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Newcomers Art Howe and Tom Glavine will have a calming effect on a tortured clubhouse

By Michael Farber

The Mets signed Glavine to make their other starters better and to take pressure off the defense and bullpen. Heinz Kluetmeier
An opposing team's scout sizes up the Mets
"This is a club with too many question marks. If everything breaks right, it could be in the hunt; if not, it could be a miserable year ... . Mo Vaughn has lost some weight, and I think he's closer to the productive player he was in the second half of last season than the first-half player with all the rust. ... At third base Jay Bell can catch but can't hit, and Ty Wigginton can hit but can't catch. When Rey Sanchez is batting .200 in June, you'll see José Reyes at shortstop. He's got a live bat and great hands. ... Centerfield is a black hole. Roger Cedeño cannot play the position. I saw him misplay five balls in the early part of spring training, and that's not counting throwing to the wrong base or missing cutoff men. ... Cliff Floydwill give them some offense, but Jeromy Burnitz is his own worst enemy. He's trying to hit 40 home runs every at bat. ... Mike Piazza is not a very good catcher, but I respect how hard he works at the position -- and he's still a very dangerous guy at the plate. ... Pedro Astacio looks as if all those innings he pitched at Coors Field have caught up with him. ... Armando Benitez is a second-tier closer. I like his arm and, if he ever did a better job of mixing up his pitches, he'd be lights out."
Sixteen runners were thrown out trying to steal with Tom Glavine on the mound last year; 29 bases were stolen on Al Leiter. Both figures led the majors.
The arrival of Art Howe in New York was initially viewed as Opie goes to Gotham, an assessment as uncharitable as it was inaccurate. The Mets' new skipper simply is not like his citified predecessor, the smart-alecky Bobby Valentine -- but that's all. In baseball opposites do not attract as much as they succeed each other as manager. Valentine was as soothing as a double espresso, while Howe is patient and paternal, a man firm in his ideas and gentlemanly in his approach. If headline writers at the New York tabloids need a word to describe Howe, they might trot out this one: mensch.

"I won't change New York, and New York won't change me," says Howe, who didn't change Houston or Oakland in his other managerial stops. "I'll do what I do best: treat people with respect and see how it comes back in the opposite direction." Howe's credentials are beyond reproach -- over the last three seasons his A's averaged 99 wins and made the playoffs each year -- but he has yet to deal with the scrutiny of the back-page media and carping fans and the clubhouse egos that come with a $120 million payroll in New York City. Presumably the Mets will benefit from a touch that is lighter than Valentine's because, as lefthander Al Leiter noted, "there's more than one way to carve a turkey."

The 2002 Mets were turkeys of such proportions that they could have fed half of Queens last Thanksgiving. They finished an inexcusable last in the National League East, 26 1/2 games out of first place. They were in midseason form the entire year -- midseason 1962. The defense committed a league-worst 144 errors and allowed 79 unearned runs, failings that general manager Steve Phillips partially addressed by signing free-agent leftfielder Cliff Floyd, a solid defensive player who's also a first-rate No. 3 hitter, and shifting Roger Cedeño, who had trouble going back on balls in left, to his natural spot in center. Mo Vaughn, the ample first baseman, worked with a personal trainer and a nutritionist over the winter to improve his explosiveness and flexibility, which should translate into the mountain getting to ground balls instead of ground balls getting by the mountain. But rookie third baseman Ty Wigginton is hardhanded, second baseman Roberto Alomar failed to win a Gold Glove last season after doing so in 10 of the past 11 years, and catcher Mike Piazza threw out only 14% of would-be base stealers. On a team whose rotation features more finesse than power, extra outs could be disastrous. "If I'm able to execute my pitches," free-agent signee Tom Glavine says, "it should take a lot of pressure off these guys, having to make great plays." Defense usually bails out pitching, not the other way around.

Glavine's signing weakens the NL East-rival Braves and gives the Mets a marquee starter, allowing Leiter to slip into a supporting role (a better fit for him). Glavine's poise and reliability -- he's thrown at least 219 innings for seven straight years -- could have a trickle-down effect, easing the load on an experienced bullpen bolstered by the signing of setup man Mike Stanton. "When you surround yourself with good pitchers and they communicate, it can only make everybody better," Leiter said. "Winning is contagious, losing is infectious."

If that's the case then the Mets' offense should have been quarantined last year. Rightfielder Jeromy Burnitz had 12 home runs and 39 runs batted in until a useless surge in September. Vaughn swooned to 72 RBIs from an average of 118 in his previous six seasons. Piazza's batting average dived below .300 (to .280) for the first time since he became a regular in the majors, and his slugging percentage declined for the third straight year. And Alomar's numbers fell off a cliff in his New York debut -- down by nine home runs, 47 RBIs, 23 walks, 14 steals, 70 points in batting average and 84 points in on-base percentage. Howe will give his veterans every chance to find themselves, vowing a set lineup when possible. (Valentine used 122 different lineups in 2002 and a league-leading 144 combinations in 2001.)

"If everybody plays the way they're capable of," reliever Scott Strickland says, "there's no reason we shouldn't be a World Series-type team. Look at the names of these people and what they've done. The only reason why we wouldn't be is if we beat ourselves like we did last year."

Issue date: March 31, 2003