As you may have heard, the Mets' 2007 season did not end as well as they or their fans might have liked. It's hard to blame the team's offense for the historic collapse, though. In those fateful seventeen games when the Mets went from prohibitive pennant favorites to historical punchlines, the team scored 98 runs or 5.76 per game. They put a total of 804 runs on the board in 2007, 4.96 per game, good for fourth best in the National League. While the Mets' pitching has made most of the headlines this offseason, the bats should once again be among the league's best. Here's a look at the state of the offense, position-by-position.
Met backstops hit .267/.309/.410 last year, around average for the league, as a big year from Ramon Castro (.291/.333/.567 in 141 AB) somewhat made up for Paul Lo Duca's decision to stop using steroids (.266/.307/.373 in 429 AB). That story will have to repeat itself in 2008 if the Mets are going to get any offensive production out of this position as Brian Schneider and his anemic bat step into the starting role. There's been talk of Castro getting significantly more playing time this year, but I'll believe that Willie Randolph will deviate from traditional starter/backup roles when I see it. The fact that Castro may begin the season on the disabled list with a strained hamstring won't help any.
Schneider and Castro are both signed through 2009 when both of them will turn thirty-three. That gives the Mets about nineteen months to come up with some sort of long term plan for this position as they don't seem to have one yet. After carelessly losing Jesus Flores to the Nationals in last year's Rule 5 Draft, the best minor league catchers in the Mets' system include thirty-five year-old Raul Casanova and eighteen year-old Francisco Peña. Peña may someday catch for the Mets, but he may be old enough to drink by the time he figures out the whole "hitting" thing as he hit just .210/.263/.283 in A-ball last year.
The parts of this preview that point toward good times ahead will show up any paragraph now. In the meantime, let's talk about Carlos Delgado. Delgado fell off a cliff in 2007, hitting .258/.333/.448. He lost a full hundred points from his 2006 slugging percentage and was well below average for a National League first baseman. He did have a couple of very good months, posting OPSes over .900 in July and September. Perhaps offseason elbow and wrist surgery led him to get off to a slow start and we can expect him to bounce back somewhat now that he's relatively healthy. But the chances of him being an elite first baseman or one of the three best offensive players on this team are pretty slim.
After this season the Mets will have to decide whether to pick up Delgado's option for 2009 or pay him $4 million to go away. Barring a miraculous comeback, this should not be a difficult decision. Seeing as the Mets don't have any reinforcements on the way from the minors or even any decent options to back up Delgado this year, their future plans likely involve throwing lots of money at Mark Teixeira.
Met second basemen hit .278/.348/.405 in 2007, about average for the NL. Unfortunately, the Mets decided to dump the best bat they had at the position to make room for Fernando Tatis on the roster. Ruben Gotay hit .295/.351/.421 in 190 at bats last year. Those numbers aren't eye-popping and he may not have even been likely to repeat them. But he could have been a solid bat off the bench with some power to complement Luis Castillo's "singles, singles and more singles" approach. Instead, they've chosen Tatis and his "versatility." He's so versatile that he spent two of the last four years doing something other than play professional baseball. Tatis will likely have the job of backing up Delgado at first base and making Carlos look like an offensive powerhouse by comparison.
Castillo is signed for four years and should keep putting up solid OBPs with no power and decent defense for at least a couple of years. Backing him up this year will be thirty-eight year-old Damion Easley and thirty-four year-old Marlon Anderson. Both could provide a decent bat off the bench with more power than Castillo if they stay healthy. Meanwhile, the twenty-five year-old Gotay will likely fit in just fine on the Atlanta Braves' bench.
Jose Reyes famously hit a slump at the worst possible time in 2007. But he still had a very productive year at .280/.354/.421 with 78 stolen bases and very good defense. He didn't hit with as much power as in 2006, but he continued to improve his walk rate. There's been a lot of talk in the offseason of Reyes toning down his fun-loving antics or trying to hit the ball on the ground more. When the season starts, I expect that all of that will be forgotten and Reyes will be what he is: one of the best players in the game who's still getting better. And he won't turn twenty-five until June.
David Wright is the old man of the left side of the Mets' infield, having reached the big two-five back in December. He'll just have to settle for being the better player of the two. Last year's .325/.416/.546, 34 stolen base, Gold Glove campaign might have made him the first NL MVP in Met history if not for his teammates collapsing around him in late September. He did all he could, hitting .397/.451/.575 in those last seventeen games. He probably wasn't the best defensive third baseman in the league last year, but he has certainly improved a lot in his three and a half major league seasons. And with the bat he is beyond reproach and only getting better. The Mets may make one questionable decision after another at the margins of their roster, but as long as Wright and Reyes are sporting the orange and blue, this team will be worth watching.
Moises Alou gave the Mets a terrific half of a season in 2007, hitting .341/.392/.524 in 87 games. He was one of the few standing alongside Wright, pounding out hits all through September including a twenty-four game hitting streak that started on August 31st. There's no reason this year should be any different. Unfortunately, the inevitable disabled list portion of the season will start with game one as Alou is out until late April or so due to hernia surgery. Backups Angel Pagan and Endy Chavez should provide good-to-great defense in his absence, but neither will come close to replacing his bat.
While it seems likely Alou will be able to hit as long as he's able to walk, he will turn forty-two this season. Six months ago the Mets had three promising young outfielders in their system who might fill the impending holes in left and right field. Now Fernando Martinez is the last man standing. While he may have the bat to be a major league left fielder before too long, expecting him to be ready by 2009 is overly optimistic. He's still only nineteen and didn't exactly tear up AA Binghamton last year. The Mets may be in the market for a stopgap after this season, though I wouldn't bet against the best option being Alou himself.
Carlos Beltran didn't quite repeat his monster 2006, but he still had an excellent year, hitting .276/.353/.525 and winning his second, deserved Gold Glove. He was slowed at times by some minor injuries, which is becoming an annual tradition. But when he is completely healthy, he can be a dominant player and overall, there's no shame in playing second fiddle to David Wright. Beltran's $119 million contract runs through 2011 and right now, it doesn't seem like the Mets will regret a dollar of it.
The trade that sent Lastings Milledge to the Nationals in exchange for Ryan Church and Brian Schneider didn't make the 2008 Mets any better and it did make them older. But that doesn't mean that a full year of Church in right field won't be an improvement over what the Mets got in 2007 when Willie Randolph repeatedly chose Shawn Green over Milledge. Met right fielders hit just .273/.326/.398, well below the NL average of .275/.344/.442. Meanwhile, Church, in his first full major league season, hit .272/.349/.464 in one of the best pitcher's parks in the game. He should also be a defensive improvement over Green's statuesque performance. Church won't be an All-Star and the fact that he played his first full major league season at 28 doesn't bode well for his career longevity. But in 2008, he will be an asset.
The Mets' offense isn't without its holes and there isn't much help on the way from the minors. But they've got three great players in the primes of their careers with some decent supporting players alongside them. This team isn't going to lead the league in runs scored, but they should again be solidly in the top four or five. That could be plenty, given the Mets' pitching staff, who I will be back to discuss shortly.