Key to 2008 – It’s Not Johan

While we Mets fans continue to bask in the afterglow of obtaining Johan Santana, it should be noted that acquiring the ace — while extremely important to the Mets’ hopes — is not necessarily the key to winning the NL pennant (or the NL East, for that matter).

Rather, it could be argued that the key individual to the Mets’ 2008 success is Carlos Delgado.

Of course, we’re making huge assumptions while suggesting this proclamation. For example, we’re assuming that Jose Reyes and David Wright continue to develop their overall games, or at least perform similar to their 2007 levels. And we’re assuming that the Mets bullpen will rebound from their disastrous performance in the last two months of the ’07 season. And we’re assuming that John Maine and Oliver Perez are at least as good as their respective first halves of 2007.

Yes — if the Mets are to succeed, Santana, Wright, Reyes, Maine, Perez, and the bullpen must deliver to certain expectations. If any of them falter, things are going to be tough. Assuming they all do what we expect them to, then the next big “if” falls on the broad shoulders of Delgado.

When the Mets obtained Delgado in the winter following the 2005 season, they expected to be getting a bonafide middle-of-the-order slugger who would strike fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers and provide protection to vulnerably dependent Carlos Beltran. In his initial season as a Met, Delgado delivered — and so did the rest of the offense. The 2006 Mets were an offensive juggernaut, and one of the keys to their running away with the NL East.

On the one hand, I strongly agree with the theory that “good pitching beats good hitting”, and believe that any championship team requires strong pitching above all else. However, take a look at the 2006 Mets — they had only two pitchers with more than 10 wins, no starter with 200 IP, no legitimate “ace”, and only one pitcher with at least 20 starts and an ERA under 4 (Tom Glavine, and barely at 3.82). Yet, despite their lack of dominance on the mound, the Mets were a runaway winner that year — partially because the relief corps was unbelievably good and mostly because their offense made up for the shortcomings.

Many point to Jose Reyes as the ignition for the offense — and that’s true. However, for the Mets offense to take over games, they need the meat of the order to deliver. And Carlos Delgado is the mailman.

When Delgado is hitting, Beltran is relaxed. When Beltran is relaxed, he is patient, selective, and hits at the levels befitting an individual earning $18.5M per year. When Beltran’s hitting, Reyes is scoring — as is Luis Castillo and David Wright. On the other hand, when Delgado is not hitting, Beltran presses, tries to do too much, and fails. We saw how badly he could fail in 2005, and while 2007 wasn’t a bad year, it didn’t quite meet our expectations. 33 HRs and 112 RBI are good numbers from a guy hitting third or fourth, but we know Beltran can do better. He’s paid to do better. Those are great numbers for a #4 hitter in 1985, but run of the mill for a 21st century cleanup hitter. More specifically, we know Beltran can be more consistent; his 2007 was marked by hot and cold streaks — with the hot ones being unconscious and helping to pad the final stats. Part of the inconsistency was due to nagging injuries, to be sure. But part of it also was due to Delgado’s struggles.

In fact, Delgado didn’t just struggle — he disappeared for long stretches at a time. When Moises Alou (speaking of disappearances) was present, Delgado’s troubles weren’t as noticeable, but with Alou gone — wow, was the emptiness glaring. Suddenly, it was imperative that Beltran produce, that Shawn Green make a contribution, that Paul LoDuca continue to hit like he did in 2006, that anyone playing second base add something to the offense. Further, Jose Reyes’ power reduction (compared to ’06) was noticeable, and it shouldn’t have been. Thank goodness for Wright, or the Mets might have finished in third place instead of second.

Right now, the Mets lineup starts off like this: 1. Reyes, 2. Castillo, 3. Wright, 4. Beltran. After that, everything is up in the air. We hope that Delgado fills #5, and that Alou remains healthy to handle #6, because 7 and 8 are Ryan Church and Brian Schneider. Oh boy, there’s another reason Delgado has to hit — the lineup is suddenly only seven deep, harking back to the days of Rey Ordonez floundering in the eight hole. Add in the foregone conclusion that the oft-injured, 41-year-old Alou will be lucky to play in 100 games, and the pressure on Delgado compounds. Believe me, I love Endy Chavez and Marlon Anderson as much as the next guy, but if they are in the lineup as often as we think they might be, Delgado HAS TO be slugging again. This .258 / 24 / 87 nonsense is not going to play well. It’s not so much the numbers as the approach by opposing pitchers, and the overall “feel” or mentality of the rest of the lineup. The threat of the longball has to return — opposing hurlers have to be worried about serving up homers. If not, Delgado becomes a non-entity, an easy out — and there are no worries if the people ahead of him are put on base. Heck, it’s a nice strategy to set up a double play.

