Meet the Mets

As promised, here’s my in-depth look at what’s ailing the Mets, who did manage to take two out of three during the CitiField leg of the Subway Series. From the part about the pitching staff:

The front of the rotation is essentially sound. Johan Santana is pitching about as well as he did prior to last year’s season-ending surgery, which is to say a step down from his AL heyday. His 3.41 ERA would be his highest full-season mark, and his 7.0 K/9 his lowest, but even so, he’s eighth in the league in SNLVAR, and 10th in Support-Neutral Winning Percentage (.609). Mike Pelfrey (2.86 ERA, .605 SNWP) has added a splitter to his arsenal and increased his strikeout rate by a full K per nine (to 6.2) while getting slightly more ground balls (55.2 percent, up from last year’s 52.3 percent). SIERA approves of the 2010 model, shaving a half-run off his estimated mark (4.08, down from 4.57). Though the gap between his SIERA and his actual ERA indicates that he’s over his head at the moment, he’s emerged as the Mets’ number two starter.

The rest of the rotation is an outright mess, starting with the ever-maddening Oliver Perez, who was exiled to the bullpen last week thanks to an unsightly walk rate (7.9 per nine). Season-ending surgery to correct patellar tendinitis and enable him to clean up his mechanics hasn’t helped; he’s still capable of driving anyone watching him to the brink of homicide, and his three-year, $36 million dollar deal looks more like a sunk cost every day. Additionally, Jon Niese and John Maine both hit the disabled list last week, the former with a hamstring injury, the latter with shoulder weakness and a ridiculous amount of drama. Niese (4.79 ERA, .451 SNWP) has been serviceable at best, though his SIERA mark (4.20) suggests he’s capable of better. Maine (6.13 ERA, .401 SNWP) may have talked his way out of town; generally a decent pitcher when healthy, he has just 49 starts over the past three seasons.

It’s not like such problems couldn’t have been foreseen, as that aforementioned trio combined for 34 starts and a 5.31 ERA last year, with more DL days than innings pitched (193 to 173). As such, it’s absolutely unconscionable that a club with aspirations of contention didn’t do more to shore up their rotation this winter by at least acquiring a bona fide inning-eater, a problem that’s apparently contagious. How long until the zombie Russ Ortiz shows up clamoring for brains or innings? Making matters worse, Minaya even lost Nelson Figueroa via waivers at the end of spring training; he made 10 starts with a .503 SNWP last season, third on the team. Two hitters added to the 40-man roster at the time Figueroa was punted, Mike Jacobs and Frank Catalanotto, are both already history, furthering the embarrassment.

Having failed to do their winter homework, the Mets will likely need to bolster their rotation via trade to further their aspirations. Roy Oswalt is out of the question, as his no-trade clause can prevent exile to a dysfunctional outfit such as this. A willingness to take on salary could protect them from dealing top prospects like Mejia, Fernando Martinez, or Wilmer Flores and open the door to the acquisition of someone like Kevin Millwood, Jake Westbrook, Ben Sheets, or Ted Lilly, if not Cliff Lee (whose price tag will be higher), but it isn’t clear that the Wilpons, who forced the team to trim about 15 million (10 percent) off last year’s opening-day payroll are prepared to do that.

And here’s a little bit about the Mets’ most maligned hitter:

At third base, David Wright is hitting .261/.368/.490 with eight homers, only two behind last year’s aberration. His .307 TAv is about the same as last year, but his performance is surrounded by bad optics in that he’s whiffing in 31.6 percent of his plate appearances and on a 216-strikeout pace, this from a player who until last year had never whiffed more than 118 times in a year. And yes, his beaning of last August 16 does appear to be a point of inflection:

Split        PA   AVG/ OBP/ SLG    K%
2009 pre    497  .324/.414/.467   21.1
2009 post   121  .239/.289/.367   28.9
2010        190  .261/.368/.490   31.6
Total post  311  .252/.338/.440   30.5

The strikeouts appear to be taking a toll on Wright; at times, his body language is like one giant cringe. Even so, there’s really not a ton to complain about his production. His .286/.351/.531 showing with runners in scoring position is down from his 2004-09 split (.302/.392/.491) but hardly unproductive; among the regulars only Angel Pagan and Rod Barajas have a higher OPS marks, albeit in considerably fewer opportunities. Furthermore, Wright’s second on the team and 26th in the league in OBI%. While his struggles may be grabbing headlines, he’s hardly the offense’s biggest problem.

For all of the drama about injuries and their endless — and often entertaining — ineptitude when it comes to public relations, the Mets aren’t beyond fixing, but both GM Omar Minaya and manager Jerry Manuel are going to have to think outside the box to make it work, and I don’t think they’re constitutionally capable of that. I’d bet that Manuel gets the axe midsummer, with Minaya following him out the door at the end of the year despite having another season under contract. And of course, it will be quite the spectacle when it happens, because that’s how they roll…

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