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Re-engineering the Mets

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Kazuo Matsui, Great Import: His signing this winter was an early indicator of a smart renewal plan. A .309-hitting shortstop over nine years in Japan, the switch-hitting 28-year-old blasted a home run in his first U.S. at-bat, but he's more of a slap hitter who keeps pressure on the opposing defense. Bonus: He's a top-notch fielder and can steal twenty bases a year.  

To add rotation depth, as insurance against Trachsel’s or Glavine’s being too old and Kazmir’s being too young, let’s try to trade for one more good starter who has become unaffordable for another club. Lefty C. C. Sabathia of the Indians and Ben Sheets of the Brewers are good candidates. Others may appear between now and then; Duquette has to be incredibly vigilant, watching the league like a stock-market ticker, waiting for little dips in value that constitute buying opportunities. Offer three prospects—top outfielder Lastings Milledge, a young arm not considered integral, and a mid-range guy—and one of those teams could bite. That would give us a well-rounded rotation for 2006: Burnett or Penny, Sabathia or Sheets, and then three from the mix of old (Glavine and Trachsel) and young (Kazmir, Peterson, and Keppel).

The payroll at this point? About $88 million, leaving a good $12 million, which is plenty to build the bullpen. Some would argue that more attention needs to be paid to the relief staff, specifically the closer. “Look at the Yankees with Mariano Rivera and the Dodgers with Eric Gagne,” a veteran scout told me. “They have that hammer out of the pen to depend on.” But if you don’t already have one of those elite firemen, there’s no need to overpay for one; a perfectly adequate one can be groomed. Either Farnsworth or Yates will be our man. The other becomes a setup man, joining two veteran free agents, each of whom will cost about $2.5 million apiece. Bingo.

So we’re in good shape: decent offense, deep rotation, solid relief, a veteran core invigorated with youth. We’re just waiting for Opening Day.

2006 Season: In Perfect Position

For all our efforts to build a traditional team—defense and speed up the middle, sluggers on the corners, balanced pitching staff—something will go wrong. Cameron will break his wrist catching a ball against the fence. Sabathia or Sheets or even Kazmir will tear his rotator cuff. The fragile Cliff Floyd will come apart yet again. The Phillies or Braves, probably the Mets’ main competition in the National League East, will get off to a 24-5 start. But we’re ready to handle any misfortune.

Because we haven’t busted our $100 million budget, we can do what has become an annual baseball ritual: pick at the carcasses of the clubs that fall out of the race, and trade for their prospective free agents. The Cubs did that to us in 2005 with Leiter. Now it’ll be our turn.

Whatever position we need to fill, options will abound. For first base, it might be Montreal’s Nick Johnson or Tampa Bay’s Aubrey Huff. Left fielders could include Minnesota’s Shannon Stewart or San Diego’s Ryan Klesko. As for starting pitchers, it’s conceivable that Andy Pettitte could return from Houston, or that A’s ace Barry Zito might find his way to Flushing. (Zito is pals with pitching coach Rick Peterson and might even sign long-term.) But the point is that we can get whatever we need: Recent history says that renting a top player for half a season can cost only two or three mid-range prospects, and our system is deep enough to handle that.

It’ll be quite a summer at Shea. Delgado will slam homers to right field like no Met since Darryl Strawberry. Reyes and Matsui will scoot around the bases and form an electric double-play combo. Every game will feature a good starting pitcher, with Kazmir the most exciting. Our club is strong enough to win 93 or 94 games, which should get us into the playoffs, at least as the wild card.

Let’s not forget that the last two World Series champions, the Marlins and Angels, were wild cards, too. There’s barely any disadvantage to entering the playoffs that way. Surviving baseball’s three-tiered postseason comes down in large part to two things: pitching depth and pure chance. We will have the first. As for the second, there is no way of knowing if our club will get the clutch hitting (also known as timely hitting, or, among more statistically sophisticated folks, utter hogwash) necessary to outlast our opponents. Baseball’s recklessly short best-of-five divisional series, let alone the best-of-seven affairs that follow, virtually guarantees that each of the eight playoff clubs has an equal chance of emerging as champion.

One of them will be our Mets. Tyler Yates could very easily be the new Jesse Orosco, heaving his glove into the air after getting the last out of the World Series. But either way, our playoff run will leave DELGADO 15 and KAZMIR 21 jerseys sprouting up all over New York. Shea Stadium will be rocking again. And the ghost of Roger Cedeño will have been exorcised forever.


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