2003-02-08 / Sports

Quietly, Mets’ Trachsel Slips Back Into Rotation

Baseball Columnist
By Bryan Hoch

Baseball Columnist

Steve Trachsel will go into spring training as one of the starters for the Mets.Steve Trachsel will go into spring training as one of the starters for the Mets.

Ask your average rabid baseball aficionado for a rundown of just what the Mets did this offseason on the open market, and you’ll get the standard-issue response – they swiped underappreciated veteran Tom Glavine away from the Braves, wooed road-weary Cliff Floyd away from the Red Sox and landed Mike Stanton on the cold-shouldered rebound from the Yankees’ clubhouse.

And while there’s a strong wave of second-guessing raining down upon GM Steve Phillips for his decision to part ways with third baseman Edgardo Alfonzo, nary a word has been spoken or written regarding righthander Steve Trachsel.

That’s why it was easy to both understand and forgive Trachsel during last week’s Mets winter caravan, when he didn’t sound as much like an elated individual as much as he did a personality who hasn’t quite received his due share of publicity for returning to New York.

"I’m excited about every new season," Trachsel said, when asked how much the Mets’ offseason moves had invigorated him. "But the way the game is now, there’s new moves with every year. You could even say now bringing me back could have been a new move, even though I was here for two years already."

New San Francisco Giants' Ray Durham, left, and Edgardo Alfonzo put on their new jerseys at a press conference to welcome the Giants'new acquisitions. (AP Photo/George Nikitin)New San Francisco Giants' Ray Durham, left, and Edgardo Alfonzo put on their new jerseys at a press conference to welcome the Giants'new acquisitions. (AP Photo/George Nikitin)

Truth be told, it was never quite clear whether or not Trachsel was even going to fit into the Mets’ plans for 2003, with negotiations lukewarm at best leading up to a midnight Dec. 8 deadline.

With Glavine having inked a three-year deal with the Mets earlier that week, it actually seemed more likely that New York might spend their free-agent budget on a hitter. Speculation arose that the Mets were entertaining bringing back Alfonzo, their starting third baseman and leading hitter with a .304 batting average, rather than Trachsel, who went 11-11 with a 3.37 ERA as the Mets’ fourth starter.

Instead, with just precious minutes left on the clock before the 32-year-old righthander would have been ineligible to re-sign with the Mets until May 1st, Phillips and agent Sam and Seth Levinson hammered out the final wording on a two-year, $8 million deal.

Alfonzo, meanwhile, was issued his walking papers and would shortly land a long-term deal with the Giants to take over for the departed David Bell, who moved to man third base for the Phillies at Veterans Stadium.

"I guess there was probably a small point in that last day where we finally got a deal done that I didn’t think I was going to be back," Trachsel recalls. "But this is the place I always wanted to come. In the back of their heads I think they knew that, and that when it came down to the last minute, we’d finally get something done."

Unlike with Glavine and Floyd, there was no lush celebration planned in Shea Stadium’s Diamond Club restaurant to announce Trachsel’s re-arrival. That’s not all that surprising, considering Trachsel is still best known in New York for getting thoroughly rocked to the tune of a 2-10 record and 8.23 ERA in his first two months as a Met in 2001.

And when that’s all but forgotten, his detractors will chip away at the snail-like pace at which he plies his trade on the mound – it’s hard to forget the Aug. 28 game this past season against the Dodgers at Shea, where the exasperated home crowd began to impressively jeer in unison for Trachsel to "Throw the ball! Throw the ball!"

But since being demoted to Triple-A Norfolk in late May 2001 – where he threw a seven-inning no-hitter on May 29th – Trachsel has been among the better pitchers in baseball, with a cumulative 3.36 ERA that compares nicely to the upper echelon of starters. In fact, upon his return to the majors, Trachsel even found himself throwing harder, with his fastball jumping three to four miles per hour to crack the low 90’s.

Trachsel sees some of the ‘vintage’ version of himself – pre-demotion – in the rest of the Mets’ roster that had a similar course of frustrating struggles last season.

"I’m sure there’s guys that want to prove that they can be better than they were last season. I had that same thing last year," he said. "I wanted to prove that the first year wasn’t the real me."

Barring injury, it’s essentially written in stone that Trachsel will re-up in his old rotation spot from last season, balancing out a top starting four that includes lefties Glavine and Al Leiter and righthander Pedro Astacio – a salty, experienced staff whose only concern should be staying healthy through the course of a 162-game campaign.

But while most of his teammates used the caravan week to boast about a newfound club unity that painted a picture of a clubhouse either ready to win a division or to lock hands and sing "Kumbaya", Trachsel had a more realistic viewpoint when asked for an opinion about just how this season might shape up for the Mets.

"It’s so too early to even say how those are going to play out," he said. "Obviously, I like [having] Cliff Floyd, but the big thing for me is just getting everybody to gel together as quick as possible. [I’ll] get to know all the new guys, just get to spring training and make sure everything’s ready to go."

Perhaps that’s because Trachsel hasn’t had ample opportunity to soak up the good vibes apparently being generated by new manager Art Howe, who guided the Athletics to three straight 100-win seasons before taking the Big Apple challenge this year.

Most of the comments from players last week pointed to Howe as the driving force behind the Mets’ seemingly endless supply of optimism, but Trachsel was a latecomer for the Mets’ caravan. He arrived in town on Jan. 29, a day after the initial media day at Madison Square Garden, and wandered into Gallagher’s Steak House in Manhattan just as the media was beginning to again besiege Howe for an array of quotes and anecdotes.

"Nice guy, I talked to him for about four minutes," Trachsel said. "It’s hard to come to these events and get to know guys, so once we get to spring training we’ll get to know everybody. I think that’ll be a lot better."

¦Mets righthander Grant Roberts signed a one-year contract worth $310,000 this week, so he certainly could afford to take a few professional bowling lessons.

However, there wasn’t time for Roberts to search the Yellow Pages at last week’s John Franco Celebrity Bowl for Babies at Chelsea Piers, a charity event benefiting the March of Dimes. When pitching coach Vern Ruhle bet Roberts a steak dinner that he wouldn’t break a score of 80 bowling with his left hand (Roberts was on the disabled list twice last season with pitching arm issues), he instead he turned to the nearest able-bodied bowler – yours truly.

Being a southpaw myself and having done a little bit of bowling in my free time, I guided Roberts through the basics of throwing strikes left-handed; approach the pins straight, keep the arm tight to the body and aim for that third arrow to the left. In his first frame, Roberts threw a strike, and the 25-year-old hurler became a believer.

Roberts eventually bowled an 88, earning that night out with the stunned Ruhle, and I can go on telling everybody that I actually taught a Mets pitcher how to throw strikes. Whether they believe it or not, that’s another story.

Bryan Hoch appears regularly in the Wave. He can be contacted at bryanhoch@yahoo.com.

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