case of children, sexual abuse is never reported.  The child keeps the details of the violation to himself/herself and it ends up having a devastating effect on his/her development and interaction with others.

R.A. Dickey was abused at age 8.  The experience caused him to feel "ashamed and alone", and he even felt that "there was something terribly wrong" with him.  But after a quarter century of keeping it all in, he finally found the courage to tell his wife, Anne.  Since he revealed the news to his wife, their relationship has gotten stronger and now, with his book, he hopes that fellow victims will have the courage to share their stories in the hopes that they will be able to strengthen their personal and interpersonal relationships.  Dickey explains,

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty

"I have spent so much of my life running and hiding, and I wasn't going to do that in the book.  What would be the point in doing that - perpetuating untruth.  It was important to me to tell the truth, to be completely authentic.  Sharing the pain I went through is part of the healing for me, a catharsis in many ways."

R.A. Dickey is expected to be one of the top pitchers in the Mets' starting rotation.  Because of this, his teammates will look up to him to help lead them to victory.  But after sharing the story about his abuse as a child, many other people will now look up to him, and hopefully for these people, they will be victorious in the struggle to cope with their similar life experiences.

Athletes are viewed upon as role models for children, but sometimes children mistakenly refer to their favorite athletes as their heroes.  The dictionary definition of a hero is a person who is admired for courage or noble qualities.  Make no mistake about it.  R.A. Dickey is a true hero.  And hopefully, his words will help others and encourage them to do the same.

"Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest For Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball" by R.A. Dickey (with Wayne Coffey) will be available for sale on March 29, 2012.  Do yourselves a favor and pick it up.  It's essential reading.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Don't Be Nosy; Beltran Pays Niese's Rhinoplasty Bill

Last July, before Carlos Beltran was traded by the Mets to San Francisco, he suggested to Jonathon Niese that he should so something about his proboscis.  Beltran went so far as to offer to pay for the procedure, which Niese underwent in October.

After months of speculation on whether or not the former Met kept his promise, it appears as if Carlos Beltran has put the "pro" in proboscis.

Today it was revealed that Beltran did indeed foot the bill for Niese's rhinoplasty procedure, a bill that cost the new Cardinals' rightfielder $10,000, or approximately one-eighth of what Beltran is due to earn per game in 2012.

The procedure, which was originally supposed to be for cosmetic reasons, ended up helping Niese tremendously, as the Mets' lefty was able to breathe easier, allowing him to focus on cardiovascular exercises during the offseason.  These exercises helped Niese come to training camp 10 pounds lighter.

I can't speak (or smell) for Niese, but his control has been impeccable this spring.  Is his improved schnoz responsible for his 13 to 1 strikeout to walk ratio in Grapefruit League action?  Can he continue this pace during the regular season?

We won't know until the season starts on April 5, but one thing's for sure.  Jonathon Niese is healthier and stronger this spring.  He also has $10,000 more in his bank account because his former teammate agreed to keep his promise.  For all those who wondered whether Carlos Beltran would stay true to his word, you can stop being nosy.  We can all breathe easier now that Niese's bill has been paid.

One Season Wonders: The 2006 Mets

After their improbable run to the 2000 World Series, it seemed like the Mets were always one player away from taking it all.  By 2002, with deals made for Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar and Jeromy Burnitz, it seemed as though then-GM Steve Phillips was serious about making the Mets legitimate. By then, however, Mike Piazza had started to show signs of wear and tear for a catcher, and fan-favorite manager Bobby Valentine had shown signs of wearing out his welcome in New York.

The Mets needed a philosophy change, desperately.  Then came 2004 and the "Black Friday" deal of trading Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano, and it was decided that enough was enough.  Then-GM Jim Duquette and then-manager Art Howe were no longer lighting up the room, and something needed to be done.

Former Montreal Expos General Manager, Omar Teodoro Antonio Minaya y Sánchez, was hired to be the autonomous General Manager of the New York Metropolitan Baseball Club.  One of the first things he did was hire rookie manager Willie Randolph to head up his team, under the philosophy of "pitching, speed and defense."  With Minaya on board for his first full season, he made it clear that losing was not going to be an option in 2005.  And what better way to show fans he was being serious about it than by bringing in Pedro Martinez, perhaps the most sought after free-agent pitcher on the market and starter for the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox.  Add Carlos Beltran to this mix of New Mets and the team improved from 71-91 in 2004 to 83-79 in 2005.  The seeds for success had been planted in 2005.  One year later, the team was ready to bloom.

Going into the 2006 season, the Mets still had some holes to fill.  After Mike Piazza hit a career-low .251 in 2005, it was clear that the Mets needed to go in a different direction behind the plate.  Enter Paul Lo Duca, who was an All-Star for the Florida Marlins in 2005.  At first base, the Mets turned to Carlos Delgado, the slugger who had spurned the Mets one year earlier for playing the Latino card in their attempt to sign him.  In right field, Xavier Nady was signed to replace Mike Cameron, whose 2005 season ended abruptly when the former centerfielder butted heads with the current centerfielder (literally) on the field in San Diego.

Finally, the team needed a dependable closer to replace Braden Looper, who was absolutely awful during the final two months of the 2005 season (0-3, 6-for-10 in save opportunities, 6.35 ERA, 1.65 WHIP over his final 18 appearances).  Enter Billy Wagner, the Sandman who gave opposing batters nightmares.

Once the Mets added a few role players who weren't expected to produce much for the team (Jose Valentin, Endy Chavez and Duaner Sanchez, to name a few), the team was ready for Opening Day.  After losing their first five games to start the 2005 season, the Mets needed to get off to a quick start in 2006.  They responded by getting off to one of the best starts in franchise history.

After splitting their first two games of the 2006 season, the Mets tallied seven consecutive victories, sweeping a pair of series against the Marlins and Nationals by a combined score of 35-11.  By April 17, the Mets were 10-2 and became the first team to lead its division by five games after the 12-game mark.  After a victory over the Atlanta Braves on April 29, the Mets' lead in the NL East had grown to seven games, but they had already suffered their first casualty on the mound.  It would become a recurring theme throughout the season.

