What went right?
Given the sieve-like defense behind him, the woeful offense, and a team that basically quit in the second half of the season, Leiter's numbers seem almost heroic. For his efforts, Leiter was rewarded with a two-year $18 million contract extension.
What went wrong?
On a team as bad as the 2002 Mets, it's hard to find much fault in with Leiter's performance. That's not to say, though, that things didn't go wrong around him. The Mets defense allowed 20 unearned runs to score on him. Even worse, the Mets offense averaged a paltry 4.01 runs in games started by Leiter-ranking him 41st in the league in run support. Leiter was also the unfortunate beneficiary of two blown saves by Scott Strickland.
A Few Thoughts
1. Leiter's Health. Since coming to the Mets, Leiter has gutted it out through numerous leg and back injuries. In 2002, despite a hip injury in spring training, Leiter proved to be durable, pitching 204.3 innings. At age 37 though, Leiter enters that critical period of an athlete's career where he becomes more susceptible to injury.
2. Tom Glavine. With the addition of Tom Glavine, Al Leiter can slot over to become to number two in the rotation. In 2000, when Mike Hampton was the team's de facto ace, Al Leiter had a banner year, posting a 16-8 record, a 3.20 ERA, and 200 strike outs. If Glavine can overcome the difficulties that plagued him in the second-half of 2002 and become the Mets ace, a lot of pressure will be off of Leiter's shoulders, and a 15-20 win season would not be out of the question, especially if he is facing other teams' number two pitchers instead of their aces.
3. The Other Eight Guys. Last season, Leiter was betrayed both by his defense and his offense. If the Mets don't improve in both categories, another solid season for Leiter won't amount to much.
4. Get The Bunt Down! Sure, I know he's just a pitcher, and it's nearly impossible to teach an old dog new tricks, but how many times have you seen Al Leiter unable to get the bunt down in a crucial spot? For someone as competitive as Leiter, it is almost inconceivable that he could fail to advance the runners over and over again. Leiter only managed three sacrifices for the year, and only knocked in two runs. The reality is that the bottom of the Mets order this year will probably still be unproductive despite Rey Ordonez's departure. If Leiter could somehow learn to make more productive outs, it could go a long way towards helping him in the run support category.
2003 Pitching Rotation
Art Howe has already indicated that Tom Glavine will be the opening day starter and that Al Leiter will be the second starter on the staff. Pedro Astacio will most likely be the number three pitcher, however, should he have a bad spring, or should Trachsel have a very strong spring, Trachsel could wind up the number three starter. As of now, the number five spot, which Howe has indicated he won't use in the early weeks of the season, could be filled by Mike Bacsik, Aaron Heilman, Pat Strange, or, maybe, our old friend David Cone.
What Must Be Changed in 2003
At his age, Leiter cannot be counted on to improve much on his 2002 season. He is a fierce competitor, however, and his numbers from 2002 give no reason to expect that he will experience a decline. So, it is reasonable to expect another solid season from Leiter-with a mid-three ERA and 170-200 strikeouts. If he can get any run support from his team this year, and a little better defense, Leiter should be able to finish with a better than .500 winning percentage.
Cerrone's Certain Facts
-- Al Leiter has never won more than 17 games in a season, and since the All Star break of 2000, Leiter is 30-30 with a 3.41 ERA.
-- Gary Sheffield and Chipper Jones have a career .356 batting average against Leiter; but don't worry, Leiter's ERA at Turner Field over the last two seasons is 1.70.
Matthew M. Cerrone is a MLB research coordinator for NYFansOnly.com
This column is part of a continuing series previewing the 2003 Mets season. Monday will feature Pedro Astacio.