2006-03-03 / Sports

Will Mets NL East Title Hopes Fade Away Or Shine Bright In ‘06?

by Michael Avallone Sports Columnist

by Michael Avallone
Sports Columnist

Could 2006 be the year the Mets finally break through? New York’s “other” team has not unfurled an N.L. Eastern Division pennant on Shea Stadium’s right field wall since 1988.

1995 was the year the Atlanta Braves began their stranglehold on the division. Eleven years later, nothing has changed. The Mets will take the field on April 3 looking to stop one of the most amazing streaks in the history of sports. To do that, New York will have answer five important questions…

1. What about the toe? There is nothing more important to the Mets’ chances of winning than Pedro Martinez’s balky right toe. The 34-year-old was spectacular last year, going 15-8 with a 2.82 ERA and 208 K’s during his first season in Flushing. However, minor injuries (back, hip) hindered him during the second half, as did his toe.

Pedro is already behind schedule this spring, throwing off a mound for the first time on March 1, although he and Mets’ management insist he’ll be ready for Opening Day. Nike finally came through with an enhanced shoe that will supposedly keep the troublesome digit from moving during his violent delivery. New York better hope so because if Martinez cannot make 30 starts at his usual level, the Mets chances of dethroning the Braves will go up in smoke.

2. Will the rotation hold up? Heading into the offseason, New York had seven legitimate starters. By the time January came to and end, Jae Seo had been shipped to Los Angeles and Kris Benson – along with his outspoken wife – was headed south to Baltimore. The trades brought two young, power arms to the bullpen but depleted depth in the rotation, a key element for a staff headed by aging veterans. The deals also moved the much-maligned Victor Zambrano back into the rotation as well as Aaron Heilman, whose 0.68 ERA in the second half of the season was the best in baseball among relievers.

The question is: will the starters remain healthy? Behind Martinez and Tom Glavine (40 years old on Mar. 25) is 35-year-old Steve Trachsel, who is coming off a six-start season after back surgery last March. After that is Zambrano – who was demoted to the bullpen late in the year – and Heilman, who is a question mark as a starter despite posting solid numbers last year in relief.

3. Who’s on second? If Willie Randolph had his choice, he’d probably insert himself there. Unfortunately, that won’t happen so it’s Kaz Matsui’s job to lose. Entering the final season of a three-year, $21 million deal, the former Japanese all-star has battled injuries, inconsistency and downright bad play during his tenure in New York, drawing the wrath of the Shea faithful.

For $13 million, Mets’ owner Fred Wilpon has received a .265 average, 10 home runs and 68 RBI over 727 at bats. Almost two years later, Matsui’s biggest highlight as a Met remains the first-ever pitch he saw in the big leagues, when he blasted a homer off Atlanta starter Russ Ortiz to open the 2004 season. Increasing their chances for a starting spot now that Bret Boone has announced his retirement are youngsters Anderson Hernandez and Jeff Keppinger. Hernandez, 23, had a cup-of-coffee last September ny finishing 1-for-18 over six games but he batted a combined .315 and stole 35 bases at Double-A and Triple-A. Keppinger, 25, batted .284 over 116 AB’s with New York in ’04 and was leading the International League in hitting last season with Norfolk before breaking his knee cap in June.

4. Can the Mets hand Billy Wagner a lead? There’s no doubting what the Mets have with Wagner at closer. The big key will be getting the flamethrower a lead to protect. The much-talked about trades that weakened the rotation’s depth did bring some intriguing candidates in 26-year-old relievers Duaner Sanchez and Steve Schmoll.

The hard-throwing Sanchez – who was 8-for-8 in save opportunities late last season – was the key player in the deal after going 4-7 with a 3.73 ERA last year. GM Omar Minaya made the move with the idea that Sanchez would pitch the eighth inning, using his mid-90’s fastball to pave the way for Wagner’s heat in the ninth. Former Orioles’ closer and flamethrower Jorge Julio was netted in the Benson swap along with starting prospect John Maine. After posting a 1.99 ERA during his rookie year of 2002, Julio’s earned run average has risen dramatically three straight years, soaring to a 5.90 mark in 2005. New York hopes that a change of scenery – as well as a few mechanical adjustments – will make the 26-year-old a force in the late innings once again.

5. Will Carlos Beltran bounce back? He was supposed to be the player that New York would build around for the next seven years. Instead, Beltran reminded Mets’ fans too much of the second coming of Bobby Bonilla. The 29-year-old’s final numbers weren’t horrible but for $119 million, the Mets expected more than a .266 average, 16 HR, 78 RBI and 17 SB.

The pressure of playing in a big market for the first time certainly affected Beltran, but so too did injuries. A quad strain in late April hindered him for a good portion of the season and just when he seemed to be getting his groove back, the frightening outfield collision with Mike Cameron on Aug. 11 dealt the centerfielder another setback. The boo-birds gave him a break when he returned to play the rest of the season with a broken bone in his face, but another campaign like last year will bring them out again.

The addition of good friend Carlos Delgado figures to take a lot of the pressure off of Beltran, who has promised a bounce-back season. For his sake – as well as the team – he better be right.

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