2003-03-01 / Sports

New York Baseball Returns To The Spotlight

Baseball Columnist
By Bryan Hoch

Mo Vaughn looks to be in good shape for the 2003 Mets’ season.Mo Vaughn looks to be in good shape for the 2003 Mets’ season.

With the opening of the Grapefruit League exhibition season upon us, the collective struggles of the Knicks and Rangers are beginning to take a back seat in New York sports to chatter concerning the Mets and the Yankees.

The Mets, seemingly healthier and happier after having a winter to digest their painful 2002 campaign, are eager to write off last year as an aberration and get right back in the thick of things in the NL East. Meanwhile, the Yankees would also like to be able to forget their premature first-round exit in the AL Division Series against the Anaheim Angels, even if they know that owner George Steinbrenner hasn’t.

Here, then, is a compilation of our answers to the questions you’re asking this week

How good is Hideki Matsui going to be?

Hideki Matsui grounds out in his first action in spring training.Hideki Matsui grounds out in his first action in spring training.

By the hordes of Japanese media shadowing Godzilla’s every move down at Yankees camp in Tampa, you’d think that this guy is going to be Reggie Jackson, Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle all rolled into one.

The truth is, at 28, Matsui – one of the most prolific power hitters in Japanese League history – is just hitting his stride. Last season for the Yomiuri Giants, Matsui batted .334 and crushed 50 home runs, a great accomplishment that becomes even more striking when you consider that he played in just 140 games due to Japan’s shorter baseball schedule. Over the last seven seasons, Matsui has averaged 40 homers a year.

Of course, how well is that going to translate to facing major league pitching? Matsui is certain to face some growing pains as he learns to adjust to facing the best hurlers in the world, and we can’t wait to see how he’ll match up against the likes of Boston’s Pedro Martinez.

But we’ll take the word of Bobby Valentine on this one: the former Mets manager, who managed in Japan for two seasons, believes that Matsui will have no problem cracking 40 homers or more for the Yankees, helped out by the short right-field dimensions of Yankee Stadium. Valentine would know about Japanese talent – he urged GM Steve Phillips to go hard after both Ichiro Suzuki and Kazuhiro Sasaki when both were free agents, and instead wound up with Tsuyoshi Shinjo.

Is Mo Vaughn really in shape?

Hard to believe, but yes, that version of Vaughn you’re seeing on the newswires and on your evening news is actually Mo Lite. Make no mistake, Vaughn’s still a big guy – "He’s never going to be a ballerina," Phillips says – but he’s dropped at least 10-15 pounds from his bulky frame and has added muscle where flab previously resided.

The credit goes to an intensive offseason training regimen at his Ohio home, where he enlisted the help of a conditioning coach and a personal chef to outline a workout program that could get results.

"My size has done some good things in this game," said Vaughn, who batted .259 with 26 homers and 72 RBI last season. "But when you play poorly, that’s what people are going to do (criticize). To make it right, you go out there and swing the bat."

Actually, many of the Mets have suddenly discovered a commitment to physical excellence. Outfielder Roger Cedeno trimmed 10-15 pounds from his own frame to drop down to a very fleet 230, and new acquisition Cliff Floyd is about ten pounds lighter from when he ended the season with the Boston Red Sox.

The million dollar question: How are they going to do?

It’s a little early for pennant race predictions, but we can definitely size up each division a little bit.

The Yankees remain the team to beat in the AL East, with the Red Sox lagging behind, ‘Evil Empire’ quotes and all. The Red Sox could have had power pitcher Bartolo Colon but instead decided they’d rather keep young lefty Casey Fossum (5-4, 3.46), and missed the train on Contreras, causing rookie GM Theo Epstein to reportedly break a chair.

Our outlook: the Yanks get another pennant, the Red Sox finish five games back, the Blue Jays are in third and the Orioles fourth, while Lou Piniella’s hapless Devil Rays struggling all summer to stay above 100 losses.

Meanwhile, the Mets are much better team than they were in 2002 – stronger personnel, a brighter ambience, and we hear Shea Stadium’s even getting a few fresh coats of paint. All of that is nice, but the big questions are how Tom Glavine and Al Leiter will each perform at the golden ages of 37 and whether or not Robbie Alomar and Mo Vaughn can improve over their subpar 2002’s.

We bet that Glavine and Leiter combine for 30 wins and Alomar puts up great numbers in this, the walk year of his contract, while Vaughn slugs 30 homers. It’s not enough, however, as the Phillies ride power hitter Jim Thome and Atlanta castoff Kevin Millwood to the NL East crown. Meanwhile, the Braves, boosted by Mike Hampton’s successful return to sea level, finish second and take the Wild Card.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know what you think.

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

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