Mets fans are in an odd state of mind right now. The start of the baseball season is upon us. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox renew their rivalry on national television for the umpteenth time, and much of the other 28 teams get underway Monday, including the Mets hosting the Florida Marlins, a team that has given Mets fans nightmares since 2007. While the start of any season can bring optimism, and the Mets have some top-level talent in Johan Santana, Francisco Rodriguez, David Wright, Jason Bay, Jose Reyes, and Carlos Beltran. But the latter two on that list start the season hurt, after missing much of 2009 with various injuries. After the last three season of abject disappointment, few expect the situation to improve in 2010.


    But with that list of previously mentioned talent, you figure the Mets could be dangerous. When Reyes and Beltran are back in full swing (hopefully by May) the Mets could be a dangerous team that has a chance to contend for a playoff spot in the thin National League. Lets take a look at the Mets from top to bottom:


The Manager


    How much blame does Jerry Manuel get for the awful 2009 season in which the Mets went 72-90 and finished in fourth in the NL East? Everyone sang his praises in 2008 when he replaced Willie Randolph as Mets manager in June and the Mets became hot, including winning 10 in a row around the All-Star break. Even though the Mets finished short of the postseason again, it was viewed that Manuel was a key cog in getting the Mets back into contention. But that goodwill was used up in 2009 when the Mets season went down the toilet. The circumstances were terrible for Manuel, with all of his star players being lost for weeks or months at a time, but the losses piled up and Mets fans and possibly management started to view 2008 as a distant memory.

 

Unless something cataclysmic happens, Manuel should stick around for all of 2010. The players all seem to like playing for him, he’s not afraid to take risks and he tries to keep his bench players ready and his starters refreshed. But Manuel’s fate for better or for worse is tied to Mets General Manager Omar Minaya (much, much more on him later). If Minaya is still with the Mets after 2010, there’s a good chance  so will Manuel. But if things go turn for the worst and Minaya is let go, Manuel will probably be out the door with him as a new GM will look for his own manager. (Imagine this blaring over the Citi Field P.A. system in April 2011, “Now introducing your 2011 Mets Manager: Ozzie Guillen! That could be a match made in heaven. Or hell. He could lead the Mets to 110 wins and a World Series or to 55 wins and make Ollie Perez cry on the mound.) 


The Offense


    The Mets hit a league low 95 home runs in 2009. The next lowest were the San Francisco Giants with 122. The 2009 Mets leader in homer runs was Daniel Murphy with 12. This team could’ve used some steroids and HGH. Yes, the Mets were playing their first season in spacious Citi Field, but 95 home runs for a major league team is pathetic. It wasn’t all the stadium’s fault, even though the Mets announced in February that the height of the fence in center field would be lowered from 16 feet to eight feet, but the Mets players all lost their power stroke.


    If the Mets remain healthy (I’m already tired of typing this, and that phrase could be added to every assessment of the Mets for 2010. So for the rest of the article when you see ^, it will signify the Mets need to stay on the field and out of the doctor’s office) with the addition of Bay, the Mets should find their power stroke. Wright will hit more than 10 homers in 2010. I am guaranteeing that. Bay’s homer totals will probably go down as he moves from Fenway Park to Citi Field, but he is a solid player in the middle of the lineup that could give Wright (or Beltran or whoever hits in front of him) some protection in the lineup and some more fastballs to hit. When we see Beltran and Reyes on the field, we know what we can expect out of them. They are two of the pistons in the Mets motor, and they can’t get anywhere without them.


    The rest of the Mets offense is hard to figure out. Jeff Franceour will get a full season in New York, and if he plays like he did the last couple of months in 2009, he can finally live up to the hype from his early years in Atlanta. Daniel Murphy will start the season on the DL, allowing former ex-Met Mike Jacobs to reclaim the job that used to be his before he was sent to Florida for Carlos Delgado in 2006. Murphy, after bursting onto the scene and into Mets fan’s hearts in 2008 was up-and-down in 2009. He was second to Wright last year in doubles and RBI’s, but finished was a .266 average and a .741 OPS. Not big numbers for a starting first baseman. Murphy showed some prowess with the glove, but he has a tenuous hold on first base at best. Jacobs landed back with the Mets after a forgettable year in Kansas City, and could provide some pop against righties. No Mets catcher has emerged yet as the everyday starter, and the only holdover from last year is youngster Omir Santos, who proved to have a flair for the dramatic, play a key role in several late-inning rallies for the Mets. The Mets added veterans Henry Blanco and Rod Barajas, both stable players but neither will remind Mets fans of Gary Carter or Mike Piazza, or even Todd Hundley.

  

 The biggest enigma in the Mets offense is second baseman Luis Castillo. The numbers will tell you that Castillo had a legitimately good season in 2009. He hit .302, had a .387 OBP scoring 77 runs and stealing 20 bases. Not bad numbers for a 33-year-old that everyone considered washed up and who Minaya tried to unload all during the off season. But there’s only one play that sticks out from 2009: his drop of a pop-fly in Yankee Stadium on the first night of the Subway Series that would’ve been the final out of a Mets victory, but instead allowed the Yanks to score the tying and go-ahead run. Every Mets fan gave up hope after that play, and he’ll always be associated with that. It’s supposed to be good when your #8 hitter gets 147 hits, but Mets fans would rather see anyone else at second than Castillo (OK, not anyone, we all hate Robbie Alomar more than Castillo).



