The New York Mets 2003-2004 Off-Season Preview

Since losing to the New York Yankees in the 2000 World Series, the New York Mets have gone from bad to worse, losing more than half of their games in that time. The Shea Stadium exit sign has seen names pass beneath it such as Alfonzo, Ventura, Hampton and Zeile, with Alomar, Burnitz and Astacio, and Valentine, and Phillips, and Benitez not far behind them.

Visit writer Matthew M. Cerrone's site at MetsBlog.com

Also out the door is the days of building a team on credit in hopes it can "win now", all an effort to save the job of a lame-duck general manager.

Gone are the days of long-term contracts given to players on the back nine of their careers.

Gone are the days of praying for home runs, praying for position changes and praying for the Jose Reyes Era to finally begin.

Fred Wilpon, CEO of the Mets, speaks of the team rising from the ashes on the wings of athleticism, youth, pitching and defense. But with his franchise having more holes in it than an Alfonso Soriano two-strike swing, Wilpon's front office, and fans, can expect a busy and chaotic winter.

Here is the task at hand…

Team Philosophy
The Mets have finally decided that it is time to return to the adage "pitching and defense wins championships". The team's front office also seems ready to stop fighting their home ballpark's offensive limitations and instead will choose to use it's deficiencies towards their advantage.

Time and time again, Shea Stadium has fewer home runs hit from it than any other ballpark in baseball. The stadium is best suited for gap hitters, such as Cliff Floyd and Mike Piazza, not home run-only hitters, such as Mo Vaughn and Jeromy Burnitz. This was proven in 1986 and 2000, when the team succeeded on a steady diet of bases clearing doubles, not just home runs, by the likes of Keith Hernandez and John Olerud.

Speed is also a priority at Shea, but it is not as important as athletic, smart base runners. The goal of the Mets front office doesn't have to be players who can steal 60 bases, only to be stranded at second waiting to score on a homer; the goal should be to have athletic, intelligent runners, up and down the lineup, who can double and then score from second on a base hit to right field, or be advanced by a sacrifice bunt and score on an outfield pop-up.

The Mets are fortunate to have a solid foundation at starting pitching and a young bullpen returning for 2004. However, as Voros McCracken's DIPS theory has shown, the success of a team's pitching staff is completely interdependent on its defense's ability to contain all balls being hit.

If there is one area that the Mets will need to improve it is their defense, as there is an irrefutable correlation between a team's ultimate success and its ability to field the baseball, keep the double play in order and minimize the advancement of the opposing team's runners.

The Budget
The Mets payroll neared the $120 million mark in 2003. Fred Wilpon has said he has no intention of returning to that lofty figure and has no desire to match penny-for-penny the dollars saved on shedding the contracts of Alomar, Astacio, Burnitz, and the other free agents that have departed Shea over the last year.

The Mets are committed to roughly $60 million in player's contracts for 2004, allowing for nearly $30 million to be spent on free agent acquisitions this off-season. However, one of the many corners the Mets have backed themselves into over the years has been not allowing any room for financial errors, or late-season improvements should the market present a promising opportunity.

With this in mind, and the constant comments from both Wilpon and Duquette regarding their excitement for acquiring players via the non-tender market, it is safe to assume the team will spend around $20 million on acquisitions this off-season, saving a few dollars for mid-season acquisitions or the eating of a contract should the opportunity arise. This eliminates names like Sheffield, Guerrero, Colon and Tejada from the list of possible Met targets.

Coaching Staff
Art Howe, also known in some circles as Daddy Warbucks (as he not only possesses a striking resemblance to the character from Annie, but has similarly been forced to unexpectedly care for kids) did his best this past season as manager of a dismantled New York Mets club.

During the season, particularly towards the end, many of the New York media hollered for Howe to be more aggressive with the young team expecting better results to follow a buffet-flipping/Pinella-esque locker-room tirade. Time will tell of Howe is the right man for leading a young team to the World Series, but it appears most fans in New York feel he did a great job in 2003 given that the goal was development and not winning a championship.

The organization fired pitching coach Vern Rhule immediately following the regular season. He was replaced with former Oakland A's pitching coach Rick Peterson. Peterson is at the forefront of a new generation of pitching coaches.  He relies heavily on state-of-the-art technologies, including a system he helped develop for Tendu Inc., a new scouting service that helps track every pitch in a Major League season allowing its users to track the tendencies of pitchers and hitters.  Only the A's and Mets are official subscribers of Tendu.

