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For the first time in several years, the Mets – renewed in perhaps the most dramatic winter renovation of any club – have earned the favor of numerous sports prognosticators as the favorite in the National League East.
"It's a thrill," said left fielder Cliff Floyd. "That's what it's supposed to be about. You're not supposed to go into Spring Training hoping and wishing. You're supposed to go in knowing that you're going to win and have a good squad."
Each year, the Mets' main goal coming into the spring has been to dethrone the Atlanta Braves, winners of an astonishing 14 straight division titles.
Having added first baseman Carlos Delgado, closer Billy Wagner and catcher Paul Lo Duca, among others, to the mix this winter, the Mets likely have their best chance to accomplish the task since Atlanta's reign began.
Third baseman David Wright said he first felt something different in January, when the team gathered in New York for their annual city-wide caravan. Normally, the week-long event kicks off with a quiet introduction over dinner; players and wives catching up, chatting about vacation spots and Broadway shows. Not this year.
"You've got all the guys coming together for the first time," Wright said. "Everybody was in suits, together for a nice evening, and it all ends up with everybody gathered around talking about baseball. That's just what it's all about.
"Guys gathering up in suits in the middle of January, getting all emotional about baseball. That's what's going to make it so special this year, that we have that chemistry."
Exiting 2005, the Mets had a number of noteworthy holes to fill. If one were to scratch out a shopping list on Oct. 3, the last day of the regular season, areas to improve would have included adding a dangerous left-handed slugger, a top-notch closer, upgrading the bullpen, and acquiring a catcher to replace departing Mike Piazza.
Before long, Mets GM Omar Minaya had plucked Delgado and Lo Duca from the Marlins, Wagner from the Phillies, and executed separate deals with the Dodgers and Orioles to bring in relievers Jorge Julio, Duaner Sanchez and Steve Schmoll.
Along the way, the Mets also filled needs by dealing Mike Cameron to the Padres for Xavier Nady, a promising 27-year-old with a high ceiling, and bolstering the bench by signing players like Endy Chavez, Julio Franco and Jose Valentin.
Coming off an 83-victory campaign in manager Willie Randolph's first year at the helm, the Mets now clearly see October in their crosshairs.
"I don't think 83 wins was a fluke," Floyd said. "A couple more wins here and there, we could have won 90. I think we're just touching the surface."
Though the ice-breaking move of the winter was the trade for Nady on Nov. 19, it would be just a precursor to acquiring the big fish – pardon the pun – of the winter.
Dealing for Delgado six days later, Minaya completed a move at least 11 months in the making. The GM had targeted the 34-year-old as an addition to the 2005 roster, but for a variety of reasons, Delgado opted to sign a four-year contract with Florida.
He only made it through one season. Batting .301 with 33 home runs and 115 RBI, Delgado was traded to the Mets for three prospects, instantly giving the Mets a formidable power presence at first base.
"I'm here because I want to win," Delgado said. "I want to become part of the New York community and I want to try to help the Mets go to the next level. I've never had the opportunity to be in a playoff race, so I'm really looking forward to this."
"[Delgado] might go through the order 0-for-1," Floyd said, "but people know he's not going 0-for-4. That sort of thing wears opposing pitchers down."
Never shy about voicing opinions - Delgado refused to stand for 'God Bless America' during the seventh-inning stretches of games, protesting baseball's implied tie of Sept. 11 to the war in Iraq, and spoke out against the U.S. Navy's six-decade use of the Puerto Rico island of Vieques as a bomb test facility) - Delgado should have no problem filling a leadership role on the roster.
A fringe benefit of Delgado's acquisition is that it could help spur Carlos Beltran to bigger and better things. Over the course of the winter, Beltran said he exchanged dozens of phone calls with Delgado, giddily speaking about the Mets' chances.
"I couldn't believe it at the beginning," Beltran said. "I was very happy. The ballclub is getting a lot more power, and at the same time, he was a guy the Mets were trying to look for last year. This year, we have him."
One day after hosting a Shea get-together for Delgado, the Mets turned their Big Apple stage over to Wagner, a good ol' country boy who favors a chaw of tobacco to go along with his 100 MPH fastball.
The 34-year-old Wagner saved 38 games for the Phillies in 2005, posting a 1.51 ERA in 75 appearances. After using the Thanksgiving holiday to mull offers, Wagner cancelled a conference with the Red Sox, believing that the Mets' offer would be the best possible deal he could sign.
"I wasn't looking for the world," Wagner said. "It's about trying to be on the best team, and trying to win a World Series. I want the best opportunity to be a part of something special, and this was the right place to be."
The right place to be for Lo Duca, at least once before, was replacing Piazza, the long-time Met and certain future Hall of Famer. He did it in 1998 with the Dodgers, and for the second time, Lo Duca is being asked to replace Piazza.
So what's the secret?
"Not trying to be like Mike," Lo Duca said. "He's a big fan favorite and a guy who's going into the Hall of Fame. I try to do what I do best. Hopefully that will be good enough for us to get to the World Series."
Lo Duca – a three-time All-Star who turns 34 in April – was acquired on Dec. 5 and brings the Mets a capable starting catcher and a solid contact approach at the plate that could be used as high in the batting order as No. 2.
A career .285 hitter in 772 Major League games, the Brooklyn-born Lo Duca batted .283 with six home runs and 57 RBI in 445 at-bats for Florida last year.
"I'm excited," Lo Duca said. "This is an exciting time in my career to go to an organization that's committed to winning. I'm looking forward to a good year and a great team year. Hopefully we can get to where we want to be and that's the World Series."
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