The Story of 2011 (So Far) As Told By Mets360

We’ve reached the halfway point of the 2011 New York Metropolitans’ baseball season, chronologically, if not statistically. The Mets sent two players to the game, one of which will play – a commendable showing for a team which had been predicted to act as the spittoon of the NL East and began the year five up-thirteen down. It’s been an interesting ride, I think best told in the narrative you’ve – hopefully! – read right here.

It all started in mid-October, amid the bunting and circumstance of the 2010 post-season, when the Mets’ owners, Fred and Jeff Wilpon (he said with a straight face) made what could be a franchise-altering announcement, the hiring of veteran miracle-worker Sandy Alderson – in the current argot, a “game-changer.” It was pretty universally praised as the best hire they could have made (face still straight.)

Once Alderson moved into his Citi Field office, he bought in some old friends: J.P. Ricciardi, erstwhile Toronto GM, and Paul DePodesta, late of the L.A. Dodgers. Ricciardi was brought on to oversee the major league and business aspects of the operation, DePodesta to handle the scout/drafting/player-development wing of the building. Speculation then ran rampant in the blogosphere and MSM as who would succeed Jerry Manuel as the field boss of this rag-tag crew. From a field that included fan fave Wally Backman, Clint Hurdle and other in-house candidates Bob Melvin and Chip Hale, Alderson finally settled on dark-horse Terry Collins just before Thanksgiving.

With the front office and field staff firmly in place, it was time for the winter meetings, where Alderson dazzled us all by doing…nothing. Basically. Oh, he came away from Orlando with a couple of Rule V players, Brad Emaus and Pedro Beato, but not much else to show for the trip. And this was a good thing.

(As an aside, right around this time, the good folks here at mets360 took on a new writer)

The winter continued apace, with the usual hot stove stuff: observing rivals’ activity , the annual Christmas party , evaluating talent on hand and signing some new players – not a single “big name” among them. Amid the snows in the Northeast we waited for those magic words: pitchers and catchers report. We looked forward to the kids, looked back at the heroes and started planning our summer.

The major bombshell was that the Wilpons weren’t as financially set as we were led to believe. The announcement that they were looking to take on a partner or partners to help steady their monetary ship just served to confuse matters. Did this mean they didn’t have enough money to sign Jose Reyes to an extension? Would Alderson be able to swing a mid-season trade if the Mets were in contention or would he be hamstrung by a small wallet? It made the arrival spring training all the more imperative: let’s stop all the talk and get ON the field, already!

Spring training, of course, brought with it its own set of actors and story lines: players switching positions, new faces , old faces and speculation. Of course, these being the Mets, there was no small number of clack clouds hanging over Port St. Lucie — the health of Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Jason Bay; question marks comprising the starting rotation and the guillotines hanging over the heads of Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo. All of this amid much head-scratching and speculation over the ownership mess. The only real surprise of the spring was Collins naming Emaus his Opening Day second baseman.

The Opener final did arrive on April 1 – an uncharacteristic loss – and was followed by two straight wins over Florida, a defeat of the Phillies in their first 2011 visit to Citizens Bank Ballpark, and a near miraculous comeback from seven runs down the next night. People were starting to notice – and the Mets got stage fright. Over their next thirteen games, they posted a ghastly 2-11 mark, causing pundits to put a premature end to the year and we fans to question our own loyalty.

Fortunately for the Mets, the season goes on a great deal longer than eighteen games. Sandy Alderson waded into the situation and dismissed the flotsam that floated north with the team: Blaine Boyer, Chin-lung Hu and the failed experiment, Emaus. Ike Davis got off to a blazing start, and with some deadwood cleared and new growth arrived on the doorstep – Dillon Gee, Justin Turner, Jason Pridie – the team also found reserves of a less tangible nature: some would call it “heart,” some would call it “guts,” some would call it “grit.”

As May dawned, spirits were running pretty high for this scrappy bunch – until the ghosts of 2009 and 2010 swept across the landscape, like persistent rain. Davis and David Wright collided on a pop up which resulted in a lengthy trip to the DL for Davis (he’s still there). Two weeks later, Wright was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his lower back and he went on the Disabled List (he’s still there). You couldn’t say enough about the resilience of this bunch: every time they got close to the brink, they found a way to bring themselves back.

