2. New York Mets
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They can still pitch, but let's face it: The reshuffled rotation is minus an ace
By Jeff Pearlman
Yo, Glendon, go kick some Yankee butt!
Hey, Rusch, you're going down!
Do us proud, g!
Was this really happening? Were the people of Long Island actually approaching the Mets' Mr. Anonymity? Yelling encouragement? Egging him on? "I'm from the west coast, and nobody recognizes me out there," says Rusch. "Here I am, on a team with the Piazzas and Leiters, and fans knew who I was. New York's the only place that happens."
Rusch exposed himself to the Big Apple because, in a season that began with subzero expectations for the 26-year-old Royals castoff, he emerged as arguably the league's best No. 5 starting pitcher and -- under closer scrutiny -- one of its best lefthanders, period. He had the league's sixth-best road ERA (3.70), but he received the lowest run support per nine innings of any NL starter (3.7). "We thought trading for Glendon would be a worthwhile chance," says G.M. Steve Phillips. "Did we expect last year's production? Let's just say it was a very pleasant surprise."
Now, with Mike Hampton gone to Colorado, the Rusch bar has been raised. Although the Mets added two free-agent starters -- 15-game winner Kevin Appier, 33, from Oakland and the innings-eating Steve Trachsel, 30, from Toronto -- there should be concern over a rotation that, beyond Rusch and ace lefthander Al Leiter, is made up of three soft-throwing, thirtysomething righties. No. 3 starter Rick Reed has maintained impressive consistency since '97, but he's a 35-year-old control pitcher.
Rusch, once one of the Royals' top prospects, fell on hard times in K.C. In '98 he was 6-15 with a 5.88 ERA; he had abandoned his two-seam fastball and lost confidence in his changeup. With his arrival in New York, though, bad turned good. "It gave me a new life," he says. "A switch in uniforms can sometimes change everything."
The Mets enter 2001 with a lineup featuring mostly the same men in the same uniforms. However, a Rusch-like improvement is needed from Robin Ventura, who struggled through his worst season since his rookie year of 1990. Ventura's .232 average was a lifetime low, and his .954 fielding percentage was fourth-lowest among regular NL third basemen. It was painful to watch the six-time Gold Glover, and even more painful to be him. Ventura played 141 games, but even as fans moaned and tabloids ripped, he never openly complained about the bruised right rotator cuff that sent him to the DL for 15 days in July and caused yearlong discomfort. "Robin definitely went through stretches when his shoulder affected his swing," says first baseman Todd Zeile. "But people who criticized didn't realize how much his presence helps. Even when he was struggling, Robin found a way to come up with a big hit, a big RBI."
As long as Ventura and Mike Piazza (105 or more RBIs in each of the past five seasons) stay healthy, the Mets will have no trouble surpassing the 807 runs they scored last season, which ranked seventh in the league. That number, as well as the Mets' puny 66 stolen bases, will rise dramatically as long as Timo Perez, the fleet-footed rightfielder who emerged from the Japanese minor leagues, bats as he did in 24 regular-season games (.286) and not as he did in the World Series (.125, 2 for 16). At his best Perez is a slap-hitting bundle of energy with the speed to steal 40 to 50 bases. Before last season he was a nobody, unwanted by the Hiroshima Carp, his old team in Japan.
As Rusch proves, such is a route the Mets embrace.
Issue date: March 26, 2001