Art Howe's clubhouse seems far more laid back than Bobby Valentine's, at least the one he left in September. The Mets were deeply divided by the end of last season - and it wasn't just because the players had rebelled against Valentine. They were numb from Valentine's feud with GM Steve Phillips, as well as the one between owners Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday. For the first time in two years, the tension has been lifted from the organization.
2) Has all the Bobby Valentine talk, both about and by him, had any real effect on the team, or do they perceive it as much ado about nothing?
Most of the Mets seem eager to leave 2002 in the ash heap, where it belongs, so there isn't much time or energy spent on Valentine these days. He had both friends and enemies on the roster, but with so many new players now in camp, the club's gaze is forward-directed.
3) What are the "real" chances that David Cone is going to make the ball club this season? If David Cone is a legitimate candidate to make the club as a 5th starter, what does this mean about the other potential 5th starters (Heilman, Bacsik, Middlebrook) and is does the future look bleak for starters to take over? Is the race for the fifth rotation spot a legitimate one, or is it predetermined that either Heilman gets the spot now or if not, the winner is just a placeholder for Heilman?
Cone has a realistic chance to become the No. 5 starter, which is fairly remarkable considering he didn't pick up a baseball in 2002. But so far, he's shown a fairly impressive fastball, clocked in the high 80s, and still seems able to control a hitter's bat-speed. For the short term, the Mets seem willing to keep prospects like Middlebrook and Bacsik on hold, just because Cone offers so many dividends, on and off the field.
4) Ty Wigginton put up reasonable power numbers considering the fact that he didn't get that many at bats last year. I know that his defense is questionable at times, but is he really that much of a step down from an ailing Alfonzo? Were Wigginton's defensive struggles truly a reflection of his utility status and not getting enough play at third base, or does he have problems that concern the coaches? And are the Mets "really" content to go into the season with Wigginton at 3rd, or are they seriously persuing other options?
The front office is saying als the right things about Wigginton - at least in public. But they're giving this experiment another week to 10 days, before deciding whether Wigginton can be trusted for an entire season. If not, they'll renew efforts to acquire Shea Hillenbrand.
5) Given all of the hype about Mo Vaughn's weight and subsequent conditioning program this off season, one would expect some improvement over last year's numbers. Compared to last season, how much better does Mo look and more importantly, is he past his ailments and should we expect him to contribute like he did previously with the Red Sox and early with the Angels?
If physical conditioning counts for anything, Vaughn should have a better year than 2002. He's lost 22 pounds, and has reduced his body-fat from 20 per cent to 13.5. Still, it's not all about pounds and inches, since Vaughn hit .314 last September, when he was at his heaviest. More likely, Vaughn will improve because he won't have to deal with a full year's rustiness, as he did in 2002.
6) Do you think that Doubleday's misunderstanding of the importance of minor league development and distinct lack of baseball savvy was an inhibiting factor over the years that has now been lifted?
Doubleday really had very little to do with the club's day-to-day operations, particularly in the last few years. He was too consumed with defeating Wilpon in court, so the decline in the Mets' farm system can't be fairly laid at his doorstep.
7) One of last year's few pleasant surprises was the emergence of southpaw Jaime Cerda out of the bullpen (2.45 ERA in 25.2 innings pitched). What do you think of Cerda's future with the club, and just how much do you estimate the arrival of Mike Stanton will curtail the action Cerda sees?
Cerda has a terrific fastball and a real future with the Mets, but for now, they're leaning on Stanton. Yankee executives predict Stanton should be able to give Howe at least 1 - 1 1/2 solid seasons, although they doubt whether he'll be effective for all three years of his contract.
8) Will Al Leiter be able to put a sub-par '02 behind him and pitch better now that he won't be the Mets go-to-guy as the number 1 in the rotation?
It sure looks like Leiter will benefit from Tom Glavine's tutoring, especially in reminding him there's two sides of the plate. Leiter became so dependant on his cut-fastball, he lost the element of surprise, particularly against right-handed hitters. Glavine is emphasizing that Leiter re-discover his tailing, two-seam fastball which covers the outsider corner to righties, and will give Leiter another significant weapon.
9) Who of the veterans invited to the Mets' Spring Training Complex will be on the Mets roster come opening day? (Cone? Grahame Lloyd? Jay Bell? Tony Clark?)
David Cone, Jay Bell.
10) How much do trade rumors affect players? And how much attention do they really pay to what the media -- and especially fans -- say about them?
Every players reads and listens to trade rumors. And they all know what's being written in the papers about them, one way or another.
11) Is team chemistry an overrated commodity for a veteran team? And how important is the manager in maintaining that chemistry? Do you think the team's age is a factor, non-factor?
It sure helps a team when the players like and respect each other, evidenced by the Yankees of the late 90s. The Bombers didn't just play with each other, they played FOR each other, and in a pennant race, or in a critical moment in the playoffs, that chemistry reveals itself. The flip-side, the worst-case scenario, was the '92 Mets - an impressive collection of on-paper talent which was, in reality, a multi-million dollar failure. The clubhouse was so poisonous, Jeff Torborg completely lost control of his own team, and by June everyone was counting the days until season's end.
