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October 5, 1999

Playoff Prospectus

Arizona Diamondbacks vs. New York Mets

by Dave Pease

The Arizona Diamondbacks are the new kids on the block: the quickest to 100 wins--and the playoffs--of any team in history. The New York Mets were the popular choice for the wild card, but it took a playoff with the upstart Cincinnati Reds to get them to the postseason. The D'Backs owned the Mets in the regular season; are they going to do so in the playoffs?

Lineups

Both of these teams feature solid offenses subject to fits of inconsistency, but the similarities end there. The Mets have gotten their runs by getting on base this season; they finished second in the National League in walks with 717 and first in OBP with an excellent .363. The team's least patient regular, shortstop Rey Ordonez, took 49 free passes this season. There isn't another lineup in the league with this kind of plate discipline.

When the offense is on its game, the Mets are a force to be reckoned with. However, the seven-game losing streak that almost caused the team to miss the playoffs was an indication of what happens when they aren't consistently taking walks and blooping singles. The team didn't manage a .300 OBP and scored just 15 runs. Some of the team's main power sources have been in a slump: third baseman Robin Ventura (32 home runs overall, just four in September and October) and second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo (27 home runs overall, four in September and October) haven't been hitting as well over the last month as they did for most of the season. The media's bleating over Mike Piazza's "choke" has been greatly overstated: he hit eight of his 40 home runs after September 1.

Ventura has been hobbled with a leg injury, and can't be counted on for consistent production at the plate. Most of Roger Cedeno's baserunning heroics (66 SB/17 CS) occurred while leadoff hitter Rickey Henderson was out early in the season; Cedeno is only 20/7 after the All-Star break and is now batting seventh in manager Bobby Valentine's lineup. Henderson is entrenched in the leadoff spot, where he's been a thorn in the side of opposing pitchers all year.

With a lineup full of guys with top-of-the-order skills, and with their main power sources flagging, the Mets are going to have to have guys on base consistently to make it anywhere in the playoffs.

Arizona sports a offense that wins games with home runs. The resurgent trio of Matt Williams (.290 Equivalent Average), Jay Bell (.305 EqA), and Luis Gonzalez (.314 EqA) has been great all year. It's a tribute to the work that these guys have done that leadoff "hitter" Tony Womack scored 111 runs this season. He remains impotent with the bat, despite his basepath heroics. Newcomer Erubiel Durazo has made people in the Valley of the Sun forget all about Travis Lee, who didn't even make the postseason roster. He adds another left-handed bat to pound Mets pitching.

Other than Womack, this crew is strictly station-to-station, and that's probably a good idea; their 216 home runs were the second-most in the league after Colorado. Unfortunately for the team, Andy Fox and Hanley Frias are poor substitutes for departed shortstop Tony Batista.

Bench

Benny Agbayani and Matt Franco are the top bats off the New York bench, and Shawon Dunston is the Mets' resident supersub. All have played well this season, but none of them is likely to strike fear in the heart of the Diamondback relief corps. Todd Pratt is the rare backup catcher who can serve as a useful pinch-hitter.

For the Diamondbacks, Bernard Gilkey will spell any of the left-handed hitters late in the game; he's been lethal against left-handed pitching this year and is the most imposing player on either bench. Fox gives Showalter flexibility within a game, although he hasn't been the supersub he was in 1998. Greg Colbrunn has had a very good year has a pinch-hitter and occasional first baseman, and Lenny Harris will receive all kinds of praise without being good at anything but hitting singles.

Starters

The Mets got great efforts from Orel Hershiser and Al Leiter to complete their playoff push, which means they'll start the postseason off with Masato Yoshii. Yoshii looked like toast after a tough July, but since then he has an ERA of 2.32. This looks like a serious mismatch against Randy Johnson, and it probably is, but Yoshii isn't necessarily the tin can you might think he is.

Import Kenny Rogers starts the second game for the Mets, and with Bell and Williams' prediliction towards hitting lefties, he may not last long. Rogers hasn't pitched all that well lately. The third start will go to Rick Reed, who has benefited from the Mets' infield defense as much as anybody. He's an ideal pitcher for a team like this one; unfortunately, he isn't pitching all that well either.

The Mets will end up with Leiter and Yoshii if the series goes five games. This team has very deep starting pitching that is fairly good as well: the Mets ended up fifth in Support Neutral Win-Loss for the season. This kind of depth is a good thing in the regular season. Unfortunately, they don't have any starters who really dominate, and that's a better thing to have in the postseason.