Until the owner opened his mouth again.
Just before Memorial Day, the New Yorker magazine published an interview with Fred Wilpon in which he bemoaned the injury cycle of his team, tried to slag his best player (impending free agent Reyes) and take himself to task for giving big money to Beltran back in 2005. Then, two days after that, it was announced that they’d found their partner at long last – hedge fund manager David Einhorn, who graciously agreed to pony up a cool $200 million for 35% of this limping operation. The details are still being hammered out at this writing, but it looks like Einhorn will add his name to the door by early August.

June had Terry Collins show the fiery side of his personality – and gain the respect of the fans in the process. After a lackluster performance against Pittsburgh, Collins closed the door and aired the team out. He did it succinctly, eloquently and unambiguously: when it was over, everybody knew what he meant. Well, the alarm apparently went off because the team then went on a 16-10 tear through June, which found them peaking their head above .500 for the first time since April. June also saw the engines rev up to put Reyes in the All-Star game as a starter. Jose made up a half-million vote deficit to finally pass Troy Tulowitzky on the Friday of July 4th weekend.

Just in time to tweak his hamstring and take his turn on the DL.

And yet, here the Mets sit at the break, one game over .500 having come off a 4-3 West Coast swing – a respectable showing for a team even at full strength. So far, 2011 has been quite the thrill ride, no?

PS — I’m making my first 2011 foray into Citi Field this coming Friday (7/15). Vs. the Phillies. On Fireworks Night. I may put in for combat pay… I’ll file a full report next week.

Getting to know Brad Emaus

With Opening Day nearly a week away, one of the Mets’ pressing questions heading into the spring seems ready to be answered. And that is who was going to be the Mets everyday second baseman?

The question cast an ominous cloud all spring long. The position battle led to many fabricated, exaggerated stories (Luis Hernandez anyone?) and was punctuated with the eventual release of veteran Luis Castillo.

Well, the second-guessing (pardon the pun) seems to be over as it looks like Rule 5 draft pick Brad Emaus is ready to be anointed the club’s everyday second baseman.

Emaus had a coming out party in Thursday’s spring game against the Cardinals. In the 16-3 Mets rout, Emaus went 4-4 with a home run and three runs scored. Emaus is now batting .293 for the spring, while also sporting a sterling .439 OBP.

With the release of Castillo and management preferring to keep Daniel Murphy as a utility player off the bench (spelling Ike Davis and David Wright), the job came down to Hernandez and Emaus. (Another potential prospect who had a shot-Justin Turner– was just sent down to the minors earlier this week).

Well, it seems that Emaus’ potential for producing with his bat and getting on base got him the nod. So, just who exactly is Brad Emaus?

Call Emaus a byproduct of J.P. Ricciardi’s advance scouting. Ricciardi drafted Emaus while he was Toronto’s GM. It’s quite evident Ricciardi and Sandy Alderson love Emaus’ potential. Emaus fits perfectly into Alderson and Ricciardi’s “Moneyball” approach.

Last year in the minors (with stints in Double-A and Triple-A) Emaus batted .290 with 15 home runs, 75 RBI’s and 81 walks.

Emaus, in his time in the minors and with the Mets this spring, has shown that he is a patient hitter. Emaus is a player that takes pride in getting on base. It’s that type of approach at the plate that tantalizes Alderson and Ricciardi.

In a Wall Street Journal article Ricciardi said that the Mets need a gritty type like Emaus who will work the count and do anything to get on base.

“I think the appealing thing for us is, he sees a lot of pitches,” Ricciardi said. “As we go forward, that’s the type of team we’d like to have, guys that do get on base, guys that grind out walks.”

As long as Emaus does just that, management can live with the ups and the downs Emaus may have on defense.

