Wednesday, September 06, 2006

What A Difference A Year Makes...

A co-worker and I were discussing baseball yesterday, and he is a big Dodgers' fan and is aware of the "hows and whys" regarding his team and why they are better this season than last. He asked me why I thought the Mets were so much better then last year, and I offered him 9 main reasons, which I've listed and discussed below. However, the one major difference this year then last year is this- this year, we EXPECTED TO BE WINNERS! Omar put us into this position, the progress of Wright & Reyes and the additions of Delgado and Lo Duca, after last year's additions of Pedro and Beltran, said so to us, as well as to the rest of the National League. We've had tons of injuries this year, particularly to our top 2 starters, Pedro and Glavine, as well as our best returning outfielder from last year, Cliff Floyd. That's like the Braves losing Smoltz, Hudson and Andruw Jones for extended portions of the season, and still remaining in first place by at least 15 games - no small feat! In spite of these injuries, we've thrived due to the contributions of an entire roster.

Here, then, are our thoughts about why we've been successful this year - let us know what you think!

1.) Power in the line-up & 3 100 RBI guys
We have NEVER had 3 power hitters in our line-up at the same time the way we do this year in Wright, Beltran and Delgado. All three are amongst the top 10 hitters in the NL, and save for a long slump by Delgado and a shorter one by Wright, they've been extremely consistent throughout the season. It helps when you have a great hitter at the top of the line-up - witness point #2 --- (editor's note- Delgado just got to 100 RBI's with a homer in the Braves game as this was being written)

2.) Jose Reyes taking his game up another notch
This season, Reyes has become the best lead-off hitter in the game not named Ichiro! His stolen bases and triples lead the league, he's flirting with hitting .300, his power game has grown dramatically, his fielding has been exceptional and he is amongst the league leaders in at-bats and hits. More importantly, as the true sparkplug of this team, Reyes does something that seems to elude many of today's players- he truly has fun playing the game! His smile and enthusiasm light up the dugout in a way we've not seen since the heydays of Mookie Wilson! On top of that, Reyes hasn't come close to reaching the ceiling of his potential, as we can envision him hitting 25 homers, knocking in 85 runs, hitting .310, stealing 70 bases, reaching 20 triples and winning a gold glove in the field- all from the #1 spot in the order! The elevation of Reyes' game, we feel, has been the biggest change in this team from last year, as if he doesn't hit the heights he's reached, the rest of the line-up doesn't come close to their achievements, either. It's nice to see that sportswriter who last year said of Reyes (paraphrasing here) " he'll never amount to much, as he's jst a product of NY hype based on his speed but lacks the talent to be a true star" eat his words- and we'll offer some ketchup to make them go down easier!!!

3.) The strongest bullpen in baseball
In spring training, Aaron Heilman expressed his desire to become a starting pitcher. Through the injuries of both Martinez and Glavine, he remained in the bullpen, and, up until the all-star game, his ERA was above the 4 range and his effectiveness came and went, seemingly with his mood. However, having resisted the urge to start him, Randolph, Peterson and Omar are now receiving the benefit as Heilman has been nearly unhittable since the break. Combine that with a now-healthy Billy Wagner, he of the nearly 100 mph fastball, and you have the best 1-2 in the game. After losing ace set-up man, Duaner Sanchez, to an unfortunate taxi accident in late summer, he was ably replaced by another of Omar's "Johnny-On-The-Spot" acquisitions, Roberto Hernandez, who was so great with us last year. Throw in Darren Oliver, having a career year in long relief, rookies Heath Bell and Royce Ring, side-armer Chad Bradford, Pedro "the mouth" Feliciano and recent pick-up, Guillermo Mota, and we have the best bullpen in Mets' history, the best bullpen in baseball, and 5 potential closers in Wagner, Heilman, Sanchez (when he comes back next year), Mota and Hernandez. While some decried the trade of Xavier Nady to the Pirates, playoff baseball is all about pitching, in particular power pitching, and the addition of Hernandez was a great move, not to mention the opportunity to get a (still young) lefthander with huge upside in Oliver Perez. The bullpen will keep us in games in a short series, and put them away in games we lead. Our bullpen was excellent last year, but even better this year!