Adding to the discomfort of the situation is the fact that there is no backup plan in the event Delgado falters again. Since the Mets completely emptied the farm of any close-to-MLB-ready talent this winter, there’s no help within the organization (which is why I still advocate the pickup of a Nelson Cruz-type, but that’s for another day). If Delgado fails in the five spot, and Alou is as (un)available as we expect, then either Ryan Church needs to turn into Travis Hafner or the Mets are in big trouble. Besides not having an heir apparent, there’s little to deal away for a veteran bat at the trade deadline. Ironically, Mike Piazza — if he remains unsigned — would look like a viable possibility (though it will never happen).

Don’t misconstrue my message — I don’t believe the Mets need to slug their way into the postseason the way the Phillies did last year. But the offense definitely needs to improve over their 2007 output. Reyes returning to 2006 form will help, absolutely, but a renaissance by Delgado is just as, if not more, vital. In this day and age of offense-dominated baseball, the Mets can’t win with a lineup that crumbles after the cleanup spot. Remember, Johan only helps once every five days — and he can’t be expected to throw a three-hit shutout every time out.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.
  1. sincekindergarten February 6, 2008 at 5:04 am
    The book (it seems) on Carlos Delgado is, from a RHP POV, sliders down and in. From A LHP POV, well, I guess we’ll see Damion Easley pick up the 1B glove again, unless Jamie Moyer or Tom Glavine are pitching.
  2. RockStar78 February 6, 2008 at 9:00 am
    The worry with Delgado is that we don’t know if it was due to age-related decline or it was simply just an off year with all the arm surgeries. My guess is that its somewhere in the middle. I think he can do better than last year, but I don’t think he’ll return to his typical form. I think he is capable of .270 30 90, and after watching him last year, I would sign up for that right now.
  3. isuzudude February 6, 2008 at 9:56 am
    I agree with the overall tone of this article. Well done, Joe. There’s certainly an objective and a subjective way to look at Delgado this season. Objectively, we realize Delgado needs to return back to his .300/30HR/120RBI days for the Mets to have the best chance to reign supreme in the NL in 2008. Subjectively, we can speculate how Delgado will perform in the upcoming season. Reading previous posts, Joe, I know you’ve made no qualms about your displeasure with Delgado’s 2007 output, going as far to put him in a trade for Ramon Hernandez or Casey Kotchman earlier this offseason. Of course, his infamous “bored” statements didn’t help in the PR department. In your eyes, he was one of the cancers that needed to be eradicated before the Mets could turn the page past the collapse. So I credit you for not interjecting too much of your personal opinion in the article.

    And overall, you’re most likely 100% right that Delgado needs to rebound from his sub-par 2007 in order for the Mets to re-take the division. Whether misguided or not, we’re doing a lot of assuming as Met fans. We assume Perez and Maine can win 15 games again. We assume Pedro will pitch like a #2 caliber starter and give us at least 170 innings. We assume Reyes’ 2nd half slide last year was a fluke. And we assume our defense will improve with Church and Schneider brought in from Washington. But there’s every chance in the world all these assumptions blow up in our faces. Even if just one of them doesn’t pan out, along with another Delgado slump, it could spell disaster. That’s why, I think, heading into 2008, it’s almost impossible to compare the Mets vs. Phillies on paper because both teams just have way too many question marks.

    But getting back to Delgado, you can look at his upcoming season either positively or negatively. Positively, you can say Delgado should at least still have one good year left at the age of 35 (which is all we really need, since he is a free agent following ’08). Frank Thomas and Jim Thome may not be the best of comparisons, because they play in the AL and are more DHs than 1B now, but both are older than Delgado and are still above average hitters. Maybe a better comparison would be Fred McGriff, who I think put up very similar results as Delgado throughout the course of a season. And after McGriff’s 35th birthday in 1998, he still managed a few .300/30HR/100RBI years. So there is still hope. And there’s also motivation, as Delgado is in the walk-year of his contract. So likely what he does this year will mean how well he does on the open market. Andruw Jones aside, just ask Aaron Rowand, Torii Hunter, Jose Guillen, and Mike Lowell how motivated they were in their walk-years. The proof is in the numbers.

    But on the flipside, it’s just as easy to be down on Delgado in 2008. He’s arguably coming off his worst season in the majors, and at 35, he very well could be on a slow and steady decline towards retirement. He’s also recovering from a fractured left hand/wrist suffered in the last game of the season. If memory serves me correctly, he was coming off a similar injury at the on start of last year which factored into his .242 pre-all-star break average. And with very little in the way of insurance behind Delgado in case of extended slump/injury, things have a chance of getting pretty ugly as far as the bottom half of the order and 1B is concerned.

    In my opinion, there are two keys to Delgado’s success. Since becoming a Met, he’s been a pronounced 2nd half hitter who struggles at home. 2006: .226/.304 home/road, .252/.284 1st half/2nd half. 2007: .225/.288 home/road, .242/.285 1st half/2nd half. These trends need to be broken. I’m not on SK’s page as far as benching Delgado against most LHP, as he actually had a better average vs. LHP than RHP last year (including .571 vs. Hamels, .333 vs. Willis, .500 vs. James, .500 vs. Chico). The big thing is he needs to stop choking at home. We simply can’t have our #5 hitter turn into a left-handed version of Rob Deer for 81 games a year.