While manager Terry Collins may or may not have wanted Hernandez as his starting second baseman because of his defense, Alderson and Ricciardi have the final say. They feel that second base is an offensive position, which is especially evident in a division that includes the Phillies’ Chase Utley and the Braves’ Dan Uggla. The latter of which Emaus is compared to because they were both Rule 5 draft picks.

Emaus is not a flashy player by any means but he seems like the steady, hard-working, tough as nails type that the new management want fans to embrace. Emaus won’t have to shoulder much of the load in his rookie season as he bats in the eight hole, making his transition to the majors as seamless as possible.

So, get to know your newest Mets’s second basemen: Number Four and batting eighth, Brad Emaus.

Top 10 Spring Training stories for Mets

After four months without MLB, Spring Training is always a welcome sight. Even though the teams never have full lineups, the pitchers rarely throw at peak form and managers make moves they never would during the season – we can’t help but to look at the stats and look at things that jump out. There are always going to be people struggling and people exceeding expectations. But sometimes the surprising thing is who is doing what – and to what extent.

With that in mind, here are my Top 10 surprises in Spring Training for the Mets.

10. Tim Byrdak with 2 Saves
In 343 games in the majors, Byrdak has 3 Saves and a 4.35 ERA. While it’s surprising that he has yet to give up an earned run this Spring, it’s only 6.1 IP. Last year with the Astros he had an 11.1 scoreless innings streak and a 14.0 streak. But if you had given us five guesses before Spring Training started about who would lead the club in Saves in late March few, if any, would have said Byrdak.

9. Fernando Martinez and his .364/.481/.591 line
When the Mets signed Martinez as a 16-year old, he was a five-tool talent and everybody’s expectations were through the roof. Now after an injury-marred minor league career, most people have written him off as a starter, much less an impact major league player. So, while it was only 22 ABs, it was still very nice to see Martinez put up sparkling slash numbers.

8. Kirk Nieuwenhuis gets 32 ABs despite .094 AVG
One of the most useful things to see in Spring Training is who gets a lot of ABs. Those are the guys that the club wants to see play, usually because they are competing for a roster/starting spot. But when a minor leaguer gets that much time, it’s a clear example that the club thinks highly of him. Nieuwenhuis benefits from being a CF but that doesn’t explain this much playing time with so little production. I had him rated fifth in my top prospects ranking and it’s clear the Mets are high on him, too.

7. Taylor Buchholz approaches 2009-10 innings total
Elbow surgery, along with a back injury that landed him on the DL last year, limited Buchholz to just 12 IP the past two seasons. This Spring, Buchholz has logged 11 IP, the top total of any reliever on the staff. And to make things even better, he has yet to allow a run. Buchholz has been fortunate, as he has allowed 15 baserunners in those 11 innings, but his health and performance have been good to see.

6. Daniel Murphy not locking up 2B job despite .811 OPS
Murphy has picked up right where he left off offensively despite missing most of the 2010 season. With only Jonathon Niese being likely to deliver big ground ball numbers to the right side of the infield, it should be an easy decision to install Murphy as the regular at second base and look to replace him defensively in the late innings with a slim lead. After all, an .811 OPS would tie for the sixth-best mark among second basemen in the majors last year. After scoring just 656 runs last year, which ranked 13th in the 16-team NL, the Mets should look for offense wherever they can get it.

5. Reserve outfield production
Not many people were enthusiastic when the Mets signed Jerry Hairston and Willie Harris for backup outfield spots. Hairston had a .652 OPS in 2010 while Harris was nearly as bad with a .653 mark. But in 78 Spring ABs, the duo has combined for 28 H, 9 2B, 1 3B and 4 HR. They also have 14 R and 11 RBIs.

4. Rule 5 picks struggling
Most people expected that Brad Emaus and Pedro Beato had good shots to make the roster. But Emaus got off to a terrible start before finally getting some hits the past few days. Beato has gone the opposite route, starting off strong but really sputtering later in the Spring. Emaus still has a chance to make the team because of support for his game in the front office. But Beato seems like a long shot. And cynics will point out that the owners will recoup $50,000 if they return both players.

