Pitching might slow down Mets

Posted: March 27, 2007

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - When Willie Randolph showed up for a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden this winter, the manager's face was flashed on the giant video screen hanging above the arena. The New York basketball fans promptly began chanting, "Let's Go, Mets!"

When owner Fred Wilpon held his annual state-of-the-team address early in spring training, he said, "Our goal is to win the World Series." And he said it more than once.

The buzz is understandable. After all, the Mets won 97 games last season, ending Atlanta's streak of 14 straight division championships in the process. They have a high payroll with the ability to spend more if needed. They might have gone to the World Series had it not been for a tiebreaking, heartbreaking ninth-inning homer by Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina in Game 7 of the NLCS.

General manager Omar Minaya, using big money to attract big names, has put the Mets back on the baseball map in New York, where they have become an attractive alternative to the increasingly tired soap opera in the Bronx. They have a new stadium sprouting behind the outfield fence at Shea Stadium.

So why wouldn't optimism be overflowing around Tradition Field?

Funny you should ask . . .

Because Pedro Martinez is coming off shoulder surgery and isn't expected to pitch until after the All-Star break.

Because the rotation is variously viewed as too old (Tom Glavine, Orlando Hernandez) or too young (John Maine, Mike Pelfrey, Philip Humber, Oliver Perez).

Because the identity of the third, fourth and fifth starters were big question marks when camp opened.

Because fans who came to expect to see the Mets pick up stars like Martinez, Billy Wagner, Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran over the winter were disappointed when the team came up short in its bid for Daisuke Matsuzaka, dropped out of the Barry Zito auction and didn't even try to sign Alfonso Soriano.

And, no, getting Chan Ho Park and Aaron Sele didn't ease that sting.

Former general manager Steve Phillips, now an ESPN analyst, even picked them to finish third. Ouch.

Wagner understands the doubts, even if he doesn't agree.

"We didn't go out and make any marquee starting pitching acquisitions," the outspoken closer said before a recent exhibition game. "We didn't really think we needed to do a lot of things and the other teams did. The Braves got better. The Phillies got a lot better. For us, we're basing our [hopes] on our young players. So right now we're not the headlines. Which is probably good.

"Look, it always comes down to injuries and what your young kids do. If Maine and Pelfrey or Perez come in and do what they can, we can go to the playoffs. But they're unproven. They haven't really been seen enough to say, 'They're fine.' When you lose a Pedro Martinez, that's a shock. But after seeing how our young guys performed - in New York - right out of the chute, we're pretty optimistic.

"Anything's possible. Guys can have bad years. But we have a lot more track records that say we're good and we can do this than, well, records that say we're not very good."

During one exhibition game this spring, as Perez was getting knocked around, a fan in the stands had some advice to Minaya. "You should have signed Zito, Omar," he hollered.

Maybe, maybe not.

The Mets made what they thought was a preemptive bid to win the negotiating rights to Matsuzaka, posting $39 million just for the exclusive right to negotiate with the Seibu Lions star righthander. Instead they were blown out of the water when the Red Sox went to $51.1 million.

They were willing to give Zito around $75 million for 5 years, but understandably balked when the Giants added 2 more years and another $51 million to their offer.

Now, a lot of the pressure will fall on Glavine, who will be 41 when he starts on Opening Day and needs only 10 wins to reach 300 for his career.

Hernandez is also thought to be 41 (although in some reference material he's listed as being 3 years younger), and one scout said he looked like a "shot pitcher" when he saw him last year.

Minaya insists he isn't concerned. "I like the team we've put together," he said.

If nothing else, Park and Sele could help take some of the pressure of the younger starters early in the season.

Noted third baseman David Wright: "People were hearing about Dice-K [Matsuzaka] and Zito all the time and they wanted us to add a pitcher with those kinds of names. But we know what we have with some of our young guys. We've got guys with electric stuff and great potential who just don't have much experience."

The Mets' blueprint is to shorten games, to have the starter keep them in it and then let the bullpen and the lineup do what it takes to win.

That approach took a hit yesterday when Duaner Sanchez (2.60 ERA in 49 games) suffered a broken bone in his pitching shoulder and is expected to be out until August. Leading up to Wagner, the Mets also have Pedro Feliciano (2.09 ERA, 64 appearances), Aaron Heilman (who split time between starting and relieving), Guillermo Mota (1.00 ERA after being acquired from the Indians), as well as newly acquired Jon Adkins and Scott Schoeneweis.

The Mets were third in the league in runs scored last year. They have what might just be the best left side of the infield in baseball with Wright and shortstop Jose Reyes. They have a veteran slugging first baseman in Delgado, and Beltran in center.

The lineup appears set, although Randolph said that second baseman Jose Valentin and rightfielder Shawn Green would have to show they deserve their spots during the Grapefruit League.

They also came to camp with six players - Glavine, Hernandez, Moises Alou, Julio Franco, Sandy Alomar Jr. and Ruben Sierra - over 40; Sierra has since been released. When spring training opened, there were a total of only 16 other players that age on big-league rosters.

"Age doesn't matter," Randolph shrugged. "I don't care how old they are, as long as they help us win."

Still, it was quite a sight during an early exhibition when the Mets loaded the bases with Alou, Franco and Alomar. Combined ages: 128.

Randolph, in his third year on the job, is growing into his role. He demonstrated that by kicking Sanchez out of camp for 2 days this spring when he was habitually late for his rehab.

The manager sent another message on the first day of camp when he wore one of his World Series rings. It was the 1977 model, the first of six he earned as a player or coach with the Yankees.

And he left no doubt about which side of the debate of how good the Mets really are that he's on.

"I want these players to come to spring training every year and feel like we should be in the playoffs and in the hunt for a world championship," he said. "If you don't feel that way, you might as well not show up.

"At times, it might sound a little unrealistic or a little crazy or like I'm blowing smoke. But that's what I believe." *

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