Friday, February 27, 2004
Still Thinking About Rightfield: Rumors about Alfonso Soriano to the Mets still persist, and don't kid yourself, his .850 OPS would be a tremendous asset out there. He is not a perfect player -- impatient, more likely to decline than improve, less valuable as an outfielder -- but he is still, very, very good and would add significant value to the team. Indeed, he could be the best hitter on the club. Moreover, unless he surprisingly collapses, he should have three very good years left at below market price. A prospect trade like Peterson + Diaz or Huber or Jacobs would make great sense for the Mets. Those guys are fun to hope for, will play in the majors and could be great, but the chance that any of them will ever be as good as Soriano is certainly less than 50-50.
I suspect, though, that such a trade is unlikely. That doesn't mean the Mets can't do something to improve the weaker part (i.e., Shane Spencer) of their rightfield platoon. The Pirates' signing of Raul Mondesi means they still don't appreciate (and now have little role) for Craig Wilson, who rakes left-handers and would be a solid bench player when not a platoon starter. Let's see if we can pry him away from them.
Correction: Nate writes in to point out that I left Tim Worrell off my list of '03 contributors who have newly joined the N.L. East for '04 in my Wednesday entry. Nate's right, and that adds about 11 runs above replacement value to the '03 contributors, or about one win. . . .
This Hasn't Happened in a Long Time. The Mets have three players ranked in the top 15 on Baseball Prospectus' Top 50 prospect list for 2004. They are David Wright 3B (#5), Kazuo Matsui (#10) and Scott Kazmir (#12). No other team has 3 in the top 15. (No other Mets farmhands cracked the top 50. Huber got honorable mention. . .).
Tuesday, February 24, 2004
ANOTHER REASON FOR OPTIMISM
If the Mets come up with a halfway decent fifth starter (i.e., ERA around 4.50) and all the returning Mets perform at last year's level, their new players plus a healthy Piazza, Floyd and Reyes would figure to make them a .500 club or a little bit better, based on their projected improvement in runs scored and runs allowed. (To see some of the basis for this calculation, see my December 5, 2003 entry in my December archives. The Mets ended up with a smaller improvement in rightfield than I projected their, but that calculation did not include an improved fifth starter, or the fact that with more average luck, the Mets would win a few more games than they did even scoring and allowing the same number of runs). Another reason the Mets should do better in '04, entirely apart from improvements to their team, is that the competition should be easier.
The Talent Drain from the N.L. East: An under-appreciated fact is that last year, the National League East was the best division in baseball. N.L. East teams had the best average winning percentage (.528) by a considerable margin (the AL West was second at .520), and compiled that record playing in the better league (the NL finished 22 games above .500 against the AL in 2003). Hey, what was really the third best team in the division won the World Series! Not only are these teams the Mets' competitors in the standings, but because there are so many games against division opponents with the unbalanced schedule, the quality of the other teams in the division has a significant impact on the Mets' record.
That quality should go down in 2004. There was a mass exodus of talent from the Mets' division opponents this offseason. Thirteen significant '03 contributors have left those clubs: G. Sheffield, J. Lopez, V. Guerrero, I. Rodriguez, D. Lee, M. Redman, J. Vasquez, V. Castilla, G. Maddux, U. Urbina, B. Looper, T. Adams and J. Encarnacion. Only seven significant '03 contributors have been added: B. Wagner, N. Johnson, D. Oliver, J. Thompson, J.D. Drew, C. Everett and A. Benitez. Obviously, far more established talent left than arrived. To put a number on it, if the departing players were all replaced with "replacement level" players (i.e., marginal major league hitters at their defensive positions), and we assumed that the arriving players were all upgrades from "replacement level" players, the Mets opponents could be expected to score 274 fewer runs as a result of these changes -- that's equal to about 27 wins, or a drop of seven wins per team. (These values above replacement level come courtesy of Baseball Prospectus). Of course, most of these players will be replaced by new players above "replacement level," so the drop will not be that dramatic, but it should still be substantial; there is a lot of production to be made up by players who did not contribute much in 2003. Using Bill James' "Win Shares" statistic the results are also striking. The departing players accounted for 48 more wins than the arriving players. Of course there were 13 departures and only seven arrivals, but even if the other six open spots were filled with players who produced at the same rate as the seven new arrivals (which they almost certainly will not), there would still be a drop off of 14 wins, or three to four per team.
In short, the division competition should be easier. If we estimate that these changes made the Mets division opponents about 20 wins less good and that the Mets are about a .500 ball club, the change would be expected to give the Mets 2 extra wins as a result of their easier schedule. (Of course, their division standing would also be enhanced by the 5 game average drop of their division competitors).
Easier Interleague Schedule: Another, somewhat less important factor is the change in their interleague schedule. Aside from their six annual games with the Yankees, the Mets played interleague games last year against Seattle, Anaheim and Texas (combined winning percentage: .496). This year, in addition to the Yankees they get Minnesota, Kansas City, Cleveland and Detroit (combined winning percentage .438). For an average team, that change should be worth a win or two (though the Mets did actually manage a 5-4 record against the A.L. West last year -- more proof that the N.L. East was the best division in baseball).
Friday, February 13, 2004
THE LAST METS TURNAROUND
The Biblical Years: For much of their history, the Mets have resembled ancient Egypt in the time of Joseph. Feast and famine in seven year blocks. In their first seven years, they were awful, finishing last or next to last every year and only once managing not to lose 90 games (they lost 89 in '68). Then, they had a good Seaver, uh, I mean seven years (with a weak 1974 aberration thrown in), finishing above .500 in every one of those years and playing in two World Series. Then the Saturday Night Massacre in 1977 augured seven years of famine in which the Mets lost 90 games every year (except 1981, where they were saved from doing so only by the strike). Then came another seven years of feast -- properly called the Davey Johnson years -- which included a memorable championship and, had there been a wild card, would have included post-season baseball every year but 1989 ("only" 87 wins).