3. Luis Hernandez named front runner by NY Post
Although the line is blurring, mainstream outlets (yes, even the Post) still have stronger editorial standards than independent blogs. So it was a huge deal when Mike Puma’s story broke that Terry Collins wanted Hernandez to be the starter at 2B. While the Mets have termed the story premature, there seems no doubt that Collins was impressed by what he saw from Hernandez last season. It will likely come down to Emaus or Hernandez at second base and it will be interesting to see if the manager wins out over the front office. I’m rooting for the front office.

2. The return of Jason Isringhausen
Another thing no one saw coming was the signing of Isringhausen, who inked a minor league deal on February 15th. After back-to-back years with elbow surgeries, it seemed like his career was over. But Isringhausen is seemingly back at full strength and has survived pitching on back-to-back days. He’s now the leading contender to be the team’s primary setup man and is hands down the feel-good story of the Spring.

1. The domination by Chris Young
I was not in favor of the Young signing. He had pitched just 96 innings the past two years due to shoulder surgery. Even when he was healthy, Young never topped 179.1 IP in a major league season. His last good year came in 2007 and there were serious questions about his velocity. Yet somehow this Spring, Young leads the team’s starters with a 1.33 ERA in a team-high 20.1 IP. He’s been touched by the gopher ball and still has a sub-par strikeout rate (3.98 K/9) but it’s hard to argue with the results, including six shutout innings this weekend.

Mets second base options of the future

Who will be playing second base for the New York Mets this season?

Will it be embattled 15-year veteran Luis Castillo, converted outfielder/ first baseman Daniel Murphy, slick glove man Ruben Tejada or utility man Justin Turner?

It’s doubtful that any of these players will be a permanent fixture at second base with New York, so what does the future hold?

There’s Rule 5 acquisition Brad Emaus. And New York has two decent prospects in the upper levels of the minors in former first rounder Reese Havens and Dominican Jordany Valdespin.

Brad Emaus

In Emaus, New York is hoping to find another Dan Uggla.

Emaus will be 25 on Opening Day and has 87 games experience above Class AA since being drafted in the 11th round in 2007 out of Tulane by the Toronto Blue Jays. He was drafted by J.P. Ricciardi, who is now a special assistant with the Mets.

Uggla was a 5-11, 200-pound infielder with pop and decent plate discipline who couldn’t catch a break in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ organization.

He was selected by the Marlins in the Rule 5 draft, turned 26 during spring training and proceeded to slug 154 homers in five years, becoming the first second baseman ever to homer 30 times in four consecutive seasons. He has played in two All-Star games and snagged a five-year, $61 million contract with the Atlanta Braves this past offseason.

The Mets would consider themselves fortunate if they could get anything close out of Emaus, who has a similar profile to Uggla.

He’s a 5-11, 200-pound right-handed hitter who doesn’t stand out tools-wise, but can hit for average, has some pop and has an excellent command of the strike zone. Emaus has 212 walks compared to 220 strikeouts over four seasons, 425 games and 1,559 at-bats. In stops at Class AA and AAA last season, Emaus hit a combined .290/.397/.476 with 32 doubles and 15 homers with 81 walks and 69 strikeouts in 445 at-bats. He’s 1-for-7 thus far this spring with two walks and a strikeout.

There’s a ton of candidates for the second base job and Emaus, who must either stay with the team or be offered back to the Jays, is no gazelle nor star with the glove. However, if the Mets can look past how he looks in a uniform and can see what he can do in the uniform, they might have a decent offensive option.

Reese Havens

The second of two first-round picks by the Mets in 2008, Havens was selected with the 22nd pick, four slots after first baseman Ike Davis. While Davis skyrocketed to the majors in less then two years, Havens spent most of his first three years on the sidelines watching.

The 24-year-old has been limited to 152 games in three years due to a laundry list of injuries, with oblique and back problems his latest. Havens says he’s ready to go this year, and 2011 could be considered his make-or-break season.

Havens likely will take his potent left-handed bat to either high Class A St. Lucie, where he began last season and played 14 games, or Class AA Binghamton, where he suited up 18 times and hit .338 with six homers and 12 RBI.

