Consider the plight of the Mets. After back-to-back last-place finishes, they must not only contend within a more competitive National League East, but they also have to fight a daily battle with the Yankees for the back pages of the New York tabloids. In another town at another time, the transformation of the best-hitting catcher in history ( Mike Piazza) into a first baseman would be the story of the spring, but a new player in pinstripes who is also switching positions ( Alex Rodriguez) has stolen all the attention. The Mets recruited a fabulous Japanese shortstop nicknamed Little Matsui over the summer, but he'll play in the shadow cast by Big Matsui in the Bronx.
"Of course we watch what the Yankees do," says Mets general manager Jim Duquette, "but our feeling is they're an island in the game. We're not going to compete with their payroll or revenues. We expect that this team will have a lot more fun than last year's, doing it quietly, without a $180 million payroll."
Last year the Mets tried fielding a mismatched, Rotisserie-style club, to disastrous effect. "There wasn't good synergy, and we didn't flow the way good teams do," Piazza says. Now they have retooled by embracing the pitching-and-defense approach that has historically worked best at Shea Stadium. They saw the light last August when rookie shortstop Jose Reyes, now playing second base, began to hit his stride. The defense improved and made the pitching less vulnerable during a stretch of 10 wins in 13 games.
This winter Duquette attended to the Mets' defense up the middle by signing Kaz Matsui from Japan and centerfielder Mike Cameron from the Mariners to go with Reyes, a steep upgrade over the Bermuda Triangle of stopgap shortstop Rey Sanchez, fading second baseman Roberto Alomar and woeful centerfielder Roger Cede�o a year ago. Given the generally precise but not overpowering pitching staff—Al Leiter's 7.6 strikeouts per nine innings led the starters—there is an even greater premium on catching the ball. "That's been an issue here for years," says 43-year-old reliever John Franco. "I used to go by sound. Unless the ball was hit to [former shortstop Kevin] Elster, who I knew would catch it, I'd wait to hear the crowd reaction. I couldn't watch. It's difficult on a staff when your defense isn't what it should be."
Cameron, the defensive equal of the Braves' celebrated Andruw Jones, is the linchpin. According to the Mets' new statistical analyst, Ben Baumer, Cameron would have caught roughly 70 balls that New York centerfielders didn't get to in 2003—all of which shows what's possible when a team has a genuine flycatcher in center to go with a seamhead staffer who has a B.A. in economics from Wesleyan, an M.A. in applied mathematics from UC San Diego and an M.S. in mathematics from NYU.
During the spring Piazza made progress at first base, where Jason Phillips will handle the bulk of the work. Appreciative of the fact that the 35-year-old Piazza is four homers shy of Carlton Fisk's alltime record for a catcher (351), manager Art Howe will use him primarily behind the plate but will play him between 25 and 50 games at first—once or twice a week—to keep his bat in the lineup.
"Mike's not the first guy who, as years went on, moved from catcher," Leiter says. " Johnny Bench did it. Yogi Berra did it. If he's completely accepting of the move"—and Piazza seems to have dropped his passive resistance—"it will help his arm strength." Piazza threw out 28.0% of runners attempting to steal in 2003, a good season by his standards but a two-hopper compared with backup Vance Wilson's outstanding 44.6% efficiency.
The Mets hope the switch-hitting and speed of Matsui and Reyes at the top of the lineup will provide the same spark that Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo give the Marlins. That's essential to New York's conversion from a lugubrious, station-to-station team into a more athletic one. If 38-year-old Tom Glavine returns to form after a nine-win season (his worst year since 1988) and the open casting call this spring produces a reliable No. 5 starter—in '03 the fifth starters combined for a 7.24 ERA—the Mets have an outside shot at being in the playoff race come September. Just like the guys across town.
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