Monday, July 21, 2008

It's gonna be the future soon

With the Mets in a first place tie, winners of eleven of their last thirteen games while the trade deadline looms like a mythical beast from the deep, lurking just below the surface, threatening to take a chunk out of the farm system at any moment, I thought I'd take this time to peer into the future of the 2008 New York Mets. The next sixty-three games seem likely to culminate in another photo finish atop the NL East, but a lot could change by the end of July, let alone the end of September. Here are a few scenarios that might come to pass and my thoughts on their relative likelihood.

Scenario One: The Marlins win the division.

Not gonna happen. Moving on...

Scenario Two: The Mets acquire Raul Ibanez and Jose Vidro from the Mariners in exchange for Fernando Martinez and Jon Niese.

The Mets are short a corner outfielder or two and Ibanez's name has come up in trade rumors. Martinez, now hitting .287/.331/.414 at Binghamton, is still nineteen years old and the Mets' most attractive trade commodity. The twenty-one year-old Niese has a 3.22 ERA and 104:43 K:BB ratio in 117 1/3 innings for the B-Mets. I just threw Vidro in because he's a former Expo and he can't play second base anymore, so I thought he'd fit right in on the Mets' bench.

If your only frames of reference for Omar Minaya as a GM and the Mets as a franchise are June 27, 2002 and July 30, 2004, respectively, this would seem like the mostly likely scenario. A move similar to this one would be disastrous for the Mets' still thin farm system and not much of a boon to the major league club. Ibanez is only hitting .278/.344/.454 and is reputed to be a terrible defender. Counting on Fernando Tatis, Endy Chavez and Marlon Anderson to man the outfield corners is far from an ideal solution, but the Mets shouldn't mortgage the future (again) for the likes of Ibanez or Xavier Nady.

Mets fans have seen too much to completely rule this out. But right now I feel like if the Mets are going to put too much faith in a mediocre veteran outfielder, it's going to be Tatis. The Mets may make a minor move or two in the next ten days, but I don't think Fernando is going anywhere.

Scenario Three: The Mets keep winning eleven out of every thirteen games and run away with the division.

Keeping up the pace of the last two weeks would give the Mets 106 wins on the season, more than enough to put away the division. If Mike Pelfrey (1.86 ERA, 20:3 K:BB, 29 IP in his last four starts), Oliver Perez (1.38 ERA, 27:11 K:BB, 26 IP in his last four starts), Carlos Delgado (.419/.500/.726 in July), Fernando Tatis (.378/.440/.733 in July) and Ramon Castro (.357/.379/.643 in July) stay hot all year, it might be possible. But that is about as likely as Ryan Church coming back next week and picking up where he left off.

Scenario Four: The Phillies edge the Mets in a close race.

Maybe a change of scenery will help Joe Blanton regain his reliable 2007 form. Maybe Jimmy Rollins will start to put some distance between himself and Cristian Guzman in the race to be the third best shortstop in the division. Maybe every Mets/Phillies game will come down to Billy Wagner pitching to Pat Burrell. If any or all of these things happen, the Phillies could once again narrowly defeat the Mets for the division crown. The Phillies have enough talent and the Mets enough flaws to make this a distinct possibility, but I don't think it's the most likely outcome.

Scenario Five: The Mets emerge victorious in a close race.

Despite the significant disparity in pitcher friendliness of Shea Stadium and Citizen's Bank Park, the Mets have only scored 11 fewer runs than the Phillies. The teams are almost even in OPS+, with the Mets at 105 and the Phillies at 104. After a slow start, the Mets' offense has turned out to be pretty good, thanks largely to a .308/.374/.473 month of July. They've been helped by Tatis's shocking resurgence and the rebounds of guys like Endy Chavez and Damion Easley who got off to terrible starts to the season. But while those gains may be fleeting, this team has the offensive core to keeping scoring all season long. Jose Reyes (.300/.364/.482), David Wright (.286/.386/.513) and Carlos Beltran (.271/.363/.477) aren't going anywhere and Carlos Delgado (.261/.343/.472) seems to have enough left in the tank to be an acceptable fourth best bat. With Ramon Castro healthy and getting the starts against lefty pitching, the lineup is even more solid. The Mets aren't going to be the top scoring offense in the league, but they can certainly remain in the top five.

As for pitching, there are certainly some areas of concern. Pedro Martinez has not been good and there's not a lot of reason to expect he will be. John Maine is having a lot of trouble locating the strike zone, as a result of which, he's lasted fewer than five innings in three of his last four starts. But given Oliver Perez's turnaround since the change in pitching coaches and Mike Pelfrey's apparent arrival as a serious major league starter, the news isn't all bad. And then there's Johan Santana, with a 3.10 ERA and 116:38 K:BB in 130 2/3 innings. He's been excellent though not dominant. If this is all he has, this year will be somewhat disappointing. But he is still Johan Santana and he still has twelve of thirteen starts to go. This could still be quite a formidable rotation by the time September or October rolls around.

Altogether, I think the Mets have a comparable offense to the Phillies and a superior starting rotation. I think the race will remain compelling for most if not all of the next two months, but in the end the Mets will prevail by two or three games. The Marlins will be a few games further back.

All of this action will get underway on Tuesday as the Mets host a three-game set with nem Phillies. Santana (8-7, 3.10, 116:38 K:BB) will take on Blanton (5-12, 4.96, 62:35) in game one. Maine (8-7, 4.22, 98:54) vs. Brett Myers (3-9, 5.84, 88:44) and Perez (6-6, 4.36, 95:63) vs. Jamie Moyer (9-6, 3.90, 73:34) will be the matchups in the final two games.

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