"There is no chance for redemption unless Jose reyes returns to form."
He had become a symbol of everything that had gone so horribly wrong last September. The yapping heads, even some of the Mets faithful, had said in the off-season that the team would be better off if he were traded. "A lot of people were disappointed and angry at me," says leadoff hitter and shortstop Jose Reyes, who batted .226 and had a .309 OBP during the ignominious 6-13 finish that lost them the division last season. "They should blame me. I take responsibility. Now I'm ready to show I've changed."
Newly acquired ace Johan Santana may be hailed as the Shea Stadium savior, but New York has no chance for redemption unless Reyes returns to form as the game's premier table-setter. The switch-hitter's performance is critical, especially given the number of Mets injured this spring: leftfielder Moises Alou (hernia), first baseman Carlos Delgado (forearm), second baseman Luis Castillo (knee) were among 10 position players inactive at the same time in March. Says an NL general manager, "Anything other than big years from their core -- Reyes, [third baseman David] Wright and [centerfielder Carlos] Beltran -- could spell trouble for them. Reyes is most important; so much of what they do starts with him."
The discontent with Reyes started before the late-season swoon. He was criticized by Mets coaches for lackadaisical play (manager Willie Randolph benched him in July for not running out a ground ball), and opposing teams resented his showy celebrations. (One home run dance with former teammate Lastings Milledge ignited a brawl between the Mets and Marlins.) After the season the club was so concerned about its shortstop's state of mind that Randolph and general manager Omar Minaya visited Reyes at his home in the Dominican Republic to reaffirm their faith in him.
A noticeably more subdued Reyes arrived at spring training. "I want to be more focused," he declared solemnly on the day he reported. Reyes no longer wants to participate in the popular Professor Reyes skits, in which Reyes teaches Spanish in clips played between innings on the Shea Stadium scoreboard. Also gone, he says, are the dances he's choreographed with Delgado and Wright the last two seasons. At the plate the switch-hitter has vowed to cut down on his swing after many believed his struggles were tied to an attempt to inflate his home run total. After drilling a ball off the centerfield wall during a game in Port St. Lucie this spring, Reyes was nearly apologetic. "I don't know how I hit it that hard," he said. "I just wanted to hit it the other way and use my speed."
The lineup is unchanged from last year's, but a consistently productive season from Reyes will increase run production. The team's run prevention should improve too, with Santana joining a pair of 26-year-olds, John Maine and Oliver Perez, who emerged as solid middle-of-the-rotation starters last season. Pedro Martinez, 36, exceeded even the Mets' expectations this spring, as his fastball consistently hit the low 90s. "His fastball is harder than the last two years," says backup catcher Ramon Castro, who frequently catches Martinez. "Different Pedro."
Nothing, however, would take the air out of Santana's signing like a leaky bullpen. New York hopes that righthander Duaner Sanchez, who had established himself as one of the NL's top setup men before he separated his shoulder in a car accident in July 2006, can be the bridge to closer Billy Wagner. The return of Sanchez would allow righty Aaron Heilman to become a seventh-inning specialist. Says Minaya, "If we had a healthy Duaner last year, I really do think things would have gone differently."
The Mets hear the clock ticking -- only three of the regulars in their lineup are in their 20s -- but whether they can exceed the 88 wins of last year and get into the playoffs will depend on the 24-year-old Reyes. Instead of the leading entertainer in the dugout, he is the leading man on the field again. -- Albert Chen
Issue date: March 31, 2008