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The 2009 New York Mets Season Preview

By Jason Levy
The last time we saw Major League Baseball, the Philadelphia Phillies were celebrating their first World Series in 28 years, much to the chagrin of all the New York Mets fans out there. But the Phillies played the best baseball when it mattered the most, and they deserved to win the title. And with the core of Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins (and their two MVP awards), Chase Utley, Cole Hamels, and Brad Lidge all set to return, they will be gunning to defend their crown, including 18 times over the next six months against the Mets, in meetings that will only grow in tension and importance each time. The Phillies will be the standard to which the Mets hold themselves to in 2009, and no one will be surprised if the first 159 games of the year are just a set up for a do-or-die final weekend yet again. Do the Mets have what it takes to be on the winning side of that battle this year? They can get there, but it won’t be easy. Here’s what to expect from the Mets in 2009:

Starting pitching: If the Mets top four starters play to their potential, this will be the Mets biggest strength. Everyone knows what to expect from ace Johan Santana. He’ll have a few hiccups and head-scratching moments early in the season (remember when he gave up a grand-slam to Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez last year) but he is money when it counts, and practically unbeatable after the All-Star break. He is arguably the best pitcher in the game, and he’ll be a Cy Young contender again in 2009. The rest of the Mets starters however are far from sure things.

Mike Pelfrey had a career-year in 2008, rebounding from a 2-6 start to finish 13-11 and was one of the biggest reasons the Mets got hot under Jerry Manuel. If the Mets are going to contend in 2009, Pelfrey must improve upon last season and be the second ace behind Santana.

John Maine missed the last six weeks of the season, and the Mets missed him dearly. He needs to pitch around 200 innings this season to show he can be a reliable big league pitcher. When he is on his game, he can beat any team out there.

Oliver Perez is the most frustrating of them all. He probably has the best natural talent as anyone on the staff after Santana, but can never seem to get out his own way. He can mow down the Yankees, Braves, and Phillies (and he will be extremely important against the lefty-heavy Phillies, with Howard, Utley, and newcomer Raul Ibañez stepping up to the plate) and give up seven walks in two innings against the Nationals and Padres. You just have to hope there are more good days than bad ones. If each of these four starters can earn double-digit win totals (with Santana and one more getting at least 15 each) than the Mets will be in good shape. As for the fifth starter, Livan Hernandez should be up to muster in the NL East. If he can give the Mets 200 innings and stay above .500, he’ll be the best fifth starter the Mets have had in a while.

Relief Pitching: This was the Mets’ Achilles’ heel in 2008, blowing game after game after game throughout the season. No lead was safe with the Mets bullpen. But Omar Minaya was intent on changing that for 2009, and only Pedro Feliciano and Brain Stokes are returning to the bullpen (and if he gets healthy quick enough Billy Wagner could become baseball’s most expensive seventh inning guy) that should be a vast improvement over last year’s squad. Francisco Rodriguez collected an MLB-record 62 saves last season, and even if he fell short of that mark by 20 it would still be impressive. J.J Putz used to be Seattle’s closer, but he’ll have to adjust to being the set-up man for K-Rod. If he leaves his ego at the door, he should be fine. And both could see their numbers improve coming over from the American League. Darren O’Day and Sean Green are a couple of savvy vets that know how to get people out, and youngster Bobby Parnell could be a rising star in the Mets ’pen.

But the bullpen is the hardest staff to assemble in all of baseball. Players’ stats fluctuate year-to-year, team-to-team. Bullpens can look spectacular on paper and abysmal on the field. Some players just can’t adjust to certain teams or situations, and it happens to every team as the seasons go on. K-Rod and Putz look like great acquisitions and there is no reason to suspect they can’t deliver, but high-priced and low-output relievers are prevalent throughout the game. If the Mets are going to be playing in October, their bullpen will have to play a big role in taking them there.

Starting Lineup: The Mets have some of the game’s most talented players in their lineup. But they also have a lot of big questions marks. David Wright and Jose Reyes are the cornerstones of the franchise, and everyone has a different opinion as to who is the best. Both will need to be at the top of their game if the Mets will go anywhere in 2009. Hopefully Wright’s game winning hit in the WBC won’t be his last of the year. Wright has become the heart of the team, assuming the responsibility of the franchise on his shoulders. Sometimes that makes him press, but it can keep his drive going. He can put up MVP numbers in the middle of the order, and is improving his defense every year. If Wright is the heart, Reyes is the adrenal gland, providing energy and spark at the top of the order. It’s nice when he hits homers, but you want to see most of hits on the ground or in ropes to the outfield, utilizing his speed on the bases. Carlos Beltran is the other sure thing. He is one of the best defensive centerfielders in the game, and is good for 30 homers, 100+ RBI and runs, and some spectacular catches. But that’s where the certainties end.

Carlos Delgado carried the Mets in the second half of the season, going from washed-up to MVP candidate. Which Delgado will we see in 2009, potentially his last in New York? If he can recapture the second half magic of a season ago, it will be a world of pressure off the Big Three in the lineup. Considering the change occurred with the change in manager, Manuel should know what to do to keep his slugging first baseman happy. Luis Castillo is another veteran with something to prove, becoming the Mets fans’ favorite target of scorn. He had a terrific spring, but will need to show he can get on base and decent range on second if he wants to stay off the bench. With three years and $18 million left on his deal, he’s not going far though. Brian Schneider and Ramon Castro are a serviceable catching platoon that can come up with a few big hits, but they’ll have a lot of Mets fans pining for the better days of Mike Piazza, Todd Hundley, or Paul Lo Duca.

