2005-12-23 / Sports

New York Mets Still Need To Make Moves To Be Contender

Pedro Martinez needs to stay healthy after slumping in the second half of 2005 with a toe problem.
Pedro Martinez needs to stay healthy after slumping in the second half of 2005 with a toe problem. By Michael Avallone

Sports Columnist

(This is Part two of Michael Avallone’s analysis of what the Mets need to be contenders in 2006)

Add Another Starting Pitcher

On the surface, the starting pitching looks stable with Martinez (15-8, 2.82 ERA, 208 Ks) leading the charge. The rotation compiled a 3.71 ERA – good for fourth in all of baseball – but age and/or health could be a factor in 2006. Pedro slumped in the second half while dealing with back and toe problems and it took a stellar second half to bring veteran Tom Glavine’s numbers to a respectable 13-13, 3.53 ERA.

The aforementioned Benson started out strong with a 9-4 mark and 3.49 ERA over his first 20 starts. However, he stumbled badly the last six weeks of the season, going just 1-4 while allowing 30 earned runs in 45 1/3 innings (5.99 ERA) over his final eight outings to finish at 10-8, 4.13. His alarming fade and reasonable contract – not to mention his loud-mouth wife – have the 31-year-old right-hander on the block.

Beyond that and things get murky. Jae Seo (8-2, 2.59), Victor Zambrano (7-12, 4.17) and Steve Trachsel (1-4, 4.14) will battle for the final two spots. Seo was New York’s best starter at one point late in the season while Zambrano and Trachsel struggled with inconsistency and injury, respectively. Minaya had conversations about dealing for Arizona Diamondbacks starter Javier Vazquez – who pitched in Montreal during Minaya’s tenure in baseball purgatory – but the 29-year-old is now headed to the World Champion Chicago White Sox.

Bullpen

Wagner and his 100-mph fastball, sub 2.00 ERA and 38 saves should translate to less stress for the Mets and their fans. With Looper making Randolph’s stomach virtually exit his mouth each time he entered the game, the ninth inning should have a different feeling. But unless Wagner plans on earning three-inning saves, solid set-up men are a must. With a rotation headed by a 34-year-old (Martinez) and a soon-to-be 40-year-old (Glavine), there will be more than a few games where the bullpen will have to enter in the sixth and seventh innings to protect leads.

Aaron Heilman (5-3, 3.17) became a godsend for the Mets out of the ‘pen, particularly in the second half (his 0.68 ERA the latter part of the season was the second lowest in baseball). Once thought to be a first-round bust and potential trade bait, Heilman’s nasty change-up helped neutralize lefties almost as much as southpaws do, something the Mets currently lack in relief. Juan Padilla pitched to a 1.49 ERA over his 24 games, but his track record doesn’t suggest continued success at that level. With that in mind, Minaya must acquire a veteran or two – Julian Tavarez? Antonio Alfonseca? – or hope some of the Mets younger relievers are ready for the challenge.

Figure out What to do at 2B, Particularly With Kaz Matsui

No one knows for sure what’s happened to the seven-time Japanese all-star. Mets scouts aren’t the only ones scratching their heads as to why Matsui’s superstar skills in Japan have not translated to the big leagues. Granted, his 33-homer year playing for the Seibu Lions was not going to happen at Shea, but New York expected a lot more out of their $21 million, three-year investment than a .260 BA, 10 HR, and 68 RBI in 201 games. Only a late-season flourish lifted his average to a still-mediocre .255 while his run production remained pitiful. The 30-year-old slugged just .352 while driving in 24 runs in 267 ABs.

Matsui was booed mercilessly at Shea in ‘05, getting a reprieve only after Looper became unwatchable (and eminently hittable) late in the year. Now that he’s gone, Matsui will again be under intense scrutiny if he does indeed start the year in Flushing. His $8 million price tag for ’06 makes him an extremely tough sell right now.

Leave Manny Alone

A future Hall of Famer with 45-HR, 150-RBI potential is tempting, but simply put, the Mets don’t need him. New York is better off tweaking the starting rotation and beefing up the bullpen than trading for a player whose head can be in the clouds for weeks at a time, depending on what mood he’s in.

Although the Manny-to-the Mets rumors have cooled substantially, Minaya has let it be known that he’s still very interested in the 33-year-old slugger, but thus far is unwilling to part with Heilman and top prospect, OF Lastings Milledge. The only way New York should make this trade is if a three-way deal can be consummated where the Mets don’t have to give up young talent. Remember, five prospects (three highly regarded) have already been shipped to Florida in the Delgado and LoDuca trades.

Pennants are not won on paper, but for the second year in a row, the Mets have arguably had the best offseason of any team in baseball. The additions of Delgado and Wagner should be worth a few more wins each, and with the Marlins basically a Double-A team, the Phillies weakened, the Nationals without a clue and the Braves with their own question marks, New York has the best opportunity to end Atlanta’s dominance of N.L. East supremacy. The Braves have won 14 consecutive division titles (11 since moving to the East and discounting the strike-shortened 1994 season). They may finally be ripe for the picking.

Of course, we’ve heard that one before….

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