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March 2010

Pelfrey, Maine, and Perez Hold The Key To 2010

 

Port St. Lucie, Florida --The promo the Mets keep running on TV these days says "We believe in comebacks." More properly, it should read "We better get comebacks." For both Jerry Manuel and Omar Minaya, the best way to begin the journey on the comeback trail will be in their starting rotation. After the manager pencils in the name of Johan Santana on the opening day lineup card, there will be a lot of hoping and praying in the following days.

Hoping and praying because Omar Minaya put his neck on the line and with it Jerry Manuel's neck as well when he decided not to go after "B" level pitching talent in the off-season once John Lackey headed to Fenway. The biggest puzzle of the three has always been Oliver Perez and that will be Dan Warthen's biggest challenge. His stuff can be intoxicating but his inconsistency can drive you to the liquor cabinet and that is the frustrating thing about him.

Ryan Howard, the slugging first basemen for the Phils put it best when he said,"Perez is filthy and I do not know why he does not have more success but I know this--they aren't too many other lefties in this league that are tougher on me than him." But its not just the Phillies--he is 7-4 lifetime versus divisional rival Atlanta and his numbers versus the World Champion Yankees are 5-1 with a 2.61 ERA. And then you look at his 3-5 record with a 7.14 ERA against the Washington Nationals and you understand the paradox that is Oliver Perez.

"I know focus and inconsistency has followed me throughout my career," says Perez,"but I want to change all that this year and it starts down here in Florida." What we have seen in Florida is a mixed bag which has been more good than bad and I must say he has worked much harder in his workouts than I have ever seen him work. But we really are not going to know about Oliver Perez until he has that first regular season moment where he is melting down and needs a pitch to stop the bleeding. That will be the ultimate litmus test for him.

Mike Pelfrey's case is even more complicated than Perez because he had a break out season in 2008 and seemed ready to make that next step in 2009 but instead had an awful season. "I did a lot of soul searching this winter and talked to a lot of people about where I am headed. Because of those conversations, I physically trimmed down losing 20 pounds but I also had to get a mental makeover so to speak,"says Pelfrey.

That makeover has been very obvious in Port St. Lucie as he has looked very calm on the mound even in the most trying of circumstances. His body language is very different as he appears less fidgety and has much better rhythm in his delivery to the plate. And that is key for a sinker ball pitcher who relies on his defense to make plays. He also seems less reticent to rely solely on his sinking fastball as a splitter and a breaking ball have been added to his arsenal of pitches--something Nationals third basemen Ryan Zimmerman noticed when he said, "I think he threw me a cutter and I wasn't expecting that as I had to adjust my hands and by the time I did that I was in no man's land."

And then there is John Maine who quite frankly has not been as healthy as he is right now in close to 2 years. To me, Maine has always exhibited a toughness that I like--he is who he is and he throws as long as he can as hard as he can. When healthy, he is a pretty proven commodity as evidenced by his work in the 2006 playoffs which unbeknownst to me, many experts just file away. I distinctly remember him pitching well versus Dodgers in Game 1 of the NLDS after Orlando Hernandez got hurt the day before the series began.

And in the 2006 NLCS he was the pitcher on the bump in Game 6 with the Mets facing elimination who went out there and went toe to toe with Cards ace Cris Carpenter helping the Mets to force a Game 7. That told me all I needed to know about John Maine--when he is healthy, he is effective. And he proved it the next year when in the last weekend of the season with the Mets at the brink of elimination, he went out and allowed the Mets to live for another day.

To me, it is always a question of health for him and Jerry Manuel has to be very careful not to overwork him but if the Met manager handles him right, Maine can have a big season.

Three pitchers and if 2 rebound the Mets could pose a serious challenge to the Phillies in the NL East. Because I do think a lot of the other Met questions will be answered in a positive way. I think David Wright, Jeff Francoeur, and Jason Bay will provide a lot of thump and once Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes return, the offense will be one of the 3 best in the league. And the defense will be better as well as those 2 injured are as good as it gets at their positions defensively.

And so it comes down to these three guys and I must say they appear motivated, a little angry at their detractors, and ready to prove the critics wrong. And if the Mets really believe in comebacks, it all starts with these 3 who can make the 2010 summer in CitiField rock and make Met fans quickly forget the summer of 2009.

Is Daniel Murphy Safe At First Base?

 

Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

Port St.Lucie, Florida-- For Daniel Murphy, 2009 was a season in which he learned a lot about surviving in the big leagues--starting the year in left field and ending up the season in on the job training mode at first base. Still, he finished strong and appeared to be a lock for the position once the Mets stopped their pursuit of Carlos Delgado.