Brian Bannister was drafted by the Mets in the seventh round of the 2003 amateur draft and made a quick ascent through the Mets' minor league system.  After a sensational 2005 campaign split between AA-Binghamton and AAA-Norfolk (13-5, 2.74 ERA), Bannister joined the major league squad out of spring training in 2006 and made his first start in the second game of the season.  In his first month in the major leagues, Bannister did not disappoint, going 2-0 with a sensational 2.89 ERA, never giving up more than three runs in any of his five April starts.

However, in his fifth start on April 26, Bannister injured his right hamstring while attempting to score on Kaz Matsui's double.  Although the rookie pitcher did score the run, it would be his final appearance until August, as he spent the next four months on the disabled list.

Bannister's injury would lead to the first start made by a pitcher who wasn't one of the original five starters.  On May 2, John Maine became the first pitcher other than Bannister, Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine, Steve Trachsel and Victor Zambrano to make a start.  Other injuries would beset the team during the season and other starters were brought in to replace the injured starters in the rotation.  Some fared well in their unexpected roles (Maine, Orlando Hernandez), while others did not (Geremi Gonzalez, Jose Lima, Mike Pelfrey, Oliver Perez, Alay Soler and Dave Williams, all of whom made at least three starts for the 2006 Mets).

Only Maine and Glavine had a sub-4.00 ERA of the 13 pitchers who started at least one game for the Mets in 2006, while seven of the unlucky 13 had ERAs north of 5.00 (Steve Trachsel just missed becoming the eighth member of the mile-high ERA club, finishing the year with a 4.97 ERA despite winning 15 games).  The team's 4.14 ERA was its fifth-highest mark since the Gil Hodges era began in 1968.  Despite their makeshift, lackluster pitching staff, the 2006 Mets found a way to win 97 games.  Needless to say, it was the offense that carried the team to victory more often than not.

Newcomers Paul Lo Duca, Carlos Delgado and Xavier Nady all became major contributors in the Mets' offense.  Lo Duca finished seventh in the National League with his .318 batting average, picking up 163 hits and 39 doubles along the way.  Both of Lo Duca's totals in base hits and doubles represent franchise records for a catcher, breaking Mike Piazza's team records in both categories.

Carlos Delgado did not disappoint with his power production.  His subpar batting average (.265) was barely noticed after he rocketed 38 HR and drove in 114 runs for the Mets in 2006.  Only Darryl Strawberry (39 HR in 1987 and 1988) and Robin Ventura (120 RBI in 1999) had surpassed Delgado's totals in both categories for left-handed hitters in team history.

Xavier Nady was a quiet contributor on the 2006 Mets.  After making his major league debut with the San Diego Padres in 2000, Nady never became a constant presence in their lineup, collecting only 775 at-bats during his tenure in San Diego.  But given the everyday rightfielder's job in New York, Nady blossomed, hitting .310 with 14 extra-base hits (seven doubles, seven home runs) in his first 26 games as a Met.  By late July, Nady was quietly producing the best season of his career.  Then fellow newcomer Duaner Sanchez got the midnight munchies in Miami and Xavier Nady was no more.

By not getting a food plate delivered, Duaner Sanchez could not deliver to the plate after July 30.

Prior to the trade deadline, the Mets were not looking to make a deal for a set-up man.  After all, Duaner Sanchez had performed very well in that role, going 5-1 with a 2.60 ERA.  But when Sanchez was involved in a traffic accident while looking for late-night grub, the Mets needed to find a replacement fast.  As a result of Sanchez's taxicab collision, the Mets were forced to part ways with Xavier Nady in order to acquire set-up man Roberto Hernandez and throw-in Oliver Perez from the Pittsburgh Pirates.

With Nady no longer in right field, Lastings Milledge became the everyday rightfielder.  But Milledge was not ready to become a full-time player in the major leagues, hitting .189 with nine strikeouts in his first 12 starts after the trade.  Three weeks after becoming the everyday rightfielder, Milledge was back on the bench, with newly-acquired veteran Shawn Green replacing him.

Despite the Mets opening up a double-digit lead in the division (due mostly to an impressive 9-1 road trip in June), there was something missing from the team, and that was the team itself.  Due to injuries and poor performances by those enlisted to replace the injured players, the Mets had no consistency in their everyday lineup and starting rotation.

In addition to the 13 pitchers who made at least one start for the Mets in 2006, a total of 15 position players started at least 20 games at a position.  The fact that Paul Lo Duca (117 starts) and Ramon Castro (32 starts) were part of this list is not unexpected, as teams usually use their backup catchers often to give their No. 1 catcher at least one day off per week.  Also not unexpected were David Wright (153 starts at third base) and Jose Reyes (148 starts at shortstop) taking their positions almost every day.  But the other five positions on the field saw 11 different players make at least 20 starts.

Did anyone expect Julio Franco to start 20 games at first base in 2006, especially with Carlos Delgado having a monster year?  He did.  What about Chris Woodward making 33 starts at second base despite Kaz Matsui being the team's everyday second sacker to start the season and Jose Valentin ending the year there?  Woodward got to see more double play balls than he expected.  The oft-injured Cliff Floyd allowed Endy Chavez to start 22 games in left field.  But Chavez actually started more games in center (25 starts) and right (32 starts) than he did in left.

Clearly, there was no consistency to the team, especially in their starting lineup.  That lack of consistency would become more noticeable as the team entered the final month of the season.

The two Mets teams that followed the 2006 squad would be known for what they did over their final 17 games.  But the roots of those late-season collapses may have been traced back to 2006.  After 145 games, the 2006 Mets were proud owners of a 90-55 record and a 16-game lead in the division.  Their fourth 100-win season was within reach, as was their fifth division title.  But with the Mets needing one win against lowly Pittsburgh, the team's play became lackadaisical.  The Mets were swept in Pittsburgh and returned home to face the Florida Marlins.  The Mets did defeat the Marlins on September 18 to clinch their first National League East crown in 18 years, but it was one of their few victories over the final three weeks of the season.

