Consider this: the “team to beat” is the Phillies, so the Mets’ focus should be on putting a team on the field that is better head-to-head. I don’t believe that the Mets’ pitching staff — even with the game shortened to seven innings — is head and shoulders above the Phillies’. Where the Mets have an advantage at the end of the game, the Phillies appear to be stronger through the first seven. So the separating factor between the two teams is more likely to come down to offense — an area where they were exact equals in 2008, tying for second in the NL with 799 runs apiece.
The question is, can each team score almost 800 runs again, and/or, will one team have an offensive edge?
Comparing the two lineups, it’s a close call. The Mets have Jose Reyes, David Wright, Carlos Beltran, and most likely Luis Castillo occupying the first four spots in the lineup. The Phillies counter with a top four of Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard. We can argue which team is stronger leadoff through cleanup, but I tend to think that — even if Dan Murphy is the Mets’ #2 hitter — the teams are pretty close to equal. Similarly, the bottom of the orders are comparable — right now it looks like the Brian Schneider / Ramon Castro platoon hitting eighth vs. the Chris Coste / Carlos Ruiz tandem.
Where the edge will come, then, is in batting spots 5 through 7. It’s my cockamamie theory that the team strongest 5-7 will be the NL East champions in 2009.
Take a look at the comparison side by side:
Raul Ibanez | Carlos Delgado
Jayson Werth / Geoff Jenkins | Ryan Church
Pedro Feliz / Gregg Dobbs | Fernando Tatis / Daniel Murphy
The order above is interchangeable, but what I tried to do was pair up the combinations that most closely matched. Ibanez and Delgado are similar in that they’re both entering the twilights of their careers, but had strong enough finishes to their ’08 campaigns to provide optimism for ’09. I think this comparison, like the first four hitters, is a wash. I expect a dropoff from Ibanez due to the change in leagues and aging process, but CBP may artificially soften that downward trend. Delgado will still hit more homeruns, but Ibanez will swat more doubles and hit 25-30 points higher. In the end their runs and RBI totals should be close.
Where the Phillies really had an advantage last year was in the #6 and #7 holes, which featured any combination of Jayson Werth, Pedro Feliz, Greg Dobbs, and Geoff Jenkins. The Werth / Jenkins tandem last year combined for .260 AVG. /33 HR/96 RBI production. Feliz had his typical injury-riddled year, dotted with hot streaks and cold streaks, and Dobbs might have hit a little over his head at .301. None of those players are guaranteed to repeat their performances, mind you, but all of them have enough history to lead you to believe they’ll come close.
That said, I’m not sure Church can approach the production of Werth / Jenkins (or Werth on his own, if that’s how it shakes out). Looking at each’s skillset, Church and Werth may well put up close to equal numbers. But that will only happen if Werth’s 2008 was his ceiling, AND Church can significantly increase his ability to divert pitches over the wall.
Just as concerning, I don’t know that the Tatis / Murphy experiment is going to be head and shoulders above the Pedro Feliz / Greg Dobbs combination. If Feliz can stay healthy — which is a big if — he’ll hit his typical .250, and probably hit 20-22 homers. Dobbs may not hit .300 again, but his 9 HRs and 40 RBI in 226 ABs were a followup to 10 HR and 55 RBI in 324 ABs in 2007. In other words, there’s a decent shot that the 30-year-old Dobbs provides similar numbers in ’09. If so, that gives the Phillies a combined #7 hitter with a line somewhere in the neighborhood of a .270 AVG., 30 HR, and 100 RBI. Can Tatis and Murphy match that? Again, there would have to be either a status quo or decline on the Phillies’ duo, and a trend upward for the Mets. Not impossible, but another case of hopes and wishes.
Of course, the Mets could remove all doubt by signing Manny Ramirez. However, all indications suggest that won’t happen. In fact, the Mets likely won’t sign either of the other two impact bats still available — Adam Dunn and Bobby Abreu. Beyond those three, there might be a few veteran hitters who, with a little luck, could tip the lineups into the Mets’ favor — someone like Andruw Jones, Kevin Millar, Garret Anderson, Jonny Gomes, or Ken Griffey. Millar, in particular, would seem to be a nice fit, as he could spell both Delgado and Church, and/or be the platoon partner for Murphy in left, and provide a solid RH bat off the bench. But, Millar could be looking for a regular job elsewhere, and even if he is interested in wearing the orange and blue, Tony Bernazard still holds a grudge against him for crossing the picket line in 1994 (Bernazard was an important pencil-pusher for the MLBPA back then).
But in the end, none of the free agents appear to be on the Mets’ radar, and it’s hard to see a situation where the Mets can import one via trade. Their top trading chips for an MLB position player are Murphy, Jon Niese, and Fernando Martinez, and they’d probably have to trade at least two of those three to get back an impact bat. The chance of that happening is about as likely as Eric Byrnes arriving in return for Luis Castillo — slim and none.
In short, the Mets and Phillies, as currently constituted, appear to be equal again offensively. The Phillies are probably done making offseason moves. So, if the Mets can acquire one more big bat, it would give them an edge — at least, offensively.
Unfortunately, the Mets still have to make three or four moves to improve the pitching staff, and their “one thing at a time” approach suggests that bat may not make it by spring training.