I’ll miss Bobby Valentine, if only because Tony LaRussa isn’t as easy to pick on. LaRussa has a respect for the game and for his players, and while I often disagree with his tactics, I can respect his accomplishments and ability. With Bobby V, it was just the bluster of Tommy Lasorda without the love of his players. It was LaRussa’s nitpicking without the plan. It’s odd that a manager can be blamed for nearly everything that went wrong with a team–from forcing Mike Piazza to hold a press conference to declare his heterosexuality, to not controlling a clubhouse that Sid Hudgens would say was full of “hopheads, grasshoppers, and dope fiends.” Art Howe may not be Mr. Personality in public, but anything is an improvement. Having Don Baylor as a bench coach might affect Howe’s karma, though.
The question going into this season is, does removing a Bobby V-shaped tumor from the Mets, and plugging in Howe’s soothing salve fix things? Does adding two big signings–both with some questions–push the big-money Mets back into contention? A team with the cash the Mets have should never have an organizational depth problem if they do the necessary due diligence. At the very least, they should fill Norfolk with Quadruple-A players while they’re developing young prospects. Yet somehow, the Mets have found ways to spend money without making themselves appreciably better.
Their biggest question mark is Mo Vaughn. Mo’s a big man with a big appetite, and per testimony in the Gold Club trial, the only thing small about him was his…tips. Vaughn’s size is never an issue when he’s hitting, but it gets in the way other times. One of my all-time favorite characters was Hector Villanueva, the oversized catcher for the Cubs in the late ’80s. In a classic interview with Harry Caray, Harry asked Hector about his weight. Hector laughed and said “When I hit, I am strong. When I no hit, I am fat.”
Vaughn has had injury problems–most notably a torn biceps in 2001–but none of them can really be related to his weight. Blame his defense on his waistline, but not a broken finger or an ankle torn up when his teammates didn’t catch him as he went into the dugout. He came on in the second half of the year after a broken finger healed, but there’s no reason Vaughn can’t stay at his second half production level for a couple more seasons. Dropping some weight might help, but it likely won’t make him healthier. What’s really big about Vaughn is the size of that contract–Steve Phillips probably wouldn’t mind seeing a major injury and passing him onto the worker’s comp rolls.
Cliff Floyd is one of those players like Moises Alou or Rondell White–The Curse of the ex-Expos?–that just can’t stay healthy. There’s something to be said for consistency. Floyd will put up solid numbers in about 500 at-bats while keeping the training staff sharp. He’ll pull a groin or hamstring, break a finger or get hit by a pitch.
What he won’t do is reach the expectations placed on him. For all the noise made about him, for all the teams that have thought he was the last piece of their puzzle, Floyd remains an enigma. His best years have come recently as he’s been able to avoid catastrophic injury, but he’s topped out at 30 homers. At $7.5 million per season, he’s paid about the same as what Alou gets, and their careers look remarkably similar. Alou peaked slightly later due to a gruesome ankle injury, while Floyd missed more time at the beginning of his career due to an equally gruesome wrist injury. Floyd is five years younger, so there’s no reason he can’t put up similar career numbers, but the decline will be rapid when it starts. New York is a better team with Floyd in the outfield this year, but a four-year deal was too long.
Mike Piazza’s one heck of a catcher, or rather one heck of a hitter who can play catcher. Comparisons between him and Ivan Rodriguez should be disallowed. It’s a mismatch of epic proportions, along the lines of Mike Tyson in his unmedicated prime taking on Derek Zumsteg. Piazza is the pre-eminent catcher of our era and the best since Johnny Bench. He’s miserable defensively, but who cares? The question has always been, how long can Piazza catch before shifting to another position. As Jesse Jackson once said, “The question is moot!”
Piazza takes a beating as a catcher, true, enough so that he gets a yellow light based on the number of injuries he’s dealt with. Catchers tend to break down after they reach 1,000 games caught, and Piazza is well past that level. But there are plenty of great catchers over 1,500 games caught and even a few over 2,000. Until Piazza has an injury serious enough to force a shift or the Mets have someone at catcher who will not be a steep drop-off in talent, there’s no need to shift him. Craig Biggio isn’t a good comp–as well as he played at second base, he’d have been more valuable had he stayed at catcher. A yellow light doesn’t mean much for Piazza. He’s an injury risk, but this is one of those lights where you speed up and hopefully make it before it turns red.
Roberto Alomar seems to have fallen off a cliff of sorts. While he was probably never as good as SportsCenter made him look, Alomar was a great player. And like all great players, comparing the now to the then seldom looks good. Alomar’s always played the game hard and was able to overcome the nicks and bruises that made his brother such a DL mainstay. Some players make a renewed commitment to physical fitness as they start to decline, giving them a small jump, but Alomar has always been in excellent condition, so it’s hard to imagine him picking up anything there. Alomar’s in decline, but if he can hang on to an 800 OPS, he’ll remain one of the better second basemen in the game.
The pitching staff is quite healthy and looks to be solid and deep. Tom Glavine has always been exceptionally healthy and consistent, but with age, he borders on the yellow light. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that Greg Maddux didn’t get, but be aware of Glavine’s age – you worry about 37-year-olds charged with carrying a pitching staff.
On the other end of the spectrum, keep an eye on Aaron Heilman’s usage. New pitching coach Vern Ruhle was as bad in Philly as he was good in Houston. I’m not sure how much of the good in Houston can be chalked up to Larry Dierker or the bad in Philly to Larry Bowa. Either way, if the Mets go north with Heilman as the fifth starter, he should be protected somewhat by a durable staff fronting him and a deep bullpen behind him. Keeping Heilman in the five- to six-inning range, or even in a swingman role, would be a good sign. Mike Bacsik may get the fifth starter’s job initially, but Heilman should claim the job outright at some point this year, and could rise to the top of the rotation soon if he can stay healthy.
In the new-look NL East, the Mets once again feel they are contenders. Fueled by an involved owner and a GM trying to hang onto his job, they should be nothing if not interesting. But despite a roster that looks to be healthy, it’s unlikely that the Mets can hang with the Phillies and Braves. One or two unexpected injuries could drop them behind the Expos and Marlins.