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Queens Chronicle

The 2003 Mets: Bounceback Year Or Yet Another Disappointment?

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Posted: Thursday, March 27, 2003 12:00 am

“Every day is a new opportunity. You can build on yesterday’s success or put its failures behind and start over again. That’s the way life is, with a new game every day, and that’s the way baseball is.”

—Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller

The standings have been wiped clean, the statistics chalked up to an aberration of off-years and the trail of controversy, which shadowed the Mets through one of their most disappointing seasons in team history has moved up the Major Deegan Expressway toward the Bronx.

The New York Mets are ready to leave the 2002 season—where they finished 75-86, 26-1/2 games behind the Atlanta Braves—and turn the corner towards the future. On paper, this team has the looks of a serious pennant contender. (But, as a warning to optimistic Amazins’ fans, so did last year’s team.)

With a payroll of over $120 million—one of the highest in the majors—and a starting roster which now features future Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Glavine and powerhouse slugger Cliff Floyd, expectations are rightfully high for the 2003 Mets.

And, while overall, the parts have not changed tremendously from last year’s underachieving squad, the mood in the clubhouse certainly has. The camaraderie and unified spirit, missing from last year’s team, has showed signs of returning and can be directly linked to one of the Mets’ most significant off-season acquisitions.

The New Skipper

The team’s change in focus can be attributed to new manager, Art Howe. An established leader who transformed a young and unheralded Oakland A’s squad into annual playoff contenders, Howe brings a semblance of calm and balance lacking under the Bobby Valentine administration.

While often great fodder for the back pages of the city’s tabloids, Valentine’s immature antics and inability to control the team’s massive egos quickly grew tiresome. Worst of all, by the end of his tenure in Flushing, Valentine had lost the ability to inspire any real emotion in his players.

That burning desire, missing through the second half of last season, has returned somewhat, most recently with the bench-clearing brawl sparked after Los Angeles Dodger Guillermo Mota plunked Mike Piazza.

Howe is universally respected in the baseball world for his cool temperament, a sharp knack for spotting talent and an innate ability to keep clubhouse problems behind closed doors.

And, with former Chicago Cubs manager Don Baylor by Howe’s side as bench coach, the Mets demeanor and work ethic can no doubt improve.

The lack of impending controversy may eventually cause scribes to write the Mets off as boring. But, after a year filled with drug allegations, players calling the fans “stupid” and the continuing saga of Piazza versus Roger Clemens, boring probably sounds awfully good to the Mets.

The Pitching Staff

As bad as the Mets hit last year, most of their failures probably could have been hidden if their pitching staff performed up to par.

Veterans Al Leiter, Steve Trachsel and Pedro Astacio—each of whom had effective, but not spectacular 2002 seasons— return, filling the numbers two, three and four roles in the rotation.

However, what the Mets always lacked was a legitimate ace, one who could shut down the opposition in big-game situations. The Mets filled that hole in a major way with the addition of Glavine.

The 36-year-old hurler still has plenty of life left in his arm, as evidenced by an 18-11 record and 2.96 ERA last year. Although he showed signs of tiring late in the year, if Glavine can even come close to duplicating last year’s figures, the Mets faithful will gladly forget the many years his Braves sent the Amazins home early in the playoffs.

The fifth starting position could be the most fascinating story to come out of spring training this year. After a year out of baseball, David Cone has shown sparks of his former greatness as he battles youngsters Mike Bacsik, Jason Middlebrook and Aaron Heillman for the final spot in the rotation.

Based upon experience and New York’s tendency to lean towards the sentimental underdog, Cone seems like a lock to nab the position. However, due to an injury to Astacio’s arm—which could land him on the disabled list on Opening Day—at least one more starting position could still be up for grabs.

Éhe Mets bullpen, never one of their strongest points, has also seen dramatic improvement during the off-season with the addition of former Yankee Mike Stanton and the impending return of John Franco.

These two parts will be crucial in keeping the Mets starting rotation, whose average age will be over 35, healthy. Grant Roberts, David Weathers, Scott Strickland and Pat Strange round out a solid bullpen.

However, the biggest question mark on the pitching staff could be closer Armando Benitez. The stopper had a tough time in 2002, blowing many late-game leads and quickly fell out of favor with fans. If he continues to have trouble throughout the first half of this year, expect to see Benitez on the trading block. But, if he bounces back strong, the bullpen could rank as one of the best in the National League.

The Infield

Nearly every position player in the Mets infield is clouded with question marks.

Can first baseman Mo Vaughn once again become the slugger that sent Red Sox fans into a frenzy in the mid 90s? Will second baseman Roberto Alomar, a first-ballot, future Hall of Famer, bounce back from his most unproductive year in over a decade? Does Rey Sanchez, an admitted stopgap shortstop keeping the position warm until minor league phenom Jose Reyes is ready, keep the job all year or do the Mets get antsy and send the rookie up to the big leagues early?

