2 New York Mets An infusion of big-name vets has the overdue Mets thinking Subway Series

March 29, 1999

Once a decade the Mets play in a World Series. That has been
their pattern. They were born in 1962, won their first World
Series in '69, lost their first in '73 and then won their second
in '86. The new season is the last chance to keep the pattern
alive. The natives are growing restless.

"Hey, Steve," a fan yelled to Steve Phillips, the Mets' general
manager, one day during spring training. "How 'bout a Subway
Series?"

"Let's hope the Yankees can get there," Phillips shot back.

Stranger things have happened. Last year New York finished 18
games behind the division-winning Braves in the National League
East and missed winning the wild-card spot by one game. In the
final week of the season the Mets seemed to have a baseball
disorder. They couldn't score runs and couldn't win games. While
the Yankees, like expectant parents, waited eagerly to see what
October would bring, the Mets were closing their season by
losing five straight games to the Expos and the Braves. Can
anyone suggest a new synonym for collapse? The New York papers
wore out all the good ones.

In the off-season the Mets reached for the checkbook. Not enough
offense or veteran leadership? The front office dug deep to
re-sign catcher Mike Piazza (seven years, $91 million) and
pitching ace Al Leiter (four years, $32 million). Then they
shelled out another $46.1 million to land Robin Ventura, Bobby
Bonilla and Rickey Henderson. No one evoking the club's history?
New York hired Tom Seaver as a broadcaster and part-time
pitching coach. Seaver, after all, had pitched for the Mets in
the 1969 and the '73 Series. To make room for him, New York
ditched broadcaster Tim McCarver, who was too much of a
pathological truth-teller for certain members of team management
to stomach.

You need thick skin to make it in New York City. More than that,
you need star power. The Mets, weird to say, now have more star
power than their intracity rival. Not more talent or skill, but
more star power. Their plan is to win coming out of the chute,
draw good crowds before school lets out and give the Yankees
some competition in the box office and the Braves some
competition in the standings. New York's first two series are
against the feeble Marlins and its unlikely nemesis from last
fall, the Expos. Those games might just set the tone for the
season.

By the end, the Mets should be hugely ahead of those two teams
and another rival, the Phillies. Still, for them to beat the
Braves, something odd would have to happen in Atlanta, like the
sudden and collective collapse of the best rotation in the majors.

As for the New York rotation, it's more sturdy than spectacular.
The Mets will start a lone lefty (Leiter) and four righties:
Rick Reed, Bobby Jones, Masato Yoshii and Hideo Nomo. Leiter,
Reed and Jones are known commodities. Over the past two years
they have a combined 81-53 record with a 3.44 ERA. The two
Japanese pitchers are question marks. Nomo, unhittable at times
during his first two seasons, with the Dodgers in 1995 and '96,
struggled with his control for most of last year, averaging more
than five walks per nine innings. His back-wrenching delivery,
an odd and disconcerting sight earlier in his U.S. career,
hardly throws off anybody these days. Yoshii, though he's 33, is
still an unknown. After getting off to a strong start in '98, he
won two games after May 27. The Mets' chances of succeeding
depend on Yoshii and Nomo, or on two young pitchers in the farm
system, Jason Isringhausen and Paul Wilson, both of whom are
coming off serious injuries.

Given all this uncertainty, the New York front office realizes
it might have to make a move. There was talk in spring training
of making a midsummer deal to bring in a proven starter. But
frontline pitchers are always expensive, particularly in
mid-season. Closing such a deal will be a high-wire act for
Phillips. To complicate matters, he answers to two bosses,
co-owners Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday, who often disagree.

The man who will handle the pitchers, Piazza, will get an
occasional day off and, during interleague play, an occasional
turn as DH, but he's still likely to catch in about 140 games.
He'll catch that often in part because that's what the Mets are
paying him to do but mostly because that's what he wants to do.
His goal is to be the greatest-hitting catcher in baseball
history. He also wants, desperately, a World Series ring.

New York's two new outfielders--Bonilla, the 36-year-old
rightfielder, and Henderson, the 40-year-old leftfielder--know a
lot about how to get to the playoffs and the Series: Between
them, they have played in 82 postseason games. Defensively, they
come with risks, but they have other skills. Henderson stole 66
bases last year, four more than the Mets did as a team. Bonilla,
a switch-hitter who had a tumultuous stint with New York from
1992 to '95, hit only 11 homers last year but averaged more than
25 over the five seasons before that.