Did Jose Reyes borrow those goggles from Duaner Sanchez?

After their 90-55 start, the Mets lost 10 of their next 13 games (with one of their three victories being the division clincher), before recovering to win their final four games of the regular season.  Although the team struggled to the finish line, they did finish a National League-best 97-65, with no other team in the league winning more than 88 games.  It was on to the NLDS against the wild card-winning Los Angeles Dodgers, but the Mets were going into that series missing a few key pieces.

Original Game 1 starter Pedro Martinez was scratched due to a pair of injuries in his shoulder and calf.  When word came down that Martinez's replacement, Orlando "The Dookie" Hernandez, was also unable to make the Game 1 start due to a calf injury, the Mets went with plan C, John Maine.  The first man to make a start for an injured player during the regular season was now being called upon to do the same in the postseason.  But just as the offense had picked up the beleaguered staff during the regular season, they came through again in the NLDS.

Carlos Delgado, who had never taken part in a playoff game prior to 2006, made quite a splash in his postseason debut, going 4-for-5 with a home run.  Also coming through with their bats were Cliff Floyd, who followed Delgado's blast with a homer of his own, and David Wright, who collected a pair of doubles and drove in three runs.  But the Mets might not have won the game had it not been for an odd play involving Paul Lo Duca at the plate.

With the game scoreless in the top of the second inning, the Dodgers had Jeff Kent at second base and J.D. Drew at first with no outs.  Russell Martin then drove a ball off the right field wall that should have scored at least one run.  However, Kent was slow getting around the bases and was thrown out at home.  Meanwhile, Drew, who never stopped running, was just a few feet behind Kent.  After an alert Lo Duca turned around to see Drew headed toward the plate, he made a quick tag of Drew to complete the unusual double play.  Almost forgotten in the aftermath of the play was that the Dodgers did eventually score a run in that inning to take a 1-0 lead, but it could have been much worse if not for the Dodgers' poor baserunning and the cat-like reflexes of Paul Lo Duca.  That play proved to be the difference in the Mets' 6-5 victory.

 Ernie Banks might have said "let's play two", but Paul Lo Duca said "let's tag two".

Compared to Game 1, the Mets had a relatively easy time with the Dodgers in Game 2, with Tom Glavine pitching beautifully in the team's 4-1 victory, but things got a little dicey in Game 3 with Steve Trachsel on the mound.

After the Mets spotted the longest-tenured Met with a four-run lead in Game 3, Trachsel gave it all back and then some.  By the time the Mets came to bat in the sixth inning, a 4-0 lead had turned into a 5-4 deficit.  But the Mets strung together four hits and a walk to score three runs in the sixth to retake the lead.  They added two insurance runs in the eighth inning before Billy Wagner came into the game in the ninth and got pinch-hitter Ramon Martinez to fly out to former Dodger Shawn Green to end the game, giving the Mets a 9-5 victory and a series sweep.  The Mets had advanced to the NLCS, with the 83-win St. Louis Cardinals standing in the way of their fifth National League pennant.  It looked as if the Mets were going to have an easy ride to the World Series.  But that did not end up being the case.

In a hard-fought Game 1 of the NLCS, the Mets defeated the Cardinals, 2-0, with all the runs scoring on a sixth inning home run by Carlos Beltran.  But in Game 2, the Mets failed to hold a late-inning lead, allowing the Cardinals to score two runs in the seventh to tie the game and three runs in the ninth to win it.  The big blow came off the bat of the light-hitting So Taguchi, who gave the Cards a 7-6 lead with a home run of Billy Wagner in the ninth.  St. Louis added two more runs off Wagner en route to a 9-6 series-tying victory.  The devastating Game 2 loss might still have been on the minds of the Mets as they traveled to St. Louis.  Either that or they lost their bats at the airport, as Jeff Suppan stymied the Mets' high-powered offense, holding them to three hits over eight innings.  Suppan also provided an unexpected blow, hitting a home run off Steve Trachsel to lead off the second inning.  Three batters later, Trachsel threw his final pitch as a Met.  The Mets lost Game 3, 5-0, and were now trailing the series, two games to one.

After feeling good about themselves following their Game 1 victory, the Mets were now one loss away from playing an elimination game.  The Mets had to win Game 4 to prevent that game from happening in front of the raucous Busch Stadium crowd and to guarantee a trip back to New York.  Oliver Perez, who had not pitched in two weeks and had only won one game in seven starts since being traded to the Mets at the trade deadline, was called upon to end the Mets' misfortunes in Missouri.  Needless to say, many people weren't very optimistic about the Mets' chances with Perez on the mound.  Perez didn't pitch very well, allowing five runs on nine hits in 5⅔ innings, but the offense bailed him out.  The Mets' 3 through 7 hitters combined to go 10-for-20 with two doubles and four homers (including two by Carlos Beltran).  They also drove in all of the runs in the Mets' 12-5 win.  With the Mets now assured of making a trip back to Shea Stadium, all they needed to do was win Game 5 in St. Louis and a pennant would be within reach.  That was easier said than done.

Similar to the Mets using Oliver Perez in Game 4, the Cardinals turned to a pitcher they had acquired in July who had underperformed in the regular season.  Jeff Weaver was awful for both the Angels and Cardinals, finishing the 2006 regular season with a combined 8-14 record and a 5.76 ERA.  But despite his poor season, the Cardinals gave him the ball in Game 5.  Weaver shocked the Mets by holding them to two runs in six innings of work, while his counterpart on the mound, Tom Glavine was knocked out of the game before he had recorded an out in the fifth inning.  The Cardinals went on to defeat the Mets, 4-2, to put them within one win of the World Series.  If the 1973 Mets could reach the World Series after only winning 82 regular season games, then the 2006 Cardinals figured they could do the same with 83 victories.  But the 1973 Mets also taught us that "ya gotta believe", and the 2006 version of the team was trying to do just that as they returned to Shea Stadium for Game 6.

