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April 2010

Francoeur Credits HoJo

Jeff Francoeur is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise sluggish Mets start as he has pounded National League pitching to the tune of a .438 batting average. For a player who was practically thrown out of the Braves clubhouse, it is a rather remarkable turnaround which the Mets right fielder credits to the way Howard Johnson handled the situation.

“From the moment I got here," says Francoeur, "Howard Johnson just told me that I needed to get into better hitting counts, whereas in Atlanta they kept pounding home the fact I would never get any walks.” Things got so bad in Atlanta that Bobby Cox buried Francoeur on the bench and the team was more than happy to send the troubled player to a divisional rival.

“It was a real awakening because it was the first time I played anywhere else other than my hometown but the New York situation intrigued me because I knew there was talent on the roster and real opportunity for me to play every day," says Francoeur. He got that chance and really excelled at the plate hitting over .300 after coming over here, consistently pounding extra base hits in spacious Citi Field.

According to Johnson, he was a quick study. “Very early on we realized that he was not a player who was ever going to draw a bunch of walks but we did think he could get into better hitting counts by being a bit more selective. Being ahead in the count would then allow him to use his aggressiveness at the plate to his advantage," says the Mets batting coach.

That approach has allowed Francoeur to drive the ball much more consistently, making him look more like the hitter that had back-to-back 100 RBI seasons in Atlanta a couple of seasons ago. “Pure and simple, none of this would have happened without Howard Johnson and he deserves a lot of the credit,” says Francoeur.

Whatever the reason, Francoeur has become a valuable Met both on and off the field, and if we are to be fair, Omar Minaya deserves the credit for swinging a swap of outfielders during a year in which not much went right for the Mets.

 


Remembering Jackie Robinson

It was 63 years ago that the single biggest moment in baseball took place on a little patch of green grass in Brooklyn known as Ebbets Field, a moment that transcended the sporting world and continues to have an impact on society. Of course, it was the day Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier and with it, lifted the curtain on the era of civil rights in the United States.

I think sometimes we take for granted the enormity of that day and at the same time, forget how far we have come since. One man who does not forget is Mets manager Jerry Manuel, who reflected on that special day saying, “It was not just about baseball but it affected every piece of society in that it made us aware of changes that had to be made. And let’s face facts I would not be here today if he did not arrive on that day.”

What I have thought was always the most impressive part about No. 42 was the restraint he exhibited because he knew what was at stake. That restraint was not always easy according to his wife, Rachel Robinson. “We knew it would be hard and when he went to places like St. Louis it was awful for him because in many ways, Jackie represented their worst nightmare. However, he let it all roll off his back because if he failed, Major League Baseball might have abandoned integration.”

Gary Matthews Jr., whose dad also played in the major leagues, thinks that the memory of Jackie Robinson should be a constant reminder that more work still needs to be done. “We all need to be aware that reaching the inner city children in this country is of utmost importance," says the Mets center fielder, “and I do not just mean African-American kids because Hispanic and white youngsters need to hear the message as well.” And that message of diversity is a necessary ingredient for a successful and prosperous society.

The best way to defeat racism is to have the courage to change no matter what the cost. For Jackie Robinson, it likely shortened his life -- but it greatly enhanced our lives in ways that are impossible to measure.

Truth About the Mets Clubhouse

It has been a fast and furious few days for the Mets as this road trip has had a little of everything from a rough start to a brilliant Mike Pelfrey performance to a 20-inning marathon. And yes, of course, questions about how the Met clubhouse feels about Jerry Manuel amidst reports of players questioning his decisions.

We all need a reality check here because players routinely debate managerial decisions but that does not mean they do not have his back. In fact, creating an environment where players can voice their opinions is not a negative especially if they feel safe voicing those opinions. In many ways, baseball teams are like families and if we think along those lines, we can understand what is happening here. We all have disagreements with our family and some them even might spill over outside the house but that does not mean the family relationship is fractured.

