By Michael Farber, SI.com
Player I Saw Whom I Really Liked
As new manager Willie Randolph exhorted his players during an infield drill with "A little shake, a little shake," Kaz Matsui charged a groundball and whipped it sidearm, across his body, to first. If Baryshnikov played baseball, he also makes that play. Matsui has played all of four games as a pro at second base -- three at the end of last season for the Mets and one as a rookie in Japan -- but he will be there for New York on Opening Day. This is not the first time "Little" Matsui, a shortstop by trade, has switched positions. He originally was a pitcher, working in the Koshien, the famed Japanese high school tournament, and he made the conversion to full-time infielder in his rookie season with the Seibu Lions. He has switched to a smaller glove this season, from a domestic Japanese brand to Rawlings, and looks at ease on the other side of the base. "The players from Japan just have a nice fluidity to them," said first base coach Jerry Manuel, a former big league infielder. "Like Ichiro. It's like there's a poetry in these guys." Matsui's principal challenge will be turning double plays with his back to the runner. He was not especially courageous last season with runners bearing down on him; now it only gets tougher. He and Jose Reyes, now back at his rightful spot at short, have had the opportunity to turn only a few 6-4-3 double plays this spring -- and only one in which the runner was anywhere near close to the bag -- so it is too early to tell how effective Matsui might be.
Team's biggest strengths
The Mets' defense was minefield of mistakes in 2004, a compromising situation for a staff comprised of pitchers who, at least at the start of the season, were hardly overpowering. Now the Mets might not catch the Braves, Marlins or Phillies, but they surely will catch the ball. The only liabilities in the field are catcher Mike Piazza, back behind the plate full-time after the failed experiment at first base, and occasionally oft-injured left fielder Cliff Floyd. Gold Glove first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz solidifies the improved infield defense now that the middle men have flopped positions. Mike Cameron brings center-field speed and skills to right, where he will flank another superb outfielder in Carlos Beltran. The failure to sign free-agent first baseman Carlos Delgado might prove to be a blessing, especially for a deep rotation -- Steve Trachsel, who pitched more than 200 innings last year, is the No. 5 -- that has three starters who would qualify as power pitchers: Pedro Martinez, Kris Benson and Victor Zambrano.
Team's biggest weakness
There is a dearth of power, hardly surprising given the Mets' expansive playpen of Shea Stadium. Piazza is the one thunder bat in the lineup, but he has to stay healthy. Beltran went off in the playoffs with a record-tying eight homers last year for Houston, but a season in Shea might downgrade him into a 25-homer guy. Cameron and Floyd are capable of 20-plus home runs and third baseman David Wright, a future star, can be a 30-30 player, although not this year. The Mets should compensate for the lack of big boppers with improved team speed. After years of playing deathly dull, station-to-station baseball, New York has enough agile players -- Beltran, Reyes, Matsui, even Wright -- that it will often be looking to take an extra base and put pressure on an opposing defense for a change. A secondary concern is the bullpen, which is anchored by Braden Looper and has a solid set-up righty in Mike DeJean. "There are some questions," general manager Omar Minaya said. "You can't say that after the seventh inning, the game is definitely shut down."
Reliever Scott Strickland made his third spring appearance Saturday, another step on the arduous comeback from his Tommy John surgery 21 months ago. He was nervous in his first spring outing but now "the light bulb is going off, I'm thinking baseball thoughts like keeping my shoulder in, not worrying about the elbow. It's nice to be back. After a while, you almost accept being injured." Strickland, who underwent the operation in Los Angeles, will never forget the date of the surgery -- June 16, 2003. On the same day, in Houston, a man using his identity was ticketed for not wearing a seat belt. When the real Scott Strickland didn't show up for a court appearance, a warrant was issued for his arrest. "Yeah, it's pretty funny now," Strickland said, "although not so funny then." ... The most popular Met in camp is 43-year-old first baseman Andres Galarraga, a two-time cancer survivor who is one home run away from 400. Galarraga, once known as the Big Cat because of his adroitness in the field, has slowed considerably but made a superb diving play down the line Friday against the Dodgers in Vero Beach, scrambling to his knees to make a throw. The problem: pitcher Scott Stewart forgot to cover first. Stewart was booed, and getting booed on the road for inadvertently helping the home team is not your daily spring training occurrence. "I should have known better," said Stewart, who had played with Galarraga in Montreal. ... Cameron took live batting practice, albeit against a minor leaguer, for the first time Friday. He says his injured left wrist (arthroscopic surgery last Dec. 17) felt good. Although initially expected to be out until mid-May, Cameron hopes to open the season in New York without a stop first on the disabled list. Despite the switch in outfield positions, Randolph won't play him in a game until Cameron is ready to hit. ... Darryl Strawberry finished his week as a guest instructor Saturday, a stint that represents a significant thawing in the relationship between the Mets and the most talented position player the team ever developed. ... With Randolph's no facial hair (except trimmed mustaches) in effect, Piazza has gone full Gillette and is completely clean-shaven.