Friday July 10th, 2009

Call it the Summer of Accountability.

Earlier in the season, Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz proclaimed that "Papi stinks," A's shortstop Orlando Cabrera admitted "I suck" and after Tuesday night's loss to the Dodgers -- the Mets' fourth straight defeat and ninth in 11 games -- third baseman David Wright gave his own account of his team's play.

"I just think we stink right now, we're just not very good," Wright told reporters. "When you don't pitch, you don't hit, you don't play defense, you're not going to win very many games. We're not playing very good baseball."

That's the succinct way to summarize things. The Mets offense was, after all, in the midst of 23 consecutive scoreless innings, 30 innings without an extra-base hit, 31 innings without scoring more than one run and 48 innings without a home run. Mets starting pitchers have a 5.40 ERA through eight games in July. And the defense has had enough spectacular miscues to warrant a recent edition of SportsCenter's "Not So Top 10" list of Mets errors, prominently featuring Daniel Murphy's adventures in the outfield and second baseman Luis Castillo's game-losing dropped pop-up against the Yankees.

Wright admirably stood by his comments before Thursday's night game -- another in the line of hard losses, allowing 17 hits and falling 11-2 to the Dodgers -- saying that "accountability is a good thing," and adding, "I'm not going to come in here and shoot from the hip out of frustration. There's no denying that, when you go out there and you don't score, you don't pitch well and you don't play good defense, then you stink. That wasn't out of frustration, I was just reporting what I saw."

Speaking of reporting what one sees: After recently using Fernando Tatis as a pinch hitter, Mets manager Jerry Manuel defended the move after the game by describing Tatis as "a guy that is a professional hitter, to some degree." Huh? To some degree? That's a less-than-reassuring statement, just like saying the Mets aren't in any trouble, to some degree. They are still ahead of the Nationals, for whatever that's worth.

Tatis, for the record, grounded into his 11th double play of the season in that pinch-hit at bat.

And there's no help on the way. The farm system doesn't have any position players chomping at the bit for a promotion; what were the organization's best prospects (Carlos Gomez and Philip Humber) were shipped to Minnesota two years ago for Johan Santana and more went in the deal that netted reliever J.J. Putz; and general manager Omar Minaya suggested earlier this week that a trade was unlikely, saying, "There's not a trade out there that's better than when we get our guys back."

True, there are no equal-value replacements for Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado or Jose Reyes. And Minaya seems hesitant to pull the trigger on mid-level substitutes -- guys who could contribute more this season than, say, Tatis or Fernando Martinez -- when he doesn't have much trade bait and a not-too-rosy outlook for the rest of this season, unless the injured stars return quickly.

With New York's power sapped by the injuries to Beltran and Delgado and, just as importantly, by the move to gigantic Citi Field, its home-run output has nearly been cut in half. In 2008, the Mets hit 1.1 homers per game; in '09 they've hit 0.6 per game, the last coming in Pittsburgh on July 2.

"At some point you've got to stop worrying about what [Citi Field] is going to do, and just go out and play," says Wright. "It's obviously playing big, so let's go out there and adapt."

With adaptation in mind, Manuel said the coaching staff is going to "hold ourselves accountable defensively" and said that while filling out lineup cards, he is going to gamble less often on starting too many offensive-minded players at the sake of his defense.

"With the way that we're built at this time," Manuel said, "it might be better that we go pitching, defense and then offense."

Across baseball, it has also been a summer of defense. Taking cues from the Rays, who went from last in defensive efficiency and last place in the standings in 2007 to first in both in 2008, teams like the Tigers, Rangers and Mariners all have improved in '09 by filling out lineup cards that emphasize better fielding.

The Mets, however, have regressed. Using Baseball Prospectus' defensive efficiency, which measures the rate at which balls in play are converted into outs, they've fallen from sixth in the majors in 2008 to 15th this year. Outfield defense is of particular importance at Citi Field, whose spacious outfield and deep power alleys play like Central Park.

The Mets' home park weighs down their ratio of flyballs that go for home runs, a major-league low 6.4 percent, which is less than half the rate of their crosstown rivals, whose new stadium with its tight confines have helped the Yankees homer on 14 percent of their flyballs. New York ranks 21st in both fielding percentage (.982) and errors (56), numbers that are misleading considering how many mis-plays aren't considered chances by that metric. In the fourth inning last night, for instance, a Rafael Furcal hit a line drive to rightfield, which Gary Sheffield misread and then turned the wrong way, allowing it to land over his head for a double.

Based on the ultimate zone rating, which measures runs a defense saves or costs its team, New York has the third-worst defense in the National League, with a cumulative UZR of -22.2. Sheffield alone contributes a -6.2 rating to that total. The Mets are at least trying to work on their defense. Ryan Church, a rightfielder who's been pressed into centerfield service too, noted that several players have been putting in extra fielding work of late.

"You're going to make your errors," says second baseman Alex Cora, "but some of the mistakes we've made are just fundamentals -- [not] throwing to the right base, hitting the cutoff man, things like that. We haven't done a good job of that the whole season."

Thanks to their neverending string of injuries, the Mets have used the second-most position players in the majors (22), but that lack of continuity and familiarity is "not an excuse," says Cora.

From the Mets' large payroll (at $149 million, its fifth straight year north of $100 million) to recent late-season collapses (see 2007, 2008) to this year's foibles, this is a disgruntled fan base, tired of its team underperforming expectations. One group of 20-something friends from New York City, all diehard Mets fans who regularly write each other about the team, reported the tone of their email chain resulted in some curious sponsorships, thanks to Gmail's targeted ad-placement. Gmail, which uses keywords in emails to trigger related advertisements, came up with touts for discount tickets to New York area events, a link entitled "no more stinky garbage" and an ad for bags to pick up after your dog. Optimism is, um, lacking.

But what keeps the fans coming back to Citi Field -- besides Shake Shack and the other culinary delights, of course -- is that the team is still in contention and has the promise of an even better stretch run. Admittedly not the Mets' strong suit, making a late push to win the division is possible considering the tightly packed NL East. New York is four games under .500 and in fourth place but trails the division-leading Phillies by only 5.5 games. And then, of course, there is the hope of returns to the field by Beltran, Delgado and Reyes.

Still, though, there's a plenty of pessimism around this team. Speaking after the game, Manuel insisted that he had seen enough go well with the club that it could survive this swoon, only to have a slip of the tongue a moment later, starting a sentence with "we can salvage" this season, before catching himself and changing to "we can compete."

Salvage or compete, those are the Mets' options at the season's midpoint.

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