Peterson is known around baseball, and highly regarded by Howe, who he coached with in Oakland, for being the most well prepared pitching coach in baseball. His obsession with the mental and physical health of his pitchers, not just at the major league level but throughout the entire organization, makes him an integral part of rebuilding the New York Mets franchise from the minors to the majors.

The Infield
First Base and Catcher
Mo Vaughn was placed on the disabled list May 3 for inflammation in his left knee. Team officials have not commented publicly on Mo Vaughn's condition or on his chances of playing next season.

Because Vaughn was unable to play for 90 consecutive days this past season, the insurance on his contract picked up 90 percent of his remaining 2003 salary. Vaughn is due $15 million next year, making him the third highest paid player in Major League Baseball for the 2004 season.

According to the New York Times, Vaughn has yet to have surgery on the knee, which his agent, Jeff Moorad, said would be a last resort. There is still no word as to whether Vaughn will continue to attempt a comeback or retire.

If he retires, the contract becomes void, which one can assume is something Vaughn, and his wallet, would prefer not to do. If he "officially" attempts a comeback, and fails while occupying a roster spot, subsequently missing the 2004 season because of the original knee injury, insurance would kick in again - a solution all parties are likely to be interested in, except for the insurance company of course.

Regardless of what happens with Vaughn, the team will look to Jason Phillips to secure the first base bag come next April, with Mike Piazza filling in on occasion - assuming the catcher's all thumbs-feet can handle a position best known for requiring swift footwork. The two will rotate between catcher and first base; however, Piazza will be the clear-cut catcher and Phillips the definitive first baseman.

Phillips was a tremendous surprise for Mets fans this past season, not only providing a consistent level of hitting but also a quirky-personality and look for the Shea-faithful to rally behind. After being called up from Norfolk to take over first base in May, he hit over .290 each month of the season except September, batting .217, when he clearly ran out of gas.

The Mets ranked dead last in all of baseball in fielding percentage at first base, however, Atlanta and Oakland were not far behind, finishing 28 and 29 respectively, while Tampa Bay finished the best overall – proving that if there is one position a team can make a sacrifice at on defense while continuing to win, it is first base.

Therefore, the fact that Phillips hit .323 with runners in scoring position, and an even better .348 with runners in scoring position with two outs, is reason enough to overlook his inexperience on defense and to allow this 27-year-old, intelligent hitter the opportunity to anchor first base in 2004.

Prior to Piazza's groin injury, hitting in a lineup with Roberto Alomar, Cliff Floyd and a sizzling Jeromy Burnitz, the All-Star catcher hit .333; after the injury, surrounded by the likes of Danny Garcia, Joe McEwing and Timo Perez, Piazza hit .243. Once again, due to a lack of protection in the lineup, Piazza is excused from his underachieving numbers.

It should also be noted that Piazza threw out 28 percent of the runners attempting to steal bases against him in 2003, his highest percentage since his rookie year. His 2003 total was equal to or slightly better than Jorge Posada's, Jason Varitek's and Jason Kendall's.

While it is difficult to justify the pay of $15 million per season, each of the next two seasons, to a 35-year-old catcher who is showing signs of wearing down, no team will be interested in acquiring Piazza unless financial compensation is made and the acquiring team has an open designated hitter position available for the slugger.

Factoring in the market and the public relations disaster that would swarm over the offices at Shea if the trade ended up a bust, it is a safe bet that Piazza will be a Met for at least another full season.

Look for the Mets to do nothing regarding their catcher and first base positions; this also includes not trading top prospect Justin Huber, the Australian native being successfully groomed as the heir-apparent to Piazza.

Second Base and Shortstop

The Mets can relax - Jose Reyes is the real deal. Everyone knows why Reyes will be one of the most exciting players to watch over the next decade, but what makes him a sound fundamental player to build around is his ability to excel in the less sexy-stats that are vital to a team's overall success.

For instance, in 2003, Reyes hit .352 with runners in scoring position; .321 with runners on and two outs; .500 with a runner on third and two out; and .284 after an 0-1 count, a sign of a hitter with the ability to make adjustments. At only 20-years-old, Reyes will certainly make mistakes over the next few seasons, but with solid fundamentals and the ability to learn quickly from those mistakes, he will be the electrifying crown jewel of the Mets for years to come.

Danny Garcia also showed the Mets he is worthy of attention, particularly on defense, but it is obvious the 23-year-old second baseman is many years away from having any sort of offensive impact at the Major League level and would only be a last resort as an opening day starter in 2004.