With the Mets down three games to two, it was up to rookie John Maine to force a seventh game.  Maine was brilliant for the Mets, pitching into the sixth inning while keeping the Cardinals off the scoreboard, allowing only two hits along the way.  All the tension felt by the fans prior to the game was lifted after only one batter, when Jose Reyes led off the game with a home run.  The Mets added one run in the fourth and two runs off former Met Braden Looper in the seventh to take a 4-0 lead.  Despite another shaky outing by Billy Wagner in the ninth, giving up a two-run double to his NLCS nemesis, So Taguchi, the Mets escaped with a 4-2 victory and were on to their first Game 7 at Shea Stadium since the 1986 World Series.  But because of their lack of starting pitching depth, the Mets had to give the ball to Oliver Perez on only three days rest.  Perez would be facing Jeff Suppan, who had toyed with the Mets with his arm and his bat in Game 3.  One team was about to win the National League pennant, but it was two long fly balls that became the story of the game.

After not fooling the Cardinals in Game 4, Oliver Perez pitched very well in the biggest game of his life, allowing one run through the first five innings.  But after a one-out walk to Jim Edmonds in the sixth, Scott Rolen stepped up to the plate.  Rolen was a .450 career hitter (9-for-20) against Perez with five doubles.  However, he had never hit a home run off the Mets' lefty.  It looked as if that was about to change after only one pitch.  But Endy Chavez had something to say about that.  On Perez's first pitch to the Cardinals' third baseman, Rolen lifted a high fly ball that appeared to be headed for the Cards' bullpen.  But Chavez had the speed and the strength to be there, timing his leap perfectly to rob Rolen of a tiebreaking two-run homer.  After checking to see that the snowconed ball was in his glove, Chavez quickly threw the ball to second baseman Jose Valentin, who fired the ball to Carlos Delgado to double off Jim Edmonds for an inning-ending double play.  Shea Stadium was rocking like it had never rocked before with the Mets seemingly taking the momentum away from the Cardinals.  But they could not capitalize on Chavez's catch for the ages.

In the bottom of the sixth, the Mets loaded the bases with one out, with two participants in the previous half-inning's double play, Valentin and Chavez, coming up.  Cardinals' manager Tony La Russa could have taken starting pitcher Jeff Suppan out of the game at that moment, but chose to leave him in.  It was perhaps the most important managerial decision made in the series.  On a 1-2 pitch, Suppan struck out Jose Valentin, then got Endy Chavez to hit a routine fly ball to center to end the inning.  Neither team threatened in the seventh or eighth innings.  It was on to the ninth inning with the game still tied at one apiece.  Aaron Heilman, who had pitched the eighth inning for the Mets, was allowed to start the ninth.  Before long, his name would permanently become a part of Mets history, but not in the way he intended.

Billy Wagner had not fared very well in the ninth inning during the NLCS, giving up three runs in Game 2 and two more runs in Game 6.  Perhaps that factored into manager Willie Randolph's mind when he left Heilman in the game for the ninth inning.  The move appeared to be a good one after Heilman struck out Jim Edmonds to lead off the ninth.  But then Scott Rolen grounded a single to left to bring up Yadier Molina.  Doing his best Mike Scioscia impression, Molina lifted a long fly ball that carried out of the ballpark, far away from Endy Chavez's glove for a two-run homer.  The light-hitting Molina, who had only hit six home runs during the regular season brought back painful memories of Scioscia, another light-hitting catcher who in 1988 hit a two-run ninth-inning home run in the NLCS at Shea Stadium.  But Scioscia's home run came in Game 4 and only tied the game.  Molina's home run was in Game 7 and gave the Cardinals a two-run lead.

The Mets were now down 3-1 as they came to bat in the bottom of the ninth inning, three outs away from elimination.  Rookie closer Adam Wainwright was called upon to pitch the Cardinals into the World Series.  But he struggled early, allowing back-to-back singles to Jose Valentin and Endy Chavez to lead off the inning.  With the tying runs on base, Cliff Floyd was not called upon to bunt the runners over.  The move ended up being costly, as Floyd struck out on six pitches.  After Jose Reyes lined out to centerfielder Jim Edmonds, Paul Lo Duca, doing his best Gary Carter impersonation, refused to be the final out at Shea Stadium.  Lo Duca walked on five pitches to load the bases and bring up Carlos Beltran.  Wainwright threw two strikes to Beltran to go ahead in the count.  Then this happened...


If you were to look at the big picture of the Mets in the last decade, 2006 was the blip on the radar, not the other way around.  Overall, 2006 was no different in how the Mets operated in years past, namely with injuries, bad contracts and reliance upon out-of-their-prime veterans and not-so-ready-for-prime-time rookies.  They were just more successful on paper than previous and post years.   

In fact, if you were to look at how the Mets started to slowly unravel at the end of the 2006 season, it was clear we all were just willing to overlook their shortcomings simply because of how good they did that year.  Most certainly Omar Minaya, Willie Randolph and Fred Wilpon did.  It is true, then, that winning makes you forget about these things.  Now that the Mets haven't won in a few years, we're able to look at 2006 more objectively, as being the one season wonder, the year that maybe shouldn't have been.  

Look at Steve Trachsel, who was an underrated and under-appreciated pitcher for the Mets in his years, winning 15 games that year but under the guise getting great run support.

Look at Jose Valentin and Chris Woodward, starting all those games at second base when they were supposed to be at best super utility players.  Who besides the Mets would give Julio Franco that much playing time, as a 48-year-old man?

Xavier Nady is seen to this day as a cult hero in Mets lore.  The fact that a middle reliever's injury caused so much of a domino effect on the dynamic of the team is a testament to not only how valuable Duaner Sanchez was to the bullpen, but conversely how that team was just one player short of imploding.  

Paul Lo Duca and Billy Wagner had great seasons in 2006, never to be replicated again in a Mets uniform.  

Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado fed off of each others production, and paved the way for future leaders of the team Jose Reyes and David Wright.  Now, Reyes is playing for the NL East rival Miami Marlins, and Wright has yet to take that leap to making the Mets his team. 

