There is a great book by former NFL running back Gale Sayers titled “I Am Third”. Sayers means after God (first) and his family (second). However, Billy Wagner, in an interview with Kevin Burkhardt on SNY’s Mets Hot Stove, he states the Mets are third behind the Phillies and Braves. His exact quote, after being asked by Burkhardt if the Phillies should be considered the frontrunners in 2008:
“The Phillies are the top team, the Braves are second and we’re somewhere third.”
No doubt this comment will evoke all kinds of excitement in the tabloids and with rabid Mets fans. However, I like it, and agree.
First, though the Mets spent nearly all of 2007 in first place, they also spent 75% of that time as a .500 team — not exactly dominating. While the Phillies and Braves improved as the season wore on, the Mets got worse and worse. Yes, the “collapse” was ultimately what did the Mets in, but what did they do before that to truly earn the NL East? It was somewhat reminiscent of the 1973 season — another year where it appeared that no one wanted to win the division. Had the Mets not collapsed, their title would have been tainted — more a win by default than by dominance. Their lollygagging began as early as June, and their decision to put their game on cruise control was, in retrospect, a bigger disappointment than losing first place in the last few weeks of September.
As “Lorenzo” (Robert DeNiro) stated in A Bronx Tale, “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.” Yeah, it was a movie, it was a little hokey, but I agree with it — if you have talent and don’t use it to the fullest, well, that’s a pretty sad thing. And there’s no doubt whatsoever that the Mets were the most talented team in the NL East in 2007, possibly the most talented in the entire National League from top to bottom. But they failed … which makes one wonder what needed to be done in the offseason. Certainly, some heads needed to roll.
So what happened? Lastings Milledge, Tom Glavine, Paul LoDuca, Shawn Green, and Aaron Sele left. Were those the bad guys on the team? The malaise? I’m not so sure. And the players who have come in — Brian Schneider, Ryan Church, Matt Wise — are they bad-ass attitude changers? Again, I’m not so sure. Probably not, on both counts.
Meanwhile, the Phillies brought in Geoff Jenkins to platoon with Jayson Werth. Good move, in that Jenkins will probably hit 25-30 homers in Citizens Bank Park (while also striking out 175 times). They signed third baseman Pedro Feliz, who will give them nearly Gold Glove caliber defense and another slugger ideal for CBP. I won’t be surprised if Feliz puts another 25-30 over the fence — remember he’s been playing in cavernous AT&T Park yet still slugging 20+ homers per year. They also picked up Brad Lidge to close, moving Brett Myers to the rotation. And they brought in Chad Durbin, who has to be better than Adam Eaton. Oh, and they also bolstered their bench with So Taguchi and Chris Snelling. Remember, the Phillies won the NL East last season, and they made all these moves to improve themselves. So … what was it the Mets did?
Similarly, the Braves made a bunch of moves, though many of them seemingly inconsequential. Starting shortstop Edgar Renteria was sent to Detroit, but brought back a young pitcher (Jair Jurrjens) who might step into their rotation and a hot outfield prospect (Gorkys Hernandez) who compares to Carlos Gomez. Atlanta also quietly bolstered their bullpen with a few under the radar deals — they picked up pitcher Chris Resop on waivers (who I’m convinced will be an effective middle reliever), traded for Will Ohman, and most recently acquired LHP Jeff Ridgway. None of those guys will scare you, but all will help their bullpen woes — their weakest link in 2007. They also signed a certain 300-game winner, who will step in as their #3 starter. Again, not earth shattering, until you consider that same pitcher was the Mets’ #1 last year. Further, while the pundits claim the Braves are hurt by the exits of Andruw Jones and Renteria, one must look at those two guys and realize that neither had much of an impact on Atlanta’s third-place finish. Jones batted .222 and played less than superhuman defense, so Mark Kotsay could very well be a step up — at least, offensively. Renteria missed almost 40 games — just enough time for Cuban defector Yunel Escobar to prove he’s ready for prime time. Like the Phils, the Braves have made an effort to improve themselves, while the Mets …
Of course, there is the argument that the Met didn’t need to improve themselves — that they were the most talented team, remain the most talented team, and all they need to do is come out give their best effort in 2008. That’s tough to believe — particularly when, effectively, the same roster returns. Why would these same individuals play any differently than they did in ’07? What reason do we have to believe that, for example, Oliver Perez and John Maine will continue to develop — despite marked drops in performance during the second half of the season? How are we convinced that Carlos Delgado will return to his dominant hitting, when the last year and a half has shown him to be in decline? Why should we believe that the defensive upgrades of Schneider over LoDuca and Church over Green will really result in more wins? Where is the evidence to suggest that Willie Randolph will do a better job of managing the bullpen in 2008?
Even if the Mets succeed in bringing Johan Santana to Flushing, it’s no guarantee that the Mets will win the NL East. There are a lot of question marks, and when you compare the Mets to the Braves and the Phillies, there isn’t anything that significantly separates the three teams. Both the Phils and the Braves have better 1-2 punches at the beginning of the starting rotation, and both teams’ lineups look stronger from top to bottom. The Mets might have an advantage with their bench, though the Phillies could be close. The Mets may be better than the Phils when it comes to starting pitchers three and four, but they may or may not be better than the Braves one through five. Defense is comparable among all three teams, though one would think a Bobby Cox team would be the strongest fundamentally. All things even, which team wants to win the most, and knows how to win? Looking at last year, you can’t say it’s the Mets.
I’m not purposely being negative — rather, I’m looking at the NL East through Billy Wagner’s eyes, and I can see why he would say what he did. He’s not wrong — the Mets DO look like the third-best team right now. That doesn’t mean the Mets will finish third, but it does mean that they better have a completely different attitude this season. They’re no longer the most talented, and not the favorites. The Mets will have to work hard, and execute, from game one through 162, if they want to win the NL East in 2008 — with or without Johan.
It’s not a bad place to be. In fact, for a Mets fan, it’s quite comfortable — the position of underdog. We don’t do well in the “Yankee” position of expecting to dominate everyone else; it isn’t in our mindset nor our character. That said, I’m with Billy the Kid when it comes to managing preseason expectations — we are third. This way, when the Mets win the 2008 NL East title, it will feel … oh … magical.