The U Files # 70: Signals

The 2004 baseball season stands just one week away, and the Mets will come in with low expectations but a bright future. For every team right now there are certain questions, certain pieces whose play will help create the outcome of the season. It is natural that newly acquired players are closely watched, and the Mets have some to watch. In the Mets case, even returning veterans may have to answer to us as well.

Age

The core of the starting rotation in particular is getting farther from adventure and closer to arthritis. Tom Glavine and Al Leiter are both 38 years of age, and Steve Trachsel is 33. Glavine, as a low-strikeout pitcher, is of a breed that typically ages less gracefully than those who can miss bats. His 2003 season was a departure from vintage Glavine and he is not likely to get better. Leiter has allowed progressively more runs on a rate basis each of the last four years. John Franco is the worst violator, at 43 years. He has held on to his career despite serious injuries at advanced age, but may not be able to recall the John Franco that is one of the better relief pitchers in history. None of these pitchers projects to as good as average according to objective measures.

Kaz Matsui

Kaz occupied the upper tier or Japanese ballplayers along with Ichiro (who needs no other name) and Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui, both of whom have played good ball in the land of beer bellies and low-quality automobiles. Defense is played the same ways here as there, and the same fundamentals he knows so well are applicable here. Matsui will likely see his home run totals take a hit, and needs to learn to patronize the gaps. Anything hit with any kind of authority and not at an outfielder he can run into a double, and balls that get past those gloves are potential triples. Scouting reports suggest the biggest trouble spot in his game is his tendency to guess on a pitch and this may be responsible for his high strikout totals in Japan. He has a workable batting eye and quick hands. His swing, in cutting power makes up for it with good bat control. He has the ability to contribute in a positive way; his doing so will depend on how well he makes the adjustments his countrymen made.

Fielding

The Mets once again will pitch a low-strikeout staff, or in other words, one that will allow a lot of balls in play. Pitchers like Glavine (especially) and Trachsel will depend on their teammates in the field to make outs for them. The Mets are being talked about for their up-the-middle defense, but aren't so assured at the other five spots. Center Fielder Mike Cameron has established himself as one of the premier defensive players of his time, Matsui won three of Japan's gold gloves for his fielding there, and Jose Reyes, who came up with a sterling defensive reputation as a shortstop, is believed to have the skills to make the move to second base (to accommodate Matsui). At the corners first baseman Jason Phillips played the best defense last year, and he was only about average.

Jae Seo

The once touted prospect has not regained the velocity on his fastball he had before arm surgery, and kept up a below average strikeout rate in his surprisingly good debut season in 2003. He will certainly be as stingy as any Met in allowing walks to opposing hitters, and if he does not regain the ability to miss bats his success will rest on his ability to prevent home runs. Though usually his fastball read at 88-89 miles per hour, he did throw the occasional tantalizing pitch at up to 92 ticks.

Al Leiter's Control

Since he was acquired in 1999, Leiter has led the Mets pitching staff (sharing the duty with Mike Hampton in 2000). Last year, he finally lost his lead of the Mets staff. Much of his trouble early on rested on a remarkable deterioration of his command. He walked batters before the all-star break at a frightening pace before regaining something in the second half and pushing his season totals to respectability. Though he projects to decline in any event, how much this is evident this is will depend on his ability to show 2003 was a fluke.

Health

The Mets were hit particularly hard by the injury bug in 2003, which had a lot to do with the club's abysmal record. The Mets signed Cliff Floyd knowing that when healthy he is a legitimate offensive force, but that his total run output is limited by his ability to stay in the lineup. Floyd cut short his 2003 season in August to have surgery on his Achilles tendon so that he would be recovered in time to start the 2004 season. If Floyd can get past the 400 at bat mark, he will approach 90, then 100 runs created. Jose Reyes is as exiting as any player to hit the Mets since Darryl Strawberry, reaching the big club at the tender age of 20 in June of 2003. Right now it appears the only thing that may hold him back is his tendency toward muscle strains, particularly in his right hamstring. He reinjured the muscle in a spring training game and may not be ready for the season opener.

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