Lastly, trotting out 13 different starting pitchers, including Jose Lima, and they still won?  Chances are, this was not a formula for success but how lucky are you feeling, punk?   When your postseason hopes are foisted upon the likes of John Maine, Oliver Perez and Orlando "The Dookie" Hernandez, it's evident the 2006 Mets were just lucky to be there.

Prior to 2006, the Mets had made the playoffs six times.  Each of the six trips could be separated into pairs.  The 1969 and 1973 Mets were represented by many of the same players.  The 1986 and 1988 Mets could also be paired off, as the majority of the team in 1986 was still intact in 1988.  And of course, the 1999 and 2000 Mets were practically the same, save for John Olerud and Mike Hampton.  But the 2006 Mets have no postseason cousins.  They're simply a standalone team, a one season wonder on their own.

Studious Metsimus would like to thank Taryn "The Coop" Cooper for her contributions to this piece.  Not only was it her idea for the entire 2006 Mets team to receive the One Season Wonders spotlight, but she also wrote 10½ paragraphs for the piece.  You guess which ones.  For more examples of her writing on the Mets and on her other sports loves, please check out her site, A Gal For All Seasons.

Note: One Season Wonders was a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets who had one and only one memorable season in New York. (And on occasion, it wasn't just an individual player that was a One Season Wonder.)  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:
January 2, 2012: Bernard Gilkey
January 9, 2012: Terry Leach 
January 16, 2012: George Stone
January 23, 2012: Roger Cedeño
January 30, 2012: Frank Viola
February 6, 2012: Joe Christopher 
February 13, 2012: Dave Magadan 
February 20, 2012: Pedro Martinez
February 27, 2012: Bret Saberhagen 
March 5, 2012: Robin Ventura 
March 12, 2012: Willie Montañez
March 19, 2012: Lance Johnson 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Is This Your Retirement, Larry?

Earlier today, Chipper Jones announced that he will be retiring at the end of the season after almost two decades spent entirely with the Atlanta Braves.  Jones will retire as one of the Braves’ all-time greatest players, finishing in the top three in many of the team's offensive categories (along with Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews).  He will also end his career as one of the best switch-hitters in baseball history, joining other greats such as Mickey Mantle, Eddie Murray and Pete Rose.

Chipper Jones was like Norm from Cheers, with every fan at Shea Stadium and Citi Field saying his first name in unison as he strolled into the batter's box.  But unlike Norm, whenever Jones heard his name, it wasn't usually in adulation.

When the Braves and Mets competed for National League supremacy in 1999 and 2000, it was Jones who repeatedly delivered in the clutch, keeping the Mets from ending the Braves’ reign atop the division.  By then, he was already known as “La-a-a-a-a-arry” to the Shea faithful, similar to the way Darryl Strawberry was known as “Da-a-a-a-a-arryl” to Red Sox fans during the 1986 World Series.  Of course, Strawberry got the last laugh, hitting a towering home run off Red Sox reliever Al Nipper in Game 7.  Chipper Jones usually hushed the crowd as well with his ability to come through in the clutch.

And what a clutch hitter he was against the Mets.  In 812 career at-bats versus New York, Jones hit .318 with 44 doubles, 48 HR and 154 RBI.  Only Hall of Famers Willie Stargell (60) and Mike Schmidt (49) hit more career home runs against the Mets than Chipper Jones.

But Jones wasn’t just a great hitter when the Mets were in the other dugout.  He was an equal opportunity slugger, especially within his own division.  Take a look at his stats against the other teams in the National League East:

  • vs. Marlins: .299, 45 doubles, 40 HR, 161 RBI in 834 at-bats.
  • vs. Phillies: .332, 68 doubles, 46 HR, 144 RBI in 797 at-bats.
  • vs. Expos/Nats: .298, 60 doubles, 40 HR, 154 RBI in 905 at-bats.

Through 2011, Jones has hit at least 40 doubles, 40 HR and picked up 140 RBI against every team in the National League East, numbers that will only rise as he plays his final year in the major leagues.  Despite his inability to stay on the field because of various injuries throughout the latter part of his career, he still managed to win a batting title in 2008, hitting an impressive .364 at age 36.

Over the years, Mets fans at Shea Stadium and Citi Field would shower Chipper Jones with boos and remind him of his given name whenever he stepped up to the plate.  But did they really hate Chipper Jones or was it just a masked sign of respect for a great player?

Admit it.  You've booed Chipper Jones, but you would have loved to see him in a Mets uniform.

Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels and Shane Victorino also get pooped on by the boo birds whenever they come to New York.  But all three of them brought it upon themselves by not being able to keep their mouths shut.  Cole Hamels may have been the biggest offender of Mets fans when he famously claimed that the Mets were choke artists.  In fact, his mouth is so big, he could insert Shaquille O’Neal's foot in it and it still wouldn’t shut him up.  Those players are players Mets fans genuinely hate.  There’s no respect in those boos.

But Chipper Jones is different.  He never guaranteed anything even when the Braves were racking up division titles faster than the current Mets rack up injuries.  He also never disrespected a fan base like Hamels or his former teammate, John Rocker, did.  In fact, Jones loved playing in New York so much, he named his son Shea.

Why was Chipper Jones booed so much in New York?  Because he was good.  Really good.  For a very long time.

Larry did his homework on the Mets, which is why he was so great against them for nearly two decades.  But he didn’t just pick on the Mets; he picked apart opposing pitchers all over the National League.  When the Braves make their final appearance at Citi Field this year on September 9, Mets fans should put aside their negative feelings and give Chipper Jones a standing ovation.  After so many years booing him, it’s time to recognize that he was one of the best players of his generation.  Jones is a certain first ballot Hall of Famer who, like Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn, played his entire career with one team.  Only special players get to do that.  Chipper Jones has been a special player.

