An amalgam of Yankees' star Hideki Matsui and Mariners' star Ichiro Suzuki, Kaz is a shortstop that can hit for power (he had 33 homeruns for the Seibu Lions last year), average, and run faster than the aforementioned Ichiro. Whether or not he will be able to adjust to the American game as well as his Japanese predecessors did is up in the air.
Also of concern to Met fans is his ability to play shortstop, the position he displaces twenty-year-old phenom Jose Reyes from. Reyes ended the season early with an ankle injury (from which he says he is now completely healed), but was in the midst of a thirty-five-game errorless streak, the longest for a shortstop in the majors last year. Matsui is supposedly a sparkling defender with expansive range and a cannon for an arm, but it will take a lot to win over the Met fans who have been loyal to Reyes.
To Reyes' credit, he accepted the move graciously and has been working out in Port St. Lucie for over a week, in addition to his work in the Dominican Republic this winter, to prepare for the move. Credit Matsui for being in camp early to adjust offensively and defensively, trying to establish a good chemistry between his middle infield partner who will also bat behind him in the lineup.
2. Just who will take the ball every fifth day?
The Mets hope that newly acquired pitching coach Rick Peterson will help to solve this problem. Last year, former first round pick Aaron Heilman flopped badly, battling himself on the mound with his ever-changing arm angle and delivery. Peterson took him, fellow 2003 rookie and 5th starter contender Jeremy Griffiths, reliever Grant Roberts (who will also be competing for the slot the Mets had groomed him for while he was one of their top prospects a few years back) and lower level minor leaguers to Dr. James Andrews' lab in Birmingham to help him evaluate his motion and to find and correct its faults.
If Heilman, Griffiths or Roberts falter in their efforts to better their deliveries in Alabama, the Mets signed veterans Scott Erickson and James Baldwin as insurance. They both signed non-guaranteed minor league deals and are both coming off of injuries, so they really are extreme back-up plans.
3. Can Trachsel and Leiter repeat their 2003 performances?
Since being exiled to AAA Norfolk in June of 2001, Steve Trachsel has been the Mets' best pitcher -- wins and ERA wise, at least. He won a career-high 16 games last year and pitched to the tune of a 3.78 ERA in 204.2 innings pitched, but he also allowed 204 hits. In addition, he walked 65 and struck out only 111, leaving him with a 112 ERA+, or a slightly above league average season. He was helped by higher run support and surprisingly good defense behind him, but he did pitch himself out of jams. After finished 2003 with two one-hitters, he enters the upcoming season with a better defense behind him and offense supporting him. Even at age 33, he may be able to reproduce his 2003 numbers.
Last year, Leiter, after a terrible start, went on the disabled list in late June, lost weight and abandoned the curveball that new teammate Tom Glavine had tried to teach him. As a result, he cut down on his exploding walk rate and came back to win 15 games. His ERA showed remnants of his early season struggles, finishing the season at 3.99 and an ERA+ of 106. He struck out 139 in 180.1 innings, and will have to increase that number while continuing to decrease his walk total (94 overall last year) in order to achieve, at the ripe age of 38, similar success to the second half of 2003.
4. Will the real Tom Glavine please stand up? Signing a thirty-eight-year old control pitcher is always risky, but owner Fred Wilpon and former general manager Steve Phillips felt as if Tom Glavine's Hall of Fame credentials were well worth the investment. Boy, were they wrong. Glavine's record fell to 9-14, he posted a 4.52 ERA and struck out 82 in 183.3 innings. He also walked 66. His ERA+ fell from 139 in 2002 while with the Braves to 94 in 2003 during his first season as a Met. A fly-ball pitcher, he was victimized by the Mets' lackluster outfield defense (especially with Roger Cedeño in the game), but that does not make up for a majority of his terrible performances. In order to come even close to justifying his three-year deal, Glavine will have to rebound in a big way. Don't count on his Atlanta numbers, though.
5. Will Jason Phillips and Ty Wigginton continue to improve?
Ty Wigginton won the third base job out of spring training last year, and for much of the year he provided surprising thump, slamming 11 homeruns and driving in 71. Overall, he had 53 extra-base-hits with 36 doubles and 6 triples. He fell off, mostly from fatigue and culpability to swinging at bad sliders, late in the season, leaving his average at .255 and on-base-percentage at .318.
Wigginton didn't play winter ball this year, which should help keep him fresh later into the year. His all-out attitude wins over fans but also takes a toll on his body. This year should signify whether he will be a Met for a long time, either at third or another position, or if he's just keeping the hot corner warm for top prospect David Wright, due up at some point in 2005.
Phillips, another fan favorite, stepped into the lineup permanently when Mike Piazza went down in San Francisco and won the first base job when Mo Vaughn went down in late May. A catcher coming through the minor leagues, he proved capable and actually above-average at first. He sprayed line drives all over the field, staying above .300 until the last game of the season. He finished with a .298 average, a .373 OBP (39 walks in 403 at bats), 11 HR and 58 RBI. Those are all fine numbers for a catcher, but his stats went down considerably when he was behind the plate. To stay in the lineup, he'll need to bring his numbers up when he's calling the shots and hit for more power when he's manning first, and his 25 doubles suggest that he can.
This leads to the age-old question of "Who's on First?" The amount Jason Phillips plays at catcher and first base depends on how much first base Mike Piazza is able and willing to play; as of now, it looks as if Phillips will be on first 2/3 of the time. Piazza played only one inning of first last year, and will work out there during camp. However, the Mets say he is focused on catching a majority of the time and his comfort level will determine his playing time.
Rumor has it that once he passes Carlton Fisk for most homeruns all-time by a catcher (he trails Fisk by four coming into 2004), he will be more willing to play first base on a regular basis. As for now, Mike will switch gloves on day games after night games and against young, speedy teams like the Marlins (who have victimized Piazza's weak throwing arm in the past).
Jordan Zakarin covers the Mets for NYFansonly.com and can be reached at JDZakarin@yahoo.com