Since the organization's minor league talent at second base is thin, and very few second basemen are projected to be available via free agency over the next few seasons, the Mets will focus much of their off-season attention at filling the counter-part position to Jose Reyes.

Near the top of the Mets' wish list will be free agent Luis Castillo. However, Castillo's free agent value took a significant dive this past postseason. The Mets, Yankees and Red Sox had interest, but are now reported to have serious questions about his injured hip and ability to play in a large media frenzied market. As ESPN's Peter Gammons recently noted, Castillo had more agents at the World Series, five, than hits, four.

The Newark Star Ledger reports the Mets are also likely to make an attempt to acquire Japanese free agent shortstop Kaz Matsui, also known as Little Godzilla, with Baltimore and Anaheim interested as well. The 27-year-old defensive wizard will become eligible for free agency Nov. 7.

The acquisitions of former Japanese stars Hideki Mastui and Ichiro Suzuki have had significant affects on each team's international marketability. Having Kaz Mastui play across the river from his fellow-countryman, Hideki Matsui, would be a public relations/marketing dream come true for the Mets.

However, bringing in Matsui to play short would mean asking Jose Reyes to shift to second. "I hate to say no to anything just because we have so many holes to fill," GM Dan Duquette recently said, "but it would be very difficult to move José the way he's playing. He's a guy that we feel we need to build around for the future." As intriguing of an idea as it is, it appears that bringing Little Godzilla to Shea is unlikely.

A more likely option, in terms of acquiring a player from Japan, is second baseman Tadahito Iguchi. Not a super-star like Kaz Matsui, Iguchi had his breakout season in 2003 playing for the Daiei Hawks.

Prior to last season, the 28-year-old, who played shorts stop his first four seasons before switching to second, averaged a .239 AVG and .312 OBP with 20 HR and 20 SB. However, in 2003, Iguchi finished with a .341 AVG, a .443 OBP, 42 SB, 27 HR and 109 RBI while finishing fourth in the MVP voting. Defensively, Iguchi has ranked in the top-two amongst all Japanese second basemen the last two seasons.

Other second basemen available via free agency are Todd Walker and Eric Young. Walker, 30, had a solid season with the Boston Red Sox batting .288 with 85 RBI; his defense was mediocre at best. Young, 35, still has above average speed but his aging knees are slowing him down and his defense has always been below average.

With the emergence of Bo Hart in St. Louis, the Cardinals are actively shopping Fernando Vina, however, if they find a lack of interest they will simply decline his $4 million option for 2004 and make him a free agent. Vina, 34, is far removed from his best offensive years in St. Louis, however, defensively he is still every bit as good as he was during his Gold Glove seasons of 2001 and 2002.

If Vina is released by the Cardinals and the Mets are left in a tight spot, signing the former All-Star to a one-year deal, if he were willing to accept, could make him a solid short-term solution – the same also applies to Mark Grudzielanek of the Chicago Cubs.

Lastly, if the Angels were to acquire Miguel Tejada or Kazuo Mastui, both reportedly very high on Anaheim's off-season shopping list, either Adam Kennedy or David Eckstein will be available in a trade. Kennedy, 27, is a nice player and has improved defensively over the last few seasons, but Eckstein is the better fit for New York.

An old-school leadoff hitter, Eckstein, 28, works counts, slaps the ball around the field, hits behind runners when asked, will drive in a run with a squeeze bunt and has led the American League in sacrifice hits twice in the last three years. His defense at shortstop is far from appealing, but at his natural position of second base he is regarded as a natural.

Look for the Mets to first try and find a second baseman via trade, followed by the free agent market if all else fails. The player they bring in will be a fundamentally sound hitter and mostly known for his defense.

Third base

While Wigginton's 11 home runs and .255 batting average were a disappointment to some Mets' fans this season, his 36 doubles were encouraging and a sign of more power to come. According to most scouts, Wigginton projects to be a .275 hitter with possible 15-20 home run potential; however, what doesn't show up in the stat line is the third baseman's gritty, hard-nosed style of play, heads-up base running and ability to play in New York.

With free agent third basemen such as Corey Koskie, Eric Chavez and Troy Glaus set to be available at the end of next season, and Mets minor league prospect David Wright showing his exciting potential in the Arizona Fall League, as well as the emergence of Cyclones' prospect Aaron Baldiris, it is most cost-effective for the Mets to wait out another season with Wigginton and see how he adjusts in his second-year.

Look for the Mets to do nothing at third base.