The Bullpen

  

 The Mets bullpen of 2009 was significantly better than in 2008, but it still looked ugly at times. K-Rod, Bobby Parnell, Pedro Feliciano, and Sean Green all had great stretches, followed by putrid ones, then OK ones, and so on. It seemed like in every game one reliever would crap the bed, and that’s usually all it takes to lose a game. Do you grade a bullpen by it’s strongest pitcher or by it’s weakest? As great as K-Rod looked at times, he also led the Mets relievers with five walks per nine innings. Not numbers you want for the guy who is supposed to seal victories. Added to the mix this season are Japanese import Ryota Igarashi, who has been impressive in spring training, and veteran Kelvim Escobar, who is still recovering from injuries that have limited him to five innings in the last two seasons. Bullpen productivity is the hardest aspect of any baseball team to predict year in and year out. That’s why so many high-priced bullpens flop. But the Mets relievers will have to be much more consistent ^ in 2010 if they have a shot of going anywhere.


 

Starting Pitchers

    

His numbers have been slipping the past few years, but Santana is still one of the best in the game. He’s the one and only guy that we don’t have to worry about. After him though, is what makes Mets fans really scared. For the past three years, Mets fans and brass have tried to talk themselves into John Maine, Mike Pelfrey and Ollie Perez. At this rate, we’d be happy if one of them turned into a good pitcher. But all three, forget it. If it hasn’t happened yet it’s not going to. We’ve all seen promising signs from each, but those moments are happening less and less, while perplexing and awful starts are piling up. Pelfrey is young and entering his third full season, so the jury is still out on him. He is capable of turning it around now that his body is used to the stress of pitching a full season, but can he be a legit number two starter? Probably not. He’s more like a three or maybe a four starter. John Maine has battled injuries for the past couple of seasons. He has yet to pitch 200 innings in a season (his innings have decreased dramatically each year since 2007, from 191, to 140 in 2008, to 81.1 in 2009). He has shown the most consistency in the past, but he has likely used up the last of the patience of Mets fans and brass. If he doesn’t step up^ this season, it could be his last as a Met.

    

But those don’t even look like problems compared to Ollie Perez. Two off seasons ago when the Mets were looking for another starter in a thin market but couldn’t sign anyone, they gave the devil they knew a three-year, $36 million deal to maintain the status quo. Sure, you can blame the World Baseball Classic for throwing Perez off his rhythm, but we’ve all seen those mental miscues before from Ollie. He is his own biggest obstacle from his major league success, and it looks like he will never get out of his own way. The Mets would love to unload him, but there was also a reason no one wanted to sign him when he was a free agent. No one is going to give up a prospect or a draft pick or anything valuable for him now. The Mets are stuck with him, a noose tied around their neck. If they can figure out a way to put that all behind him and reach his potential the Mets could turn some heads, but how many people actually expect that to happen? The Mets will likely settle on Jon Niese for the fifth spot. He has shown some bright spots in his limited major league tries, and been shellacked in others. If he gives the Mets 150 innings and a .500 record, we can call it a success.


The Prospects

    

The Mets farm system was much maligned in 2009. None of their call-ups were able to soothe the Mets woes on the mound or at the plate. But spring training has given some of the Mets youngsters a time to shine. Fernando Martinez, who saw some time at the big-league level in 2009, looked again like the bright prospect the Mets refused to part with for Santana, and should be the first call up if Beltran has a prolonged absence or another outfielder goes down. Ike Davis drew a lot of consideration for a roster spot with his stellar spring, and has a lot of fans clamoring for him to start over Murphy or Jacobs at first. He is the first baseman of the future for the Mets, and the future could happen this season. Josh Thole got a look at catcher last September, and if the vets don’t pan out could also see some time at the majors this season. Ruben Tejada played so well in spring some Mets brass considered starting him at shortstop while Reyes recuperates from his thyroid issue. They eventually chose Alex Cora instead, but now Tejada could be considered at second base. Jenrry Meija is the big pitching prospect, getting some consideration as the fifth starter but could ultimately wind up as the set up man to K-Rod. He’s only twenty, so Manuel doesn’t want to throw him into the pressure cooker just yet, but he may have the stuff the earn the job outright.


The Competition

    

The NL East is the toughest division in the league. The Phillies, two time NL Champs, three time NL East Champs, are geared to win the division for the fourth straight year. Adding Roy Halladay to the mix only makes them better. Going from perennially out-of-the-race Toronto to king of the division Philadelphia should only make him better, as he finally has some pressure and exposure to thrive on. Oh, and they have some guys in the lineup who can inflict a lot of damage, including Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Raul Ibañez, Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino and this guy named Jimmy Rollins we’d all like to shut up. But they can talk the talk since they walk the walk.


