2005-03-04 / Sports

Relief A Big Question Mark For The New York Mets

By Michael Avallone Sports Columnist

By Michael Avallone
Sports Columnist

Unknown Dae-Sung Koo throws a pitch during an intrasquad spring training game. (AP/Rick Silva)Unknown Dae-Sung Koo throws a pitch during an intrasquad spring training game. (AP/Rick Silva) Spring training exhibitions mean different things to different people. For fans, the games mean that the season is just short four weeks away. For the established veterans, the season is a LONG four weeks away. Then there are the guys on the bubble, the rookies, the non-roster invitees and the hangers-on. For them, spring training might as well be the World Series.

A lot has been made of the Mets offseason acquisitions of Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran, but a good team needs more than just superstars. Unfortunately for New York, they have proven that edict true the last four seasons. Here’s a look at a few of the guys on the bubble that just might make more of a difference than fans realize.

Dae Sung Koo (Reliever)

The 35-year old Korean is not really on the bubble, but his performance this spring bears close watching. Right now, the only other lefty in the Mets bullpen is Felix Heredia. Not exactly a comforting thought. Mr. Koo, as he is affectionately known, has spent the past four years playing for the Orix Blue Wave in Japan. Although he posted so-so numbers (24-34, 10 saves, 3.88 ERA), it’s his funky three-quarter delivery that has the Mets hoping he can be the 2005 version of the Padres Akinori Otsuka, who pitched brilliantly his first year in the States.

Scott Strickland (Reliever)

Another key question involves the bullpen. Strickland hasn’t pitched since undergoing Tommy John surgery in June 2003 and the Mets could definitely use his power arm. As March begins, New York’s bridge to closer Braden Looper appears to be Mike DeJean. Although there’s no guarantee Strickland breaks camp with the big club for Opening Day, a lot of the Mets bullpen worries would be eased with a strong performance from someone who was once thought to be a “closer-in-waiting.” All indications are that the 28-year old is healthy and looking good, but he has not faced Major League batters in almost two years.

Victor Diaz (OF)

There’s no doubt the 24-year old can hit (24 homers, 92 RBIs at AAA Norfolk), but can he do it consistently enough to be a contributor off the Mets bench? A September cup of coffee last year was promising, as Diaz hit .294 with 3 home runs and 8 RBIs in 51 at-bats, including a memorable three-run, ninth-inning blast off Cubs closer LaTroy Hawkins. Still, he struck out 15 times and drew only one walk, something he has to improve upon if he plans on staying in the bigs.

Interestingly enough, Diaz may start the season in right field for the Mets, depending on the healing powers in Mike Cameron’s wrist. Even more interesting is that if Cameron gets dealt, the former Dodgers farmhand would most likely be the first in line for a full-time spot in the Shea outfield, so his numbers this spring will be telling.

Eric Valent (1B/OF)

Despite posting some impressive power numbers (.267 13 34) in limited duty (270 ABs), the former UCLA slugger is no lock to make the team. While the odds are he’ll be the main lefty off manager Willie Randolph’s bench come April, Valent has to prove to a new coaching staff that his ’04 production was no fluke. A bad spring coupled with a few surprises from other players could mean a ticket to Norfolk. Regardless, the scrappy Valent can play left, right first and even catch if needed, so a good spring would give New York a strong back-up/spot starter at up to four positions.

Andres Galarraga (1B)

This is more than a charity signing by GM Omar Minaya. The 43-year old first baseman is one homer shy of 400 career dingers, but it’s his behind-the-scenes presence and occasional pop that has management intrigued.

Making his second comeback from Hodgkin’s disease, “The Big Cat” got into 7 games last year with the Anaheim Angels after playing at AAA Salt Lake City for half the season. He’s obviously not the player he was five years ago, but a respected leader, particularly among the Latin players, and a great baseball guy could prove to be a key contributor the Mets in ’05, forming a decent left/ right platoon with 1B Doug Mientkiewicz.

The Mets won’t know the answers to these questions and more until they break camp in late March. What they do know is that a winning ballclub takes 25 players. The Piazzas, Martinezes, Beltrans and Wrights can only take a team so far. From the highest paid to the 25th man, the Mets need a cohesive unit from top to bottom if they hope to break out of their four-year slumber.

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