Jeff Francoeur has always struck me an honest person and if he is asked a question he is going to answer it in a truthful and forthright way. When he commented he would rather see Jose Reyes bat lead off he was responding to a series of questions but never did it in a disrespectful tone and has always referred to Jerry Manuel as a man who helped him turn the corner after being traded here last season.

The Jose Reyes and Johan Santana references really baffle me because both of those players LOVE Jerry and I mean love playing for him. Reyes recently said, "Jerry is a great communicator and checks in with me every day and I like that about him." Now, Jose may not love the idea of hitting third but make no mistake about it, he likes Manuel and appreciates his candor and honesty. As far as Santana is concerned all he said about 5 days of rest was that he would rather have four but fully understood why the manager was doing it.

The John Maine case is a bit different as I did observe that the pitcher was upset about the possibility of being moved out of the rotation and had a 45 minute meeting with Manuel after being told that could be the case. What would be a worse sign is if Maine felt he could not go in and talk to the manager about the situation and let it fester.

Players voice their opinions about managerial moves all the time. Yankees catcher Jorge Posada was very vocal about the way he thought Joba should be utilized and voiced it in a public forum. When push comes to shove, all that matters is how hard you play for your manager. And fighting through a 20-inning marathon with Mike Pelfrey demanding the ball proves what the Mets' players think about their skipper.

A Rough Start For Jerry Manuel

The words came out of Jerry Manuel’s mouth in his postgame press conference, which I am sure made front-office personnel cringe a little. "Today's game was not a good game for us. I thought we appeared unprepared and I have to take the blame for that," said the Mets manager.

So, in Game 6, as the Mets were preparing to go on a grueling six-game road trip to Denver and St. Louis, with their ace on the mound, they were unprepared to play in front of a Sunday-afternoon crowd at Citi Field. Add in the fact that everyone connected with the Mets admitted that a quick start would be imperative this season, including the aforementioned Manuel. He said during spring training, "Given everything we went through last season, a good start would help that's for sure."

It is certainly easy to overreact after a game in which Johan Santana pitches poorly and Livan Hernandez keeps the offense off-balance for seven scoreless innings, but when you look at the schedule you quickly realize the mess the Mets are in. They knew 16 of their first 22 games would be at home, and after this past week the Mets would have road series in Denver and Saint Louis, followed by a homestand against the Cubs, Dodgers and Braves. Any way you slice it, that's 16 games against teams with legit playoff aspirations, and the task will be more difficult after a 2-4 start.

Part of the problem is the Mets are not getting that big hit that will keep an inning alive or win a close game. "It is very disappointing that we lost the first two series," said Mets third basemen David Wright, "especially when you consider that we had chances to win games with big hits. Now, we go on the road facing two tough teams which might be an early-season test for us."

It will also be an early-season test for the manager, as the Wilpons will keep a close watch on both the standings and the turnstiles -- the crowds after Opening Day have been very light, with a plethora of empty seats readily seen around the ballpark. Mets fans have already began to sound cranky, and a poor road trip might make them even more testy when the team returns home on April 19 for a 10-game homestand.
How Manuel's team responds to this first big moment of the 2010 season may very well decide how long he stays in the manager's office.

Where Exactly is Olliver Perez's Fastball?

As Oliver Perez performances go, his Saturday start vs. the Washington Nationals was not great but not terrible. Still, it left you with the feeling something was missing -- namely his fastball. The enigmatic Met southpaw usually clocks in between 91 and 92 mph but he was living well below that level so you naturally wonder where the gas on his fastball is.

“I am still getting stronger and stronger and my fastball will come but the main thing for me is commanding all of my pitches which I did not do today," said Perez. A range of 86-88 mph is a problem for him because it creates less of a contrast in speed between his slider and his fastball.

There are those who have theorized that Perez is holding back on velocity in order to get better control on his pitches, but he dispelled that notion when he said, “I am not holding back because my ball is still moving late and the velocity will be there.”

