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BASEBALL PREVIEW: New York Mets

March 30, 2012
INDIANA SPORTS PAGE



For a franchise that had most of its roster set before training camp even began, few know just how much of an improvement, if any, the latest edition of the New York Mets will put forth.

Each answer comes with a new question.

For the offense, nearly all eight positions were spoken for as the spring approached, but of course the unit will be looking to replace the loss of All- Star shortstop Jose Reyes, who took his bat and speed to the division-rival Miami Marlins.

It will be a collective effort from within for the Mets, who had a largely quite offseason -- at least by New York standards -- for the second straight year as the franchise tries to recover financially from the Bernie Madoff fraud scheme. The sun appears to be setting on that fiasco as owner Fred Wilpon and team president Saul Katz reached a settlement on a lawsuit filed by a trustee of the victims that will see the owners deal out $162 million.

With the Mets needing to keep an eye on their payroll, they were unable to keep the home-grown Reyes in the fold. Instead, New York revamped its bullpen in an effort to keep pace in the National League East, signing both Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch to contracts while trading center fielder Angel Pagan to the Giants for another righty in Ramon Ramirez as well as Pagan's replacement in center (and Reyes' at the top of the order) in Andres Torres.

While Torres will be looking to replace one of the game's top leadoff hitters in the lineup, it will be the young Ruben Tejada taking over in the field.

The Mets brass also decided to level the playing field a bit by changing the dimensions of the offensively-frustrating Citi Field, bringing in the fences in an effort to generate more power in Flushing. Coincidentally, that shift could have hurt Reyes' numbers, especially in the triples department, had he stayed on with New York.

Though the Mets did not sign a big name in free agency, they will be getting a huge addition to their rotation with the return of Johan Santana from injury. Slotted as the Opening Day starter, the New York ace hasn't pitched in a major league game since 2010.

New York will need all the help it can get in what will be a highly- competitive NL East.

Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Mets, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:

2011 FINISH (77-85) - Fourth Place (NL East)

KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Frank Francisco (RHP), Jon Rauch (RHP), Ronny Cedeno (SS), Andres Torres (OF), Ramon Ramirez (RHP)

KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Jose Reyes (SS), Angel Pagan (OF), Willie Harris (OF), Chris Capuano (LHP), Chris Young (RHP), Jason Isringhausen (RHP), Ronny Paulino (C), Nick Evans (1B), Taylor Buchholz (RHP), Fernando Martinez (OF)

PROJECTED LINEUP: Andres Torres (CF), Daniel Murphy (2B), David Wright (3B), Ike Davis (1B), Jason Bay (LF), Lucas Duda (RF), Josh Thole (C), Ruben Tejada (SS)

PROJECTED ROTATION: Johan Santana (LHP), R.A. Dickey (RHP), Jon Niese (LHP), Mike Pelfrey (RHP), Dillon Gee (RHP)

PROJECTED CLOSER: Frank Francisco (RHP)

MANAGER: Terry Collins

WHAT CAN THE METS EXPECT FROM SANTANA?

While New York is looking to the 33-year-old to once again be the ace of its staff, expecting Santana to pitch like he did at the start of his Mets tenure would be a bit much.

A two-time American League Cy Young Award winner, Santana finished third in the voting for the NL version of the honor in 2008, the first season of a six- year, $137.5 million deal signed with the Mets. The left-hander went 16-7 that season with a career-best 2.53 earned run average in 34 starts, but has had some injury problems since.

Santana battled a left elbow ailment the following the season and missed the end of the 2010 campaign due to a pectoral injury before his left shoulder surgery that cost him all of last season.

Velocity could to be an issue for Santana given his surgery and age, but the former All-Star thrives on his command and devastating changeup. Still, the Venezuelan has passed every test so far during spring training and should be on the mound for the opener.

That is good news for the rest of the rotation, who slot in much better behind Santana. Dillon Gee will look to build on an excellent first half of last season, though the 25-year-old fizzled out after the All-Star break, while R.A. Dickey, the last knuckleballer left in the majors now that Tim Wakefield has retired, pitched much better than his 8-13 record indicates.

Mike Pelfrey, the de facto ace last year due to Santana's injury, should also benefit from pitching behind the former Cy Young winner.

WILL THE CHANGES TO CITI FIELD SPARK THE OFFENSE?

They can't hurt.

The Mets hit the fourth-fewest home runs in the NL last season with 108 and only 50 of those came at Citi Field. Third baseman David Wright, meanwhile, hit 21 homers in the final season at Shea Stadium in 2008, but has managed just 22 in three seasons at the new ballpark.

To fix this problem, the Mets decided to bring in portions of the outfield wall as much as 12 feet while lowering the height of the fences to eight feet. With these changes, New York is hoping that Citi Field will still give pitchers a competitive chance while adding a few more longballs.

Of course, the bigger issue for the Mets could simply be staying healthy. Wright missed 58 games with a back injury in 2011, while first baseman Ike Davis never returned from a left ankle injury suffered in a collision with Wright in May.

Jason Bay, Pagan and Reyes all missed time with injury as well and outfielder Carlos Beltran was traded before the deadline.

Unfortunately, the Mets haven't shook the injury bug yet. Davis battled Valley Fever during camp that limited his playing time and Wright suffered a rib injury during the spring.

In fact, at one point as many as 15 players had missed a game due to due injury during camp and ailments to Torres (left calf) and backup outfielder Scott Hairston (left oblique) have left center as a possible hole to fill by Opening Day.

WHO WILL BE CLOSING GAMES?

The Mets began last season with Francisco Rodriguez as their closer, but dealt the pending free agent to the Brewers. That left a host of different players to fill the role and no one really jumped out. New York had hoped that Bobby Parnell would seize the spot, but he blew six of his 12 save chances.

In all, New York was charged with 24 blown saves, so after missing out on Reyes, the franchise quickly signed Francisco and Rauch.

Francisco will open up the season as the closer and posted 17 saves in 54 games with the Blue Jays last year. He notched a career-high 25 saves in 2009 with the Rangers.

Rauch served as Francisco's set-up man last year with Toronto and keeps that role with New York. The 6-foot-11 right-hander has primarily served as a bridge guy over his career, but does own 58 saves.

New York then added to its bullpen by getting Ramirez in the Giants deal. He put together a solid 2011, going 3-3 with four saves and a 2.62 ERA in 66 games and should give Collins another late-inning option along with Parnell and Tim Byrdak once the latter returns from injury.

X-FACTOR: LUCAS DUDA, RF

Duda put up very impressive numbers after joining the Mets last season, batting .292 with 10 homers and 50 RBI in 100 games following his call-up. That came after the 26-year-old hit over .300 and swatted 10 homers in 38 games at Triple-A Buffalo.

With injury concerns to Wright and Davis, as well as Bay's struggles since joining New York, the Mets are hoping Duda goes from underrated to constant contributor in a hurry.

Success by Duda could have a domino effect in the lineup as well. Slated to bat sixth, he could get Bay better pitches to hit out of the fifth spot or move up in the lineup if he produces.

A solid season by the left-handed hitting Duda could make Beltran a distant memory in Flushing as well.

OUTLOOK

Though the Mets have finally begun cleaning up their financial mess, the product on the field still has some ways to go. Coming off five straight seasons of missing the playoffs, New York did not add a significant piece this offseason, compounded by the fact it lost one of the top free agents in Reyes. Instead, the Mets appear to banking on the return of Santana and a healthy offense in the hopes of ending their playoff drought. That seems like asking a bit much, especially considering the injuries that have already crept up before the start of the season. New York seems doomed to a season of finding out just what the club needs to get back on track.


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