4.) One of the best overall defenses in baseball, particularly Reyes, Wright, Lo Duca, Chavez, Beltran and, believe it or not, Delgado…
During the winter meetings of 2004, when we first flirted with signing Delgado (okay- we didn't flirt- we did everything but strip naked), all we heard about was what a bad fielder he was from so many different blogs it made our heads spin. Jonathan watched him in person with the Marlins last year, and didn't understand the negative hype. True, he was no Hernandez, but nor was he the next coming of Dave Kingman. This year, he's been even better, and has stabilized an infield made up of great but erratic young fielders, Reyes and Wright, and a second baseman not noted for his defense, Jose Valentin. Wright makes the amazing plays at third, and has cut down on his mistakes, as has Reyes, who utilizes his speed to make exceptional plays seem routine. In the outfield, we have 2 gold glove candidates. One, Carlos Beltran, is our vote for MVP, and his defense has been so great that he should push Andruw Jones out of the way and win his first NL Gold Glove. The other candidate- man without a country, Endy Chavez! Chavez's defense has been nothing short of amazing, making one of the most memorable catches for us this side of Ron Swoboda (I know, I'm dating myself here). Chavez will, most likely, be stolen in the offseason by another team, and his defense, not to mention his above-.300 average, is certainly helping his cause! Lo Duca has been a great play-caller, and his pitchers love throwing to him, and he's great behind the dish - a great replacement for hall-of-famer (and metstrade favorite) Mike Piazza. Overall, outside of the old Olerud-Alfonzo-Ordonez-Ventura years, this is the best defense we've ever had! Remember- 32 games without an error...

5.) Infusion of youth at the right times – Maine, Milledge, Bannister, Bell, Ring, Pelfrey, et al...
The great Yanks teams of the mid-late 90's were based around young stars Rivera, Williams, Jeter, Posada, Petite and some great free agent pick-ups. Our team's youth is built around Reyes, Wright and Heilman, which is why it was so great to see the welcome additions of young pitchers Soler, Maine, Bannister, Pelfrey, Bell, Ring and Feliciano, as well as future star Lastings Milledge. With a lot more high-ceiling prospects in the organization, Omar has created a great future source of quality, less-expensive stars of the future. Our rotation will one-day soon be filled with the names Pelfrey, Humber, Bannister, Maine and, probably, a big-named free agent pick-up or trade - and we can't wait to see it!

6.) Options- we had tons of people to bring up to fill out the starting staff after injuries
Again, see #5. We can ignore the likes of Lima and Gonzalez, with the additions of the above-mentioned starters, plus Williams and Perez. Every time it seemed like we had some challenge, Omar filled in the roster with some additions that, admittedly, made us scratch our heads, but, other then the afore-mentioned Lima and Gonzalez, seemed to work out extremely well.

7.) Huge production from unexpected sources- Chavez & Valentin
I don't care how well you know baseball or the Mets- if you say now that you knew that both Chavez and Valentin would provide the type of production that they have, you're either a liar or also happened to win millions at the craps tables in Vegas! Chavez's offense and defense have more then made up for the loss of Floyd and the lack of progress made by Milledge. Valentin has stabilized a position that, in spring training, seemed like the only point of contention that we'd have going into the season. Kaz Matsui is a memory, A-Hern spent most of the season in AAA, and Keppinger was traded to the Royals. Valentin got the job by default, and made the most of his opportunity. He's hitting .285 in 316 at-bats, with 14 homers and 52 RBI's and 47 runs. His defense has been more then adequate, especially since he's been known as a power hitter who strikes out a lot in past seasons. Both players were signed to be part of the bench, and their contributions are both surprising welcome! Julio Franco has also been an excellent signing, and Ramon Castro was having a great year until an injury sidelined him. Other then Chris Woodward, whose season has been one of mostly ups and downs, our bench has been excellent all year.

8.) Willie’s maturity as a manager
Willie will never be the best strategic manager in the game, and decisions like today's removal of Dave Williams after 72 pitches in the first game of a doubleheader make us scratch our heads. However, you cannot argue with the success he's had this year, mostly due to his handling of the clubhouse, managing the chemistry on the team so well. He has the players believing that they can win every game they play, which is why we've pulled out plenty, and his enthusiasm has certainly been contagious. Willie has coddled younger players when many felt they didn't need it, and has been successful. He's gotten so much out of his 2 young stars, Wright and Reyes, and to their credit and his, both players have kept a level head during this playoff-bound season. Willie has masterfully blended his roster, squeezing out great results from the above-mentioned Valentin and Chavez, and if anyone deserves the NL Manager-of-The-Year Award, it's Willie!

9.) Omar constantly pulling the trigger and every deal making the club stronger
Omar has had the season for the ages this year. Every deal he's touched has either turned to gold or been spun into another deal that turned into gold (a la the Benson deal, which netted us 2/5's of our rotation in Maine and Hernandez. Omar has been tasked with the difficult job of building us into an immediate contender, which he has, as well as restocking our system with top end talent, which he also has done. In our opinion, Omar is the run-away leader for Executive of the Year, based on the smaller moves he's made, like Chavez and Valentin, the players he secured for the minors, like F. Martinez, and the credibility he has once again brought to the organization! As we've said all year, and will continue to say,

This has been the most rewarding season for us since 1986, and we've seen our share of joy and tragedy this year. The Mets have never been as important to us, and it's been an honor to share this season with all of our loyal readers. Blogging has helped let off steam, voice opinions and gain new perspectives, and we couldn't have picked a better year to start this blog, or to partner with the great Sheanation. The best, as they say, is yet to come!

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