Havens is a hitter first, defender second. A college shortstop at South Carolina, Havens made the move to second base last season and still has a long way to go defensively. An excellent chance to gain experience at the new position last season was ruined due to all of the injuries.

Statistically, Havens has the rare combination analysts like; he can hit for average, has some pop and works the count. He has 60 extra-base hits in 570 at-bats with 80 walks – both excellent markers. However, if Havens can’t stay on the field the Mets will never get a chance to see if he could be a possible solution at the unsettled position in 2012.

Jordany Valdespin

The enigmatic Valdespin has had several clashes with coaches, twice resulting in suspensions, but his performance in the Arizona Fall League and raw tools landed him a spot on the Mets’ 40-man roster this November.

The 23-year-old has taken a tour of the lower-level Mets affiliates over the past two seasons, playing at six stops from the Dominican Summer League to the Eastern League.

The lefthanded hitter has hit .277/.328/.406 in his four years and prior to last season had shown very little extra-base potential. His had 25 extra-base hits (16 doubles, 3 triples, 6 homers) in 270 at-bats in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League last season and chipped in 13 steals.

Valdespin followed that by hitting .355 with a .848 on-base percentage in the Arizona Fall League with five extra-base hits and four walks in 76 at-bats. He was 7-for-7 in stolen base attempts.

However, take away his FSL power numbers and Valdespin has demonstrated limited pop, no ability to command the strike zone – he had just 10 walks in 382 at-bats last season – and mediocre stolen base ability.

He’s split time between shortstop and second base but looks like he’ll settle on the right side of the bag.
The 6-foot, 180-pounder profiles as a utility infielder unless he can follow up on his 2010 power numbers and draw more walks in 2011. He’ll likely start at St. Lucie or Binghamton, depending upon where New York decides to put Havens.

Valdespin is 2-for-11 so far this spring with a double, RBI, walk and three strikeouts.

Sizing up the Mets’ 2011 Opening Day roster

While there are several jobs up in the air, the Opening Day roster is starting to take shape for the Mets. There are 17 positions which seem set and another four which seem likely. And the remaining four are possibly already on the team, it is just a matter of which direction Terry Collins and Sandy Alderson choose to go.

The definites
Pelfrey, Dickey, Niese, Capuano, Rodriguez, Parnell, Buchholz, Carrasco, Thole, Paulino, Davis, Wright, Reyes, Hu, Bay, Beltran, Pagan

The likely
Gee, Acosta, Murphy, Evans

For lack of a better option, Dillon Gee seems to be the club’s fifth starter. There also remains the possibility he becomes a long man/swing guy if the Mets sign another starter before the start of Spring Training.

Manny Acosta had 42 strikeouts in 39.2 IP for the Mets last year and a 2.95 ERA. He is not yet eligible for arbitration and seems like a good, low-cost reliever. One thing working in his favor is his success last year versus LHB, who posted a .163/.217/.256 mark, albeit in just 46 PA.

Daniel Murphy might be the starting second baseman on Opening Day. Even if he does not win the job, his ability to play multiple positions (he played third base in the minors and left field and first base for the Mets) seems like an obvious asset, unless the Mets want him to go to the minors to concentrate on playing second on a daily basis.

Nick Evans should benefit from the shift in management, having, for whatever reason, seemingly fallen out of favor with Manuel/Minaya. Evans’ ability to play first base, along with both corner outfield spots, seems to give him a leg up. Also, being a righty bat with some sock helps Evans’ chances.

That leaves two bullpen spots, a second baseman and one other reserve position, likely an outfielder, up for grabs. It makes sense that the two Rule 5 guys – Pedro Beato and Brad Emaus – get a long look to fill a reliever spot and the second base job.

Next, the question is if the Mets hold onto Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo because of their contracts or if they are willing to eat part of all of their salaries in trades/releases. If the Mets do get rid of Perez, how important is having a lefty in the bullpen? Southpaw Mike O’Connor was unimpressive in two short stints with the Nationals, but had 70 Ks in 70.2 IP in Buffalo last year with a 2.67 ERA. Pat Misch is a lefty but has displayed little ability to be a LOOGY. But he does have the ability to pitch multiple innings as a reliever and should not be discounted.