Which brings us to Arizona, and one of the two most dominating pitchers in baseball. Randy Johnson has never been better; despite his merely good record, he's been the finest pitcher in the league and it isn't particularly close. Johnson will be rested and ready to go in Game 1 (and Game 5, if the series goes that far). People make a lot of Johnson's supposed playoff problems, but the fact is that he hasn't pitched badly in the postseason. He ran into bad luck in the form of Kevin Brown last year, and some merciless overuse by Lou Piniella in 1995, but he's still the man to beat.

Behind Johnson, Todd Stottlemyre, Omar Daal and Brian Anderson will round out the staff. Anderson appears to have sold his soul sometime in early August; he's been great since then. Daal and Stottlemyre will give Arizona a chance in their starts, and they'll likely pitch deep into the game, giving the bullpen some additional relief. Overall, Arizona had the best starting pitching in the majors this year, and with the Big Unit in postseason form already, they have a big advantage in a short series.

Bullpens

The Mets have one of the best bullpens in baseball, and Leiter's complete-game win on Monday ensures that they will all be available from Game 1 on. Armando Benitez is the new closer in New York, and he's nearly unhittable when he's on. There was a lot of concern in Baltimore that Benitez' rough postseason with the O's indicated that he couldn't produce in October; that's a lot to be assuming based on the evidence.

Close behind him on the Relievers' Run Expectation Top 30 is right-hander Turk Wendell, whose game has really come together since his move to New York. He teams with Pat Mahomes and lefties John Franco and Dennis Cook to give the Mets a potent short-relief corps. Every one of these guys would as soon strike you out as they'd look at you, and every one of them were worth double-digit ARP. The Met bullpen was used fairly heavily in the regular season, and both Cook and Wendell seemed to wear down as the season came to a close, so they both bear watching. Octavio Dotel and Orel Hershiser are on the roster for long relief.

The Flounder is the man in Arizona: Greg Swindell has been reliable all season and will keep John Olerud and Robin Ventura in check when he's called on. Bobby Chouinard has been inexplicably successful this year, but that's in only 40 innings: he should still have plenty of juice for postseason work, but now would be a terrible time for him to turn into John Hudek. Arizona will finish things off with Matt Mantei, who is a capable closer. They've also got situational left-hander Dan Plesac, the taterrific Gregg Olson, Darren Holmes and displaced starter Andy Benes on the roster. If they lean too much on any of these guys, it'll be a bad sign. Overall, the Mets have a significant advantage as far as quality of the pen, but Arizona should be relying on their own relievers much less heavily.

Defense

The Mets feature the most acclaimed defensive infield in years. Of course, everyone knows that they're great at avoiding errors, but the most impressive thing about them is how they don't go out of their way to avoid errors--watching Alfonzo at second base for a while makes that altogether clear. He's a very good second baseman, and would probably be the best shortstop in the league if the Mets would quit screwing around with Ordonez and move him over. Ordonez' struggles with the bat are the stuff of legend, but at least he can pick it with the glove. He has excellent range, and doesn't flub the routine play in a year as often as someone like Damian Jackson does in a day (a part of his game that has improved dramatically). If you can't hit, you might as well field like this.

The outfield is solid; Darryl Hamilton has had better range, and Henderson doesn't always get the greatest jump in left field, but these are three guys who can fly. As a whole, they cover a lot of ground. Behind the plate, Mike Piazza didn't have a good year stopping the run, but nobody but Womack is a threat on the Diamondbacks roster, and Womack usually heads back to the dugout after he bats.

The Diamondbacks weren't the defensive team that the Mets were this year, and with the high-average hitters that the Mets have on offense, there's a chance Arizona's defense will be exploited. Jay Bell plays like he hasn't gotten completely comfortable with the idea of fielding at second base yet. He's not a bad fielder, but he isn't Alfonzo either. At shortstop, Fox is really overmatched. The Diamondbacks are leaning towards starting Frias, and that's a good idea on their part. Williams is still great at third base.

The star in the Snakes outfield is Steve Finley, who glides in center field. In addition to getting his home run stroke back, he remains great with the glove. Luis Gonzalez has gone from a great defensive left fielder to a good one as he ages, but he still flashes a plus arm (he had 10 assists on the season). Tony Womack plays right field with about as much effectiveness as you would expect a fast converted infielder to have. With Damian Miller suffering from a hairline fracture in his wrist, expect Kelly Stinnett to take nearly all the chances behind the plate, at least in this series. Miller is the superior defensive catcher when he's healthy.

Overall

Now that the Diamondbacks have made the playoffs, having Johnson is huge. Their pitching couldn't be better suited to a few short series, with capable starters backing Johnson up, and their offense is still smacking the ball around. Overall, the Mets are the superior team, but Masato Yoshii is no Kevin Brown. The Unit will break out of his "postseason slump" as the D'Backs win in five.

Dave Pease is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Dave's other articles. You can contact Dave by clicking here

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