Scouting The Opponents: New York Mets

The Phillies and Mets have continued their war of words and it's likely to continue through the 2009 season and potentially long after that. The two teams figure to battle near the top of the NL East, but have the Mets improved enough to knock the Phillies off of their throne.

Manager Jerry Manuel's address to Mets players before the first full-squad workout of spring training didn't explicitly mention the team's September collapses the previous two Septembers. Instead, the only passing reference, according to Manuel, was him saying: "Everything we've gone through is preparation."

Manuel, who took over when Willie Randolph was fired last June, quickly made sure his fingerprints were on his first spring training at the Mets' helm. He had additional flat-screen televisions installed throughout the clubhouse. After the first full-squad workout, a highlight reel of the Mets' top 2008 opposite-field hits were playing on all the TVs to drive home the importance of those types of at-bats.

That's part of Manuel's message to his players this spring to take a team-first approach and do the little things on the field, like going the opposite way with a runner on base, that the manager feels the Mets have been lacking.

It's a similar message that Manuel is preaching to shortstop Jose Reyes about steals. The actual number of steals is unimportant. It's important that steals are attempted at the right time, and not just to contend for the National League lead in that category. Manuel said the Mets haven't been consciously selfish, but they have displayed those tendencies.

"I'm just trying to take this to a different level," Manuel said. "Stolen bases aren't important to me. It's important when you steal the base. You know what I'm saying? Just to have the numbers aren't important. It's when you steal a base that's important."

Third baseman David Wright said Manuel brings to the Mets the perfect combination of being a players' manager, but also a stickler for detail. "You get the best of both worlds with Jerry," Wright said. "He's a tremendous players' manager, where you feel like you can talk to him about anything. And he's a tremendous motivator, and will push you and really make you reach your potential."

The Bronx Tale

  • Left-hander Johan Santana, who had been scratched from a February 27 "B" game against Italy's World Baseball Classic team because of elbow tightness, tossed a bullpen session March 1. He reported no problems with the elbow after throwing 31 pitches.

    "I'm not concerned at all, but I want to be extra, extra, extra cautious with this," Manuel said. "That's my ace. I've got to play that card when I need it."

    Added pitching coach Dan Warthen: "He doesn't throw a lot in the winter, and he throws a lot in the summer, as we well know. I just think when you lift during the winter and you don't throw, you get yourself in shape, your muscles get stronger, but they also contract. This is nothing out of the ordinary."

  • Jose Reyes, who is being tested in the number three hole in the lineup this spring, may return to his customary leadoff spot during the regular season, manager Jerry Manuel said. "That's very possible," Manuel said. "Whatever we feel will fit to win. All we're doing is creating options."
  • Right-hander Tim Redding, who underwent surgery November 28 to repair a stress fracture in his left foot, hasn't been throwing off a mound due to shoulder discomfort. Redding speculated that he tried to ramp up activity too quickly upon arriving in camp after being inactive this off-season while recovering from the foot procedure. Pitching coach Dan Warthen expects Redding's first game appearance will come March 8.
  • J.J. Putz left camp for the birth of his son, Joseph Ethan, on February 26 in Phoenix. The reliever returned to camp for one appearance before accompanying 3B David Wright to Team USA's World Baseball Classic training site in Clearwater, Fla.

ROSTER REPORT
The Mets' relief staff helped cause a late-season meltdown in 2008, so a revamping of the bullpen was in order. That was taken care of at the winter meetings, when GM Omar Minaya signed free agent closer Francisco Rodriguez and traded for J.J. Putz, who will serve as a setup man.

In-Coming: RHP Francisco Rodriguez (free agent from Angels), RHP J.J. Putz (trade with Mariners), OF Jeremy Reed (trade with Mariners), RHP Sean Green (trade with Mariners), RHP Darren O'Day (Rule 5 selection from Angels), RHP Rocky Cherry (Rule 5 selection from Orioles), RHP Connor Robertson (trade with Diamondbacks), RHP Tim Redding (free agent from Nationals), LHP Casey Fossum (minor league free agent from Tigers), INF Alex Cora (free agent from Red Sox), RHP Freddy Garcia (minor league free agent from Tigers), OF Cory Sullivan (free agent from Rockies), RHP Livan Hernandez (minor league free agent from Rockies).

Out-Going: RHP Joe Smith (traded to Indians), RHP Aaron Heilman (traded to Mariners, then traded again to Cubs), OF Endy Chavez (traded to Mariners), LHP Scott Schoeneweis (traded to Diamondbacks), OF Trot Nixon (free agent, signed minor league deal with Brewers), RHP Claudio Vargas (free agent, signed with Dodgers).

