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2 New York Mets Will a new look--more power, less speed and a long-sought ace--produce more wins?

Todd Zeile is so Cali surfer boy that one could easily squeeze
his head and uncork two duuudes, a bitchin' and a bottle of sun
block. There's just something about the Van Nuys native's
mannerisms--real laid back, real slow talkin'. Everything is taken
in stride. Panic is never seen. Hang loose. Kick it. "That's my
image," says Zeile, laughing, "and it's not even close to being

This off-season, when he agreed to a three-year, $18 million deal
to leave Texas, join the Mets and switch from third to first
base, the 34-year-old Zeile was bombarded with questions from
friends and relatives, mostly along the lines of Have you gone
mental? Zeile was a key factor in the Rangers' winning two
straight American League West titles. He was happy and
comfortable in Arlington. "I wasn't lying when I told people I
thought New York had the best chance of reaching the World
Series," he says, "but there was another reason I came here."

Simply put, the surfer boy is a Noo Yawkah at heart. He recently
rented an apartment in Manhattan's East Village. His favorite
restaurant, Da Tommaso, is located in midtown. "And the museums
are just spectacular," says Zeile, whose hands-down
favorite--"because my son loves the dinosaurs"--is the Museum of
Natural History. "The cultural diversity of New York was a huge
draw for me," says Zeile. "How couldn't you be excited?"

Reason 1: Ed Whitson Disease (a.k.a. big-time pressure). Zeile
will be expected to start 150 games, hit 25 to 30 home runs,
drive in 90 to 100 runs and play stellar defense at a position
where he has 76 games of big league experience--and do so while
Mets fans retain fresh memories of John Olerud, a soft-handed,
even-tempered Big Apple favorite who, before signing a free-agent
deal with the Mariners, used to ride the number 7 train to Shea.
To meet the defensive demands, Zeile spent much of his spring
working with former Mets Gold Glover Keith Hernandez, who
preached the concepts of good footwork and balance.

Zeile's main challenge won't be learning the pitchers in the NL
(where he has spent nearly 10 of his 11 major league seasons) but
finding the bag without looking, getting in proper position and
holding runners on. He is, until otherwise proven, the weak link
in what was baseball's best defensive infield last season. "It's
not an easy transition," says manager Bobby Valentine, "but
Todd's a great athlete, and he seems to understand the game

Plus, he's been through this before. Two years after Zeile
started 105 games as a rookie catcher with St. Louis, in 1990,
then Cardinals skipper Joe Torre moved him to third base. It was
a heartbreaking switch. "I took pride in being a good defensive
catcher," Zeile says. Since then he has avoided an infielder's
boredom by imagining games through a catcher's eyes, still
calling each pitch to himself.

Zeile is part of a mini-makeover that, if things go according to
plan, will allow the Mets to overtake the Braves and win their
first division title in 12 seasons. The other big pickup was Mike
Hampton, who placed second to Arizona's Randy Johnson in last
season's NL Cy Young Award voting. Hampton, acquired for speedy
outfielder Roger Cedeno and pitching prodigy Octavio Dotel,
allows the rest of the staff to fall into place. Fellow
lefthander Al Leiter isn't a No. 1 starter, a role he had filled
by default, but he fits in perfectly behind Hampton. Leiter spent
much of the off-season tinkering with his cut fastball, a pitch
that guided him to 17 wins and a 2.47 ERA two years ago but
regularly missed the corners in 1999. "I probably controlled the
inside and outside of the plate one out of every five starts last
year," says Leiter. "If you do that three or four times out of
five, you win 20 games." Valentine is counting on righty Bobby J.
Jones (not to be confused with lefty teammate Bobby M. Jones), an
All-Star in '97, to rebound from the shoulder injury that limited
him to nine starts, and steady righty Rick Reed to win his 10 to
15 games.

Although the Mets lost much of their speed with the departure of
Cedeno and his team-record 66 steals, they should make up for it
with enhanced pop. Zeile won't walk as often as Olerud, but he'll
hit more home runs. Catcher Mike Piazza, third baseman Robin
Ventura and second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo are good for about 30
homers each, and 31-year-old rightfielder Derek Bell, acquired
with Hampton, slumped last season but had 22 homers and 108 RBIs
in 1998.

