2005-12-23 / Sports

Mets Still Need To Make Moves For 2006 World Series Hopes

By Michael Avallone Sports Columnist

By Michael Avallone
Sports Columnist

The second Jose Offerman lined into a double play, ending the Mets season, general manager Omar Minaya’s wheels started spinning.

Despite a 12-game improvement from the 2004 season (71 to 83 wins), New York failed to make the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year, falling six games short in their bid for the N.L. Wild Card, won by the eventual National League champion, Houston Astros.

So, after watching 162 games of what was the most exciting summer at Shea Stadium since the turn of the century – but still up and down enough to drive fans nuts – Minaya and the rest of his staff came to three conclusions. Let’s call them 1(a), 1(b) and 1(c) if you will.

Find a slugging first baseman . Raising the production wasn’t the problem, if not for the simple fact that it couldn’t get much worse. Manager Willie Randolph was forced to rotate Doug Mientkiewicz, Marlon Anderson, Chris Woodward, Brian Daubach and Jose Offerman at first base…ouch. Even with the break-out performance of rookie Mike Jacobs (.310 BA, 11 HR, 23 RBI in 100 ABs) the position yielded a sickly .227 BA, .303 OBP, .391 SLG.

Find a “slam-the-door” closer . It turned out that opening day would be a harbinger of things to come for the Mets. After six fantastic innings from Pedro Martinez, Braden Looper inherited a 6-4 lead in the ninth and turned it into a 7-6 defeat thanks to two quick home runs. The loss began a disturbing trend and was a big reason why the Mets got off to an 0-5 start. Although Looper converted 28 saves, he blew eight, including a key game at Yankee Stadium – which would have completed a Mets sweep – and a two-for-one in a late-season matchup in Atlanta where he blew leads in the ninth and tenth innings.

That came in the midst of an eight-game losing streak that, for all intents and purposes, ended New York’s playoff hopes.

“Replace” Mike Piazza at the catching position . The word “replace” must be taken with a grain of salt. Piazza’s arrival at Shea in May, 1998 was a rebirth for the franchise; culminating in two consecutive postseason appearances and a trip to the 2000 World Series against the Yankees. Despite sliding numbers the past three years, Piazza still managed to slug 19 homers and drive in 62 runs over 398 ABs in 2005.

A certain Hall of Famer, no. 31 was easily the best position player to ever wear a Mets uniform.

So with those three issues in mind, Minaya went to work. In a span of 11 days, he acquired 1B Carlos Delgado from the Florida Marlins (who he chose over the Mets last winter), signed free agent P Billy Wagner to a four-year deal and then went back to everyone’s favorite bargain-bin shop – the Marlins – to obtain catcher Paul LoDuca.

Done, done and done. That’s not to say that Minaya’s shopping was easy. The deals cost the Mets five prospects – including Jacobs and highly-regarded minor league pitcher Yusmeiro Petit – as well as $96.5 million in contracts over the next nine years. However, the exorbitant amount of money is a bit misleading. New York pared more than $30 million off the books by parting ways with Piazza, Looper, Mientkiewicz and Mike Cameron, who was shipped off to San Diego in order to clear some salary space for the impending moves.

Include the 2.8 million fans (a 16-year high) that waltzed through the turnstiles in ‘05 and the impending debut of SportsNet New York – the Mets answer to the cash cow that is the Yankees YES Network – it’s easy to see why money isn’t a problem for team president Fred Wilpon.

So 1(a), 1(b) and 1(c) have been accomplished…now what?

The winter meetings were held last week in Dallas and by all accounts, it appeared that Minaya was at it again. Rumors hung in the air that New York was zeroing in on a deal for Oakland A’s ace Barry Zito. However, Oakland GM Billy Beane squashed those quickly; realizing that Toronto’s signing of A.J. Burnett to a five-year, $55 million deal had completely changed the market for starting pitchers.

Starter Kris Benson was mentioned in numerous trade proposals. First Anna’s husband was going to Baltimore for reliever Jorge Julio. Then he was going to Kansas City for pitchers Mike MacDougal and Jeremy Affeldt, before finally hearing he was going to the Texas Rangers.

As of today, Benson – and his wife – are still part of the team, even with Anna’s diatribe against the club and Delgado in last week’s Daily News.

While nothing happened on the trade front, Minaya attempted to solidify his bench by signing 36-year-old Jose Valentin and 48-year-old Julio Franco to one and two-year deals, respectively. While critics questioned the wisdom of signing a player who hit .170 last season (Valentin) and giving a two-year contract to a player (Franco) who was alive when “I Like Ike” buttons were still in vogue, the veteran presence off the bench should help, particularly Franco. Continuing to defy Father Time, the veteran first baseman hit .275 with nine home runs and 42 RBI in 233 at-bats last season for the Atlanta Braves.

Discounting his continued infatuation with Red Sox outfielder Manny Ramirez, Minaya still must upgrade several areas if he truly wishes to see his team become a legitimate World Series contender in ’06.

(Part Two of Michael Avallone’s wish list for the 2006 Mets will appear in next week’s Wave.)

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