When the 2012 season comes to a close, Chipper Jones will be retiring from baseball.  Ask any Mets fan how they feel about the news and they’ll say they won’t be at a loss, which shouldn’t be surprising.  Why not?  Because when the game was on the line, the man they called “La-a-a-a-a-arry” usually had their favorite team at a loss.  It’s no wonder Mets fans will probably enjoy Chipper Jones’ retirement more than Chipper himself.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Joey's Soapbox: What The Wilpons Should Do With Their Money

Over the past 24 hours, two seasons officially ended.  For those not involved in Ponzi schemes, winter turned to spring at 1:14 AM.  For those whose surname is Wilpon, your winter of discontent has also ended.  Now that the Mets’ owners and Irving Picard have settled for $162 million before the case went to trial, the focus can now shift completely to what’s happening on the field and not what could have happened off it.

But before we return to the action between the foul lines, I wanted to hop on my soapbox.  If I may, I’d like to share my thoughts with you on what I think the brothers-in-law Wilpon and Katz should do now that they won’t have to fork over $386 million to the Picard peeps.  Who knows?  Maybe they might actually listen to me this time.  Who am I?  I'm Joey Beartran, and I'm about to take you for a ride on my soapbox.

Sign a starting pitcher that can actually stay on the mound

In 2006, the Mets won 97 games.  They also used 13 starting pitchers, all of whom made at least three starts for the team.  Only Tom Glavine and Steve Trachsel were able to make more than 23 starts.  Of course, the Mets' lack of depth and health in the starting rotation caught up with them in the National League Championship Series, especially when both Pedro Martinez and Orlando "The Dookie" Hernandez couldn't pitch in the postseason due to injuries.

Two years later, the Mets traded for Johan Santana and gave him a six-year contract extension.  To date, Santana has given the Mets one DL-free season.  Looks like it's obvious here.  The Wilpons should use their money to sign a dependable starting pitcher that can actually stay on the mound.  The Phillies did it with Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee and they've been able to withstand all sorts of injuries to their everyday players.  The Mets should follow suit.  Or they should find a way to injure Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee.

How about a pitcher who can strike out a batter or ten?

In 1984, Dwight Gooden struck out 276 batters as a rookie, fanning ten or more batters in 15 of his 31 starts.  In 2011, a Mets' starting pitcher reached double digits in strikeouts in a single game twice.  That's two times in 162 games.  Only R.A. Dickey and Chris Capuano reached the level that Gooden reached regularly, and they were only able to do it once apiece.

Since 1992, the only Mets pitchers to strike out 200 or more batters in a single season have been Al Leiter (2000, 200 Ks), Pedro Martinez (2005, 208 Ks) and Johan Santana (2008, 206 Ks).  In each of the years they accomplished their hefty strikeout totals, the Mets finished with a winning record.  That's not a coincidence.

With Citi Field's fences moving in for the start of the 2012 season, it would behoove the Mets to find pitchers who can keep the ball in the ballpark.  Either that or they'll need pitchers with the ability to get opposing batters to hit the ball on the ground, preferably away from Daniel Murphy at second base.  Of course, we wouldn't even have to discuss this if the Mets had pitchers who could strike out a batter or ten.

Spend money on scouting and minor league development

Over the past decade, the only two pitching prospects to stick around have been Mike Pelfrey and Jonathon Niese.  Both players have losing records in the major leagues and neither has made the All-Star team.  In fact, other than Jose Reyes and David Wright, the last homegrown All-Star (regardless of whether he was a pitcher or everyday player) was Edgardo Alfonzo in 2000.  Who was the last homegrown All-Star pitcher?  You have to go back to 1997 and Bobby Jones.

Winning teams succeed with the right combination of veteran leadership and homegrown talent.  The Mets haven't been able to get this consistently right for over a decade.  A few extra bucks spent on their scouts and the development of players in the minor leagues should help the Mets in that regard.

Don't spend on a big-name free agent; spend on a big-name exorcist

On the night Citi Field hosted its first regular season game, a frisky feline darted onto the field and crept past David Wright, who was standing in the on-deck circle.  It was a scene reminiscent of the black cat that ran behind Cubs' third baseman Ron Santo at Shea Stadium in 1969.  Just as the black cat served as the superstitious impetus for the Cubs' demise, the Citi kitty might have done the same to the Mets.

I don't usually believe in curses or the supernatural, but surely a lower power must be involved in the Mets' misfortunes.  Therefore, instead of throwing cash at the next hot ticket free agent, why don't the Mets just hire the best exorcist money can buy?  Clearly, Fred Wilpon already used an exorcist on himself, as his head is no longer spinning due to the resolution of the Madoff mess.  Now it's time to use it on the team.  It might be our only hope.

Give Jeff Wilpon a makeover

New York is the media capital of the world.  Because of that, Jeff Wilpon has found himself in front of the TV cameras quite a bit over the years.  This would normally be a good thing for someone who bears a strong facial resemblance to a popular TV star, as Wilpon does.  However, when that popular television character is Alfalfa from The Little Rascals, it’s a sign that Little Jeffy needs a makeover.

Perhaps a new hairstyle would work.  It doesn’t have to be outlandish like the blond curls sported by the late Jose Lima during his month-long stay in New York in 2006.  (If you don’t remember Lima ever being a Met, it’s probably because you were in an alcohol-induced stupor due to his constant poundings on the mound.)  All his new "do" must do is say “I want you to believe that I’m going to put the best team on the field” instead of “I want you to believe that Darla will one day fall in love with me”.  It’s time for Jeff Wilpon to change the way he looks.  Even Buckwheat would say “o-tay” to that.

Invest in antivenom

In last year’s infamous New Yorker interview, Fred Wilpon stated that Jose Reyes would never get Carl Crawford’s money.  He was right.  He also said that David Wright was a good, but not great player.  With Wright’s latest injury keeping him out of action, he may be right on that front, too.  Papa Smirk is definitely not a saint, but he might be a prophet.

Since everything Wilpon said in the article has come true, then we should also believe him when he says “we’re snakebit, baby!”  In that case, I’d like to make a suggestion to our fearless leader.  Snakes have venom.  Antivenom can combat snake bites.  You now have extra money that won’t be siphoned out of your Sandy Koufax piggy back.  Do the math.

