House of Cards

You want to know why being a baseball fan sucks?  Because even if you follow a good team, they’re going to break your heart at least 60 times a year.

Of course, the Mets have broken their fans’ hearts more than 60 times a year.  They seem to break their fans’ hearts just enough to REALLY break their hearts, having fallen but a game short of postseason play in each of the past two seasons.  This season, through 61 games, things don’t appear to be much different, although they’re only four games out of the lead in the NL East and only a game out of the wild card.*  Last week featured three fairly brutal losses, two at the hands of their most hated rivals, and a particularly nasty loss at the hands of their cross-town rivals.  I mean…there’s just no way around it, the past two weeks have featured those three ugly losses and an embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Pittsburgh Pirates.  The highlight of the month of June so far?  Taking two out of three from the Washington Nationals.  Not exactly something to hang your hat on if you have dreams of postseason play.

It does seem a bit premature to be talking about the wild card in June, right?  It’s just a hypothetical really.  Yet it has to be in the back of every Mets fan’s mind, who would gladly take the wild card after how the past two years have finished.  And yes, I am blatantly ripping off Joe Posnanski now.

And I haven’t even gotten into the negative side of things yet!  Jose Reyes injured his calf, then his hamstring, and there seems to be no real timetable as to when the Mets can expect their leadoff hitter and 25% of their vaunted “core” back in the lineup.  Carlos Delgado underwent hip surgery, isn’t expected back until late July.  Oliver Perez and John Maine, two guys expected to fill about 350 or so solid innings of starting pitching in 2009, are both on the disabled list.  JJ Putz, the Mets’ big trade acquisition this offseason, pitched ineffectively for two months, then underwent surgery to remove bone spurs from his elbow and is now expected out until late August/early September.  Gary Sheffield is now experiencing knee problems, but the Mets’ crack medical staff has encouraged him that everything is fine and that he doesn’t need to have an MRI.  I don’t know what medical basis forms this opinion, but at this point, if the Mets medical staff insisted that I wouldn’t need an MRI, I’d immediately demand one just in case.

That doesn’t even get into the areas where the Mets have been relatively healthy, but just not very good.  Luis Castillo has been good at getting on base with a solid .377 OBP, yet still posts an OPS+ of 91 thanks to an abysmal .335 slugging percentage, having contributed just eight extra base hits in 218 plate appearances (Carlos Delgado, by comparison, has 12 extra base hits in 112 plate appearances) and his range at second base is practically non-existant (and that’s before we talk about the events of 6/12/09).  Ryan Church continues to hit like the platoon outfielder he is, although at least the Mets found an effective right-handed platoon partner for him in Gary Sheffield – at least, until the Delgado injury “forced” Mets manager Jerry Manuel into inserting Sheffield’s “presence” into the lineup on a more regular basis, forcing Churchy to face left handed pitching on a more regular basis (and he’s OPSing .472 against LHP this season).

Sheffield is playing left field more often than he should because the Mets have deemed the Daniel Murphy experiment in left field a failure because of a few defensive miscues, despite Murphy showing promising range as an left fielder.  Murphy is now platooning with Fernando Tatis at first base, despite Murphy having a weird reverse platoon split against lefties (.229/.327/.336 against RHP, .292/..308/.458 against LHP in 27 PA) and Tatis having a weird reverse platoon split against righties (.250/.368/.333 against LHP, .265/.316/.412 against RHP).  Granted, small sample sizes in both, and they are both slugging dependant, but it’s still strange. 

At any rate, against lefties or righties, Murphy is not hitting well enough to play first base regularly (neither is Tatis, for that matter) so no matter how much better his defense might appear to be at first, they still should have left Murphy in left field all season, since the range looked promising that he could eventually grow into being a decent defender in left, and his bat would play a little better in the outfield than it does at first base.  To be a first baseman in baseball today, if you can’t hit more than 20 home runs, you basically need to be Keith Hernandez, circa 1985; .400 OBP and excellent defense.  Daniel Murphy probably isn’t that good.  Yet he’s probably too good to be a platoon first baseman right now.  What do you do with him?  I don’t know, but I do think that what they are doing with him right now is wrong.