But both Mike Jacobs and Ike Davis have pushed Murphy and both of those players have impressed Jerry Manuel. "When you see Davis hit the ball with authority the way he does, you have to stop and think," said the Met manager. Davis is still a work in progress and a year at AAA may in the long run serve him well as his stroke needs some fine tuning but you can see the talent is there.

The case for Mike Jacobs is more compelling for a number of reasons but the biggest of those reasons is that he can provide left handed power that can be placed between right handers Jason Bay and Jeff Francoeur. He had some big RBI seasons for both the Marlins and Royals and that might be a nice luxury on Opening Day when your lineup will likely be missing both Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran.

There is also the chance that Jacobs could be the big power bat off the bench that the Mets will surely need but to just sit him there and not play him at least semi-regularly at first might leave his long ball bat stale. The Mets do also have Fernando Tatis under contract but he has been slowed by injuries this spring and may not be ready by Opening Day or at the very least, not sharp enough to assume his supersub role.

All of this leads us back to Jacobs who can provide some thump for the Mets and as a bonus, much like guys like Jeff Francoeur and Jason Bay, he is also a stabilizing force in the clubhouse. But more than that, his looping swing could play real well in that right field corner CitiField jury box.

And do not think that has not crossed Jerry Manuel's mind more than once this spring.


Top 5 Questions Mets Still Need To Answer

 

Question #1: Who Will Be Playing Centerfield Until Carlos Beltran returns? Both Gary Matthews Jr. and Angel Pagan have played very well here in spring training and Jerry Manuel has indicated he may be inclined to go with a "centerfielder by committee" with the 2 players. But Pagan could be a key component for the team especially since with no Jose Reyes, the team will need a catalyst at the top of the order. Even when Reyes was healthy and when it was being theorized he would bat third, Pagan was the player most felt would slot into that leadoff spot. Matthews provides some things that Pagan does not including experience but my sense is Pagan gets the spot because of his athleticism and stolen base capabilities.

Question #2: Who Will Play Shortstop If Jose Reyes Is Not Ready To Play? This is a complex issue since Reyes is an impact player both offensively and defensively. To replace him offensively would be impossible but replacing him defensively is not a cinch either. The two in-house candidates are Alex Cora and Ruben Tejada and both seem to have defensive shortcomings. Cora showed last year he lacks range for everyday shortstop play and Tejada is not a very slick glove either. If Reyes is not ready for the opener, do not rule out the possibility that Omar Minaya will peruse other major league rosters for a stop-gap shortstop.

Question #3: Who Will Be The Mets 8th Inning Set-Up Man In The Bullpen? This could be the toughest of all the decisions Jerry Manuel will need to make and it will have a boomerang effect on the construction of the rest of the Met bullpen. With each passing day, Jenrry Mejia impresses everyone in the organization with his talent and poise. But there is more to consider here especially when you remember that he is the crown jewel of all the pitching prospects the team possesses. He has always been projected as a starter and a set-up role could inhibit that development. Ryota Igarashi has shown some flashes but might be better served in a middle relief role. Where this competition finally ends up will also have an impact of the rest of the bullpen as Pedro Feliciano, Sean Green, Kiko Calero, and Bobby Parnell might be better suited for mix and match roles.

Question #4: Who Will Be The Fifth Starter? At the start of spring training many team executives were silently hoping a healthy Jonathan Niese would claim the 5th starter spot and he still might indeed get it. But both Nelson Figueroa and Hisanori Takahashi have pitched very well and in the case of Takahashi, he has thrown strikes which has caught the eyes of both Dan Warthen and Jerry Manuel. Fernando Nieve has fallen to the back of the class as his performances have been mediocre at best. My sense is it is still Niese's job to lose but Takahashi is gaining on him fast.

Question #5: Can Ike Davis Make The Roster? The power of Ike Davis is an enticing proposition when you consider that both Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran will be missing from the Opening Day lineup. Daniel Murphy has not exactly had a great offensive spring but has looked better around the first base bag. The power display of Davis is intoxicating when you consider he has hit some mammoth blasts in Port St Lucie including a missile that landed halfway up the right field grassy knoll at Tradition Field. Two weeks ago, I thought there was a 2% chance Davis would make the squad and I have increased that to a 20% chance. Still a longshot but it could happen if his offensive sizzle continues.


K-Rod's Spring Debut A Huge Success

 

In what seemed like the longest case of pink eye in the history of sports. Francisco Rodriguez had to wait until March 15th for his spring debut. But a spotless inning of relief illustrated that the Met fireballing closer is in mid-season form.