As things stand now, even if the Mets improve upon last year’s 77-85 record, they might still finish in last place.  Every team in the National League East is better on paper.  The Nationals and Marlins, who finished in third and fifth place in the division last year, respectively, are exponentially better this year.  The Nationals added Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson to their starting rotation (not to mention a healthy Stephen Strasburg) and will now have Brad Lidge closing games for them.  Meanwhile, the Marlins added Mark Buehrle to anchor their rotation and All-Star Heath Bell to seal the deal in the ninth inning.  The Braves have the best one-two punch in the bullpen in Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel, in addition to a solid starting rotation.  Even with an off-year by rightfielder Jason Heyward, the Braves still competed for a playoff spot until the last day of the season.  And the Phillies?  They’re pretty good.

The Mets have a long way to go if they want to be mentioned in the same sentence as the other teams in the division.  Right now, the only way the Mets could realistically compete in the National League East is if they faced Cole Hamels every day.  That’s about as likely as Shane Victorino learning how not to complain like a little … ahem … sorry,  I got carried away there.  It’s just that I’m very passionate about my team, and I want them to do well.

Surely, the team’s owners want the same thing for their team as I do.  Throwing money at the best available free agent just won’t cut it anymore.  Doing that just gets you Oliver Perez or Jason Bay.  Perhaps Los Wilpons will read this and get an idea or six.  My suggestions can’t hurt as much as the Wilpons have hurt the fan base over the past few years, right?

Monday, March 19, 2012

One Season Wonders: Lance Johnson

The 1995 Mets were only two years removed from the team's first 100-loss season since 1967.  But they were one of the surprise teams in the National League, finishing in a second-place tie in the NL East with a 69-75 record in the strike-shortened season.  The future looked bright for the Mets, especially with Generation K, their highly touted trio of homegrown pitchers, about to make a splash.

However, one thing was missing for the Mets going into the 1996 season.  In 1995, the Mets traded their leadoff hitter, Brett Butler, to the Los Angeles Dodgers during the stretch run.  That left the Mets with a musical chairs situation in the leadoff spot, with Damon Buford, Joe Orsulak and Alex Ochoa trying to be the last person to sit on the leadoff seat.

Neither Buford, Orsulak or Ochoa figured to be the team's leadoff hitter in 1996, especially with general manager Joe McIlvane openly shopping for one.  Two months after the conclusion of the 1995 season, the Mets found their man in Chicago.  And he provided the team with the best season a leadoff hitter had ever produced to date.

"Leading off and playing center field, No. 1, Mook -- correction -- Lance Johnson!"

Kenneth Lance Johnson was not a young player when the Mets signed him.  At 32, he was entering a time in his life when speedsters tend to lose a step or two.  But the Mets decided to take a chance on Johnson after he had reached career highs in at-bats (607), hits (186), runs scored (98), home runs (10) and RBI (57), while batting .306 with 12 triples and 40 stolen bases in his final year with the White Sox.

Despite the fact that the Texas Rangers offered Johnson a three-year deal with a fourth-year option, guaranteeing him $8.35 million, the centerfielder chose to take his talents eastward, signing with the Mets for two years and $5.7 million.  Johnson settled on the Mets after talking to Bobby Bonilla, Daryl Boston and Mookie Wilson, all former Mets and good friends.

The Mets now had their leadoff hitter in place, but Johnson was a centerfielder.  Their Opening Day starter from the previous year, Brett Butler, had been the team's leftfielder.  That was also the position played by Damon Buford and Joe Orsulak.  One month after the Mets acquired Johnson, they orchestrated a trade for leftfielder Bernard Gilkey.

With the outfield set, the addition of a defensive wunderkind at short in Rey Ordoñez, and Generation K on the way, the Mets were ready to take the 1996 season by storm.  They didn't wait very long to make a positive impression on the fans, and Lance Johnson had a lot to do with it.

On April 1, before a packed house at Shea Stadium, the season opened ominously for the Mets, who fell behind early to the Cardinals by six runs.  But the Mets began to chip away at the lead and by the seventh inning, the Cardinals' lead had been halved.  After an exciting conclusion to the top of the seventh, where a perfect relay from Gilkey to Ordoñez helped nail Royce Clayton at the plate to keep the score 6-3, the Mets rallied for four runs in the bottom of the inning.  Smack dab in the middle of the rally was Lance Johnson.  The Mets' new centerfielder used his speed to generate a run, plating Ordoñez with an infield hit, then scored the go-ahead run on a sacrifice fly by Rico Brogna.  Johnson's run proved to be the difference in the 7-6 Mets' victory.

Although Johnson helped contribute to the Mets' Opening Day victory, he didn't start the season very well.  One month after the season opener, Johnson had a decent batting average (.272), but was only reaching base at a .286 clip, drawing three walks in the season's first month.  The Mets expected more from their leadoff hitter, and beginning with the second game of a doubleheader against the Montreal Expos on May 1, Johnson gave the Mets exactly what they wanted and more.

Photo by David G. Whitham
Over a six-game stretch from May 1 to May 7, Johnson batted .500 (14-for-28), scoring five runs and driving in another.  He also collected his seventh triple of the season, after hitting six in the season's first month.  The season was barely a month old and Johnson was already only three triples short of Mookie Wilson's single-season franchise record for three-base hits.  Before the season was half over, that record would be history.

On June 16, Johnson picked up his 11th triple of the season against the St. Louis Cardinals, breaking Mookie Wilson's club record that he set in 1984.  For Johnson, the moment was extra-special because it was the Cardinals who originally drafted him in 1984 before trading him to the White Sox just months after he played for St. Louis in the 1987 World Series.

By the All-Star Break, Johnson was already having an historic season for the Mets.  Through his first 87 games, One-Dog (as he was affectionately referred to by his teammates) was hitting .322 with 16 doubles, 13 triples and five home runs.  He also had 40 RBI out of the leadoff spot, which was an unusually high number for a No. 1 hitter.  What was not unusual for a leadoff hitter was his 65 runs scored and 28 stolen bases.

