If you call the Mets' offices and are put on hold--considering that they were a combined 60 games below .500 over the past three years, the Mets always seem to have a finger on the hold button--you will hear a tape of centerfielder Carlos Beltran talking about the "new Mets" at his introductory press conference in January. Just as New York plucked Beltran out of the free-agent pool in a move that announced the club's intention of knocking Atlanta off its NL East perch, the Mets grabbed his sound bites and made them the centerpiece of a new ad campaign. This proves that in a value-driven baseball economy, $115 million over seven years can get you a five-tool player entering his prime plus a de facto vice president of marketing.
Sloganeering aside, these Mets truly are new. Dinosaur baseball is out. Dynamic baseball is in. The defense is radically improved, team speed is better, and the rotation has changed from a parade of sly soft-tossers into a blend of power and craftsmanship, led by another expensive free-agent pickup, the incomparable Pedro Martinez. He makes the Mets an event every day he pitches and some days even when he doesn't. In spring training he yanked the head off a batting dummy and walked around with it on his own noggin, patrolled the clubhouse with boxing gloves while pretending to fight with teammates and paraded past a minor leaguer doing a card trick in the clubhouse, which doesn't sound like much until you consider that Martinez was wearing nothing but an athletic supporter--on his head.
Of course, the Mets signed Martinez away from the Red Sox for what he can do on the mound. During his 13-year major league career he has won 182 games and put together a 2.71 ERA. "Pedro gives us a defense mechanism, the feeling that he can stop any losing streak," rightfielder Mike Cameron says. "That's the difference in this team: We've got a lot more bullets."
Cameron, a two-time Gold Glove winner, reluctantly agreed to shift from centerfield to right to accommodate Beltran, who could evolve into the most complete position player in the history of a franchise that has been built around pitching for almost four decades. But the shuffle in the interior defense will have more impact. The Mike Piazza--to-first-base experiment is mercifully over, although Piazza is no bargain behind the plate. Taking over at first is the solid Doug Mientkiewicz, who has a .996 career fielding percentage. Last year's shortstop, Kaz Matsui, who adapted slowly to playing on grass in his first major league season out of Japan, has traded positions with Jose Reyes, a natural shortstop who looked distinctly uncomfortable at second in those rare moments in which one of his many leg injuries wasn't keeping him out of the lineup. Matsui still must learn to turn two from the other side of the bag, but he was positively balletic during the spring.
"When you have guys behind you making plays," says lefthander Tom Glavine, who is 39 years old and 38 wins shy of 300, "it becomes a little easier to relax and feel confident about making a good pitch versus having to make a great pitch every time. We now have the defense that could do great things and be one of the best in baseball. If Reyes stays healthy, he could become one of the greatest shortstops of his time and maybe all time."
Those are extraordinary expectations of a 21-year-old, but like Reyes, the Mets are a team in transition. Shortcomings abound. New general manager Omar Minaya hasn't made the Mets great, merely intriguing. New manager Willie Randolph must sort out a suspect bullpen, and there is a dearth of run production beyond Beltran, although third baseman David Wright, entering his first full big league season, should eventually hit 30 homers and drive in 100 runs.
"The old style's out," Minaya says. "The Mets will always be remembered for good pitching, and we still want that, but we also have to be more athletic. There's a buzz about us because people sense that new athleticism, the newness in our organization, the newness in our willingness to spend on free agents."
When you're the Mets, you start anew when the losing gets old. --M.F.
Last year the Mets led the major leagues with a stolen base success rate of 82.3%, reaching the next base safely on 107 of 130 attempts.
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Mets
"THE METS are better, but I don't see it as enough to win the division. If I had spent that much money, I would've addressed a lot more issues.... The biggest weakness is the bullpen. Braden Looper could be coming into his own, but I'd be concerned about how he's going to do in meaningful save situations. Most of his saves last year were meaningless. Who knows if Scott Strickland will be back [from Tommy John surgery] or what Felix Heredia will do?... Kaz Matsui will be O.K. at second base, as long as he accepts the change.... Mike Piazza needs to stay healthy and have a big year offensively. Defensively he works hard, but he's not that good. It might become an issue for Pedro Martinez, who's used to throwing to one of the best catchers in the game.... Pedro has enough left in the tank, and he'll win for them.... I would be concerned about Tom Glavine [showing] his age. He had a tough second half last year and hasn't looked like the old Glavine this spring.... Carlos Beltran seems to be handling all the attention well. He's the whole package."
projected roster with 2004 statistics
CARLOS BELTRAN [New acquisition]
DOUG MIENTKIEWICZ [New acquisition]
RAMON CASTRO [New acquisition]
4th in NL East
first season with New York
New acquisition (R) Rookie B-T: Bats-throws IPS: Innings pitched per start WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched *2003 stats PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 69)
Newcomer Martinez has a flair for the outlandish, which should help keep things loose in the Mets' clubhouse.