Port St Lucie, Florida--For Francisco Rodriguez, 2009 was the most frustrating year of his brilliant career. He had just signed a free agent contract with the Mets after a record setting year in Anaheim bringing his fire and passion to the Big Apple in search of a second World series ring.

But after a terrific first half that landed him a spot on the All Star team, K-Rod's second half was not good due to lack of save opportunities, misuse by the manager, and ineffective command of his breaking pitches. "I did a lot of soul searching in the off-season and I was not happy with my season from both a team and personal standpoint. I came to this camp committed to showing everyone that I can help this team get to the World Series," said Rodriguez when arriving in Port St. Lucie.

But a bad case of pink eye kept him away from the team for the first couple of weeks of spring training. However, he stayed sharp. "I played in winter ball," said Rodriguez,"and I really concentrated on fine tuning all of my pitches. And my bullpen sessions have been real good but you want to test it in a game, and I did that today."

Jerry Manuel also learned a lot about K-Rod in 2009 as he clearly misused the talented closer--sometimes pitching him 4 straight nights and then sitting him for close than a week. Manuel explained by saying, "Quite frankly, we did not have a bunch of save opportunities last year but I need to manage that better this year. I honestly feel we will have more chances for him this year but if we don't, I need to get him more regular work."

That will be no problem for K-Rod who thrives on work and plans of finishing many Met games with his arm pointed to the sky after a big save in his patented fashion. As many Met fans know, the team plays the song "Taking Care Of Business" after wins and that is exactly what the Met closer plans on doing much more this season than he did a year ago.


Santana Looking Good

 

Jupiter, Florida-- The Mets have a boatload of issues to tackle before heading north in three weeks to start their 2010 season but Johan Santana is a given because the talented lefty is totally healthy and motivated to right the wrongs of 2009.

There were times last year when Johan Santana could not stretch out his elbow enough to throw a slider. "I threw it but it had nothing on it--it was flat and flat sliders get hit," said Santana after a 4 inning scoreless stint against the Florida Marlins. "The thing I am most happy about," said the Mets ace,"is the fact I threw all of my pitches today. The location on my change up was great and my slider had the bite on it that it did not have late last year."

That's good news for Met fans but bad news for the rest of the NL East as a healthy and effective Johan Santana could help to bridge the gap between the Mets and the Phillies. But even Santana knows he will need a little help from his friends. "I like what I see in this pitching staff because Perez, Maine, and Pelfrey have talent and all 3 are now healthy. We also have a great closer so I know this year will be a good one for us," said Santana.

The Met lefty knows the team needs more from him than a great pitching performance on every fifth day--they need his leadership and mentoring skills with the rest of the rotation. This spring, you see Santana spending a lot of time with Ollie Perez and Mike Pelfrey and along with K-Rod, they have taken that responsibility up a notch.

"I do not want Ollie to lose his personality because that is what got him to the big leagues," said Santana, "but he needs to relax when things are not going so well and if he does that, the sky is the limit." Pitching coach Dan Warthen agrees,"You know Johan and Ollie have talked a lot about philosophy and awareness and Perez has picked up some new habits because of those conversations."

Now, talk is cheap and back to back spring training 4 inning scoreless outings from Santana and Perez do not mean all that much in the grand scheme of things. But it has shown 2 things: Perez has the power to change and Santana's voice is now one of the loudest voices in the Met locker room.

These 2 developments could very well point the Mets upwatds in the NL East standings if Ollie keeps listening and Johan keeps teaching.


Good Ollie Shows Up

 

Port St. Lucie, Florida -- This was vintage good Ollie--4 innings, no hits and liberal use of all of his pitches including a newfangled cutter he has been working on all off-season. Even more impressive was his body language coupled with the resolve to get through an inning in which he walked two Tigers.

"I have to learn to not let things like that affect me and once I do that I can zero in on the target and focus on getting the next hitter," says Perez. Focus has never been a forte of the southpaw who generally leaves you scratching your head because his stuff is electric but at times that does not translate into an effective performance.

Last year, it was not just about focus as Perez came into camp out of shape which landed him on the disabled list with a bum knee that required an off-season surgery. That may have been the best thing to happen to Perez as the surgery snapped him out of a mental malaise that has plagued him in recent years. It forced him to not only physically rehabilitate but made him undergo a mental makeover--and the benefits of that approach could be readily seen very early in spring training.

He is one of the first to arrive every day and I must admit that was not always the case in recent years. More importantly, he is listening to veterans like Johan Santana and Francisco Rodriguez about the importance of preparation and approach. He has also improved his relationship with pitching coach Dan Warthen who has worked countless hours with Perez on technical tweaks like placing his feet at a more advantageous side of the pitching rubber or following through the proper way without a pronounced pirouette at the end of his delivery.