And then there’s the catching situation.  The Mets front office and Jerry Manuel fell in love with Omir Santos after a decent spring training and a flukey 80 or so plate appearances in the majors.  He’s a bad hitting catcher who has gotten lucky on a few bad pitches (including one by Jonathan Papelbon that ultimately doomed Ramon Castro to the Chicago White Sox) and is slugging at a rate that far exceeds anything he’s ever done in the minor leagues.  Eventually, he’s going to start seeing fewer bad pitches, and what is left is a catcher who doesn’t get on base, who isn’t slugging .450, and who frankly isn’t very good.  While I’m glad the Mets are finally platooning Schneider with a power hitting right handed alternative, the guy I wanted them to platoon him with is currently playing in Chicago’s South Side.  They made a horrible judgment call on Santos, and will eventually regret keeping him around.

The infrastructure of this team is all wrong.  This is a team that, even more than in 2008, is being propelled on the power of their superstars.  David Wright, Carlos Beltran, Johan Santana, and now Francisco Rodriguez are absolutely carrying this team.  It cannot be emphasized enough.  While the rest of the bullpen has been pretty good, and the Mets have gotten unexpected results out of Livan Hernandez (whom they should absolutely not be expecting to remain this good for an entire season), the foundation around them is just flat-out bad.  You can’t even call this a foundation.  Other than Murphy and Fernando Martinez, which of these players supporting Wright, Reyes, and Beltran appear to have anything resembling a future in the major leagues beyond this season?  What players currently in Triple A can step up and make an immediate impact in the major leagues?  Even going into Double A…who other than Josh Thole or Nick Evans might be part of the next good Mets team?

The pitching situation does appear to be a little bit better…if you believe in John Maine and Oliver Perez as legit rotation fillers.  John Maine has been a below average starting pitcher since 2007, which has to date been his only good season in the majors.  He has spent parts of the past two seasons on the disabled list.  If he’s going to step up and become solid rotation filler, he needs to do so now, or forever hold his peace.  Oliver Perez is signed to an absolute joke of a contract, and may or may not be suffering from a knee injury.  The last time he was seen in early May, he showed no ability to get major league hitters out.  Mike Pelfrey is still young enough, but after a promising 2008, you can’t help but look at him this year and think of 2009 as a step backwards.  I’m more optimistic about him than I am Maine or Perez, but that’s not saying much.

So that’s where we stand.  After Friday’s absolutely gut wrenching loss, I’ve been thinking about how flawed this team truly is.  Sure, they came back behind an outstanding performance from Fernando Nieve that can’t possibly be hoped to be duplicated, but then Johan got absolutely shelled on Sunday against the Yankees.  One step forward, two steps back.  That’s been the direction of this franchise since 2006.  Where is it going?  What are they doing?  Are they going to trade some of their wealth of minor league options to acquire a hitter before the deadline?  A pitcher?  How far away is Jose Reyes from returning?  Carlos Delgado?  JJ Putz?  Billy Wagner?  Is Jerry Manuel in trouble?  Is Omar Minaya in trouble?  Why should anybody keep watching this team?

I thought about the last question a lot this weekend, which was spent not watching the Mets (I like to take a day off or two after bad losses, to try to keep a rational eye on this team) and thought about why I should continue to watch this team, and the answers are David Wright, Carlos Beltran, and Johan Santana (and when he returns, Jose Reyes).  They are so good at what they do (pretend Sunday didn’t happen for a minute) that it is a pleasure watching them play the game of baseball.  Even with the rest of the team around them being so absolutely terrible, they are joys to watch day in, and day out.  I wish they could be rewarded with a championship baseball team surrounding them, good players in the corner outfield spots, at second base, at catcher, and in the starting rotation. 

I wish they could have a manager who understood what type of baseball team he has, that taking the extra base with average to below average baserunners will cost the team runs, and that bunting with position players, even below average hitters, is really stupid.  I wish they had a general manager who understood marginal value, how to pick up a few extra wins without spending a fortune, who didn’t overvalue the closer’s position by trading useful pieces and spending precious dollars in order to “fix” the bullpen.  I wish they had a fanbase that understood how great they are, who didn’t start booing them at the slightest hint of a slump for no reason, despite having absolutely carried this team as far as they could the past two seasons without making the playoffs because of abysmal supporting casts around them.

Basically, I just wish the Mets were good.  Because they have some elite players on this team, and there should be no reason why this team fails to make the playoffs as often as they do.  I wish a team that had so many great players wasn’t so hard to watch some days, because this team since 2006 has been a house of cards.  And do you know what a house of cards will eventually do?  Collapse.  This year, the collapse is happening earlier than September, but the heartbreak is just the same.  That they are still in the playoff race is only because the rest of the National League is so terrible, but unless Reyes can come back soon, and at full strength, and unless the Mets can find an unexpected contribution from players I’ve written off above, this team will not be playing meaningful games in October.

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