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Citi Field may be beautiful, but struggling Mets are not

Mets higher-ups were accepting compliments Monday night for their stunning new ballyard, Citi Field, which has nothing in common with the former, dreary, dumpy ol' Shea Stadium aside from its location near the intersection of the Grand Central Parkway and Roosevelt Avenue. "It's a ballpark, not a stadium,'' Mets COO Jeff Wilpon said of the new digs.

But while Mets people are all understandably thrilled to be in their comfy new confines, a slow start that has revealed weaknesses in the team's rotation, defense and lineup has offset the jubilation. Although the new season is just seven days old, Mets people seem genuinely dismayed.

"We have a good team ... on paper, anyway,'' lamented one top Mets decision maker.

There's little doubt the Mets' three straight less-than-fantastic seasonal finishes are affecting their overall angst and compounding their so-so start. Even consistently upbeat manager Jerry Manuel seemed slightly depressed while talking about the team -- and that was prior to the 6-5 home-opening defeat to the Padres that dropped the Mets a game below .500. Manuel lamented his team's surprising defensive woes in that pregame press conference, only hours before a dropped fly ball cost his team its second straight game.

If anything, Mets executives worried heading into the year about their infield defense, where range on the right side is limited and otherwise perfect third-base superstar David Wright possesses one known flaw: an occasional tendency to spray routine throws. However, left fielder Daniel Murphy's (who's beloved by his bosses for an otherworldly work ethic) dropped ball Sunday against the Marlins and Ryan Church's the next day against the Padres led to two straight losses, dropped the Mets to 3-4 and raised the anxiety level in Flushing to levels beyond sensible proportion.

Manuel appeared disturbed enough by the recent events to schedule a lecture. If he does give his players a talking-to, he might want to touch on these topics:

1. The defense looks slipshod. There's no excuse for back-to-back games in which players drop routine fly balls, though it's possible Church is still getting acclimated to what looks like a difficult right field. And by the way, Gary Sheffield is not going to help there. Manuel intends to give Sheffield starts in right and perhaps even left, but only to keep him sharp, as Sheffield, 40, himself admitted he's concerned about his outfield play after a whole year away. "He can't play the field anymore,'' one scout said, flat out.

2. There are a few issues with the starting pitchers, too. Yes, Johan Santana looks more terrific than ever, Livan Hernandez turned in a nice Mets debut and John Maine was solid the first time out after a dreadful spring in which higher-ups questioned whether he had lost his confidence, but Oliver Perez struggled badly out of the stretch in his outing and Mike Pelfrey hasn't yet shown the dominant stuff he flashed last year.

3. The offense is underachieving. One Mets exec remarked that the Padres' Mexico League reclamation project Walter Silva shut them down "on nothing'' before Wright's three-run home run put them in business -- at least until three Padres' relievers, including Duaner Sanchez, whom the Mets released in spring, did the same.

4. There isn't enough fire. Another Mets person said the players seem to "lack a killer instinct'' so far, which might reflect leftover feelings from their two straight September fades.

Seemingly, the greatest thing about Citi Field is that it bears no resemblance to Shea Stadium. But here are a few more:

1. The intimate feel. If anything, 41,000 might be a tad small in such a big city.

2. The bridge in right-center field. Mets GM Omar Minaya said he loves this feature, which symbolizes New Yawk. While it ain't exactly the Verrazano Narrows, I agree.

3. The overhang in right field. It doesn't have quite the stateliness of old Tiger Stadium (which served as inspiration), but if you're out in right you can see just how pronounced it is.

4. Quite a few quirks. Including the tall wall in left and uneven wall in right.

5. The Jackie Robinson Rotunda. Which serves as a lovely lobby and tribute to perhaps baseball's greatest figure. It displays history and class. (Though we might have considered more odes to the Mets' own past, as well; it has been 47 years, after all.)

6. The food is spectacular. They brought the great sandwiches over from Mama's of Corona (the section of Queens that produced Minaya) and added the Shake Shack (best fast food east of In-N-Out Burger), plus Blue Smoke, El Verano Taqueria and fancier fare.

7. It's not all good, however. Fans have complained about "obstructed views," which make the outfield corners invisible from certain seats. Just remember, fans, none of the views at Shea were great, because they were all views of Shea.

Scrappy Padres second baseman David Eckstein reminded the Mets what they missed when they failed to sign him yet again this winter by killing them in their inaugural game at Citi Field with three hits and a walk.

This past winter Eckstein rebuffed the Mets' $1-to-2-million contract talk to serve as backup (and possible Luis Castillo replacement, depending on whether Castillo got his act together) to take an $850,000 deal to be the Padres' second baseman. "I like it, it's my natural position, Eckstein said of second base. "That's where I want to play." The Scrappy One added that he has played second since he was a kid but switched to short a week into his big-league career out of necessity.

Second base is also where the Mets wanted to employ Eckstein when they pursued him two winters ago. Mets people recall offering Eckstein a four-year deal for about $27 million, but were told by his agent that he was after figures "somewhere between [Julio] Lugo and [Rafael] Furcal,'' which the Mets took to mean about $40 million over four years.

Eckstein doesn't recall it quite that way. While he didn't want to get into the ins and outs of the failed negotiations, he said he got the impression the Mets simply preferred Castillo, whom they signed for $25 million over four years. If there wasn't a disconnect then, there definitely is now, as Mets people recalled preferring Eckstein but getting the distinct impression that they weren't close to his asking price (though he eventually signed in Toronto for one year and $5 million).

The Mets would have been better off with Eckstein, about whom one Mets person said, admiringly, "He's either a pest or an inspiration ... a pest if you're on the other team and an inspiration if you're on his team.''

