Piazza ready for duty

With the opening of spring camp just weeks away, Inside Pitch is continuing to profile each area of the 2005 Mets. <P> In this report, we examine the state of the Mets' catching corps, headed by Mike Piazza in what could be his final season as a Met. (Premium Content)

As if you needed any more reason to plan a trip to Shea this season, factor in the possibility that every swing Mike Piazza takes this year could be one of his last for the Mets.

After missing major parts of both of the last two seasons to injury, Piazza's contract is up after this season – could it have already been seven years since Piazza was standing on a podium in the Diamond Club, grinning widely alongside then-GM Steve Phillips? – and he sounds ambivalent to a return.

"If I'm able to do my job and have a productive year, everything will take care of itself," Piazza told reporters in January. "It's not something I'm worried about. I haven't thought about [re-signing with the Mets] and I'm sure they haven't either."

Piazza will be 36 when the next spring training rolls around, and while he's still a lock as a sure-fire Hall of Famer, there's no guarantee that Piazza will be on any team's roster at that time. Having surpassed Carlton Fisk's career home run record for catchers last season and possessing enough financial security to ensure his great-great-grandchildren will be well cared for, Piazza may opt to retire after this season.

Perhaps the only thing that could keep him around might be the lure of a World Series title, one thing Piazza has never been able to claim. In any event, Piazza has conceded that the torch of the Mets' marquee player will be passed on to Carlos Beltran, the new face of the team after he signed his own seven-year contract.

"I couldn't think of anyone better than Carlos for the Mets to unveil as a new keystone player for the next seven or eight years," Piazza said. "The fans deserve it more than anything. The last few years have been very frustrating for them."

As for 2005, the Mets are not looking for Piazza to put up MVP-caliber numbers, but he's still very capable of being an above-average offensive force if healthy. Numbers somewhat resembling Piazza's last full season, the 2002 campaign in which he hit .280 with 33 homers and 98 RBI, would be great, although the Mets would be happy with slightly lower power numbers as long as Piazza is in the lineup for 130 or more games.

The Mets traded popular backup Vance Wilson to the Detroit Tigers over the winter in exchange for minor league shortstop Anderson Hernandez, leaving Jason Phillips as the club's primary reserve catcher. The 28-year-old Phillips slumped badly in 2004, losing his starting first baseman's job while battling with the Mendoza line for much of the year before finally settling in at .218.

If Phillips falters or is traded, the Mets could call up 22-year-old Mike Jacobs, the club's top catching prospect, from Triple-A Norfolk. They could also give a look to former Florida part-timer Ramon Castro, who signed a minor league contract with New York over the winter.

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