    The Braves appear to be on the right track after missing the playoffs the past four seasons, something unheard of in the 1990s. They have quietly built a very good rotation and their young hitters are coming into their own. They also have über-prospect Jason Heyward, who every baseball expert in the country can’t stop gushing over. Many think the Braves will win the wild-card, and they will certainly be a top contender.

    The Marlins always find a way to be pesky, especially to the Mets. No matter how many players the sell off, they always find more in the draft to replace them. They have a solid young rotation led by Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, and Chris Volstad. They also have Hanley Ramirez, one of the top fantasy producers in the game. Don’t forget they finished second in the division last year. The Nationals may not be a threat now, but this franchise is starting to piece it together. They always find a way to beat the Mets at the worst possible time, so take nothing for granted against them.

  

 The rest of the National League is not great. The Cardinals should win the central easily. The Cubs, Brewers, and even the Reds could be in play for the wild-card spot, but a lot needs to go right for each team. Out West, the Rockies and Dodgers will battle it out for the division, with the loser going for the wild card. The Giants have great pitching and little hitting, and the Diamondbacks have a lot of young talent that can’t seem to get it together.


The Front Office

    

This is the focal point of the Mets. Omar Minaya and Jeff Wilpon are the decision makers on this team, for better or for worse. After an embarrassing 2009, including firing his loyal assistant Tony Bernazard and accusing a Daily News reporter of vying for his job (a rare feat of turning one embarrassment into another in a matter of seconds)  Minaya is on thin ice. If the Mets don’t make the postseason in 2010, this will be his last season. Or it should be.

    

I have been a defender of Minaya in the past. He signed Wright and Reyes to extensions that were probably below market value. He got Pedro and Beltran to come to the Mets and instantly changed the culture of the team. He turned Kris Benson into Maine and El Duque. He got Santana from the Twins for a few prospects that have yet to make an impact in Minnesota, when everyone following baseball thought Santana would be a Yankee or Red Sock. But there’s also the Ollie Perez contract, the Willie Randolph firing, the hype of Lastings Millidge, and a farm system that hasn’t produced a star outside of Wright and Reyes.

    

On March 30th, ESPN baseball writer Keith Law was a guest on the BS Report with Bill Simmons. Since Simmons is an avowed Red Sox fan, much of the 49 minutes was devoted to the Sox, Yanks, Rays, and the rest of the American League. But in the interest of fairness, Law and Simmons briefly delved into the National League. They didn’t talk much about the Mets, but the little they did told you everything that is wrong with the franchise:

Simmons: I’m looking at the NL right now. Philly - big market. Atlanta - at least fairly big. Mets - gigantic.

Law: But the Mets don’t play like (a big market team), that’s been the criticism…they’re cheap. They spent less in the draft last year than the 29 other teams, which is atrocious. If you’re the Mets you should be a top-five spending team in the draft every year.

Simmons: So they’re like a 1980’s big market team?

Law: Yeah, with the same absolute dollar figures. They just have not figured it out yet. They will put some money into the big league product but no where else. And you can’t ignore scouting and player development. The Red Sox and Yankees have learned that and they’ve been plowing money into the draft and the international market for years. Where as the Mets are one of the lowest spending teams on the amateur side, which is going to bite you in the long run. And you’re seeing that now. The Mets don’t have the depth in the farm system to replace some of those guys that have been hurt at the big league level.

    

That tells you everything you need to know about the Mets, and unfortunately suck the joy out of the upcoming season. Law is right, its embarrassing that the Mets would spend so little money on scouting, drafting, and developing young players while throwing money at veterans that haven’t produced. The Mets major-league team salary will still be one of the highest in baseball, but the money is spread around the rest of the organization like the Yanks, Red Sox, and even teams like the Rays, Braves, Marlins, Athletics, Rangers, Angels, and Rockies, who regularly produce talent out of their farm system that they can plug into the major league team and win. All these teams are full of homegrown talent, and have even more players waiting in the wings.

  

 If the Mets are going to fix their problems, they will need to embrace the new school of baseball management - embracing statistical analysis to help determine which players will be successful over the long term and investing in a farm system that can find and cultivate talent that will ultimately make their major league team better. If the Mets do dump Minaya before 2011, they need to hire a young assistant from one of the aforementioned front offices who is familiar with this new way of building a baseball team that is going to be the blueprint of all successful teams in the future.
    
    

With Wright, Reyes, Beltran, and Santana^ they have a core intact, but not much to support it. At my utmost optimistic, I think the Mets can be an 87-89 win team in 2010. Maybe that can be good enough to sneak into the wild-card spot in the NL. But I don’t realistically expect them to reach that. This will probably look like the 2005 team that was in transition and finished 82-80. I think a lot of Mets fans would sign off on that for 2010. I’m still looking forward to go to Citi Field this season; sitting in the Pepsi Porch for the first time, getting some Box Frites and Shake Shack, and watching the team I love. The Mets were 4-0 in games I attended last season, so my times at Citi Field have all been good. I just hope I can enjoy the same luck in 2010, because I also expect it to be the same Mets team I saw last year.

  

 But to quote the late, great Tug McGraw: “Ya Gotta Believe!”