If Emaus makes it, it seems unlikely that Castillo will also be on the team. Justin Turner probably needs Emaus to fall flat and another team to show interest in Castillo to have a shot, especially since he can be sent to the minors without risk.

That leaves the outfield. Ordinarily, Lucas Duda would be an asset as a power lefty bat off the bench, but he is likely better served to get regular ABs in Triple-A. Plus, he looked stretched as a left fielder and the Mets probably want this reserve to be a good defensive outfielder. Jason Pridie could fill the bill, although there is a chance the Mets bring in a veteran who is willing to sign on the cheap. Recently, MLB Trade Rumors indicated Scott Podsednik might be an option here.

My guess is that both Rule 5 guys make the roster and both salary guys are elsewhere. O’Connor gets the other relief spot and Pridie is the final guy for Opening Day. If this is indeed the Opening Day roster, their will be just six players returning from the 2010 Opening Day roster (Niese, Pelfrey, Rodriguez, Wright, Bay and Pagan). There were 11 returnees on the 2010 roster and 13 on the 2009 Opening Day one.

Mets should embrace platooning in 2011

After avoiding platoons for most of the past few seasons, the Mets could be moving back to this strategy in 2011, with potential platoon situations at both catcher and second base. With the LaRussification of bullpen usage, platoons have fallen out of favor throughout the majors in recent years, as spots that would go to platoon bats when teams carried 10 pitchers now go instead to sixth and seventh relievers.

Most people expect the Mets to go with a platoon at catcher, where Josh Thole has a lifetime .309/.382/.401 mark versus RHP in the majors and newly-acquired Ronny Paulino has a .338/.390/.491 career mark against southpaws. If these two can match these totals in 2011, the Mets could have one of the most productive catching tandems in baseball.

But what has gotten less attention is the possibility for a similar situation at second base. Daniel Murphy’s career numbers against righties – .282/.340/.436 – could team quite nicely with either Luis Castillo (.292/.361/.417) or Brad Emaus (currently sporting a .448 split in the Dominican Winter League) getting the at-bats versus lefties for an effective offensive duo.

The Mets have a long history of platooning. Casey Stengel, the team’s first manager, is generally credited with bringing platooning back to the majors in the late 1940s, after the practice had essentially been abandoned. Platooning has roots back to the early 1900s. Historian Bill James credits the 1906 Tigers as having the first platoon, with three people sharing the catching position.

When Stengel managed the Mets, he ran several platoons, including one at first base. Gil Hodges had great success as a part-timer in 1962, as he batted .390/.446/.712 in 65 PA versus southpaws. So, it is little surprise that Hodges used platoons extensively when he became Mets manager.

In the World Championship year of 1969, Hodges tinkered extensively with his lineups. By the end of the season, he was platooning at three infield positions. First base had Donn Clendenon and Ed Kranepool alternating; second base had Al Weiss and Ken Boswell splitting at-bats and third base saw either Ed Charles or Wayne Garrett in the lineup depending upon the pitcher.

The common perception is that Art Shamsky and Ron Swoboda platooned during the season but a look at the game logs does not support this. Shamsky missed all of April with a back injury and did not make his first start until May 13th. He was generally in the lineup for the rest of the season, although he saw time in both left field and right field and even saw a handful of games at first base. Swoboda was essentially the regular RF in September.

Shamsky and Swoboda did platoon in the World Series, with Shamsky’s only start coming in Game Three against RHP Jim Palmer. Shamsky’s .863 OPS during the season was the second-highest mark on the club, yet he had fewer ABs in World Series than Jerry Koosman.

The 1986 Mets also platooned, with Wally Backman and Tim Teufel sharing time at second base. By the end of the season, Kevin Mitchell was a semi-regular versus LHP and Mookie Wilson also saw considerable time versus southpaws.

Fans of the 2011 club should embrace the Thole-Paulino platoon. We should also be open to a time share at second base. While platooning has not been a staple of recent editions of the team, the Mets have had great success with the strategy throughout their history.