2002-05-11 / Sports

Clock Ticks For Mets' Payton

Clock Ticks For Mets' Payton

Clock Ticks For Mets' Payton

By Bryan Hoch - Baseball Columnist

When New York Mets general manager Steve Phillips completed his outright gutting of the club's futile lineup this spring, the most surprising holdover from last year's offensive debacle was outfielder Jay Payton.

After a strained right hamstring sidelined Payton for six weeks and short-circuited a sizzling hot first month of the season, the former Georgia Tech standout staggered to a final batting average of .255 with a paltry eight home runs and 34 RBI.

With the club entertaining serious negotiations with the Texas Rangers for outfielder Gabe Kapler, many close to the organization felt that Payton would be a distant memory come Opening Day.

The Mets and Rangers were never able to come to an agreement, and Payton was one of just twelve Mets to survive the offseason trading frenzy, belting New York's first home run of the year in a 6-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Opening Day at Shea Stadium.

What has transpired since then has been nothing short of utter frustration for Payton and anyone who has watched him with a rooting interest. Mental lapses in the field and on the basepaths have plagued Payton for much of the season, and a dismally slow start at the plate saw him lose his starting job to speedy Timo Perez late in the month.

The fact that Payton was benched in favor of Perez should not have been ultimately surprising to anyone, since it has been well documented that manager Bobby Valentine openly prefers Perez's spark-plug style of play.

What is surprising, however, is that Phillips - arguably Payton's biggest supporter through countless injuries with the Mets and in the minors – appears ready to close the book on Payton's career at Shea.

The Newark Star-Ledger reported this week that Phillips has been contacting the Detroit Tigers and San Diego Padres to shop Payton. Other published reports state that the Mets have interest in 30-30 slugger Jose Cruz, Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays to take over in center field, with starting pitching likely being the ransom demanded by Toronto.

With Perez nursing a strained right hamstring, Payton received the bulk of playing time in center field recently. He enjoyed a productive string on the Mets' recent road trip to Arizona and Houston, achieving the first two-homer game of his career on May 3rd to highlight a 5-for-19 swing.

Despite the good trip, the trade winds are blowing often and early in Payton's direction at Shea. With Phillips no longer appearing to be in his corner, his 'see you later' time could be coming up soon.

Familiar Faces:

Some of the castaways of Steve Phillips' offseason trading spree returned to Shea Stadium this week, with Tsuyoshi Shinjo coming in as a member of the San Francisco Giants and Benny Agbayani, Rick White and Todd Zeile donning the enemy purple of the Colorado Rockies.

Of the four, Zeile is off to the most surprising start. Literally booed out of town after an early-season elbow injury robbed him of his home run power, he was dealt to Colorado with Agbayani in a complex three-way trade in January that netted New York outfielder Jeromy Burnitz from the Milwaukee Brewers.

After switching across the diamond with the Mets in 2000 to fill the first base hole left by free-agent John Olerud's departure to the Seattle Mariners, Zeile has returned to his more comfortable position at third base with Colorado and is all the better for it.

At press time, Zeile was tied for the Colorado club lead with six home runs - more than half his 2001 total of 10. Not to get overly crazy with numbers through the first five weeks of the season, but that puts Zeile on a pace to belt 35 round-trippers in the thin Rocky Mountain air this season.

Around the Majors:

Last week, we highlighted how the Cincinnati Reds have risen to the cream of the crop in the National League Central without the services of Ken Griffey, Jr., who is missing from action with a dislocated right kneecap suffered on April 7.

Excuse us if we don't feel any sympathy for Griffey Jr., who openly whined this week about the way he's been trashed over his three years in Cincinnati by Reds fans and media. After giving the Reds a "hometown discount" by accepting a nine-year, $116.5 million deal in February 2000 - turning down a trade to the Mets in the process - Griffey has failed to lead his club to the promised land, with Cincinnati falling into a 96-loss skid last season.

As Griffey rides the pine and collects his bi-weekly paycheck, the Reds have emerged as one of the more exciting teams in the National League. The fans are enjoying the ride, showing no great hurry to see No. 30 back on the field at Cinergy.

Bryan Hoch regularly covers the New York Mets for MetsOnline.net. He can be contacted via e-mail at bryanhoch@metsonline.net.

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