And, who is the third baseman on Opening Day? Young Ty Wigginton seemingly has the edge but management’s decision to invite veteran Jay Bell to spring training could signal otherwise.

Even Piazza, the Mets’ premiere superstar, has his own questions to answer. His power numbers, once among the best in the league, have slipped over the past two years, leading many to question whether baseball’s best hitting catcher has peaked.

Without a crystal ball, these questions are tough to answer. But, we’ll give it a shot nonetheless.

Vaughn, who dropped more than 30 pounds over the winter, should prove more productive than in 2002, when he was bouncing back following a ruptured bicep the year prior. But, don’t expect a miracle. Look for Vaughn to hit 30 home runs, rack up 90 RBIs, and maintain a .260 average. Not spectacular, but entirely respectable.

More than any other Met, Alomar’s 2002 was an aberration, linked to adjusting to the New York spotlight and his first year in the National League. Expect to see his .300-plus average again and his Golden Glove return to form.

The Mets are not expecting much from Sanchez at the plate, but are hoping he shores up an infield which made too many uncharacteristic errors last year. Reyes should probably see some action by August, especially if the Mets are in a pennant race.

Wigginton and Bell could end up platooning, but with neither securing overwhelming playing time, this could prove to be one of the Mets more unproductive positions. By summer, the team could end up kicking themselves for letting Edgardo Alfonzo go to San Francisco.

The Mets future lives and dies on Piazza’s broad shoulders. For the team to break from its doldrums, the catcher will need to hit .300, which he failed to do last year for the first time in 10 years. With the Clemens’ controversy and the ridiculous rumors about his personal life behind him, Piazza’s bat should return to life in 2003.

Now, if only he could learn to throw some batters out from behind the plate.

The Outfield

Given all indications, the outfield should, and probably will be, the Mets’ Achilles heel.

In a 2002 season filled with underachievers, rightfielder Jeromy Burnitz was the team’s biggest bust, a truly difficult task. Burnitz, who averaged 32 homers and 102 RBI’s in his last five seasons with the Brewers, looked lost at the plate last year, hitting a measly .215, with 19 homers and driving in only 54 runs.

After finding no takers for his hefty contract, the Mets are stuck with Burnitz this year. The former slugger will have a lot of work to do if he’s going to wipe away the embarrassment of last year. Expect some mild improvement—maybe 25 homers and 75 RBIs—but not a major turnaround. On the plus side, he can’t get much worse.

Ditto for centerfielder Roger Cedeno. Brought back last year to add some spark to the lineup, Cedeno rarely got on base, limiting his steal opportunities. His glove also suffered, as Cedeno lived up to his reputation of making more errors than assists.

However, unlike Burnitz, the Mets have a suitable backup centerfielder in Tsuyoshi Shinjo. If Cedeno struggles, expect changes—quickly.

The Mets’ saving grace in the outfield could be the addition of Floyd. A potential 30-home run hitter who can drive in over 100 RBIs and hit in the vicinity of .300, Floyd should give Piazza the level of protection in the lineup that Vaughn was unable to do last year.

Floyd spent 2002 bouncing from the Marlins to the Expos and then to the Red Sox. While his numbers were slightly off from previous years, much can be attributed to his lack of a stable clubhouse.

He was one of baseball’s more sought-after free agent hitters in the off-season and one of the Mets’ most ballyhooed acquisitions. A good deal of the team’s success this year rests on Floyd living up to his superstar potential. Expect him to deliver.

The Season

The problem for the Mets is just as their team seems to be improving, so too is their competition.

The Braves, despite Glavine and Kevin Millwood departing, are still the team to beat in the East. Their rotation of Greg Maddux, Mike Hampton, Paul Byrd and Russ Ortiz is formidable, as is a lineup that features Greg Sheffield, Andruw and Chipper Jones.

However, expect the Mets biggest threat to come from the Philadelphia Phillies. More than any team in baseball, the Phils improved themselves over the winter, adding, Jim Thome, Millwood and David Bell. The former bottom-feeding Phillies could make a serious run for the pennant in 2003, leaving little hope for NL East pretenders, the Expos and Marlins.

With a retooled lineup and a brand-new attitude, the Mets are once again serious contenders this year. While not as talented as the squad which went to the World Series three years ago, the 2003 Mets have the ability to make a lot of noise and make the league once again take notice.

However, come September, best bets have the Mets contending with the Braves, Dodgers, Astros and Diamondbacks for a Wild Card spot rather than a division title.

Still, nonetheless, a marked improvement from last year’s debacle.

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