HE HAD become asymbol of everything that had gone so horribly wrong last September. Theyapping heads, even some of the Mets faithful, had said in the off-season thatthe team would be better off if he were traded. "A lot of people weredisappointed and angry at me," says leadoff hitter and shortstop JoseReyes, who batted .226 and had a .309 OBP during the ignominious 6--13 finishthat lost them the division last season. "They should blame me. I takeresponsibility. Now I'm ready to show I've changed."
Newly acquiredace Johan Santana may be hailed as the Shea Stadium savior, but New York has nochance for redemption unless Reyes returns to form as the game's premiertable-setter. The switch-hitter's performance is critical, especially given thenumber of Mets injured this spring: leftfielder Moises Alou (hernia), firstbaseman Carlos Delgado (forearm), second baseman Luis Castillo (knee) wereamong 10 position players inactive at the same time in March. Says an NLgeneral manager, "Anything other than big years from their core—Reyes,[third baseman David] Wright and [centerfielder Carlos] Beltran—could spelltrouble for them. Reyes is most important; so much of what they do starts withhim."
The discontentwith Reyes started before the late-season swoon. He was criticized by Metscoaches for lackadaisical play (manager Willie Randolph benched him in July fornot running out a ground ball), and opposing teams resented his showycelebrations. (One home run dance with former teammate Lastings Milledgeignited a brawl between the Mets and Marlins.) After the season the club was soconcerned about its shortstop's state of mind that Randolph and general managerOmar Minaya visited Reyes at his home in the Dominican Republic to reaffirmtheir faith in him.
A noticeably moresubdued Reyes arrived at spring training. "I want to be more focused,"he declared solemnly on the day he reported. Reyes no longer wants toparticipate in the popular Professor Reyes skits, in which Reyes teachesSpanish in clips played between innings on the Shea Stadium scoreboard. Alsogone, he says, are the dances he's choreographed with Delgado and Wright thelast two seasons. At the plate the switch-hitter has vowed to cut down on hisswing after many believed his struggles were tied to an attempt to inflate hishome run total. After drilling a ball off the centerfield wall during a game inPort St. Lucie this spring, Reyes was nearly apologetic. "I don't know howI hit it that hard," he said. "I just wanted to hit it the other wayand use my speed."
The lineup isunchanged from last year's, but a consistently productive season from Reyeswill increase run production. The team's run prevention should improve too,with Santana joining a pair of 26-year-olds, John Maine and Oliver Perez, whoemerged as solid middle-of-the-rotation starters last season. Pedro Martinez,36, exceeded even the Mets' expectations this spring, as his fastballconsistently hit the low 90s. "His fastball is harder than the last twoyears," says backup catcher Ramon Castro, who frequently catches Martinez."Different Pedro."
Nothing, however,would take the air out of Santana's signing like a leaky bullpen. New Yorkhopes that righthander Duaner Sanchez, who had established himself as one ofthe NL's top setup men before he separated his shoulder in a car accident inJuly 2006, can be the bridge to closer Billy Wagner. The return of Sanchezwould allow righty Aaron Heilman to become a seventh-inning specialist. SaysMinaya, "If we had a healthy Duaner last year, I really do think thingswould have gone differently."
The Mets hear theclock ticking—only three of the regulars in their lineup are in their 20s—butwhether they can exceed the 88 wins of last year and get into the playoffs willdepend on the 24-year-old Reyes. Instead of the leading entertainer in thedugout, he is the leading man on the field again.
PROJECTED ROSTER WITH 2007 STATISTICS
FOURTH SEASON WITH NEW YORK
New acquisitionB-T: Bats-throws
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 62)
a modest proposal...
There's been talkthat the Mets would use a six-man rotation as a means of nursing fragilestarters Pedro Martinez, 36, and Orlando Hernandez, 38, through the season.Credit the team for its initiative, but a better solution would be to start theseason with a five-man rotation that excludes Mike Pelfrey, giving New York a5A starter it can plug in whenever Pedro or El Duque could use two weeks off.Extra rest between starts doesn't necessarily keep pitchers off the disabledlist, and a six-man rotation is a hindrance to getting maximum value from JohanSantana, as well as John Maine and Oliver Perez. By starting Pelfrey (left) offin the pen, thereby gradually building his innings count, the team will have afresher arm later in the season, when, incidentally, Martinez and Hernandez aremore likely to need the time off.
Batting averagelast season of Carlos Delgado, a career low. It was also his worst year for OBP(.333) and slugging (.448). The 15-year veteran suffered most when hittingcleanup, where his averages were .216/.308/.377. While batting fifth, a spothe'll occupy most frequently in '08 (with Carlos Beltran settled in the fourthspot), Delgado's numbers (.294/.355/.505) were more in line with his careernorms.
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EXCERPTED FROM SI
DEC. 22, 1969
IT IS, more than anything else, the striving forexcellence that Tom Seaver transmitted to his teammates. He became their leaderby setting them a rare example. He had planned, on winning his 20th game, tocelebrate by taking his wife Nancy out for an expensive dinner. But he wonnumber 20 as the first game of a doubleheader against Philadelphia. The Metsthen lost their second game, and Seaver saw no reason to celebrate. He and hiswife dined at a hamburger stand.
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¬†RED-HOTCORNER At third base Wright can do no wrong. The popular 25-year-old is comingoff career highs in home runs and batting average.
TWIG/CAL SPORT MEDIA (PELFREY)
WALTER IOOSS JR. (COVER)