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Leitch: The Mets Monster Season Preview

The New York Mets open their season against the Reds this Monday at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, and they’ll christen their new stadium a week later, April 13, against the San Diego Padres. Coming off two of the most crushing Septembers in franchise — perhaps baseball — history, the Mets are facing one of their most critical seasons in memory. How do they stack up, personnel-wise, heading into the year? As part of our Big Baseball Preview Week, here’s a position-by-position look at the Amazins’.

SS Jose Reyes. After manager Jerry Manuel flirted with moving his All-Star shortstop to third in the lineup, Reyes is back where he’s supposed to be, leading off. Reyes stole fewer bases last year and drew fewer walks, but he upped his power numbers and continues to play electric defense at short. And we can’t wait to see him smash one of his signature triples into the Citi Field gap. Reyes will turn 26 in June, which means he’s still getting better. Enjoy.

LF Daniel Murphy. Murphy had never been considered one of the Mets’ top prospects — at least not at the level of a Reyes or a David Wright — but a .313 average over the last couple of months convinced the team he could handle left full-time. It’s a risk (it sure would look nice to see Manny Ramirez out there, wouldn’t it?) and, if he struggles, the Mets might feel the need to make a move. (It doesn’t help that Murphy’s a liability defensively.) But if Murphy has a big year hitting out of the No. 2 slot, getting on base often enough for the big dogs behind him, this team has a very different, quite tantalizing feel.

3B David Wright. He might not have been particularly clutch last September (although maybe his big game-winning hit against Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic will open up heretofore undiscovered “clutch” powers), but Wright is the best third baseman in the game. He had season highs in homers and RBIs and continues to be world-class in the field. He doesn’t run as much as he used to, but if he stays healthy, Wright could be an MVP this year. You build empires around players like this one.

CF Carlos Beltran. Because of his relatively slow start with the Mets and their fan base, the continued excellence of Beltran remains somewhat underappreciated. He’ll be 32 in the season’s first month, which means he’s at his peak right now, accelerating the urgency for the Mets to win while this unparalleled nucleus is together. The only worry: As he ages, he’ll be able to cover less ground in center — and Citi Field has plenty of ground to cover.

1B Carlos Delgado. At the end of April last year, Delgado was hitting .204 with just three homers, and observers speculated openly that he might be done. After that, he destroyed every pitcher who crossed his path and nearly carried the team into the playoffs. The Mets picked up his $12 million option, which means he’ll be a free agent after this year. If he hits even close to what he did over the final four months last season, he’ll make a lot of money negotiating his next contract, with the Mets or another team. He raked in the WBC, for what it’s worth.

RF Ryan Church. On May 20, Church was kneed in the head by Braves shortstop Yunel Escobar, causing a concussion. He never really recovered — at one point, doctors were worried about post-concussion syndrome affecting his entire career — but he has looked healthy this spring. If he can stay upright and hit .300 with twenty-plus homers like he’s capable of, that injury will quickly be forgotten.

C Brian Schneider. Fans were clamoring for the Mets to sign future Hall-of-Famer Ivan Rodriguez (who ended up with the Astros), but Schneider, who came over from the Nationals with Church in a trade for Lastings Milledge a year-and-a-half ago, is fully entrenched in the spot. He’s a better defender than he is a hitter — backup Ramon Castro will hit most often against lefties — and is in the final year of his contract. If there’s a position the Mets upgrade next offseason, it’ll be this one.

2B Luis Castillo. Probably the worst move of general manager Omar Minaya’s tenure was signing the portly second baseman to a four-year, $25 million contract before last season. He was terrible all year — his knee problems might have been caused by all the extra weight he was carrying — and the Mets are stuck with him for three more years. He’s lost some weight and says he’s healthy, but Castillo is 33 years old and isn’t likely to get faster.

Johan Santana. The best pitcher in baseball and, as his performance in the face of collapse last September proved, the man you want on the mound in a must-win game. Santana had some health concerns but has looked typically dominant this spring. He might not earn the $25.5 million he’ll be paid in 2013, but for now, he’s worth every penny, and probably more.

Mike Pelfrey. In a surprise last season, Pelfrey’s power sinkerball led him to a 3.72 ERA in 200-plus innings last year. The Mets need him to be as strong this year, but the spring has been ominous — he has suffered from shin splints on his plant left leg. (Adding financial insult to injury, he was also one of the investors who lost considerable assets in the R. Allen Stanford Ponzi scheme.)

Oliver Perez. Perez might not be much of an innings eater, but he resuscitated his once promising career in Flushing, earning himself a three-year, $36 million contract in the offseason. This was a risky bet for the Mets, particularly considering there weren’t many other serious bidders. Perez is talented, but they’re paying him to be a higher-tier starter than he is in this rotation. He also claims the World Baseball Classic made him fat. Be worried.

John Maine. Maine had offseason shoulder surgery, and even though he looks healthy, his mechanics are all out of whack, and the Mets are essentially reconstructing him from scratch. The John Maine you’ve seen is going to look very different than the one you see this year. He’s perhaps the biggest of the many question marks in this rotation.

Livan Hernandez. Here’s a guy who’s definitely not a question mark: Hernandez will pitch a lot of innings and give up a lot of runs. In baseball terms, they say Livan “doesn’t miss a lot of bats,” which is another way of saying he gets hit hard but doesn’t seem emotionally devastated by the experience. Livan is here because there are so many other innings concerns in the rotation, but if he’s still around in mid-June, rather than being replaced by Jon Niese (the youngster who was actually born on the day the Mets won their last World Series), the Mets are in trouble.

The major reason for last season’s collapse has been largely fixed with the signing of Francisco Rodriguez from the Angels and the trade for J.J. Putz from the Mariners. Rodriguez and Putz are two of the best closers in baseball. The bullpen sleeper is newcomer Sean Green, who should pitch in a ton of games, considering the flimsiness of the rotation. But if the Mets miss the playoffs again, it won’t be because of the bullpen this time.

Manager Jerry Manuel will rely on a lot of platoons, playing Fernando Tatis, Ramon Castro, and Nick Evans against left-handers. Jeremy Reed will fill in the outfield, and Alex Cora will do the same in the infield. Manuel will be kept busy.

Whether or not Mets fans can handle missing the playoffs again, this season’s going to leave them biting their nails all year. The Phillies have some rotation concerns, but they still look like the class of the NL East, and the Braves should improve on last year as well. (Don’t forget about the pesky Marlins either.) The Mets look like the favorite for the wild card right now, if only because most of the teams battling them for it (Cardinals, Brewers, Diamondbacks) aren’t appreciably better than last season. But this Mets team, as currently constructed, is anything but a lock for the postseason. With the nucleus of Wright, Reyes, Beltran, Delgado and Santana aging, they’re running out of time.

Related: Boomball: Are the Yankees Headed for a Crash?

Leitch: The Mets Monster Season Preview