In 2006 the Mets benefitted greatly from a combination of breakout or career years from many of their veteran bats and an overall lack of depth and talent in the NL East — a combination that allowed them to breeze to an easy division title. However, 2007 promises to be a much more difficult season for success by our Flushing favorites.
First of all, the Mets can’t count on the bats to produce as well as they did in 2006. Carlos Beltran, for example, had the kind of year the Mets envisioned when they gave him a $120M contract. And maybe we can expect him to continue to put up monster numbers in 2007, and expect to see continued improvement from youngsters David Wright and Jose Reyes. However, the rest of the lineup is frighteningly old, causing one to wonder if a downslide is near — if not already taking place. The most glaring regression, of course, is Shawn Green, who seems to have completely lost the bat speed and power that once produced 40 homers in a season. The 34-year-old’s spiraling path downward is similar to the declining years of Dale Murphy, Robin Ventura, and Jim Rice — when they were around the same age. Call me a cynic, but those players and Green would be primary candidates for the performance-enhancing “supplements” that derailed the decline of aging ballplayers such as Rafael Palmeiro, Barry Bonds, and Mark McGwire … but that’s for another discussion.
Getting back on track, there are two veterans in particular of specific concern: Jose Valentin and Paul LoDuca. Valentin’s career seemed over before his renaissance season in 2006, and one has to wonder if he can repeat the performance — the odds are against it. Similarly, LoDuca was previously a solid .280-.285 hitter who suddenly jacked up to .318, leading the team. The problem is that LoDuca will be a 35-year-old catcher come April, and catchers usually start regressing around age 32-33 (just ask Johnny Bench or Mike Piazza). Maybe LoDuca and Valentin can fend off the inevitable, but more likely they can’t.
Interestingly, the Mets added another age-susceptible veteran to the lineup in Moises Alou. Again, here is a guy who seems to be fighting nature, batting .301 as a 39-year-old. However, he missed more than 60 games due to various nagging injuries. Can he really be expected to continue to produce at such a high level, in spite of his worn, 40-year-old body?
Despite the issues surrounding the aging bats, most pundits have taken for granted that the Mets offense will be dominating once again, instead focusing on the pitching staff as a weakness. The bullpen should be strong and fairly deep, but the starting rotation is a disaster, headed by two 40-year-olds and completed by three question marks.
Further compounding the situation is that their NL rivals appear to have strengthened themselves — at least on paper — so it will not be such an easy ride in 2007. The Phillies, in particular, had a banner offseason, following the momentum of a strong finish in 2006. After the departure of Bobby Abreu, the Phillies became a new team seemingly overnight, and would have been a force to be reckoned with in September had the Mets not staked such a steep lead at the top of the NL East. The Phils’ answer to Wright and Reyes is Howard and Utley, with Jimmy Rollins mixed in. Add to those young superstars the competitive fire of players like Shane Victorino and Aaron Rowand, plus the underappreciated numbers put up by Pat Burrell, and their everyday lineup looks pretty competitive. Burrell, in particular, has been perceived as an underachiever, and is a constant subject of trade rumors. However, he consistently puts up 25-30 HRs, 90-100 RBIs, and walks almost 100 times per year — nothing to sneeze at. In short, the Phillies’ lineup is comparable to the Mets, and though they don’t have the bullpen depth, they do have a strong, if unspectacular, and deep starting rotation.
To start, the 26-year-old Brett Myers seems poised to have a breakout season, after winning 12 games with a 3.96 ERA and 189 Ks in 2006. He’s joined by another up-and-comer, Cole Hamels, who at 22 is ahead of Mike Pelfrey after going 9-8 with a 4.08 ERA in his debut half-season. Holdovers Jamie Moyer and Jon Lieber are solid veterans for the youngsters to lean on and learn from, and GM Pat Gillick was smart to add Freddy Garcia, a consistent horse who will head the rotation. After a 116-71 career AL record, there’s every reason to believe Garcia will come into the NL and immediately become a 17-20-game winner. While it’s true the Phillies’ bullpeni is not deep, it doesn’t need to be when iinnings-eaters like Garcia, Lieber, Myers, and Hamel are routinely pitching into the 7th and 8th innings. Jimmy Rollins has every reason to be speaking confidently about his team — on paper, the Phillies do indeed look like the team to beat.