"Clearly, we look like an improved team," says Ventura, who, like
shortstop Rey Ordonez, won a Gold Glove in '99, "but you never
know how things will mesh until you go out and play. I've been on
teams with great talent that just don't work. Everyone has to
come through."

That starts with Zeile, the catcher in infielder's clothes. --J.P.

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON IF AT FIRST.... Although Zeile must adjust to a new team and a new position--again--at least he's comfortable with life in New York.


around the Horn

[4 stars]
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[4 stars]

by the numbers

1999 Team Statistics (NL rank)

Batting average .279 (2)
Runs scored 853 (5)
Home runs 181 (9)

1999 record: 97-66 (second in NL East)

Opponents' batting average .252 (4)
ERA 4.27 (5)
Fielding percentage .989 (1)

next up...

His legend was secured against the Braves in Game 6 of the 1999
National League Championship Series. Melvin Mora, an eight-year
minor leaguer, had entered as a pinch hitter in the eighth. Two
innings later he fielded an Ozzie Guillen single to right and
made a stunning, one-bounce throw to nail Ryan Klesko at third.
"People get excited over the things they see," says Mets manager
Bobby Valentine, "but Melvin doesn't really have a Grade A arm.
He has other tools that make it seem that way." Like good
instincts. And a quick release. And versatility. The 28-year-old
Mora, who spent part of the 1998 season in Taiwan, played well
enough in last year's playoffs (including a Game 2 homer against
Atlanta) to all but secure a utility spot on New York's 2000
roster. He plays six positions--all relatively smoothly. "The
more I can do," says Mora, "the more valuable I am."

the lineup
projected roster with 1999 statistics

Manager: Bobby Valentine (fifth season with New York)


LF Rickey Henderson R-L 95 .315 12 42 37
CF Darryl Hamilton L-R 178 .315 9 45 6
2B Edgardo Alfonzo R 30 .304 27 108 9
C Mike Piazza R 13 .303 40 124 2
3B Robin Ventura L-R 39 .301 32 120 1
1B Todd Zeile[1] R 63 .293 24 98 1
RF Derek Bell[1] R 185 .236 12 66 18
SS Rey Ordonez R 267 .258 1 60 8


IF Melvin Mora R 281 .161 0 1 2
OF Jay Payton* (R) R 352 .389 8 35 2
OF Jon Nunnally*[1] L-R 340 .267 23 76 26
IF Matt Franco L-R 356 .235 4 21 0
C Todd Pratt R 364 .293 3 21 2


LH Mike Hampton[1] 8 22 4 7.0 1.28 2.90
LH Al Leiter 35 13 12 6.7 1.42 4.23
RH Rick Reed 65 11 5 5.7 1.41 4.58
RH Bobby J. Jones 129 3 3 5.9 1.35 5.61
LH Glendon Rusch* 242 4 7 5.7 1.54 4.42


RH Armando Benitez 15 4 3 22 1.04 1.85
LH John Franco 141 0 2 19 1.45 2.88
LH Dennis Cook 166 10 5 3 1.22 3.86
RH Turk Wendell 177 5 4 3 1.37 3.05
RH Pat Mahomes 182 8 0 0 1.27 3.68
LH Bobby M. Jones[1] 273 6 10 0 1.86 6.33

[1]New acquisition
(R) Rookie
B-T: Bats-throws
IPS: Innings pitched per start
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 164)
*Triple A stats

the book
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Mets

Mike Hampton, Al Leiter and Rick Reed are a great top three, but
there's not much after that.... The righthanded Bobby Jones has
marginal stuff. He tries too hard to be perfect. Bill Pulsipher
has never reached the level he was at in the minors. The other
Bobby Jones, the lefty from Colorado, has a ton of arm strength,
but I don't think he'll ever be consistent. He has a funky arm
action--he never throws the same way twice.... Todd Zeile was a
good pickup to replace John Olerud at first, but he doesn't
stand out in the lineup. People can pitch around Mike Piazza
more now, and Zeile hits into a lot of double plays.... Piazza
is a terrible defensive catcher--stone hands, not much movement.
But his offense clearly makes up for it. His power is monstrous.
Still, they'd be better with Zeile catching and Piazza at
first.... Derek Bell was horrible last year. He's definitely on
the downswing.... Rickey Henderson is still one of the best
leadoff hitters around. He'll steal bases, he'll get on at a
.400 clip. But he's such a pain in the ass, I'd rather do
without him.