For his efforts, Johnson was selected to his first All-Star team, joining catcher Todd Hundley to become the first Mets' teammates in five years to represent the club in the Midsummer Classic.  Due to an injury to Padres' outfielder Tony Gwynn, Johnson started the All-Star Game and surprised everyone by playing the entire game, going 3-for-4 with two singles, a double, a run scored and a stolen base in the 6-0 National League victory.

Johnson continued to hit after the All-Star Break.  In his first 32 games after the break, Johnson had 12 multi-hit games and stole 14 bases.  However, the team, who had remained within a few games of the .500 mark for most of the season, was starting to feel the dog days of August, especially the young pitching staff.  Generation K had become Generation K.O., as Jason Isringhausen's ERA was climbing near 5.00 and Paul Wilson's ERA had already gone north of that mark.

By August 18, the Mets had fallen 20 games behind the first-place Braves.  One week later, manager Dallas Green was gone, replaced by Bobby Valentine.  Despite the poor play on the field and the upheaval in the clubhouse, Lance Johnson continued to shine.

Beginning with his 2-for-4 performance on August 14, Johnson hit .399 over the team's final 41 games.  In addition, the centerfielder scored 35 runs and drove in 20 more during the final quarter of the season.  Mostly everyone else wilted in the summer heat (save for Gilkey and Hundley), but Johnson just got better.  Despite not being a big on-base percentage player or a slugger, Johnson had an impressive 1.004 OPS over the last month and a half of the season, reaching base at a .426 clip and producing a .578 slugging percentage (13 doubles, six triples, two home runs in 173 at-bats).  The Mets finished the season with a disappointing 71-91 record, but Johnson's season was anything but disappointing.

For the season, Lance Johnson hit .333.  At the time, it was the second-highest batting average in team history (Cleon Jones hit .340 in 1969).  Johnson also became the second Met to play in 160 games (Felix Millan played 162 games in 1975) and the second to reach the 50-steal plateau (Mookie Wilson stole 58 bases in 1982 and 54 bases in 1983).  But there were a number of offensive categories in which Johnson was second to none.

In 1996, Johnson set the Mets' single-season record for at-bats (682), runs scored (117), hits (227), total bases (327), multi-hit games (75), singles (166) and triples (21).  He also had the rare distinction of having more stolen bases (50) than strikeouts (40).  To this day, Johnson still holds the single-season franchise records for hits, multi-hit games, singles and triples.

Following Johnson's record-setting campaign, the Mets rewarded him with a two-year contract extension worth $10 million, keeping him under the team's control until 1999.  But Johnson was also a year older, and a year closer to breaking down.  The 33-year-old Johnson started the 1997 season where he left off in 1996, hitting .309 with five stolen bases over the Mets' first 13 games.  But shin splints knocked Johnson out of the lineup on May 1 and he missed six weeks of action, returning to the Mets just in time to see Dave Mlicki shut out the Yankees in the first regular season Subway Series game on June 16.

By early August, Johnson was still hitting above .300, but he was hitting mostly singles.  His 17 extra-base hits (ten doubles, six triples, one home run) were a far cry from his 1996 production, when he finished the year with 61 extra-base hits.  Johnson also wasn't running as much, stealing 15 bases in 25 attempts.  His 60% success rate was well below his 77% career rate.  Despite Johnson's regression, the Mets were overachieving and competing in the National League wild card race.  However, the team was leading the league in blown saves and needed to improve their bullpen if they wanted to have a realistic shot at making the playoffs.

On August 8, the Mets made a deal to improve their bullpen, but the cost was steep, as they had to part ways with Lance Johnson.  In a six-player deal with the Chicago Cubs, the Mets sent Johnson, starting pitcher Mark Clark and backup shortstop Manny Alexander to the Windy City for centerfielder Brian McRae, closer Mel Rojas and set-up man Turk Wendell.  Although McRae went on to record a 20-20 season with the Mets in 1998 (21 HR, 20 SB), he never quite replaced Lance Johnson in center.  Meanwhile, Mel Rojas went on to become one of the most hated relievers in Mets' history.  However, Turk Wendell became one of the most successful middle relievers in team history, and was a key player in the Mets' postseason runs in 1999 and 2000.

The injuries that sidelined Johnson during the 1997 season continued to keep him off the field for extended periods of time over the next three years.  As a member of the Cubs in 1998 and 1999, Johnson missed a total of 145 games.  He then played 18 games for the Yankees in 2000 before being released on June 6, just four months before he would have gotten the chance to play against the Mets in the World Series.  Although Johnson was only 36 years old, he would never play in the major leagues again.

Although his career was cut short by injuries, Lance Johnson still had plenty to smile about.

Lance Johnson became an everyday player in 1990 as a member of the Chicago White Sox.  Over the next six seasons, he was one of the best leadoff hitters in the game not named Rickey Henderson, batting .289 and averaging 12 triples and 34 stolen bases per year from 1990 to 1995.  Then he became a Met in 1996 and obliterated his six-year averages.  But injuries and a subsequent trade in 1997 curtailed his career, ending it at a relatively young age.

The Mets did not play well as a team in 1996, finishing 20 games below .500.  But Lance Johnson did all he could to make the season a memorable one for Mets fans.  Mookie Wilson captured the fans' hearts with his speed and smile in the 1980s.  Two decades later, Jose Reyes did the same.  The Mets did not have many players like that in the 1990s, but for one season, they did.

Lance Johnson was Mookie Wilson after the fan-favorite retired and he was Jose Reyes before anyone knew who Reyes was.  But without his one magnificent season in 1996, perhaps no Mets fan would have known who Lance Johnson was.  It's amazin' what one wonderful season can do to a player.

Note: One Season Wonders is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets who had one and only one memorable season in New York.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:
January 2, 2012: Bernard Gilkey
January 9, 2012: Terry Leach 
January 16, 2012: George Stone
January 23, 2012: Roger Cedeño
January 30, 2012: Frank Viola
February 6, 2012: Joe Christopher 
February 13, 2012: Dave Magadan 
February 20, 2012: Pedro Martinez
February 27, 2012: Bret Saberhagen 
March 5, 2012: Robin Ventura 
March 12, 2012: Willie Montañez