12) How does a situation like pending free agency affect a team? Valentine pointed to Leiter and Alfonzo's situations as distractions, and we all know Alomar could cause problems. How long will the Mets wait with regard to Roberto Alomar? Will they wait until after the trade deadline to extend his deal or after the season? Have teams asked about acquiring him? Do you foresee Roberto Alomar's lack of a contract extension becoming a major concern as the season develops? And do unaffected players get caught up in the whole saga as well, or do they tune the whole thing out?
Alomar was deeply disappointed at the Mets' refusal to hire a cultural liaison for the team's Spanish-speaking players - a confidante who not only spoke the language but understand the societal and cultural gap Latino players contend with in America. The Mets didn't grant Alomar his wish, which is just one more reason he'll likely bolt after this season.
13) Can Gary Carter's presence in camp impact Piazza's defense? What kinds of things are they working on?
Adding Carter to the spring training coaching staff was a nice symbolic gesture, although it's unlikely to turn Piazza into a Gold Glove candidate. He is what he is: an awesome hitter who's been cursed with slow feet and a mediocre arm. There's only so much Piazza, or Carter, can do about that.
14) Although Roger Cedeno ended last season stealing ten bases and having a .388 on-base percentage in the month of September, his defense left much to be desired all season. Just how set in stone is his job as the starting center fielder? Is there any reason to believe that he'll fare better in center at Shea than he did playing the corner spot? What does Brett Butler -- and the rest of the staff -- see in Roger Ceden that makes him think Cedeno can be a solid defensive centerfielder? Keeping in mind that Art Howe won't play musical outfielders to the extent Bobby Valentine did, how much of Tsuyoshi Shinjo and Timo Perez (vs. righties) will we see? How does he see the OF situation unfolding and how does he feel Howe will will handle having a Lineup full of lefties?
It's hard to believe the Mets will trust Cedeno in centerfield very long. His instincts just aren't good enough to last an entire season, or perhaps even an entire spring training schedule. The Mets' pipe-dream is to shift Cedeno to right, somehow dealing Jeromy Burnitz for a starting pitcher, and putting Timo Perez in center.
15) What do the Mets plan on doing with Scott Kazmir and how far along is he? Will the Mets try and use Kazmir in any trade deadline deals? Is he untouchable?
There is absolutely, unconditionally no way the Mets will deal Kazmir. He's an untouchable today, tomorrow and for the next year or two, or however long it takes him to get to Shea.
16) Which of last season's many disappointments (Vaughn, Burnitz, Alomar, Cedeno) would you consider a good candidate for a major comeback season, if any?
The best guess is that Alomar will rebound most impressively of the bunch, primarily because his struggles were rooted in spiritual and emotional problems as a first-year player in New York. He's more comfortable now with Shea's surroundings, and that should translate into better numbers in 2003.
17) Do you get the sense that the players and coaches of this team really believes it's a contender?
The Mets aren't naïve enough to consider themselves favorites to win the East, but there's a universal belief in the clubhouse that this is a vastly improved team over the 2002 edition. Adding Tom Glavine changed the organization's entire self-image, and to a lesser extent so did Cliff Floyd. And as previously mentioned, finally being liberated from the Valentine-Phillips steel cage match has created a short-term boost in the clubhouse's morale. Still the Mets know the Braves are the team to beat in the division, especially if Mike Hampton's two-seam fastball has been resurrected.
18) Do you know why the Mets failed to offer any of their players arbitration after last season? If offered arbitration, would any have likely left, earning the Mets compensatory draft picks? If Edgardo Alfonzo had been offered, and accepted, arbitration, how much do you think he would have likely cost the Mets this year?
Letting Edgardo Alfonzo leave New York could be the worst decision Steve Phillips ever made, especially since he was counting on Japanese third baseman Norihiro Nakamura. The Mets never imagined Nakamura would ever turn down their two-year, $6 million offer. Why did the Mets pursue Alfonzo so listlessly once he became a free agent? Phillips still hasn't given the world a coherent answer.
19) Who do you think will be the most improved team (or teams) in the league in 2003?
The Mets have a chance to arch eyebrows, if all their question marks - Vaughn, Alomar, Glavine and even Howe - respond positively. And pay attention to the Expos, too. Orlando Hernandez should give NL hitters fits with his funky delivery.
20) To what degree do sports reporters balance their loyalty/kinship to the club they're covering with their duty to provide their readers with full disclosure (as it seems certain reporters serve as nothing more than organizational/ personal mouthpieces - i.e., Bill Madden, Mike Francesa)?
Any professional reporter is paid for scoops, period. You're judged on the stories you write - as well as the ones you don't write. Generally speaking, a reporter's only loyalty is to his own by-line and the newspaper that publishes it.
Again, a special thanks to Bob Klapisch for taking time to help give some of his insights on the Mets heading into the 2003 season.
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