The corner outfield spots will be the positions to watch in 2009. Ryan Church kept the Mets afloat to start 2008, but his season unraveled after a concussion in Atlanta, as the effects plagued him on and off for the rest of the season and he wore down completely in September. If he is healthy, there is no reason to doubt he can get back to pre-concussion form. But he will be on a short leash with Fernando Tatis behind him. Tatis will get some time against lefties, but the ideal Manuel and Minaya have is that Church can reclaim the starting spot full time. In left, Daniel Murphy made a splash late in the season, always winding up in the middle of a rally and even playing a decent left field. Everyone in the Mets camp is high on Murphy, especially his attitude and work ethic. He can scrap out a 20-homer, 80-RBI season and produce in the clutch, and should see plenty of pitches to hit in the second slot in the order. It’s never easy to predict how a young kid will do in the bigs, but Murphy has done everything right so far. He could be the pleasant surprise of the Mets season.

The Competition: The Mets toughest competition will come from their NL East rivals and defending champion Phillies. The Phillies are pretty much the same team as last year, with Ibañez replacing Met-killer Pat Burrell in left field. They have one of the most dangerous lineups in baseball, with heavy hitters Rollins, Utley, and Howard, and pesky hitters like Shane Victorino (who can catch just about anything in center), Pedro Feliz, and Jayson Werth. Brad Lidge proved a lot of people wrong by not only handling the rough Philly fans, but not blowing a save all year, which turned out to be the big difference between the Mets and Phils last year. Their rotation is solid with ace Hamels, and vets like Jamie Moyer, Brett Myers, and Joe Blanton, and manager Charlie Manuel knows how to push everyone’s buttons in that clubhouse. They could easily win their third straight NL East crown, potentially leaving the Mets to fight for the wild card.

The rest of the division will be tough as usual. The Florida Marlins can always find young talent and make the occasional October run when everything clicks. Cameron Maybin is the latest young Marlin, acquired from Detroit in the Miguel Cabrera deal, that will turn heads in 2009. Hanley Ramirez just might be the best shortstop in baseball (yes, better even than Reyes and Rollins) and pitchers Ricky Nolasco and Josh Johnson have shown they have big-league talent. The Atlanta Braves aren’t the Braves of old, but they always seem to give the Mets fits. Tim Hudson might be out for the season, leaving them reliant on young and unproven pitchers. They have some talented young hitters, but while Brian McCann established himself as a top slugger, Jeff Francoeur and Yunel Escobar still have a lot to prove. The Washington Nationals may not have any big names, but they have hurt the Mets in each of the past two Septembers. Any team you see 18 times a year is going to give you the occasional headache, and the Mets will take them seriously.

The NL Central should belong to the Chicago Cubs. On paper, they have the best team in the NL, with a great lineup with Alfonso Soriano, Derek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Milton Bradley and Geovany Soto and a dominant pitching staff with aces Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden. If they can get out of their own way, they could celebrate their first World Series on over a century. The St. Louis Cardinals will be tough as long as the have Albert Pujols in the middle of the order. The Houston Astros came on strong at the end of last year, and have some mashers in that lineup. The Cincinnati Reds could turn some heads this season, as their youth movement might finally pay off. The Milwaukee Brewers edged out the Mets for the Wild Card in 2008, but the loss of C.C. Sabathia and Ben Sheets from the top of the rotation will be too much to overcome. And the Pittsburgh Pirates should find their usual place in the bottom of the standings.

Out in the NL West, the Los Angeles Dodgers have a leg up on their competition. With Manny Ramirez back in the fold (and maybe with something to prove after a long off season of negotiating and waiting) the Dodgers lineup is very potent. Young Dodgers Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, James Loney, and Russell Martin are finally ready to carry the Dodgers to glory at the plate, with youngsters Chad Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw becoming big parts of the starting rotation. If they get off to a hot start, they could have an insurmountable lead by July 4th. The San Francisco Giants have a shutdown rotation headed by Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, but they have a minor league offense. The Arizona Diamondbacks are chock full of young talent, but those young guns have not been enough to get the team into October. Aces Brandon Webb and Dan Haren will make Arizona formidable, but they won’t be enough. The Colorado Rockies aren’t the same team than stormed to the NL Pennant two seasons ago. The San Diego Padres have a couple of top players in starter Jake Peavy and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, but not much else. And Peavy might not be around much longer.

Intangibles: The Mets have lost their last game of the season at Shea Stadium each of the last three years. But Shea is no more and Citi Field is the new home of the Mets. The dimensions are similar to Shea, keeping the Mets in a pitcher-friendly home. But the new stadium will add excitement to every home game in 2009, as every Mets fan will make a pilgrimage to Flushing to see the new and spectacular digs, as fans take in the game and all the amenities of Citi Field. Can that buzz find it’s way on to the field to give the Mets some extra spring in their step?

The Mets should also have extra motivation to put the disappointments of the recent past behind them. There is no doubt that everyone in that clubhouse is sick and tired of the choker label, and they know the only way to get rid of it is to win. As Spring Training was winding down, the MLB Network played Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS, and many of the Mets peered over at the Clubhouse TV to check it out, from Endy Chavez’s amazing catch to Beltran watching the final strike cross the plate. The Mets are ready to show the baseball world that they are the best.

Prediction: The Mets will win 91 games, a couple behind the Phillies but enough to win the Wild Card. After downing the Cubs in the NLDS, the Mets will square off against the Phillies. A grueling seven game series will come down to a climactic finish in Philly, with the Mets prevailing on the arms of Santana and Rodriguez. They will meet the team the Phillies defeated last year in the World Series, the Tampa Bay Rays. Tampa will have the World Series experience, but the Mets win in six, with David Wright bringing home World Series MVP honors.

Only one question remains: Are you ready for the 2009 New York Mets?

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