Opening Day 2007

Last year's heavyweight contenders get a fresh look at each other as the St. Louis Cardinals begin to defend their World Championship Crown

It is Springtime, and as various plants in my shabby attempt at a garden surprise me once again with new green leaves, baseball teams return to their ballparks filled with hope and new life. For the first time in a generation, the Cardinals are cultivating hopes of repeating as world champion; and twenty-eight other teams look at our team's impossible run through October, and know that their hope is real.

One team, though, carries more regret than hope into the new year. That one team, the New York Mets, just hopes for one more chance to get back to last October's stage.

From their perspective, this opening series is a matchup of the "Haves" with the "Almost-hads." They were the only 90-win team in the national league, and they had run away with the NL East. The World Series was in their sights, a chance to end their own twenty-year drought and to steal some spotlight from the hated Yankees. Dispatching the Dodgers proved an easy task. All that remained was to take four wins from the scuffling Cardinals, who barely had a winning record, who had just lost their closer and demoted their No. 3 pitcher, and whose centerfielder might be a single headache away from retirement.

It was supposed to be so easy. It was supposed to be their year. But instead of hosting a confetti-filled victory parade, New York City became the fiery crucible that forged our team into champions.

That series uncovered championship form in many players, none the least the big-game heroics of Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver, both of whom earned healthy paydays for themselves in free agency. However, the biggest beneficiary of that experience (and the biggest source of our own hopes for 2007) may be our youngest and newest starting pitcher, Adam Wainwright. Preserving the slender Game 7 lead that had just been provided by the smiling, buoyant swing of Yadier Molina's bat, Adam Wainwright transformed from a pretty nice young pitcher into a bona-fide Met killer. It's a worthy title, because he had to take down a noted Cardinal-killer, Carlos Beltran, with two men on and two out to earn it.

Beltran's postseason feats from 2004 were legendary – he hit better than .400, and any time he didn't hit a homer, he used his wheels to steal his way to third base. Unbelieveably, he scored 12 runs in only 24 at bats in that single seven-game series. However, the old killer knew he had been outdone by this new man, a new killer cut from the same cloth. After being frozen by the last, and most wicked, of Wainwright's curveballs, Beltran and his teammates offered nothing but respect for the man who shot him and his team's hopes down.

However, Beltran refused to admit defeat in the larger game. Quoting a report after the game on mlb.com:

"Next year, we're going to be a better ballclub," the center fielder said. "The front office is going to add [a few] players to the ballclub, and with what we already have, we're going to be better.

"We're going to get to the World Series. I have faith. We're going to accomplish that."

Faith, unfulfilled

Beltran's faith echoed that of many New Yorkers – that the Mets' success in 2006 was real, and that the team stood only a player or two away from ensuring another deep playoff run. Omar Minaya, who has as good a three year run of acquiring transformative talent as any GM in baseball, was fully expected to make aggressive moves, especially in a thin free agent market, to find the crown jewel.

And while Wainwright may have extinguished the Mets' last hope, many fans would argue that their team's chances were tarnished by an already thin rotation further weakened by a season-ending injury to Pedro Martinez.

We need to look no farther than the tactics of starting Steve Trachsel and Oliver Perez a total of three times, getting only one quality start among them, to see the truth of that belief.

With checkbook in hand, Minaya jumped with both feet into the shallow waters of the free agent market for "ace" pitchers… and completely failed to make a splash.

• In a blind auction, Minaya bid a staggering $39 million for the exclusive negotiating rights to Japanese phenom Daisuke Matsuzaka, outbidding the Yankees and every other team in baseball, except one. The Red Sox offered a ludicrous $51 million, and stole the prize pitcher off the market. Moreover, the Yankees slipped in and nabbed Kei Igawa, a less reputed Japanese hurler, but certainly a desirable alternative.

• Chasing Barry Zito, Minaya was reportedly willing to match Roy Oswalt's new contract (5 years at nearly $15 million per), even though Oswalt is widely regarded to be a superior pitcher. Again, though, he was grossly outspent, even in offering an already disgusting amount of money, as the Giants promised $126 million over seven years!

• Met fans drooled over Jason Schmidt, but like Zito, he has a "West Coast bias," the ultimate irony in today's over-televised sports world. Minaya never made it into the running.

Having missed out on the aces, Minaya belatedly had to turn toward the second tier of pitchers, but even while bidding against second- and third-tier teams, Minaya found himself unable to match the insane price tags being offered up by desperate teams, flush with millions of new dollars from new media revenue.

• Our old friend Jeff Suppan was high on the Mets' wish list, until he dined in Milwaukee and slept on a 4-year, $42 million dollar proposal. Not surprisingly, Soup said "yes."

• If reuniting Mark Mulder with former A's pitching guru Rick Peterson was a dream, it was short-lived. Jocketty brought him back into the fold for the next two years.

In the end, nearly every free agent pitcher – even Jason Marquis! – became richer by millions of dollars, but the Mets' outlook became poorer by comparison. The only new faces that Minaya was able to bring into competition for the Mets' rotation? Reclamation projects that not even Jocketty and Dave Duncan would touch: Jorge Sosa, Chan Ho Park, Scott Sele and Scott Schoewenweis.

Something tells me these aren't the players Beltran had in mind.

While much fuss has been made in St. Louis about the radical turnover in our own rotation, I'll take my chances with Carpenter, Wainwright, Reyes, and Dave Duncan's ability to spin gold out of the asses of Kip Wells and Braden Looper against the mess they have brewing in Shea.

Pedro Martinez will not return from offseason shoulder surgery until late summer, if at all, leaving the 41-year-old Glavine and his quest for 300 wins alone at the top of the rotation. (He's at 290 and counting.) After Glavine and El Duque, the Mets are counting on a lot of innings from three young pitchers: John Maine, who really emerged as a viable starter last year; Oliver Perez, who had only one quality start with the Mets before his gem in Game 7 of the NLCS; and Mike Pelfrey, a raw prospect about to get his first full taste of the major leagues.

Earlier this Spring, Mets' closer Billy Wagner looked at this situation and joked that with his new change-up, perhaps he should be the team's fifth starter. Never mind the fact that Wagner is the only key member of last year's NL-leading bullpen to return to the squad…

Formidable Foes

Nonetheless, the Mets return nearly all of an offense that scored 830 runs last season, making Willie Randolph's job of filling the lineup card into an exercise in penmanship rather than strategy. David Wright and Jose Reyes are still entering their prime, Beltran is just now entering his 30s, and with the help of Julio Franco's waters of immortality, the team's older hitters should be good for at least another decade.

Hopes are still high in St. Louis as well, as any team anchored by Pujols, Rolen, Carpenter, and the caliber of young pitchers that we have at our disposal should remain fundamentally sound.

Not only do these teams have a decent chance of meeting again on the National League's biggest stage, but their general managers will be dueling each other throughout the midseason trading season, looking to find that transformative talent that eluded them both this offseason.

And so, let the games begin!


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