Shades of 2002
The Mets entered spring training in February 2002 with high hopes … based on an offseason makeover of remarkable proportions. Looking to add lefthanded power to the lineup, 34-year-old Mo Vaughn, a perennial 35+ HR threat, had been obtained to play 1B and bat cleanup. Former Mets farmhand Jeromy Burnitz, who had hit 30 or more homeruns the previous four seasons, was brought back for additional LH firepower. In the most stunning acquisition of the offseason, GM Steve Phillips surrendered top prospects Alex Escobar, Billy Traber, and a host of others for “future Hall-of-Famer” Roberto Alomar, who was coming off one of his best seasons. And to anchor the leadoff spot, speedster Roger Cedeno returned as a free agent, following a year in Detroit where he batted over .300 most of the year, finishing with a .293 average and 55 stolen bases—one behind Ichiro, the AL leader. Remarkably, the Mets were also within a hair of signing Juan Gonzalez, who had a monstrous MVP-type year with Cleveland; however he elected to sign for less money — and no taxes — with the Texas Rangers.
These impact players would presumably help holdover All-Stars Mike Piazza and Edgardo Alfonzo produce perhaps the most powerful offensive lineup in Mets history. The biggest question in the spring was where to put all the bats? Fans were teeming with excitement at the thought that a bonafide slugger such as Jeromy Burnitz would bat as low as sixth or seventh in the lineup.
The bench was looking promising, too. Jay Payton and Timo Perez, both starters the year before, would fight for the CF job. Former All-Star John Valentin was brought in to push Rey Ordonez and provide a big bat at several positions. Youngsters Ty Wigginton, Vance Wilson, and Jason Phillips looked like they might crack the roster. And utilityman Super Joe McEwing was back to play everywhere, and coming off one of the best seasons of his career.
Adding to what looked to be an explosive lineup, the Mets’ pitching staff looked formidable. Ace lefty Al Leiter was surrounded by several veterans who had won 15 or more games fairly recently in their careers: Steve Trachsel, Shawn Estes, and Pedro Astacio, and a 26-year-old, 6-foot-7 righty with seemingly a world of talent: Jeff D’Amico. The bullpen would be anchored by closer Armando Benitez, who had saved more than 40 games in ’00 and ’01, and had not yet reached his potential. John Franco was out after Tommy John surgery, but Expos closer Scott Strickland was brought in to set up Benitez. In fact, Strickland was so highly regarded at the time, there was talk of making him the closer, and either trading Benitez or using him in the setup role. Cagey veteran David Weathers, lefty Mark Guthrie, and young star-in-waiting Grant Roberts would fill out what might be New York’s best bullpen since 2000. Though there were some questions regarding the health of the staff, there was plenty of youthful depth at the AAA level: Bobby M. Jones, Tyler Walker, Mike Bacsik, and Jaime Cerda, and Bobby Valentine had imported veteran Japanese hurler Satoru Komiyama.
In April 2002, the Mets expectations were high — not unlike what they’ll be in April of 2006. Though they had rolled the dice on a few players — Mo Vaughn in particular — GM Steve Phillips had seemingly hedged against his bets by bringing in proven, reliable commodities such as Burnitz and Alomar. And though the pitching wasn’t spectacular, and had question marks, there was plenty of depth, especially in the bullpen, fitting with Valentine’s strategy of shortening games. The only way the ’02 Mets could falter, would be if Phillips lost every gamble, and every key player had an uncharacteristic season.
As it turned out, the Mets did falter that year, as everything went wrong. Remarkably, the Mo Vaughn experiment, as bad as it was, might have been the shining light of the makeover. His .259 average and 26 homers were nowhere near his usual, but this was a guy who missed all of ’01, was grossly overweight, and playing in the NL for the first time. Vaughn came closest to fulfilling expectations, compared to the other acquisitions, ALL of which fell flat on their face.
Burnitz forgot how to hit, starting off the season in a slump and fighting the Mendoza line all year — even though he often hit in the low pressure spots of sixth and seventh in the lineup. At age 33, you might expect his career to start a down turn, but not the tailspin that occurred. Cedeno, who at 27 should have been entering the prime of his career, instead entered the demise of his career. After signing his fat contract, his body got just as fat over the winter. His average dropped 30 points, he stole only 25 bases, and his defense got worse. The biggest disappointment was the 34-year-old Alomar, who after nearly winning the AL MVP, returned to the NL and saw his average drop almost 50 points, and all his other numbers—runs, stolen bases, RBI, HR, doubles, triples—were halved. The former Gold Glove winner seemed to be using a gold glove most of the year, as countless balls bounced off or beyond his glove. Though a 15-year veteran, he looked as lost as a wide-eyed rookie most of the year. He clearly could not handle the pressure of New York, and his skills had eroded more quickly than anyone could have predicted.
To make matters worse, Phillips lost every gamble he made on the pitching staff as well. Estes, Astacio, and D’Amico were all busts, as was Komiyama. The 36-year-old Leiter endured a non-acelike season, going 13-13. To fix things, two deals were made that make today’s Met fan cringe. On the trading deadline (July 31), the Mets picked up a guy named John Thomson, who didn’t help and was released at the end of the year so that the Braves could pick him up and make him a star. Then they traded away a few minor leaguers for two pitchers, Jason Middlebrook and Steve Reed. One of those minor leaguers? Jason Bay.
Looking at the 2006 Mets, there look to be a lot of eerie similarities. There is an egocentric GM who has done a total makeover with huge splashes and questionable gambles. One of the biggest deals of the offseason was acquiring Carlos Delgado, a 34-year-old lefthanded hitting first baseman who consistently hits 30+ HRs a year. The biggest free-agent signing was of course, Billy Wagner, who will be 34 by midseason. The Mets are counting on ace Pedro Martinez to lead a rotation with various question marks: can Tom Glavine be a legit #2 starter again? Will Steve Trachsel bounce back from back surgery? Is Aaron Heilman as good a starter as he is a reliever? Will Victor Zambrano ever throw strikes? To hedge against the question marks, Minaya has overstocked the bullpen, picked up a few marginal starters to hold in AAA Norfolk, and took a flyer on Jose Lima.
Sure, you can say that picking up Delgado is not like picking up Vaughn. But, is it unlike picking up Burnitz or Alomar? Both were stars, just like Delgado, who had consistently put up big numbers, and both were coming off excellent seasons. One must wonder if age played a factor then, and if it will now. The demise of great hitters in history seem to start around the age of 33/34; see: Jim Rice, Dale Murphy, Will Clark, and others who seemingly overnight lost their bat speed. (Sorry, but I’m in the camp that believes players such as Rafael Palmeiro, Barry Bonds, and Sammy Sosa got better with age thanks to performance-enhancing chemicals.)
But even if Delgado does put up the numbers he always does, the problem with the 2006 expectations is that they are pinned on a potentially explosive lineup and prayers for the pitching staff. Like 2002, there are too many “ifs” on the Mets’ roster. If Glavine can return to form. If Pedro can keep pitching spectacularly. If Pedro’s toe will let him. If Bret Boone can make a comeback—or if Kaz or AHern or someone can play 2B. If LoDuca’s leadership skills will blot out weak defense and so-so offense. If Reyes can get on base. If Beltran can shake off 2005. If Heilman can start. If Zambrano can do anything. If Trach’s back is OK. If Wagner stays healthy.
So many publications and personalities are picking the Mets as favorites to win the NL East, and the Mets themselves expect nothing less. On paper, it does look like they have the capability to do so. However, there seems to be too many questions marks, and too many things that have to go right, for the ’06 Mets to accomplish that goal.