The Outfield

Timo Perez is not the answer in centerfield, nor is Jeff Duncan. And to say that the Mets' second marriage to Roger Cedeno has been a tremendous flop would be an understatement. However, Cliff Floyd's 18 HR and 68 RBI in only 108 games was a rare bright spot for the team in 2004.

Assuming the team allocates money in the budget to take on a second baseman and a front-of-the-rotation starting pitcher, roughly $4 to $8 million will be spent on the two vacant outfield positions. For these two spots the team is looking for defense first, speed second, power last. The second-tier players available on the open market fit just that bill.

One of these positions will have to come in the form a yet-to-be-released non-tender, lighting-in-a-bottle player, such as Kevin Millar was for Boston last season. These players will appear on the open market at the end of November. For the most part, non-tenders are signed to a one- or two-year deal worth $1 to $3 million per season, with extra money available through incentives.

Of the current crop of free agents, Mike Cameron, 30, is most likely to be courted by the Mets, as his defense, according to one scout, rivals Torii Hunter. Hitting in Safeco Field, a worse park for hitters than Shea, skews Cameron's numbers - in four seasons with the Mariners he hit .223 with 30 homers and 135 RBI at home yet .286 with 57 homers and 209 RBI on the road.

However, Shea Stadium is also a pitcher friendly ballpark, and his addiction for massive strikeout totals, over 100 for seven straight seasons, could sway the Mets from over paying for his glove – although it doesn't seem to bother the Braves as Andruw Jones is coming off his seventh straight season with 100 strikeouts as well.

Also available is Shannon Stewart. The 29-year-old left fielder is a prototypical #3 hitter. He has very few holes in his swing, and his consistent hitting would be a welcome change for the slump-prone Mets. Stewart has five consecutive .300 seasons, and although his stolen base numbers have declined significantly since his early days, it can mostly be attributed to his constant jockeying of positions in the Toronto batting order.

With respect to his phenomenal catch in the ALDS against the Yankees, Stewart's defense is significantly below average. He will likely land a deal worth $18 million over 3-years. Although baseball people love Stewart's positive attitude, competitiveness and the positive impact he has on younger players, $6 million for a sub-par defensive player who has little power will be a last option for the Mets.

The dark horse of the bunch will be Raul Ibanez. At 31-years-old, Ibanez has been given the chance to play full time in Kansas City the last two seasons and responded by averaging 21 homers, 95 RBI, 36 doubles and a .294 AVG. His defense is mediocre, his arm is poor, but he covers a lot of ground and keeps the ball in front of him at all times. He will likely command a two-year deal in the neighborhood of $4 million a season, which is right along with the Mets budget. However, he is far from young, not the best defensively and has only two years of solid production to his name, in Kansas City.

It should also be noted that a solid crop of outfielders such as Carlos Beltran, Carlos Lee, Magglio Ordonez and Lance Berkman are set to be available on the free agent market at the end of next season.

Look for the Mets to make a push to sign Cameron and his gold glove. A left fielder will likely come in the form of a non-tender, or trade, with a free agent filling the spot only if significant money is left on the table as a result of being jilted by top-level players at other positions.

The Pitching Staff
Starting Rotation

Eliminate the games Tom Glavine pitched against the Atlanta Braves and his ERA drops from 4.52 to 3.80. Overall, Glavine was disappointing, but there is no question having QuetTec, the technology used to assist umpires in determining the strike zone, at Shea hurt his performance. At home, Glavine was 3-8 with an ERA of 5.22; on the road he was 6-5 with 3.82 ERA. Having a full-year of New York baseball under his belt, and a more substantial defense behind him, will hopefully result in Glavine pitching more similar to his days in Atlanta.

Had Steve Trachsel and Al Leiter pitched in the first half of the season as they did in the second half, they would have vied equally for the Cy Young Award. Leiter's second half ERA of 2.16 was amongst the best in the National League starting pitchers, with Trachsel's 2.80 not far behind.

With Glavine, Leiter and Trachsel secure in the Mets starting rotation they have a solid, experiences core.

Following an incredible first half of the season, Jae Seo faltered through the later days of the summer; however, his stellar rebound in September, in which he posted a 1.71 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP, solidified the 27-year-old as the Mets fifth starter for 2004.

Mets management has indicated they intend to acquire a front-of-the-rotation pitcher for the vacant spot in the team's starting rotation. Free agents on the market such as Bartolo Colon, Andy Pettitte and Kevin Millwood may be too costly for the team's budget. Colon recently rejected a three-year deal worth $36 million from the Chicago White Sox, Millwood is seeking "ace" caliber money and any team looking to sign Pettitte will have to outbid George Steinbrenner and the pitcher's hometown of Houston.

