5 New York Mets A club sees the errors of its ways and makes itself stronger up the middle

April 04, 2004

Consider the plight of the Mets. After back-to-back last-place
finishes, they must not only contend within a more competitive
National League East, but they also have to fight a daily battle
with the Yankees for the back pages of the New York tabloids. In
another town at another time, the transformation of the
best-hitting catcher in history (Mike Piazza) into a first
baseman would be the story of the spring, but a new player in
pinstripes who is also switching positions (Alex Rodriguez) has
stolen all the attention. The Mets recruited a fabulous Japanese
shortstop nicknamed Little Matsui over the summer, but he'll play
in the shadow cast by Big Matsui in the Bronx.

"Of course we watch what the Yankees do," says Mets general
manager Jim Duquette, "but our feeling is they're an island in
the game. We're not going to compete with their payroll or
revenues. We expect that this team will have a lot more fun than
last year's, doing it quietly, without a $180 million payroll."

Last year the Mets tried fielding a mismatched, Rotisserie-style
club, to disastrous effect. "There wasn't good synergy, and we
didn't flow the way good teams do," Piazza says. Now they have
retooled by embracing the pitching-and-defense approach that has
historically worked best at Shea Stadium. They saw the light last
August when rookie shortstop Jose Reyes, now playing second base,
began to hit his stride. The defense improved and made the
pitching less vulnerable during a stretch of 10 wins in 13 games.

This winter Duquette attended to the Mets' defense up the middle
by signing Kaz Matsui from Japan and centerfielder Mike Cameron
from the Mariners to go with Reyes, a steep upgrade over the
Bermuda Triangle of stopgap shortstop Rey Sanchez, fading second
baseman Roberto Alomar and woeful centerfielder Roger Cedeno a
year ago. Given the generally precise but not overpowering
pitching staff--Al Leiter's 7.6 strikeouts per nine innings led
the starters--there is an even greater premium on catching the
ball. "That's been an issue here for years," says 43-year-old
reliever John Franco. "I used to go by sound. Unless the ball was
hit to [former shortstop Kevin] Elster, who I knew would catch
it, I'd wait to hear the crowd reaction. I couldn't watch. It's
difficult on a staff when your defense isn't what it should be."

Cameron, the defensive equal of the Braves' celebrated Andruw
Jones, is the linchpin. According to the Mets' new statistical
analyst, Ben Baumer, Cameron would have caught roughly 70 balls
that New York centerfielders didn't get to in 2003--all of which
shows what's possible when a team has a genuine flycatcher in
center to go with a seamhead staffer who has a B.A. in economics
from Wesleyan, an M.A. in applied mathematics from UC San Diego
and an M.S. in mathematics from NYU.

During the spring Piazza made progress at first base, where Jason
Phillips will handle the bulk of the work. Appreciative of the
fact that the 35-year-old Piazza is four homers shy of Carlton
Fisk's alltime record for a catcher (351), manager Art Howe will
use him primarily behind the plate but will play him between 25
and 50 games at first--once or twice a week--to keep his bat in
the lineup.

"Mike's not the first guy who, as years went on, moved from
catcher," Leiter says. "Johnny Bench did it. Yogi Berra did it.
If he's completely accepting of the move"--and Piazza seems to
have dropped his passive resistance--"it will help his arm
strength." Piazza threw out 28.0% of runners attempting to steal
in 2003, a good season by his standards but a two-hopper compared
with backup Vance Wilson's outstanding 44.6% efficiency.

The Mets hope the switch-hitting and speed of Matsui and Reyes at
the top of the lineup will provide the same spark that Juan
Pierre and Luis Castillo give the Marlins. That's essential to
New York's conversion from a lugubrious, station-to-station team
into a more athletic one. If 38-year-old Tom Glavine returns to
form after a nine-win season (his worst year since 1988) and the
open casting call this spring produces a reliable No. 5
starter--in '03 the fifth starters combined for a 7.24 ERA--the
Mets have an outside shot at being in the playoff race come
September. Just like the guys across town. --M.F.

COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD DREW/AP HOME AWAY FROM HOME After resisting a move from behind the plate last season, Piazza will play 25 to 50 games at first. COLOR PHOTO: ELIOT J. SCHECHTER/GETTY IMAGES CAMERON

IN FACT

Mike Piazza is the alltime leader among catchers (min. 5,000 ABs)
in slugging percentage (.572) and OPS (.959).

ENEMY LINES
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Mets

"This is probably a last-place team because the pitching is so
weak. Their system hasn't produced any live arms, and Tom Glavine
and Al Leiter are coming off mediocre years. Glavine's getting
closer to being a Number 4 or Number 5 guy. The relievers are
going to get a lot of work, and they may not be able to take the
load.... Keeping Mike Piazza behind the plate is the lesser of
two evils--every play is an adventure for him at first base.
There's a misconception that playing first is easy. Most people
who play there are real good athletes, but Piazza is not a real
good athlete.... Mike Cameron was a nice defensive pickup, but I
disagree with the move of Jose Reyes to second base. He had a
chance to be in the same class as the superstars at shortstop....
That being said, Kazuo Matsui is extremely talented. He'll hit
close to .300, and he could hit 20 homers and steal 30 bases.
He's got a slashing approach at the plate, like Ichiro's--he's on
the move when he swings. In the field he's got great hands and a
very quick release, a la Omar Vizquel."

THE LINEUP
projected roster with 2003 statistics

BATTING ORDER

SS Matsui
2B Reyes
LF Floyd
C Piazza
CF Cameron
1B Phillips
RF Garcia
3B Wigginton

MIKE CAMERON [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 116 .253 18 76 17

CLIFF FLOYD
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 86 .290 18 68 3

KARIM GARCIA [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L 218 .262 11 35 0

KAZ MATSUI (R)* [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 56 .305 33 84 13

JOSE REYES
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 145 .307 5 32 13

TY WIGGINTON
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 180 .255 11 71 12

JASON PHILLIPS
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 166 .298 11 58 0

MIKE PIAZZA
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 44 .286 11 34 0

BENCH

TODD ZEILE [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 288 .227 11 42 1

ROGER CEDENO
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 252 .267 7 37 14

ROTATION

PITCHER PVR W L IPS WHIP ERA

LH Tom Glavine 74 9 14 5.7 1.48 4.52
LH Al Leiter 50 15 9 6.0 1.49 3.99
RH Steve Trachsel 85 16 10 6.2 1.31 3.78
RH Jae Weong Seo 141 9 12 5.9 1.27 3.82
RH Grant Roberts 218 0 3 -- 1.16 3.79

BULLPEN

PITCHER PVR W L S WHIP ERA

RH Braden Looper 79 6 4 28 1.38 3.68
[New acquisition]
RH David Weathers 184 1 6 7 1.45 3.08
LH Mike Stanton 271 2 7 5 1.24 4.57

2003 RECORD
66-95
fifth in NL East

MANAGER
Art Howe
second season with New York

New acquisition
(R) Rookie
B-T: Bats-throws
IPS: Innings pitched per start
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
*Japanese league stats
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 142)

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)