The metamorphosis of Perez has been very obvious but in baseball there are no guarantees. He still has to go out and find the consistency that all elite pitchers possess. Whether or not he will do that is anyone's guess but Oliver Perez is much more equipped to handle that responsibility this season because he decided he wanted his legacy to be one Met fans can be proud of.

And for the Mets to succeed in 2010, the Oliver Perez experiment must be a success and performances like today must be the rule rather than the exception. For that reason, Oliver Perez might just be the most important of all the Mets. And wouldn't it be ironic that the pitcher Met fans have relyed on the least


Beltran's Rehabs Thinking About Reyes

 

Port St. Lucie, Florida -- Carlos Beltran comes into the Met clubhouse every day around 12 Noon and begins his day of rehab which includes 3 hours of working hard at strengthening his knee. But today was different for the Met centerfielder because all he could think about was Jose Reyes.

"I feel for Reyes because I know how hard he worked to get back here in great shape and as a person who is rehabbing, I can safely tell you that returning to the field is what drives you to rehab harder," said Beltran before beginning his daily regimen. The Met centerfielder knows he is still a couple of weeks away from fully testing his knee and so he has been performing a steady diet of weight training and drills where he sits in a chair hitting a baseball so that he can keep his hand-eye coordination sharp.

But all his thoughts for the past 24 hours have been on Reyes. "I am hoping and praying that Jose is out for 2 weeks and not 8 because 8 would really hurt," said Beltran. But baseball was not the only thing on his mind because the top priority for Reyes right now should be personal health.

"First and foremost, we are concerned with Jose's health and getting better. I personally do not know too much about his particular condition but it is very different from other injuries because he has to stop all physical training and that's tough--because that is what we do,"said the Mets talented switch hitting superstar.

It will be up to the other "big hitters" in the Met lineup to hold down the fort until Beltran and Reyes both return and the feeling in this clubhouse is, unlike last year, a trio of hitters the likes of Jeff Francoeur, Jason Bay, and David Wright can pick up the slack without putting too much pressure on any one of the 3 sluggers.

"You have to deal with the cards you are dealt," said Met third basemen David Wright,"and this is the hand we have right now. It is not the way we drew it up but everything does not always go the way you plan it in life. We have people in this clubhouse who can hold down the fort until we get Reyes and Beltran back."

It is very early in the 2010 season but there is a subtle difference that I sense in how the Met players are handling talking about their injured teammates, There is none of that "poor me" stuff I sensed last year and more importantly, the veterans have confidence in guys like Angel Pagan and Daniel Murphy to pick up the slack. I think that guys like Alex Cora, Jason Bay, Francoeur, and Wright have done a great job of instilling confidence in players that have to fill in.

Now don't get me wrong--the Mets need Reyes and Beltran because they are superstars but dealing with injuries is a part of every team's journey. Of course the 2009 journey was off the charts when it came to that. Still, at times, the team hid behind that convenient excuse and you get the feeling the Mets will not do that this year.

If that's the case, maybe these spring training injuries could galvanize them instead of killing them. It is just a hunch but I get the sense for that reason alone, things will be very different for the Mets in 2010 once injuries or any other form of adversity strike.


Reyes Out 2-8 Weeks And Will Likely Miss Opening Day

 

Port St Lucie, Florida -- For the New York Mets, 2010 is starting to look a lot like 2009 as Jose Reyes has been diagnosed with a overactive thyroid which will be treated with rest and dietary adjustments. The effervescent Met shortstop will be tested weekly and once the thyroid numbers become stabilized then and only then will he resume baseball activities. This type of treatment, according to team doctors, could take anywhere from 2-8 weeks before he can resume baseball activities.

For Reyes, this is an extremely disappointing development because he had worked exceedingly hard to get back on the field after an off-season in which he rehabbed every single day resulting in him showing up in Port St. Lucie in the best shape of his professional career. Peter Greenberg, the agent for Jose Reyes said,"He is obviously very disappointed that it is going to be be a matter of weeks as opposed to days but this is an extremely treatable and curable condition. He is supposed to rest and watch his diet. He will be tested on a weekly basis and hopefully his levels will begin to come down."

Certainly, this makes it doubtful that Reyes could be on the field on Opening Day since the season will start 24 days from today. "I do not want to rule anything out", said general manager Omar Minaya, "but the reality is it doesn't look good and we have to prepare ourselves for that."