The Spring game plan
With a new season beginning, the Mets hope to put consecutive September swoons behind them. RHP Freddy Garcia is in camp on a minor league deal. If he's healthy, he's likely to claim the fifth spot in the rotation. Garcia will compete with Tim Redding, who should wind up in the bullpen if Garcia beats him out. Rookie left-hander Jon Niese, another competitor, could be bumped to Triple-A Buffalo if he fails to win the spot.

Also, second baseman Luis Castillo's early performance will be scrutinized. The Mets unsuccessfully tried to deal Castillo, who has three years remaining on his contract at a total of $18 million.

PROJECTED ROTATION:
1. LHP Johan Santana
2. RHP Mike Pelfrey
3. LHP Oliver Perez
4. RHP John Maine
5. RHP Freddy Garcia

Santana returns from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, and he might bail on Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic as a precaution. He's the undisputed ace, as he didn't lose last season after June 28. Pelfrey, 25, finally realized his first-round-pick potential in 2008. He logged 200 2/3 innings while going 13-11 with a 3.72 ERA. Perez's re-signing and the return of Maine from surgery to shave down a bony growth on his right shoulder blade mean the rotation has a familiar look to last season.

PROJECTED BULLPEN:
RHP Francisco Rodriguez (closer)
RHP J.J. Putz
RHP Duaner Sanchez
LHP Pedro Feliciano
RHP Sean Green
RHP Brian Stokes
RHP Tim Redding

After the Mets blew 29 saves in 2008, GM Omar Minaya's primary winter objective was to revamp the bullpen. Billy Wagner is out until September, if not the entire season, following Tommy John surgery, while Scott Schoeneweis, Aaron Heilman and Joe Smith were all traded away. The Mets added two closers to lock down the eighth and ninth innings with K-Rod and Putz.

Sanchez still has yet to find the success he had before a July 2006 taxi-cab accident that sidelined him for 20 months, but Mets officials hope he's finally ready to re-emerge. Stokes, who performed solidly in September after spending much of the season at Triple-A New Orleans, is out of options, so the Mets figure to trade him if he can't fit on the roster.

Mets officials would like to add a second left-hander to the bullpen to join Feliciano, so Valerio de los Santos or Casey Fossum (who are both in camp on minor league contracts) could sneak onto the Opening Day roster barring another acquisition. Rule 5 pick Darren O'Day, a submarine pitcher from the right side, has an outside chance to stick, since the Mets lost a dropdown reliever with the trade of Joe Smith to the Indians.

PROJECTED LINEUP:
1. SS Jose Reyes
2. LF Daniel Murphy
3. 3B David Wright
4. CF Carlos Beltran
5. 1B Carlos Delgado
6. RF Ryan Church
7. 2B Luis Castillo
8. C Brian Schneider

Manager Jerry Manuel will have some interesting decisions as far as the batting order, and he has suggested he might bat Castillo leadoff and Reyes in a power slot on occasion. It's a lefty-heavy lineup with Murphy, Delgado, Church and Schneider all hitting from that side of the plate to go along with switch-hitters Reyes, Beltran and Castillo. Against southpaws, Fernando Tatis is expected to start over Murphy in left field and Ramon Castro behind the plate for Schneider.

The lineup remains intact from last season, with GM Omar Minaya satisfied that last year's team scored adequately. One question mark will be whether Murphy, who hit .313 in 131 at-bats as a rookie last season, and Tatis, the National League's Comeback Player of the Year for 2008, can duplicate their performances.

PROJECTED RESERVES:
C Ramon Castro
INF Alex Cora
OF Fernando Tatis
OF Marlon Anderson
OF Jeremy Reed

Cora replaces Damion Easley as the Mets' backup infielder, giving the Mets a bona fide replacement at shortstop should Jose Reyes need to sit. It also lessens the Mets' susceptibility to injury, since Easley was banged up last year.

Manager Jerry Manuel has shown little patience with Luis Castillo, so Cora could see plenty of action at second base if Castillo starts the season slowly.

Since Tatis and Castro should start against southpaws, the Mets' bench on those days would currently consist entirely of left-handers (Daniel Murphy, Brian Schneider, Cora, Reed and Anderson). So the Mets are expected to try to add a right-handed bat for the bench, potentially jeopardizing Marlon Anderson's chances of making the team despite a guaranteed contract. Reed is the favorite to be a backup outfielder, but Cory Sullivan, Rob Mackowiak and Angel Pagan all are in camp as well.

TOP ROOKIES
Left-hander Jon Niese tossed eight scoreless innings against the Braves in September, and Mets officials for much of the winter talked about him being the favorite to claim the number five starter's role. Hard-throwing righty Bobby Parnell primarily worked as a starter in the minors, but he could challenge for a bullpen role.

CF Fernando Martinez, the organization's top prospect, hit .287 with eight homers and 43 RBIs at Double-A Binghamton last season, but he was limited to 86 games by a recurring right hamstring injury. He should start the season at Triple-A Buffalo, but he figures to make his major league debut in 2009.



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