Perez is being counted on to provide the Mets with the consistent starting pitching you would expect from a $13 million-a-year ballplayer, and Mets manager Jerry Manuel thinks he will get that from him. “I just think Oliver was the victim of some quality at-bats today as Wily Taveras had all four RBIs off him. It was not so much the walks as it was that Taveras did a nice job in those situations,” said Manuel.

But it was bases on balls that set up those hitting situations as Perez walked Ivan Rodriguez twice to set the table for Taveras and that is still the rub for him. When you look at his pitch count, you see 101 pitches and only 59 strikes, which is far too many balls for him to survive in a game -- even against the lowly Nationals.

“I know I need to throw more strikes especially here at home," said Perez, “and as I get stronger and stronger I will throw more strikes, but it is still early in the season.”

I cannot disagree that it is early in the season, but after a 70-92 campaign, things might start getting late real early if Perez does not find his command and his velocity in short order. His next scheduled start is Friday night in St. Louis, which is not exactly the venue you want to be in if your velocity is not up to snuff.

Can The Mets Contend?

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Opening Day is always a day for baseball fans to dream, which is especially true for Met supporters who hope to wash away the bad taste of 2009 in their second season at Citi Field. Truth be told, there is talent on this roster and a resolve in the locker room to prove the critics wrong. And if we have learned anything about sports this season, with teams like Butler and the New Orleans Saints making bold statements, talented players with a lot to prove can be mighty dangerous.

But does this roster have enough talent to contend in an NL East that seems to get tougher every year? When you break this team down and see they have an ace in Santana, a lock-down closer in Francisco Rodriguez and a solid corps of hitters, you get the feeling that the talent is there and all they need is health and a little luck. But they also need complimentary players like Luis Castillo and Jeff Francoeur to perform -- and then there is the $64,000 question: Do they have enough starting pitching?

Still, most teams in the National League have the same issues: questionable starting pitching depth and the bridge to their closer in the bullpen. Some contenders like the Giants and Phils even have serious questions with their closer. The D-Backs need a healthy Brandon Webb, the Dodgers need to see if Chad Billingsley can pitch a full season, the Phils need to see who the real Cole Hamels is, the Brewers need to see if Randy Wolf is really worth $10 million a year, and the Braves need to be sure Billy Wagner can close all year coming off Tommy John surgery.

The Mets have a rock-solid lineup (once Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran return), an ace and a shut-down closer. If I were a general manager and were given that to start, I’d take it. Remember this is virtually the same team that won 89 games in 2008 with Jason Bay and Jeff Francoeur replacing Carlos Delgado and Ryan Church and with K-Rod replacing, well, Luis Ayala.

Injuries have been blamed for the Mets' disastrous 2009 season, but that's no convenient excuse. It is a disservice to the caliber of players the Mets lost to think Delgado, Reyes, and Beltran could be easily replaced. We are talking about All-Star players here, not journeymen.

Pick any team in the National League -- for argument sake, the Braves. Take Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, and Nate McClouth away for the final four months of the season. What do you think would happen? How about Utley, Howard, and Ibanez from the Phillies? Do you think Rollins and Werth could carry their lunch?

When you really get down to it, 2009 was all about injuries and the rest of it is just conversation. Do the Mets have issues? Sure they do, especially in the starting rotation, but that makes them no different than most teams in the senior circuit. It also makes them very capable of earning a playoff spot if two of their three question marks in the rotation come through. Can they? I wouldn't bet against it.

Spring Training Stats - Don't Be Fooled

The great Vin Scully once said, "Stats can sometimes be like a drunk leaning on a lamppost. They are used more for support than illumination.” Yet, we hang on to the stats we see in spring training as a hidden treasure that will somehow help us to explain how players will perform in the regular season. If the truth be told, that is a dangerous and slippery slope.