For Jerry Manuel, this is a big blow. He is in the hot seat and MUST get off to a quick start but now must open the season without both Carlos Beltran AND Jose Reyes--two of the biggest offensive bullets he has on the roster. Without his sparkplug, the Met manager will have to scrap his plans of Reyes in the #3 position and likely will have to put David Wright, Jason Bay, and Jeff Francoeur in the middle of their lineup following Angel Pagan and Luis Castillo.

And for Omar Minaya, this is an extremely dangerous time because he has constructed a team, that aside from Jason Bay, is very similar to the roster he put together last year that had no major league-ready backups at key positions. And he will have to pin his hopes on the likes of a 20 year old shortstop named Ruben Tejada or a veteran like Alex Cora who is more of a second basemen than he is a shortstop. He will also have to do that with the burden of knowing that his bosses might have a itchy trigger finger if things go bad in April.

Could be tough times ahead for both Minaya and Manuel.


Santana's Spring Debut


 

Port St Lucie, Florida -- For Johan Santana, his first spring start was not about the numbers as much as it was about getting him back to the mound in a game for the first time since his surgery. And as ugly as his line was on this bright sunny Florida day, you can understand where he was coming from in regards to his preparation for his Opening Day assignment.

"I threw all of my pitches including the slider and I have to tell you that the way I bent my elbow out there today, I can really see why some of those pitches were not working for me last year," said Santana. Watching Johan in the 2 starts before the team decided to shut him down last year, you can see the downward movement on both his slider and change had disappeared and despite his less than stellar numbers today, you can readily see his follow through is a lot more Santana-like than it was a year ago.

Studying spring training numbers in early March is a very dangerous game when you consider most power pitchers get roughed up early because command of a rising heater is a process that evolves throughout spring training. You can, however, trust your eyes in spring training and Santana's body language was real good out there making it obvious that rust was more the issue today than anything else.

You can also trust the fact that Santana has been through this routine in his career before. In fact, he won the AL Cy Young Award in the year following the same surgery that was performed last summer. For that reason, the Mets ace knows that today was the first step in the process that will get him on the mound on Opening Day.

There are a lot of question marks for the Mets going into the 2010 but Johan Santana is not one of them. And that's not just idle speculation because as one scout put it to me yesterday, "Santana is the best lefty in the sport...period." I learned all I needed to know about Santana on a cool autumn day in 2008 when he tossed a complete game shutout on 3 days rest in the season's final weekend. And oh by the way, he did it with torn meniscus. You simply do not worry about pitchers who have exhibited that kind of character and talent on the biggest sports stage in the world-New York City.


Minaya Confirms Reyes Diagnosis

 

 

Orlando, Florida--Yesterday, the Mets issued a medical report that stated that Jose Reyes overactive thyroid had been confirmed by additional tests taken by the Met shortstop in New York. After a story in which Reyes seemed to refute those findings appeared on ESPN Deportes, Omar Minaya was forced to clear up the confusion.

"I had a conversation today with the doctors and the representative of the player (Reyes' agent) and we all agreed that he has elevated thyroid levels," said Minaya before the Mets exhibition game against the Braves in Orlando. That is the report we all received late yesterday but Reyes disputed those findings when he said to ESPN Deportes,"The specialists who took care of me in New York said I was fine and there was nothing wrong with my thyroid. The tests said I was fine and we just have to wait for additional tests. The doctors found inflammation in my throat and no medicine to treat the thyroid or any other condition has been prescribed."

Specialists I have spoken to on this issue have told me that treatment for his condition could range from nothing to dietary revisions to prescribed medicine and in rare cases, surgery but this is all pure speculation and is not the real issue. The problem here is why the disconnect between Reyes and the Mets?

It speaks to the execution of medical information from the team and clearly whatever process they have in place is broken. I do not fault the doctors because the specialists the Mets use have an impeccable reputation and are used by other corporations. The problem is there are leaks somewhere in the system as players have routinely spoken to the media refuting what the "company line" is. We saw this in the Carlos Beltran situation and it was confirmed by the comments of JJ Putz during the off-season.

There is only one way to fix it--make one person--and one person alone--responsible for disseminating medical information to the media and that person should be somewhat familiar with medical issues as well as being comfortable speaking to a large group of people. He or she should also make sure no one leaks info out that is either inaccurate or misguided.

Until the Mets firm up a process, they will be battling to establish credibility with both the media and their fan base on how they handle medical news and more importantly, how effective they are in treating their injured players. Playing a daily game of cat and mouse with the media is only going to make matters worse for them in the long run and ultimately hurt them in their chances of luring top tier free agents. I am not sure they did not lose out on Bengie Molina once the Carlos Beltran mess played out to an ugly conclusion.

And with a big free agent class expected after this season, now might be the time to solve this issue.