Assuming the first four "IF" factors fall into place - Tom Glavine wins 15 games, Mike Piazza and Cliff Floyd remain healthy and the level of overall competition within the National League East decreases - the Mets will need to lock up each victory with a strong bullpen. Running anchor for the Mets' pen will be newly acquired Braden Looper.
Met fans were eager to send Armando Benitez packing. Although he wasn't nearly as awful as the Shea Stadium boos indicated, the marriage between Benitez and the Mets ended years ago. His departure had to happen if for no other reason than to give the fans a new face to yell at.
To replace Benitez, the Mets signed free-agent Braden Looper. Many skeptics are concerned about Looper's 68 percent career save rate. Over the last two seasons, however, his success rate has increased, from 81 percent in 2002 to 87 percent in 2003. Benitez has gone in the opposite direction over the same course of time.
Last season, Looper's manager in Florida, Jack McKeon, lost confidence in his closer following a rough spat during July and August and handed the job to Ugueth Urbina. Prior to Urbina's arrival, Looper saved 17 out of 20 games with a 2.28 ERA through 51 innings. After losing his job, Looper pitched in only 29 innings compiling a 6.14 ERA. If being a successful Major League closer were all about confidence, it would seem the Marlins' acquisition of Urbina crushed any that Looper may have had.
At 29-years-old, Looper is entering the prime of his career. His fastball consistently reaches the mid-90 mph range and his cutter and split-finger fastball help him produce nearly twice as many ground balls as fly balls. Looper keeps a runner close to first base with a very good pick-off move; a weakness that Benitez never bothered to improve. This will allow fewer runners to advance bases late in ball games, thus keeping many double plays in order.
If Looper continues his trend of saving more games then he blows; if he keeps runners from advancing bases before producing the inevitable strike out or ground ball; and, while retracing our steps, if injuries remain a non-factor for Tom Glavine and he can regain his confidence; if both Mike Piazza and Cliff Floyd can perform even close to their career averages over the course of a full season; and if the Mets can capitalize on the overall weakened National League East, the Mets will play "meaningful games" in September of 2004 and contend for a Wild Card spot.
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