March 31, 2009
New York <a href=Mets" title="New York Mets"/>
SI Prediction: 1st in NL East
Manuel's late-inning worries are over as long as newcomers K-Rod (left) and Putz stay healthy.
Manuel's late-inning worries are over as long as newcomers K-Rod (left) and Putz stay healthy.
Chuck Solomon/SI
New York Mets Manager Jerry Manuel
Second season with Mets
Team Page | 2009 Schedule
Saves that new closer Francisco Rodriguez had with the Angels last season. Despite that major-league-record total, which was 15 more than his previous single-season high, it was not K-Rod's most dominant year -- far from it. His walk rate (4.49 per nine innings) was the second-worst of his six-year career, and his 10.1 K's per nine was his lowest rate since his rookie season and well below his career 11.8 entering 2008.
In a tactical move ripped from Davey Johnson's book, Jerry Manuel can squeeze extra runs out of his lineup by shifting Daniel Murphy from leftfield to second base whenever Johan Santana or Oliver Perez are on the mound. The two lefties generate mostly fly balls and strikeouts, minimizing Murphy's exposure on defense; by using Murphy at second 30 to 40 times, the Mets can get an extra bat, such as Nick Evans (who had a strong spring), into the lineup and rest the fragile legs of regular second baseman Luis Castillo. In the 1980s Johnson occasionally moved third baseman Howard Johnson or outfielder Kevin Mitchell to shortstop -- getting a better hitter than Rafael Santana or Kevin Elster into the game -- when such fly ball pitchers as Sid Fernandez, Bobby Ojeda or Ron Darling were on the mound.
SS Jose Reyes S-R 4 .297 16 68 56
LF Daniel Murphy L-R 148 .313 2 17 0
CF Carlos Beltran S-R 5 .284 27 112 25
1B Carlos Delgado L-R 35 .271 38 115 1
3B David Wright R 3 .302 33 124 15
RF Ryan Church L 190 .276 12 49 2
C Brian Schneider L-R 289 .257 9 38 0
2B Luis Castillo S-R 271 .245 3 28 17
OF-IF Fernando Tatis R 241 .297 11 47 3
C Ramon Castro R 301 .245 7 24 0
IF Alex Cora l-R 327 .270 0 9 1
LH Johan Santana 1 16 7 7.9 1.15 2.53
RH John Maine 84 10 8 7.8 1.35 4.18
LH Oliver Perez 94 10 7 8.4 1.40 4.22
RH Mike Pelfrey 83 13 11 4.9 1.36 3.72
RH Livan Hernandez 186 13 11 3.4 1.67 6.05
RH Francisco Rodriguez 5 2 62 10.1 1.29 2.24
RH J.J. Putz 107 6 15 10.9 1.60 3.88
LH Pedro Feliciano 249 3 2 8.4 1.56 4.0

To stroll through the Mets' spring training camp was to find a team attempting to reinvent itself. On one day you could see 6' 5", 250-pound J.J. Putz and his fellow relief pitchers fielding grounders at second base and working on double play feeds; shortstop Jose Reyes exhausting himself in a hitting drill during which the batter must take 80 opposite-field swings at 80 machine-fired curveballs in six minutes; and every clubhouse television screening a DVD with nothing but opposite-field hits by the Mets in 2008. All of the events wore the stamp of the team's first camp under manager Jerry Manuel. "Best camp I've ever seen," says Putz, the 32-year-old erstwhile Mariner.

For subliminal effect, though, Manuel might have considered replacing the opposite-field video loop with a replay of the Mets' 8-1 win on Oct. 3, 2004 -- the last time the franchise won its final game of the year. In each of the past three seasons New York was eliminated on the last day with a loss at Shea Stadium: 3-1 to St. Louis in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS; 8-1 to Florida in Game 162 of the '07 regular season; and 4-2 to Florida in Game 162 of '08.

The Mets made sure that won't happen again; they tore down Shea Stadium.

Whether the first season in their new digs, Citi Field, ends with the same swan song is largely dependent on two relievers unencumbered by the franchise's recent frustrations: Putz and Frankie Rodriguez. (Here's all you need to know about how the East was decided last year: The Mets lost seven times after taking a lead into the ninth, the first-place Phillies not once.) There were eight closers last year who had at least 15 saves and struck out more than 10 batters per nine innings, and in two days in December the Mets seized two of them, trading for Putz to be the setup man to Rodriguez, whom they signed after his record-setting 62 saves for the Angels. When it comes to the last inning, New York did the best it could to author a happy ending this time.

"Totally different," general manager Omar Minaya says of the last two September collapses. "I actually think in '08 we overachieved, given a lot of injuries. We gave it away in '07. We basically had it. In '08 we never had it. The issue is, we have to win. We have to close it out before 162."

Manuel will have a far easier time with bullpen management this year than last September, when he went to his pen 69 times in the fateful final 17 games. With the overpowering stuff of Putz and Rodriguez, Manuel doesn't need to worry about batter-pitcher matchups or trying to create platoon advantages over at least the final six outs. "If they need me for more than three outs, I'm ready," Putz says. "If they need me in the seventh, I'm ready. But when I look at our bullpen, I see so much quality and depth that I don't think anybody needs to be overused. . . . And Sean Green is going to be a big key for this team. He was lights-out last year until he wore down from being used so much." Green, a sinkerball specialist acquired with Putz in a 12-player trade with Seattle and Cleveland, entered August with a 2.83 ERA but had a 9.55 ERA the rest of the year.

Other than smartly renovating the shoddy bullpen that absorbed nine walk-off losses, New York did little else to what Minaya describes as "a real good team last year.'' Its core remains the stalwart pitching of Johan Santana, 30, and three players in their prime years all capable of winning an MVP award: Reyes, 25; third baseman David Wright, 26; and centerfielder Carlos Beltran, 31, the linchpins of a team that outscored every other in the NL but Philadelphia in '08.

Since 2001 the Mets have ranked no lower than third in NL payroll, yet the investments in those eight years have returned more nightmarish endings (two) than playoff appearances (one). The Mets have been on the cusp of something great, and to put them over the top they have emulated the architecture of their bitter rivals, the Phillies, who traded for closer Brad Lidge and parlayed endgame certainty into a world championship. With Putz and Rodriguez, the Mets have what it takes to win the games that they should, including the very last baseball game of 2009.

-- Tom Verducci

Issue date: April 6, 2009

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