Spring Training Preview 2003

The Art Howe regime in New York officially began Thursday, as Mets pitchers and catchers arrive to Port St. Lucie for spring training. Replacing failing manager Bobby Valentine with Howe was one of the many central decisions the Mets' front office made this offseason in an attempt to improve upon a disappointing 75-win, last place finish the year before.

The 2002 campaign saw the Mets underachieve with one of the league's highest payrolls for the second season in a row. Off the field scandals, including reported marijuana use by several players, showed that Valentine had seemingly lost control of his team.

New York's October 1st decision to fire Bobby Valentine has been endorsed by many of the players acquired during the offseason, including Tom Glavine, Mike Stanton and Cliff Floyd, who all stated that they would not have come to the Mets if Valentine were still the manager.

Howe's arrival will mean a fresh start for the Mets - something that may spark the underachieving team.

Perhaps the biggest 2002 underachievers were lifetime .304 hitter, Roberto Alomar, and slugger Jeromy Burnitz, who both struggled mightily.

The Mets are hoping this fresh start will spark these two veterans, who will be returning to key spots in the Mets lineup in 2003.

"It seems like for me there's always a different reason to be motivated going into spring training," Burnitz told the Star Ledger. "This year, it's just for the fun of it. It's simple. It's just trying to be successful at something you love to do."

The only offseason move made by the Mets that received more attention than their managerial firing and hiring was the signing of left-handed ace Tom Glavine.

Glavine, who has 242 career wins, will report to spring training with the position as opening day starter locked up. Glavine, joining returning veteran lefty Al Leiter, sets in stone a lethal southpaw combination at the top of the rotation. Also returning to fill the third and fourth spots are right-handers Steve Trachsel and Pedro Astacio.

The bottom of the New York rotation is still undecided.

In what will become the focus of spring training for the Mets, last year's rookie Mike Bacsik, top prospect Aaron Heilman and 27-year-old righty Jason Middlebrook will compete for the fifth spot in the rotation.

Bacsik may be the early favorite in this three-man race because of the solid contribution he gave the Mets in 2002 (3-2, 4.37 ERA, nine starts).

Middlebrook, who has the most Major League experience out of the three, went 1-0 with a 3.93 in three September starts for New York.

The Mets may prefer to give former Notre Dame standout, Aaron Heilman, more time to develop at the Triple-A level, where he posted a 2-3 record with a 3.28 ERA last season.

Another position still yet to be totally decided is third base. After losing third baseman Edgardo Alfonzo to free agency, the Mets were left with few options at third. As of now, 25-year-old Ty Wigginton, who came on in 2002 to bat .302, will be manning the hot corner. The Mets have confidence in Wigginton's bat but there are questions about whether his defense, which was revealed as a weakness last season, is good enough to play everyday at third.

New York may pursue a trade for a third baseman and have invited veteran infielder Jay Bell, who hit just .163 last year, to spring training as an insurance policy.

Alomar will be returning as the everyday second baseman and Mo Vaughn will return to first, after working out most of the offseason to meet the demands of Fred Wilpon, who threatened to terminate the hefty slugger's contract if he did not return to playing shape.

All Star catcher and franchise player Mike Piazza will return for his sixth season in New York. Piazza, who batted less than .300 for the first time since 1992 last season, has not been the fearsome hitter he once was in the past two seasons and the Mets counting on him to return to his superstar form at the plate.

Free agent addition Rey Sanchez will be replacing Rey Ordonez, who the Mets dumped in an offseason trade with Tampa Bay, at shortstop. Sanchez, who batted .286, will serve as a stopgap at short until prospect Jose Reyes is ready for the Major Leagues.

Although the Mets have not publicly ruled out Reyes making the Major League roster out of spring training, they will most likely let their franchise prospect begin the season at Triple-A Norfolk.

Unable to dump overpaid Jeromy Burnitz or Roger Cedeno, the Mets improved their outfield with the addition of slugger Cliff Floyd. Floyd, who batted .288 with 28 homers and 79 RBIs in 2002, will give the Mets needed punch in their lineup and extra protection for centerpeice Mike Piazza.

A healthy Floyd, Piazza, Vaughn combination in the 3-4-5 spots in the lineup could cause many problems for pitchers across the National League.

One issue to be watched during spring training will be the progression of Roger Cedeno in centerfield. If the speedy leadoff hitter cannot play adequate defense at his new position, fourth outfielder Timo Perez and defensive gem Tsuyoshi Shinjo will be stealing many of Cedeno's innings.

Former New York Yankee and key offseason pickup, Mike Stanton will be taking the bulk of the Mets' lefthanded work out of the bullpen. Jaime Cerda, 24, will compete with spring training invitee veteran Graeme Lloyd for another lefty spot in the New York bullpen, while team captain and 42-year-old southpaw John Franco is expected to make his return sometime midseason.

The Mets' right-handed relief attack is going to be the same as last year, with David Weathers, Scott Strickland and Grant Roberts all set to return.

When pitchers and catchers report to Port St. Lucie this week, New York Mets baseball will finally be back after a long winter.

Hopefully, they bring back with them a new sense of optimism and high hopes that will erase the underachieving seasons of the past and begin a new era of winning under Art Howe.

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