In their brief, hapless history, the Mets have finished 20th, as Manager Casey Stengel likes to say—10th each year.
Stengel wants to cram his lineup with as many good hitters as possible and the devil with fielding. Frank Thomas has been No. 1 in runs batted in for two years, but his total last year—60—was embarrassingly low for a team leader. Thomas is a powerful right-handed hitter and, although, at 34, his future is behind him, he should be good for a few more runs this year. Duke Snider, at 37, is still a dangerous hitter when used sparingly and against right-handed pitching. There are pennant contenders in both leagues that would love to have him, and someone may get him yet. But with the Mets, Duke must play as often as he can—which is why last year he hit only .243. The man the Mets are counting on to lead them out of the wilderness is George Altman, a tall left-handed hitter acquired in a trade with St. Louis. Altman did not produce last year for the Cardinals, but he proved himself with the Cubs in 1961 and 1962, during which time he hit 49 home runs, drove in 170 and averaged .311. Such figures are foreign to the Mets. Jesse Gonder has also proved he can hit when he plays, but his nine-year baseball career shows very few full seasons. Last year with Cincinnati and the Mets, he hit .304, but he batted only 158 times. His poor fielding limits him. The Mets reached into a hat last year and pulled out Ron Hunt, an aggressive second baseman who hit .272 and led the team in runs scored with 64. Jim Hickman has some power and hits well in short bursts, but the bursts are followed by long periods of silence. Ed Kranepool is only 19, so it would be unfair to draw a conclusion from last year's .209 average. He will grow. So will 21-year-old Bill Haas, who hit .301 at Albuquerque last year. Haas will be fighting Dick Smith (.262 with Buffalo) and Tim Harkness (.211) for the first-base job. A third name for the futures list is Ron Swoboda, 19, a husky outfielder who acted like Henry Aaron in spring training until the pitchers got serious. The rest of the Met hitters trail off into the sunset.
If there is a diamond in the Mets' coal pile, it is the pitching staff. Left-hander Al Jackson could pitch for any team in the majors. Last year he won 13 games, a monumental feat for a team that was 51-111. Jackson is 28, slightly built and well coordinated. He fields and bunts well, two assets to his pitching. An articulate man, he can discuss the problems of pitching for the Mets without rancor. "You've got to bear down from the start with the Mets," says Jackson. "If you pitch for a team that scores a lot of runs, and you put runners on base in the first inning, you don't worry too much if one of them scores. You'll get it back and more. But with the Mets, you can't let anybody score. One run may be it. But I wouldn't have it any other way. I like pitching in New York." Jackson has no outstanding pitch. His fast ball, curve and slider are all effective. This spring he simply worked on his control, which is fair but could be better. "I'd like to be able to put the ball exactly where I want to," he says. "Like Spahn." Carl Willey was 9-14 last year with a 3.10 ERA, a good season. This spring he looked even better, pitching 22 consecutive scoreless innings until a batted ball broke his jaw. Such accidents have ruined pitchers before, notably Herb Score. Thus Willey becomes a major question mark, out for a month—or a year. The Mets have other seasoned pitchers, people like Tracy Stallard, Jay Hook, Galen Cisco and, in from Baltimore via San Francisco, Jack Fisher. But it is the youngsters who offer the promise of better days tomorrow. Grover Powell pitched a shutout in his first start for the Mets last August, then was injured. Powell is 23. Four young Mets struck out over 200 batters in the minors last year. Ron Locke, 22, struck out 249 with Auburn; with the same team, Bruce Wilson, 23, struck out 214. Dick Selma struck out 211 for Salinas, Rich Gardner 213 for Orlando. Selma is 20, Gardner 19. All are fast, but the fastest of all, Jerry Hinsley, 19, pitched for no one last year. Reluctant to put him on their roster, the Pittsburgh Pirates tried to hide Hinsley by assigning him to Kingsport and keeping him on the bench. He played not an inning all year, but this winter the Mets drafted him anyway. Naturally not all these young pitchers will make the majors this year, but those who do may cause a little stir around the National League. For relief the Mets have Larry Bearnarth, who had a 3.43 ERA in 58 games, and Ed Bauta, who won a position on the Met staff with his pitching in spring training.
Three-quarters of the infield—Harkness or Haas, when they play first base, Hunt at second and Amado Samuel at short—field well, although how much Samuel will play depends on how long he can hit above, say, .220. If Stengel plays Frank Thomas at third base, the Mets' chain of defense will have a papier-m√¢ché link. Spring training exposed Thomas as a left-fielding third baseman. His arm was wild and he had trouble with bunts. And why not? Thomas has spent a major part of his 12-year career in the outfield. Chances are Stengel will use a parade of people at third—Thomas, Pumpsie Green, Hickman. He may even trade for a third baseman, using Thomas as the lure. The outfield of Snider, Hickman and Altman, with Kranepool, Joe Christopher, Duke Carmel and possibly rookie Larry Elliot on standby, is little better than run of the mill. Gonder makes a lot of mistakes as a catcher—which is why Stengel will probably keep Bob (Hawk) Taylor, who can catch and play outfield. Lastly, no Met team would be complete without Hot Rod Kanehl, a Jack-of-all-trades who is the very mirror of the Mets.
If some of the young hard-throwing Met pitchers come through and if the hitters score more runs than the butter-fingered fielders allow, the Mets have a fighting chance for ninth. Or, as Stengel would say, 29th.