It has been well-documented that the New York Mets' starting rotation has put up horrible numbers in Florida, and the critics of the Mets' pitching staff point that out as evidence the 2010 season will look amazingly like the 2009 season. What has been swept under the rug is, high ERAs are rather commonplace in spring training. How commonplace, you say? Well, check out some of these 2010 spring training numbers.

CC Sabathia: 7.23
AJ Burnett: 5.12
Adam Wainwright: 6.14
Justin Verlander: 5.48
Cris Carpenter: 5.40
Tim Linecum: 6.94
Jake Peavy: 6.55
Josh Johnson: 5.82
Dan Haren: 5.25

Add in two pitchers Met fans were clamoring for in the off-season: Ben Sheets, 11.20, and Jason Marquis, 9.15.

Those numbers jump out on you, don’t they? But they shouldn’t, because it's spring training, and pitchers are working on things, recovering from injuries and rounding into shape. Do we really think that the above list which is filled with No. 1 and No. 2 starters has their teams concerned? Of course not, but spring training stats have us all believing the 2010 Mets' staff will flat-out stink.

Now, don’t get me wrong -- Pelfrey, Perez and Maine have a lot to prove, but when I hear people poking holes in the left arm of Johan Santana, I think of the drunk at the lamppost that Scully was referring to in his famous quip. You would think Santana has built up enough equity so that he would be a given, especially considering the fact that earlier in his career he experienced the same exact surgery and won the AL Cy Young Award the very next season.

Yet, people are still holding on to to spring training stats like they are precious commodities. My only reaction to that is: can you tell me what pitcher had the best ERA in spring training last year? You cannot without the help of the ESPN.com stat page, and there is a reason for that: The games don’t count. Never have and never will. You know how I know that? The 1962 Mets, who went 40-120, went a very respectable 12-15 in their initial spring training.

You know when Mike Pelfrey had his best spring -- 2007 -- he proceeded to lose his first seven decisions in the regular season. You know when Jeff Francoeur had his worst spring trainings, he compiled over 100 RBIs each year with the Atlanta Braves. I grew up watching Tom Seaver having uneven spring trainings and that worked out pretty good. I watched Mike Piazza have so-so spring trainings and that worked out OK as well.

Remember what you see in March is not always what you see in April, and vice versa. Yet every year experts hang their hats on meaningless exhibition games. Some people never learn.

Santana Says "We Will Be Ready"

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The last week of spring training has not exactly painted a rosy picture for the 2010 Mets. Injured players will be missing from the lineup and the team seems to have as many question marks as any team in the National League with starting pitching heading the laundry list of issues. The resident ace of the Met staff, Johan Santana, sees it very differently and vows things will be different in 2010 for the Mets and their fans.

"I know we had a horrible season last year but everyone should realize injuries played a large role in that and the whole rotation is feeling good," says Santana.

Still, the spring training numbers contradict his confidence as every starting pitcher was for the most part ineffective in Florida.

As a consequence, the expectations outside the team are very low as most experts are picking the Mets no higher than third place in the NL East. That does not seem to bother the Mets' talented southpaw,

“Predictions are predictions and we could care less what the media thinks about us. I am being honest here and I do not mean to sound impolite but we have good players and good pitchers on this staff. We know it is not going to be easy but if we all do our jobs, we will be just fine.”

There is no question Santana will do his job because he is still recognized as the top southpaw in the league but the question remains what happens when he is not pitching. The trio of Mike Pelfrey, Oliver Perez and John Maine have spotty pitching resumes and especially in the case of Oliver Perez, many experts feel he lacks maturity and focus. In light of these deficiencies, Johan Santana has spent more time with Perez than ever before, counseling and mentoring the enigmatic southpaw.