Similarly, the Braves look a lot tougher than they were in 2006. Their young lineup continued to progress, but did not have Chipper Jones for 50 games due to injuries. More devastating to the team was their pitching, which was hit hard (pardon the pun) by the absence of Mike Hampton, the regression of Tim Hudson, the departure of Leo Mazzone, and the derelict performance of their bullpen. Specifically, the bullpen destroyed the Braves, blowing 29 saves — an extraordinary amount. Even without Hampton and Hudson, if the Braves could have held on to just half of those games — a reasonable expectation — they would have finished with 94-95 wins, or right on the Mets’ neck. With that in mind, GM John Schuerholz made the bullpen his primary concern in the offseason, and added flamethrowers Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez to bridge the gap to closer Bob Wickman. Wickman wasn’t added until late July, and was only responsible for one of those blown saves. Gonzalez was an effective lefty closer for the Pirates, going 24 for 24 in save situations. Soriano was the primary righthanded setup man in Seattle, and most scouts consider his stuff and makeup good enough to be a dominant Major League closer. Suffice to say, even if Hampton and Hudson don’t rebound, the Braves should improve by at least 10-15 games in 2007. If either of those starters do return to their previous levels of performance, the rest of the NL East could spend most of the season looking up at the Braves.
The Marlins’ youngsters opened a lot of eyes in 2006, but it seems likely they’ll regress in 2007. First of all, they won’t surprise anyone — every team will have a full scouting report on most of their players. Secondly, it is common for first-year pitching stars to fall back in their second year, for several reasons. So it will be a year of adjustments for the Marlins, but they should still be fairly competitive — not enough to contend for the NL East title, but enough to be spoilers and make things difficult for the teams in the hunt.
With the above issues at hand, the Mets will require a number of things to go right if they intend to repeat as division champs. Here are ten absolutes for success in 2007 in order of importance:
1. John Maine must progress and become a 6-inning, solid #3/4 starter.
2. Oliver Perez must harness his talent and return to the pitcher he was in 2004.
3. Tom Glavine and Orlando Hernandez must both start at least 25 games, and perform similarly to their 2006 output.
4. Someone among Mike Pelfrey, Philip Humber, and Jason Vargas must show they’re ready for prime time and grab hold of the #5 spot in the rotation by the beginning of June, in much the same way Hamels did for the Phillies last year.
5. Duaner Sanchez, Aaron Heilman, and Gullermo Mota must pitch at the same level they did in Met uniforms last year.
6. Scott Schoeneweis and/or Pedro Feliciano must neutralize the big LH bats in critical situations.
7. Moises Alou, Shawn Green, and Jose Valentin — or whoever is in lineup slots 6-8 — must offer above-average production compared to other bottom-of-the-order NL batters.
8. Jose Reyes, David Wright, and Carlos Beltran must avoid injury and continue progressing offensively and defensively.
9. Carlos Delgado needs to be the same old Carlos Delgado he’s been for the past 10 years.
10. Billy Wagner needs to be the same old Billy Wagner he’s been for the past 10 years.
Naturally, there will be some pleasant surprises along the way — perhaps similar to the blossoming of Xavier Nady, Endy Chavez and John Maine last year, or a comeback performance along the lines of what Valentin and Chad Bradford provided. However, chances are that every positive surprise will balance out a negative unknown — such as an injury or a regression. Outside of something truly remarkable (Pelfrey becomes Verlander? Reyes bats .370?), the above 10 points are necessary to the Mets’ success in 2007 — with the top four being most crucial.