In any case, Mets people definitely understand Eckstein would have been a better fit than Castillo, who was never a Manuel favorite, even going back to their Marlins days together. Eckstein wouldn't claim the Mets erred, but he did say at some point since they signed Castillo instead of him, Minaya very kindly told him he made a mistake by not signing him.

Padres ace Jake Peavy has been a prime trade candidate for months now, but the possibility remains he could stay with San Diego all year.

Peavy has a no-trade clause and seemed very enthused about the Padres and their surprisingly great 6-2 start when I caught up with him in the Citi Field visitors' clubhouse. He talked excitedly about the team's resolve to try to "grind it out'' and "empty the tank'' every night, pledges that apparently all the Padres made to each other at a stirring meeting on the eve of the season. "I just want a chance to win,'' Peavy said. "I've said all along I want that to be in San Diego.''

The Padres appear short on talent, but it's easy to believe their attitude is terrific with all-time great personalities Cliff Floyd and Eckstein enhancing the clubhouse atmosphere.

In another part of the clubhouse, new Padres owner Jeff Moorad, referring to Peavy's last start, said he "wouldn't trade those seven innings for anything.'' But Moorad didn't make the same claim about Peavy himself.

In fact, Moorad insisted they aren't trying to trade Peavy and that Peavy is as good as any National League pitcher when he's on, but also said "no player is untouchable.'' Moorad, a major upgrade over outgoing owner John Moores (that switch was the best trade San Diego could have made), also said he didn't believe the economic downturn and slumping late-winter market would inhibit suitors for Peavy, who has $63 million and four years left on his contract.

Though he's an Alabama native, Peavy makes his year-round home in San Diego, and folks involved in the winter trade discussion with the Braves say that, ultimately, Peavy's reluctance to go to Atlanta was a factor in that trade falling through. The Braves were on Peavy's very unofficial winter list of teams he would consider, but the list was nowhere near binding, and when Peavy started to seriously consider Atlanta, staying with the Padres apparently started to look better to him.

In reality, the Cubs may have been the only team Peavy was anxious to join this winter. If he submits a new preference list -- official or otherwise -- anytime soon, it'll likely be a short one, because he may already be on the team he prefers most.

Free-agent pitcher Pedro Martinez has fielded calls from several teams in the 10 days since the season began, which is no surprise considering the pitching woes many teams have already experienced.

But Martinez remains in Santo Domingo, working out every day and waiting for the right call. Though friends say it isn't only about money, he's thought to be waiting for a $5 million-plus call.

"He's very patient,'' his longtime agent Fern Cuza said.

The Dodgers (who placed Hiroki Kuroda on the disabled list) and Indians (who have experienced steep first-week pitching problems) would appear to be prime candidates to sign Martinez. Other possibilities include the Phillies, Brewers, Pirates, Diamondbacks and Mets. The Orange County Register reported Cuza also called the Angels. There have been no serious talks with the Phillies or Angels to this point, but they are among the contending teams with pitching concerns.

• No surprise, Alex Rodriguez's first public words since undergoing hip surgery (he may undergo a more extensive procedure in October or November, depending on how he fares and on the Yankees' schedule) reflected his desire to concentrate on baseball and cut down on distractions. That's exactly what Hank and Hal Steinbrenner and GM Brian Cashman suggested he do during tough-love talks right after SI broke the story that Rodriguez failed MLB's 2003 survey test for steroids. But distraction or not, the Yankees are now 25-29 when Rodriguez doesn't start, compared to 455-309 when he does, according to Danny Knobler of CBSsports.com.

Manny Ramirez's interesting ruminations to USA Today about wanting to finish his career in Cleveland can't be taken seriously. First off, he loves L.A. Second, he left Cleveland a long time ago because it couldn't afford him, and that hasn't changed.

Lastings Milledge, who failed to live up to his first name when he became the first player demoted this season, deserved the assignment to Triple A. Hard to say whether he was worse offensively or defensively for Washington.

• Of course, Milledge's demotion doesn't solve the Nats' true problem, which is having too many corner outfielders and not enough proven pitchers. Reached by phone, Nats president Stan Kasten very colorfully said he felt good about the direction his team was headed going into the season, and isn't about to let one week spoil his optimism. I am optimistic as well. I don't believe the Nats will go 0-162.

• I guess there'll be no sophomore jinx for Evan Longoria, huh?

B.J. Upton is as good as it gets in center field.

• The Phillies look smart for locking up Ryan Madson, who's perfect so far (no runs, hits or walks through four innings).

Nick Swisher has not only been the Yankees' best hitter (four home runs in 23 at-bats, 1.150 slugging percentage), he's been their best pitcher (0.00 ERA).

• The Yankees are genuinely worried about Chien-Ming Wang (28.93 ERA), who's been the worst of all the struggling aces.

• So far Zach Duke looks like the 2009 version of Cliff Lee.

• I feel sorry for Lance Berkman, who must be lonely as a hitter with Houston.

• It takes a lot to make Bobby Abreu mad. So I have to assume that MLB was correct in giving Josh Beckett that six-game (one start) suspension for throwing at Abreu's head.

• Neither Heath Bell nor Duaner Sanchez, both former Mets, expressed any feelings of retribution or revenge after nailing down the Padres' 6-5 victory at Citi Field on Monday night. Which only proves they are two big people.

• No surprise, Tom Seaver tossed a strike when he threw out the first ball at Citi Field and Steve Blass did not at PNC Park (though to be fair, he wasn't that far off).

Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, who died on Monday near his Massachusetts home in a mysterious accident, created more fun with 29 career wins than anyone ever did (he was 29-19 before arm trouble ended his career).

Harry Kalas, one heck of a nice guy in addition to a Phillies broadcasting legend, will be missed.

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