Life after the collapse: The Mets try to look on the bright side
NEW YORK -- In the Mets' clubhouse of inveterate last-minute losers, there was disappointment but not quite the abject depression of a year ago. Reality likely set in long before the time of their actual elimination in Game 162.
As one scout put it, "How were the Mets going to get through the postseason with that bullpen, anyway?''
The answer is: They weren't.
Following their final-game defeat, Mets owner Jeff Wilpon for the first time branded his $140 million team "overachievers,'' a characterization that reflected reconfigured expectations following the season-ending injury to closer Billy Wagner and a rest-of-bullpen meltdown.
It hurt to finish the year 7-10. It also hurt to blow a four-game edge in the loss column over the youthful Brewers, who managed to finish out the year 5-1 under just-christened manager Dale Sveum and sneak past the falling Mets. But realistically, the Mets probably knew they ran out of relief weeks ago. It was a surprising plight for a team that appeared to be flush with relievers this spring. That belief, of course, turned out to be way off base.
Long before the season closed on the Mets, choosing relievers became a game of Russian roulette for even-tempered interim manager Jerry Manuel, who went 55-38 after taking over for Willie Randolph and did enough to earn his return. (A new contract will be hammered out for him in coming days, SI.com reported following the finale.) In an unwitting case of twisting in the knife, the rival Marlins finished out the Mets' season with hard-throwing closer Matt Lindstrom, a Mets product who went to Florida in a regrettable 2006 deal (with right-hander Henry Owens for lefty Jason Vargas and minor leaguer Adam Bostick).
Oh, how the Mets could have used Lindstrom.
In the season's final few weeks, the Mets' best relievers were instead a pair of midseason reclamation projects. Brian Stokes is a castoff from the Rays' all-time awful 2007 bullpen, and Luis Ayala, a Nationals' reject, which is about as low as you can go.
It wasn't only the 'pen that let the Mets down, to be fair, as they didn't hit when they needed to; they scored only five runs in the final three-game series against the Marlins. But while there will always be changes on Omar Minaya-run teams, the Mets appear disinclined to make a play for New York product and longtime Minaya favorite Manny Ramirez (they seem to like a possible platoon of Daniel Murphy and Nick Evans in left field) and also seem dead set against breaking up their star-studded nucleus of Jose Reyes, David Wright and Carlos Beltran.
"That group of four -- Beltran, Reyes, Wright and [Carlos] Delgado -- should be good enough to get to the playoffs,'' one scout said. "But that group of guys for some reason just doesn't get it done.'' Maybe so, but the Mets probably aren't prepared to accept such sweeping negative generalizations about their nucleus and appear wedded to Beltran (their best hitter in September at .344, even better than the surprising Robinson Cancel and Ramon Martinez), Reyes and Wright, whom higherups have called "our Jeter.''
Instead, Mets bigwigs will hit the winter assuming that 2007 was an aberration and that this year became a long shot once Wagner went down and the rest of the bullpen blew up. With former stalwarts Aaron Heilman and Duaner Sanchez turning undeniably undependable, Manuel tried to coax the most ordinary of relievers into the playoffs, and almost made it.
"I feel totally different this year than last year,'' Wilpon said. "I think last year we underachieved. This year, we overachieved.''
Even with the great Johan Santana performing as Superman, a combination of age, injuries and underperformance (Luis Castillo, who still has $18 million to go on his contract, was benched for the career-long afterthought Martinez the final weekend) undermined them.
The changes surely will start in the 'pen. "The bullpen has to be overhauled. You can't go to the postseason without a closer,'' one scout noted.
The Mets seem reluctant to get involved in the Francisco Rodriguez Sweepstakes since they've already committed $11 million to the injured Wagner. However, they may have to re-evaluate that stance. K-Rod would cost them $15 million a year probably for five years, a gamble for a "maximum effort guy'' who's lost a few miles off his fastball. But the Mets really can't afford to sit out those sweepstakes now.
The Mets' choice to stay away from "rental'' players this summer, while admirable as a concept, might have cost them a chance to land solid closer Brian Fuentes for Heilman (though the Rockies eventually decided to keep Fuentes and go for it). But now the Mets may have to trade Heilman, who'd rather start and might need to leave New York to succeed. And if they don't change their minds on K-Rod, they will have to make sure they land Fuentes, who'll draw interest from 10 or more teams this winter after whiffing 82 batters in 62 2/3 innings. "They're going to have to bid on Fuentes now,'' one opposing scout said. And that's just a start.