New Mets manager Willie Randolph is best known as a player and a coach for the Yankees, but he grew up in Brooklyn, cheering for the Mets. Randolph went to his first major league game at Shea Stadium, danced in the streets when the Amazin’ Mets won the 1969 World Series, and used to save his allowance so he could sit in the outfield bleachers at Shea.
Jose Reyes has already worked with a hamstring specialist, a running coach and a fitness expert in order to heal his ailing legs. Having suffered five leg injuries in the past two years, Reyes is willing to try everything. The Mets hired strength trainer Vern Gambetta to work with him, retained track specialist Mark Lindsay to help his running technique, and sent him to sports medicine guru Mackie Shilstone this off-season.
With Major League Baseball stressing the importance of minority hiring, the Mets have emerged as a model. In September, they hired Omar Minaya, the only Hispanic general manager in the major leagues. Then he hired Randolph, who is the first black manager of a major league team in New York.
For all the enemies that Pedro Martinez made in the Bronx, he also used to have a few in Flushing. Martinez hit Mike Piazza with a pitch in 1998 that led to a nasty verbal clash. Martinez and Randolph got into a shouting match last season during a brawl between the Red Sox and the Yankees. Martinez, however, insists that he won’t have any problem working with Randolph or Piazza.
As odd as it sounds, the Mets’ pitchers believe they have improved their marksmanship since investing in sets of bows and arrows. On the advice of pitcher Matt Ginter, whose hobby is archery, several hurlers are shooting arrows. Braden Looper was seen taking aim at targets around Shea Stadium during pregame warm-ups last season and Steve Trachsel purchased his own bow.
Lump of coal
Mike Cameron chose an odd time to inform Mets’ officials that he had an injured left wrist. While playing Santa Claus during a Christmas party for local children at Shea Stadium, Cameron complained about the wrist, and underwent surgery two days later.
With a new manager in Willie Randolph, a new general manager in Omar Minaya, a new ace pitcher in Pedro Martinez and a new superstar center fielder in Carlos Beltran, the Mets will sell more than programs this season. Although the Mets are still too young in some areas and too old in others, they will be among the most intriguing teams in baseball and should contend for their first playoff berth in five years.
The Mets could boast one of the most balanced starting staffs in the National League, if not all of baseball. Martinez and Tom Glavine are probable Hall of Fame selections; Kris Benson and Victor Zambrano are poised for breakthroughs; and Steve Trachsel is one of the most solid No. 5 starters around. Under pitching coach Rick Peterson, the Mets’ rotation overachieved for the first half of last season and should be improved this year. The Mets might have over-paid in the offseason for free agent starting pitchers, but they believe Benson has not maximized his potential and that Martinez has at least a few standout seasons left. The club will have to keep a close eye on Zambrano, who has had recent elbow trouble and is regarded as a health risk.
Much like last year, the Mets have Braden Looper and not much else. Looper has emerged as an above-average major league closer and demonstrated that he can handle New York, but he could really use some better setup men. The Mets have exiled most of their middle relievers, including bullpen stand-bys John Franco and Mike Stanton, and are having a hard time finding replacements. They did re-sign Mike DeJean, and acquired Felix Heredia from the ankees in exchange for Stanton. But setting up Looper could be just as much of a problem for Randolph as it was for his predecessor, Art Howe.
One year after the Mets gave Kazuo Matsui the shortstop job and forced Jose Reyes to move to second base, they are putting an end to that ill-fated experiment and switching Matsui and Reyes this season. When Reyes is healthy — he has suffered five leg injuries in the past two years — he is among the most dynamic young players in the major leagues, with speed, arm strength and the ability to hit to all fields. Matsui was wildly inconsistent as he made his adjustment from Japan to the majors, but the Mets were encouraged that he hit .272, and they project him to be a much better second baseman than he was a shortstop.
The most positive development from an otherwise forgettable season was the emergence of David Wright, who the Mets maintain will be their starting third baseman for the next decade. The 22-year-old Wright hits for average, hits for power and has the potential to become one of the National League’s elite third basemen. If only the Mets could develop someone like Wright across the diamond. They tried Mike Piazza at first base. They tried Jason Phillips. Now, they are intent on finding a first baseman who can help steady their young infielders and lend some offensive punch. The candidates currently under contract are Eric Valent, who filled in wherever was necessary last year, and Andres Galarraga, who signed a minor league deal.
The Mets are building this team around Beltran, whom they are paying $119 million to be the face of their franchise for the next seven years. With Beltran in center field, former Gold Glove winner Mike Cameron will shift over to right field and give the Mets one of the better defensive outfields in baseball. Beltran and Cameron have demonstrated speed, range and both hit at least 30 home runs last season. The Mets have tried to trade left fielder Cliff Floyd because they question whether he can stay healthy, but Cameron is the one who is already injured. Cameron underwent surgery on his left wrist in December and is not expected back until late April or early May.
Piazza has gone from catcher to first base to catcher to first base, but is now back behind the plate for good. The Mets have made Piazza their starting catcher, though they acknowledge he can no longer catch seven days a week. Piazza, the all-time home run leader among catchers, will probably play about five days a week and be spelled by Phillips. Piazza has suffered through two injury-plagued seasons in a row, and he wore down significantly in the second half last year. The Mets know Piazza is on the downside of his career, and understand he is a below-average defensive catcher, but they need his productivity in the lineup.
The Mets have long taken pride in their reserves, and they should have some more do-everything performers this season. In addition to Joe McEwing, the utility man who is coming back from a broken leg, and Valent, the left-handed hitter who is most often used as a corner outfielder, the Mets signed speedster Kerry Robinson and pinch-hitter extraordinaire Marlon Anderson. Phillips, the back-up catcher, will be used at first base as well.
Hired as the general manager in the final week of last season, Minaya made Randolph the first black manager of a major league team in New York. Minaya was extremely aggressive in pursuing marquee players in the offseason, and Mets’ ownership appears unafraid to commit high-priced, long-term contracts to aging veterans. Because the Mets have lacked star appeal in recent years, Minaya is willing to take risks in order to add talent.
The Mets have shown that a team can be entirely recast in only one winter. Minaya and Randolph changed the tenor of the organization, and Beltran and Martinez could easily take them from the dregs of the National League East to the middle of a pennant race. The Mets are probably at least one more off-season away from creating a roster that’s built for playoff success, but they drastically improved their pitching, their lineup and their overall defense. With their blockbuster additions and their obvious commitment to the future, the Mets are decidedly more interesting and more competitive than they have been in a long time.