The next tier of pitchers, in terms of price, poses a few solid opportunities for the Mets while acquiring a player of substantial up-and-coming talent. Kelvim Escobar, the 27-year-old one-time-closer-now starter, was 8-2 with a 2.84 ERA on grass this season, and 5-5 with a 5.51 ERA on turf. He is a right-handed, groundball pitcher who is tailor made for Shea Stadium, assuming the Mets' infield defense improves. The Blue Jays want desperately to retain him, but if the money is right, Escobar will more than likely walk.

Also available via free agency is 27-year-old Sydney Ponson. Another ground ball-finesse pitcher, of which the Mets currently have a plethora of, Ponson pitched consistently in his stints with Baltimore and San Francisco during 2003, compiling a 3.77 ERA with the O's and a 3.71 ERA while with the Giants.

Having both made roughly $4 million last season, Escobar and Ponson will likely get three-year deals in the area of $20 to $25 million, which should be well in line with the Mets' budget for a starter.

Other starting pitchers available as free agents are Cory Lidle, Scott Sullivan and former-Met Rick Reed. Any pitchers made available in trades will likely be of mid-level talent, arbitration-dumps and players with bad contracts, all of which the Mets have no interest in.

Lastly, lurking somewhere in Florida is 24-year-old right-handed Cuban defector Maels Rodriguez. Pitching in Cuba this past season, Rodriguez was 8-3 in 113 innings with 117 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.11, consistently clocking in near 100 mph. Very little is known as this point regarding Rodriguez's status as he has yet to be granted asylum, thus restricting him from entering the player pool as a free agent.

Look for the Mets to take a wait-and-see approach with the Colons and Pettittes, only to be out-bid, thus signing a pitcher such as Ponson or Escobar, which will ultimately be better suited for the team's future finances.

The Bullpen

With the departure of Armando Benitez, the Mets are in need of a closer. However, with so many holes to fill it will be difficult to open up the wallet for a position that will affect the Mets season minimally considering the transitional year that lies ahead. If the finds itself contending for a wild card spot there will certainly be a closer available on the trade market.

Should Jim Duquette feel the need to acquire a closer this off-season, the most likely candidate will be Keith Foulke, who credits Rick Peterson, the Mets new pitching coach, with revitalizing his career. At 31-years-old, Foulke has been the single most consistent closer not named Mariano Rivera in baseball over the last four seasons. His simplistic yet effective fastball/changeup combination keeps batters off-balance, while his craftiness strikes them out. Foulke is rumored to be looking for $6 to $8 million per season – nearly a quarter of the Mets off-season budget.

The Mets acquired a slew of young pitchers in last season's trades. Of the lot, Jason Anderson and Royce Ring are most likely to help in the near term. They will join current Met youngsters like Dan Wheeler, Grant Roberts, Orber Moreno, Pedro Feliciano and Jaime Cerda. Add in prospects Pat Strange and Tyler Yates, who Duquette is very excited about, and veteran Mike Stanton, and the team has a solid crop of young bullpen arms and an experiences veteran to build around, or trade off for other parts and pieces.

If John Franco is standing on a Major League mound next summer it will be at Shea. Fred Wilpon knows that not re-signing Franco, and allowing him to go to another club, would be a complete public relations blunder.

Look for the Mets to tinker with their bullpen, such as trading David Weathers for roll players. There is an outside chance they bring in an established closer such as Foulke; however, the market will dictate this move.

Recap
The Mets have many holes to fill this off-season, especially if they intend to play "meaningful" games next September, which is the mantra of the Mets' front office; however, to expect the team to fill every one of those holes for the long-term is unrealistic.

Certain positions, such as right field and the bench, will be filled with small trades, non-tenders and one-year deals, keeping the spots warm for a new crop of free agents and trades next season. A front-of-the-rotation starting pitcher will be acquired via free agency, a free agent center fielder will be obtained who is best known for his defense and a second baseman will come on board either by trade or airplane from Japan.

It will undoubtedly be a tumultuous off-season for Jim Duquette, full of a few disappointments as well as an unexpected surprise or two; however, when all is said and done, the team will enter 2004 with a much improved defense, an above-average starting rotation, a faster and younger lineup and a more exciting team.

Visit writer Matthew M. Cerrone's site at MetsBlog.com


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