Slugging is a concept not typically associated with the Mets
this decade. Neither, particularly, is winning. New York had
best change that this year, before it's too late.

--Michael Bamberger

COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT JORDAN LEVY Piazza has hit at least .318 in each of his six big league seasons, but it's his handling of a middling rotation that will be crucial to New York's playoff hopes. COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA

By the Numbers

1998 Team Statistics (NL rank)
1998 record: 88-74 (second in NL East)

BATTING AVERAGE .259 (9)
RUNS SCORED 706 (11)
HOME RUNS 136 (13)
OPP. BATTING AVG. .253 (4)
ERA 3.76 (4)
FIELDING PCT. .984 (5)

Going... Going...the Other Way

Mike Piazza is the major leagues' most prolific opposite-field
home run hitter in this decade, hitting better than 40% of his
round-trippers to rightfield (the highest such percent among
players with at least 100 homers in the 1990s; the active
leaders are listed below). Near the other end of the spectrum is
Rickey Henderson, who hit 14 homers last year--all of them to
leftfield.

HIGHEST PERCENT
Total Opp.
Player Bats HR Field HR Pct.

Mike Piazza R 200 81 40.5
John Jaha R 105 37 35.2
Jim Thome L 163 52 31.9
Terry Steinbach R 124 39 31.5
Mike Stanley R 143 44 30.8

LOWEST PERCENT
Total Opp.
Player Bats HR Field HR Pct.

Steve Finley L 117 1 0.9
Gregg Jefferies S 100 1 1.0
Jeff King R 146 3 2.1
Cal Ripken Jr. R 180 5 2.8
Rickey Henderson R 128 4 3.1

Next Up...

Righthanded pitcher Masato Yoshii, who spent 13 seasons in the
Japan leagues before arriving in the U.S. last year, will be New
York's fourth starter. But for the Mets to have a chance of
catching the Braves in the National League East, he'll have to
perform better than he did as a 33-year-old "rookie." Yoshii
certainly has ability--last year he had a 3.93 ERA in 171 2/3
innings, and against the Yankees on June 28 he gave up only two
hits and struck out 10 in seven innings--but he needs more
durability. He averaged fewer than six innings per start, and
after winning four of his first nine starts he was victorious in
only two of his last 20.

Projected Roster With 1998 Statistics

Manager: Bobby Valentine (fourth season with New York)

BATTING ORDER B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

LF Rickey Henderson[1] R-L 120 .236 14 57 66
2B Edgardo Alfonzo R 95 .278 17 78 8
1B John Olerud L 20 .354 22 93 2
C Mike Piazza R 14 .328 32 111 1
RF Bobby Bonilla[1] S-R 149 .249 11 45 1
3B Robin Ventura[1] L-R 100 .263 21 91 1
CF Brian McRae S-R 134 .264 21 79 20
SS Rey Ordonez R 331 .246 1 42 3

BENCH

IF Mike Kinkade (R)* R 289 .300 8 64 16
OF Jermaine Allensworth[**] R 308 .272 5 31 15
OF Roger Cedeno[1] S-R 317 .242 2 17 8
IF Matt Franco L-R 327 .273 1 13 0
IF Luis Lopez S-R 342 .252 2 22 2

STARTERS PVR W L IPS WHIP ERA

LH Al Leiter 11 17 6 6.9 1.15 2.47
RH Rick Reed 21 16 11 6.8 1.12 3.48
RH Bobby Jones 78 9 9 6.5 1.25 4.05
RH Masato Yoshii 115 6 8 5.9 1.28 3.93
RH Hideo Nomo 162 6 12 5.5 1.42 4.92

BULLPEN PVR W L S WHIP ERA

LH John Franco 60 0 8 38 1.47 3.62
RH Armando Benitez[1] 103 5 6 22 1.27 3.82
LH Dennis Cook 160 8 4 1 1.28 2.38
RH Turk Wendell 228 5 1 4 1.24 2.93
RH Greg McMichael 283 5 4 2 1.71 4.10
LH Allen Watson[1] 251 6 7 0 1.69 6.04

[1]New acquisition (R) Rookie B-T: Bats-throws
IPS: Innings pitched per start
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched

PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 154)
*Triple A stats [**]Combined AL and NL stats

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)