Down to the Wire

There are less than ten days left of spring training, and many issues have been addressed in Port St. Lucie over the last month. Still, though, there are burning questions yet to be answered — and may not be answered until the final days before the team heads north.

The exciting:

– Jose Reyes is making 2006 look like a warmup to what could be a monstrous offensive season in 2007

– Tom Glavine has looked in mid-season form since his first spring training start

– Oliver Perez and John Maine are fulfilling everyone’s expectations, carried by the momentum of their postseason success

– Mike Pelfrey looks like the real deal

– Joe Smith may make us forget all about Chad Bradford

The disappointing:

– Duaner Sanchez came into camp with the wrong attitude, and will now have a much longer road back to the 8th inning setup role

– After a surprisingly quick recovery, Juan Padilla had to be shut down, and will take a little longer to return from Tommy John surgery

– Chan Ho Park, Aaron Sele, and Jorge Sosa have shown nothing to earn a spot on the Mets roster — not to mention Alay Soler, whose status has already been established

The questions:

– Will Shawn Green ever hit again ?

– Can El Duque be counted on to start more than 20 games?

– Who among Ben Johnson, David Newhan, Damion Easley, and Lastings Milledge, will fill out the bench?

– With Sanchez off-track, Ambiorix Burgos not ready for prime-time, and Aaron Heilman suffering from elbow tendinitis, has the bridge to Billy Wagner become a weakness rather than a strength?

The outburst of Reyes would be the story of the spring, if the Mets did not have the cloud of pitching questions hovering over Port St. Lucie. Jose came in beefed up and, more importantly, with a much different approach at the plate. Gone are the days of swinging wildly at off-speed pitches, and reaching for balls in the dirt. The new Jose Reyes waits on pitches, lets the ball get deep before committing, and the result has been consistently long, quality at-bats. He’s seeing more pitches, and seeing them longer — much unlike the over-aggressive, free-swinger he’d been as recently as May of last year. While it’s true that Reyes learned to be more and more patient as the 2006 season wore on, it was more about taking pitches than seeing and waiting on pitches (there’s a difference). This spring, he’s staying back longer — a trait of the truly great hitters. Wade Boggs did it. Rod Carew did it. George Brett did it. Tony Gwynn did it. Now Reyes is learning to do it, and as a result he may find himself among those names someday in Cooperstown. For the here and now, his 5- and 6-pitch at-bats will result in an overall better performance by the entire Mets’ lineup, for several reasons. First, it’s going to result in at least 75 walks this year — a figure that seemed unfathomable less than a year ago. Second, it’s going to force the opposing starting pitcher to throw more pitches, inching him ever closer to the 100-pitch limit imposed on today’s moundsmen. Third, it gives the other eight hitters in the Mets’ order a chance to see most of what the pitcher has that particular day. Finally, it should also ignite a pattern of patience — a strategy that will wear down a starting pitcher earlier in the game, thus forcing the opponent to dip into their bullpen arms earlier than they might like. If Reyes continues his current approach into the regular season, and remains healthy, he may have the most exciting all-around year any player has had since Rickey Henderson’s 1990 MVP season.

As the Mets pitchers and catchers entered camp in mid-February, the big questions surrounded what looked to be a weak starting staff. By contrast, the bullpen looked to be again the team’s greatest strength, bolstered further by the additions of Scott Schoeneweis, Jon Adkins, Ambiorix Burgos, Juan Padilla, and others. What a difference a month makes!

At this point in time, the starting rotation looks to be more or less settled, as Glavine, Maine, and Perez have erased the doubt, and El Duque looks like, well, El Duque: a 57-year-old reincarnation of Satchel Paige who will have some health issues but otherwise make 20-25 starts and finish 10-8. Further, Mike Pelfrey’s brilliant spring may force him into the #5 spot, something he should be able to handle at this point in his career. Not a great rotation, but solid, dependable, and enough to complement the Mets’ offense. On the other hand, the Mets bullpen, which looked so deep a few weeks ago, is looking meek in comparison.

First, Duaner Sanchez came in overweight — both in the belly and in the head. His sudden streak of selfishness has cost the Mets a solid setup man for at least the month of April. Then Aaron Heilman was shut down with elbow tendinitis — a residual effect of his little-known offseason elbow surgery. These issues would not have been a big deal if Juan Padilla continued his amazing recovery, or Ambiorix Burgos could find the strike zone with his 100+ MPH heater, or if Jon Adkins or Jorge Sosa could look a little better than BP pitchers. However, all of those names are removed from the discussion, and Joe Smith has emerged as the reliever most likely to get important outs. Luckily, Heilman should be healthy enough to start the season, but without Sanchez to help, how long before the elbow issue flares up again — especially considering Willie Randolph’s strategy to manage every game like it’s the seventh game of the World Series?

Compared to the pitching issues, the offensive questions seem miniscule. While there’s a clamoring among fans to ditch Shawn Green and replace him with Lastings Milledge, in the end it really doesn’t matter which is in right field. Each has their negatives and positives, and regardless of who plays, they’ll be batting seventh in the lineup. Some day Milledge may put up great offensive numbers, but it’s not going to be in 2007. The best he’ll do is the worst that Green can accomplish, and neither player will be a difference-maker in the Mets’ drive to the pennant.

Similarly, the bench has competition, but will it really matter in the grand scheme of things? The Mets have some intriguingly skilled athletes being forced to compete with each other, while two relatively useless old men sit comfortably on the bench with guaranteed contracts. I love Julio Franco, but carrying a man of his limited skills on a National League roster in this day and age is an atrocity. Franco is a 7th-inning pinch-hitter — who needs a pinch-runner — and a weak option as a backup first baseman. If you say he’s capable of playing 2B and 3B, then I can see keeping him — but then why have the similarly limited Damion Easley as well? The final roster spot should come down to Easley vs. Franco, not the current situation of Ben Johnson vs. David Newhan. In fact, I’d even throw Anderson Hernandez into that mix. However it plays out on April 1 may not make a difference to the Mets’ position in the final standings. More likely, the bench will form similarly to the way it did last year: as a result of a combination of early-season injuries and promotions from AAA.

Ten days to Opening Day … the answers and decisions are coming quickly.

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.