The U Files # 62: Ashes on the Pine

It is generally accepted that a good corps of backup players has value since it allows a team to progress when a starting player takes a rest, or in case of injury. In the case of the Mets, the "bench" became a de facto starter-by-committee at several positions due to injury and also trades. It was largely the performance of players not normally relied upon to carry a team that determined the fortunes of the 2003 Mets.

The Mets started the season with the following lineup:

C - Mike Piazza
1b - Mo Vaughn
2b - Roberto Alomar
3b - Ty Wigginton
ss - Rey Sanchez
cf - Roger Cedeno
lf - Cliff Floyd
rf - Jeromy Burnitz

These eight players accounted for 2406 of the 5224 at bats by Met position players in 2003 (46.05 percent). It was accepted that Sanchez was only a placeholder for Jose Reyes, but Reyes only amassed 274 AB. Only three Mets achieved more than 400 at bats: Ty Wigginton (573), Roger Cedeno (484), and Jason Phillips (403).

The one position that was held by one regular from season start to season end was third base, held by Ty Wigginton. Roger Cedeno (to the detriment of the Mets) was a regular part of what became an outfield rotation. Once Mo Vaughn could no longer play on his knees, first base was held by Jason Phillips (a converted catcher) and Tony Clark. Mike Piazza missed several months due to a groin injury and Vance Wilson made up most of the starts at catcher.

The position of catcher was held by a backup player for much of the season, and Wilson's batting abilities ultimately caught up with him. The entire outfield was a starter-by-committee involving some players who are not prime starting material for much of the season. Cliff Floyd was a regular for much of the season, but cut his season short to have surgery on his right Achilles tendon in such time that he could be fully recovered by the start of the 2004 season. Jeromy Burnitz alternated between right field and center field for the early part of the season but his trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers in June left the Mets with a hole in the outfield that would not be filled in season.

Vance Wilson is an excellent defensive catcher but offensively provided little for the Mets aside from the occasional long ball. He hit .243, and that with only 15 walks and 18 extra-base hits in 268 at-bats. His .293 on base percentage and .373 slugging percentage equated to production more than twenty percent worse than the adjusted league average and worse than the league average for catchers.

In the absence of Floyd and Burnitz, the Mets outfield was held largely by names including Timo Perez (346 AB), Raul Gonzalez (217 AB), Jeff Duncan (139 AB), and Tsuyoshi Shinjo (114 AB). Perez was the best hitter of the group, with his disappointing production of .301/.364 OBP/SLG. The overall average of these hitters in 816 AB was .235/~.295/.318 AVG/OBP/SLG. They combined to hit 48 extra base hits, of which 21 were doubles by Timo Perez. Combined they hit eight home runs and walked 68 times. These numbers prorate to 33 extra base hits and 46 walks in 550 AB. These averages would be below average for a catcher, and for outfielders are simply unacceptable.

The trade of Roberto Alomar to the Chicago White Sox left the Mets without a starting second baseman. Due to the necessity of having to play a player at every position, the Mets were forced to give playing time at second base to such luminaries as Joe McEwing, Marco Scutaro, Danny Garcia, Jay Bell, and Rey Sanchez. Of these, Scutaro has some potential to hit decently, but that is largely the extent of the offensive talent in the group. McEwing would have no value if he were actually kept on the roster for his offensive abilities, Bell was at the end of his days as a baseball player, and Sanchez has always been a pure defensive specialist. Garcia is reputed to have enough defensive ability to carry his bat (as an average second baseman) but is likely a future utility infielder. This group hit .223/.305/.310 in 323 AB as second basemen.

At first base, Mo Vaughn quickly found out that his rotundity had finally caught up with him. After 77 AB of .195/.330/.338 hitting, Vaughn put an end to what was at one point a spectacular MLB career. Most of the playing time at the position went to Jason Phillips (299 AB) and Tony Clark (208 AB). Phillips was regarded as a nice hitter to slot in as catcher but his 2003 season was for him, an outburst. He hit .298/.373/.442 overall and .314/.383/.465 as a first baseman. Tony Clark was good for home runs, but was otherwise an offensive liability. He hit .232/.300/.472 overall, and .240/.300/.495 as a first baseman (the rest of his AB coming as a pinch hitter).

Tony Clark's .300 OBP, and the subpar OBP and power numbers supplied by Vaughn, Jay Bell, Mike Glavine, Joe McEwing, and one hitless AB by Mike Piazza combined to drag the overall Mets production from first base below the adjusted average at the first base position in the National League, though first base did produce the best actual percentages of any position on the field for the Mets (in a virtual tie with right field).

A September strained ankle by Jose Reyes threw the shortstop position into the hands of Joe McEwing for the home stretch. He and Jorge Valandia (a clone of Sanchez) combined to hit .224/.306/.277 in 152 AB. The bench was a non factor at third base, with 572 of 605 AB going to Wigginton.

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