  4. Micalpalyn February 6, 2008 at 4:56 pm

    I am going to use a recent quote (Metsblog) in which it was said the Mets biggest weakness is that there is no glaring weakness.

    At some time or another we had big holes in all our championship teams. but this team has two aces and two strong #3 & #4 starters. Unlike 2 yrs ago injuries and age are less of a factor. In 2006 Pedro , El duque and Traxx went down really late on.

    We have a strong BP and an all-star hitting line up. Isuzu references Church in RF, but that could change. Plus he has a complement right now in Endy Chavez and failing that Marlon and Damion could be a 4-headed monster in RF.

    My issue is Willie. Can he use his BP? Can he rotate and keep players fresh or will he stick with the ‘Torre-rules’?

  5. sincekindergarten February 6, 2008 at 5:13 pm
    Mic, your last point is the big one, at least as far as I can see it. I think that, after last year, both Omar and Willie were “talked to” by Fred/Jeff Wilpon (and it was a one-way talk, probably) and were told, in no uncetain terms, that things had better be better next year–and the change was going to start at the top. Omar told the Wilpons that “Johan was going to come back to us,” and he did. Duaner Sanchez seems to be doing rather well in his rehab, and if I were a betting man, I’d say that he’s going to regain almost all of his form from early ’06. He might even have a new pitch, just to add another wrinkle to things. Matt Wise is goign to be another piece of the puzzle, as he’s going to a notorious pitcher’s park, with two kick-ass middle infielders behind him. Pedro Feliciano’s mind won’t be on his infant daughter, and her very life (which is exactly where it should have been!), and maybe more in the games he was pitching. His daughter is better, so his mind should be on getting Utley, Howard, McCann, and Teixiera out. (She had a heart ailment, supposedly, and almost died from it. As a new father, I can certainly see why he felt the way he did.) Aaron Heilman has a new one-year deal, which pays him a lot more than he got before . . . but way below his value, IMHO.

    The pen is tantamount (aftr CDel).

  6. Micalpalyn February 6, 2008 at 5:32 pm
    Another contentious point Omar: Yes the cliche ‘in Omar we trust’ is often used.

    After the post SP debacle, to be followed by the Duqutte famine…Omar has brought credibity to this team both publicly AND on the field.

    The fact both Pedro Martinez and Johan santana …two of the most respected pitchers in the game CHOSE to play here speaks volumes. Ditto Luis Castillo and Carlos Beltran, Castillo who turned down a chance to come play for Duqutte.

    Unlike 1992, 2000 et al this team has no DEFENSIVE weakness. It is not just great offensively. Indeed I hope Joe devotes a post to weekly splits: I want to track team ERA and catching VORP as a function of what Schneider brings to this team.

    AS a GM Omar has done his part. Wilpon has done his too. Willie?

  7. joe February 7, 2008 at 12:52 am
    Great discussion and great points all around, everyone.

    Couple of things I’d like to add …

    First, RockStar is right on: the concern is, was Delgado’s downfall due to injuries or age? For every Fred McGriff, Frank Thomas, and Jim Thome (guys who performed well after 35), there’s at least one Dale Murphy, Jim Rice, and Robin Ventura (those who fell off the face of the earth). And of course there is the X factor of PEDs — which I’d be surprised to find out Rice or Murphy used, but not shocked if Thome did. But that’s another can of worms, I digress…

    And further, as was pointed out, Delgado suffered another wrist injury that likely took all winter to heal. Is it deja vu all over again? On the bright side — and as was also pointed out — it is an option year for Delgado. So if he’s interested in getting the Mets to pick up 2009 at $14M, he’ll be motivated to deliver. (Hmm … another dilemma to discuss at a later date.)

    Secondly, believe it or not Isuzudude, I actually LIKE Carlos Delgado. Yes, I called for his head at times in ’07, and recommended the Mets send him away. But I really like him, always did — from the time he was a catching prospect in the Toronto organization (I have a soft spot for anyone willing to don the tools of ignorance). My thing with him is more disappointment than anything — I want so badly for him to do well and take charge of this team, to be the leader the Mets need him to be (and one he’s capable of being), that when he falters and seems dispassionate or less than focused it drives me nuts. It was frustrating and sad to see him be dominated by pitchers of all talent levels, after seeing Delgado intimidate nearly every moundsman for so many years — not unlike Muhammad Ali getting spanked around by Leon Spinks.

    Finally, I agree the bullpen — and Willie’s handling of it — are tantamount to the Mets success. But, if Delgado hits, I believe the rest of the lineup will hit that much better, and make up for any inefficiencies in the late innings.

    BTW – Mic, when you say you’d like to see weekly splits, what exactly would you like me to review? I’ll be happy to add it to the regular repertoire — thanks for the suggestion.

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