The Recent Past: Reflecting the faster pace of modern times, the Mets cycles then began to shorten. They had six years of famine (the Green-Torborg years), but turned it around in 1997, the first of four good years of playoff contention that included a trip to the World Series, followed by one year of .500 baseball (odd for the Mets), and now two years of bad teams. Mets fans are hoping that this famine can be kept to two years.
The Last Turnaround: In 1997, the Mets went from 71-91 to 88-74. How did they do it? Unlike the earlier turnarounds in 1969 and 1984 which featured great young pitchers (Koosman and Seaver; Gooden and Darling), the '97 changes were more modest. Comparing them to this year's team, there is every reason to hope for (that's hope for, NOT expect), a similar turnaround this year. Let's take a closer look.
Luck, Offense and Pitching: Luck. The first point that must be noted is that the '96 Mets were not as bad as they looked. Given the runs they scored and allowed, one would have expected a record of 78-84. The seven games worse that they actually achieved was probably due to bad luck that was unlikely to repeat in '97. They really only needed to get about 10 games "better" to reach 88 wins in '97, and, indeed, they improved by 101 runs (which one would expect to equal 10 wins) in getting those 88 wins. The 2003 Mets also suffered from bad luck. Their runs scored and allowed "should" have led to a 69-92 record, so that is a three game start on improvement, but does leave this team needing a much bigger improvement to get to 88 wins.
Offense: The Mets changed regulars for half of the lineup between '96 and '97, but it made only a mild difference (they scored 31 more runs in '97). They replaced Butch Huskey, Jeff Kent, Jose Vizcaino and Lance Johnson with John Olerud, Edgardo Alfonzo, Carlos Baerga and Carl Everett. The first two were improvements, the second two were downgrades. Of the returning regulars, Gilkey hit a lot better, and Ordonez hit a lot worse. The 2004 Mets should make a much bigger leap forward. They project to also change four lineup regulars: Wilson, Alomar, Duncan and Cedeno to Piazza, Matsui, Cameron and Garcia. All of these four should be improvements, at least two of them major improvements. Of the returning regulars, two are likely to contribute more (Floyd and Reyes), one about the same (Wigginton) and only one less (Phillips).
Pitching: This is where the Mets got better in '97, allowing 70 fewer runs than the year before. (Their lineup changes both helped (Alfonzo, Olerud) and hurt (Everett, Baerga) the defense, so most of the change was probably in the pitching). Ranking the starters from 1 to 5, they recorded a lower ERA at all five spots, and three of the five starters were new. (Clark, Harnisch, Jones, Isringhausen and Wilson became Reed, Jones, Mlicki, Clark and Reynoso). The '04 Mets, in contrast, will be returning at least 4 of their 5 starters. Nonetheless, the very pedestrian makeup of the Mets '97 rotation gives grounds for hope. The Mets '04 staff ought to be capable of matching their performance. But, will they improve top to bottom? Will they show a net improvement? Doubtful and very possibly. Looking at projections from two leading publications (in a recent study of seven leading projection systems, in 2003 Baseball Forecaster finished #2 in accuracy in projecting pitching performance, and Baseball Prospectus finished #1) gives some idea. Baseball Forecaster projects the Mets, ranked 1-5, to improve in 3 slots and be close in the other 2. Baseball Prospectus, in contrast, projects improvement in only one slot -- but the Mets fifth starters were so bad last year that the gain there could largely offset declines. Neither of these projections take into account the Mets significant defensive improvement. So, the bottom line here is hope, but not unreasonable hope.
A Final Note and Summary: A last difference worth mentioning between the '97 Mets and the '04 Mets is age. In 1997 the Mets had only one regular over 30, and only 2 of their 5 starters were over 30. In 2004, the Mets will have three regulars and 3 or 4 of their starting pitchers over 30. It will take a little more luck to avoid injury to make the leap forward, and more future changes to solidify gains that may occur. Still the Mets have done significantly more to improve their team following 2003 than they did following 1996. So, here's hoping. . . .
Friday, February 06, 2004
HOT STOVE IS OVER
The Mets off-season came to an end with a whimper, not a bang, as they signed Scott Erickson to a minor league contract to fill the David Cone role of washed-up-veteran-competing-for-fifth-starter spot. Unlike Cone, Erickson has neither Cone's glorious history as a Met or glorious history of any kind to make even mediocre starts at the tale end of his career enjoyable. Moreover, he has not even been decent in a long time. Over the course of this decade, he has the second worst ERA of any major league pitcher, and the worst ratio of base runners per nine innings pitched (15.92! (Cone is second)).
The Erickson signing is typical of the latter stages of the Mets off-season (i.e., Spencer and Zeile). Overall, I would rate the off-season as a B.
On the one hand, the Mets had a huge number of needs to address: nearly 40% of the starting lineup and 20% of the starting rotation needed to be replaced. On the plus side, they recognized these needs, and did something about them. For Centerfield, they got the best option available. For 2nd base they added above average talent. For Rightfield they added above-replacement level talent. For the rotation . . . well, we'll see.
On the other hand, they settled for 2nd best or less in every case except Centerfield. Castillo rather than Matsui, many other options in rightfield (from Guerrero down through Ellis Burks instead of Shane Spencer), Miguel Batista, or even Rick Reed, instead of Erickson, Fick or Branyon instead of Zeile for the same money or a little more that could have kept them with their lowest payroll in years, the Mets could be looking significantly better. Plus, Roger Cedeno is still on the roster.
8 days and 11 hours until Pitchers and Catchers report. Lets Go!