“Ollie needs to understand he can become more consistent because he has great stuff," says Santana, “but he must not change who he is. Ollie is at his best when he is passionate and aggressive and I feel he needs to combine that personality with adjustments he made in the offseason.” Santana may have hit on a key point here because the radar gun has consistently graded Ollie Perez at 91-92 MPH in his bullpen sessions, yet he downshifts to about 88 mph in games. My theory here is that Ollie has become so cognizant of the fact that he needs to throw strikes that he is actually aiming the ball rather than throwing it which keeps his walk totals down but has made his pitches much more hittable.

Two days ago, Oliver Perez spent an extended session on one of the back fields in Port St. Lucie with Santana and pitching coach Dan Warthen and it appeared that Santana was doing all the talking. They did not even allow Perez to throw a ball as the Met ace talked to him about two things: his footwork around the rubber and his follow through on the mound.

After the session, Santana did not want to talk much about it and neither did Warthen but Ollie said, “I worked on some things out there about my follow-through and I know I have to pitch better. I really respect Johan and he gave me some real good advice.”

Whether or not Ollie will benefit from these sessions remains to be seen but it actually speaks more to the resolve of Santana than anything else. “I came here to win a championship and now two years have passed and I have not even pitched in a postseason game.” says the Met ace, “and that needs to change this year. And it is not just my responsibility to be prepared on the days I pitch. I have to help the other guys in this rotation any way I can.”

This is a Met clubhouse that many people say is crying for leadership and the critics are correct about that. It is very hard for a non-everyday player to provide that leadership but I have seen people like Tom Seaver, Curt Schilling, Al Leiter and Tom Glavine provide it for their teams. Santana has the personality very similar to the aforementioned quartet of pitchers and is making every effort to pull the other Met pitchers along with him. The only question is will they listen and in turn, will they perform?

Tough Times Ahead for Manuel

Jeff Wilpon made it crystal clear after a horrible 2009 season when he demanded better things from both Jerry Manuel and Omar Minaya - and the Met manager will be the first of the two on the hot seat if the Mets get off to a poor start. The team plays 16 of its first 22 at Citi Field, which puts even more urgency on the team's performance in the opening weeks of the season.

And Manuel won't exactly have all his bullets in his holster when the Mets take the field on Opening Day. Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Kelvim Escobar and Daniel Murphy will all be on the sidelines. A horrible spring training report card for all of the Met starting pitchers hasn't helped either. In fact, Manuel saw enough in spring training to make him re-arrange his rotation in the first week of the season pushing Mike Pelfrey and Oliver Perez to the back end of the rotation.

"We need to get off to a good start but what we need more is consistency and so to merely focus on a good start is not enough," said Manuel. That's true, but a poor start could put Manuel in the eye of the storm. Ownership feels a $125 million payroll should be enough to, at the very least, compete for a playoff spot. The prevailing notion inside the organization is the talent is here to win and the way Manuel handles communication issues inside the clubhouse will be closely scrutinized.

There were times that a few eyebrows were raised when Manuel conducted his post-game media sessions -- especially when it came to handling issues about players that were in his doghouse. More specifically, his handling of the Ryan Church situation created a fractured relationship. And that was not the only issue. On numerous occasions he backpedaled on comments he had made the night before and such re-clarification of comments became an everyday occurrence. These issues got swept under the rug as the injuries mounted and the Met season went down the chute.

Without Reyes for the first week and without Beltran for at least the first month of the season, Manuel must get heavy contributions from David Wright and Jason Bay to carry the offensive load, especially since the Met rotation seems to be so razor thin.

It will be a slippery slope for Manuel if the Mets are sitting at 10-12 after 22 games especially considering the organization has surrounded the Met manager with a plethora of internal managerial replacements. And that is assuming Bobby Valentine does not somehow work himself into the mix.

Ordinarily, knee jerk reactions to April records do not happen in the sport of baseball. But after a 70-92 season following a year in which the Mets coughed up a playoff spot on the final day for the second straight year has made the Met fan base a testy group that may want the manager's scalp if things in 2010 start out badly.

And they may get their wish if the planets line up against Manuel, because ownership does not want to go through another season like last year.