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Getting to Know the Phillies' 2011 Division Rivals: Mets

For obvious reasons, this offseason has been fun for Phillies fans and less fun for Mets fans, but there was one development that cut the opposite way for both groups: the firing of Mets GM Omar Minaya, the genius who somehow ran his team into the ground despite having one of the biggest payrolls in MLB. Minaya was replaced by legendary Moneyball precursor Sandy Alderson, who then hired Moneyball supporting characters J.P. Ricciardi and Paul DePodesta to be his assistants.

In the long run, this is bad news for us and great news for Mets fans. Despite his horrible acting skills, Alderson has proved over his long career that he's an excellent executive. The Madoff situation isn't going to last forever. The economic fundamentals make it impossible for them to be anything other than a rich team most of the time. And if you put a smart GM in control of a big budget, you're going to formidable.

But that won't happen this year, of course. The Mets will not be a threat in 2011. Which, in a way, is also good news for Mets fans. It means that Alderson isn't pursuing the same quick-fix mentality that helped get the team into its current mess in the first place. Rather than spend big bucks on another K-Rod type, Alderson decided to lay low and scrounge around for some low-cost, high-risk, high-reward stopgaps. He's done a good job of it too. Truthfully, the 2011 Mets don't look as bad as I expected them to look. If everything breaks right for them, they could even get over .500. But they won't be playoff contenders for at least a couple more years.

How did they do last year?

They finished a shade under .500, at 79-83. They were 13th in the NL in runs, and 6th in ERA, although, of course, you need to take their extremely pitcher-friendly ballpark into account for both.

Who left the team?

Two Phils fan favorites, RF Jeff Francoeur and part-time starting catcher Rod Barajas, were traded toward the end of the 2010 season. Long-time lefty relief specialist Pedro Feliciano signed with the Yankees over the offseason as a free agent (for two years, $8 million!). Part-time starter, part-time reliever Hisanori Takahashi, who pitched well last year, also left as a free agent, signing with the Angels (also for two years, $8 million).

Who are their new faces?

Beltran is sort of like a new face, since he got hurt last year and only collected 255 PAs. (Of course, that could easily happen again in 2011.) They made no major trades and signed no splashy free agents.

Who's going to be in their starting rotation?

The first three spots are taken by Mike Pelfrey, R.A. Dickey, and Jon Niese. (Johan Santana is out until midseason rehabbing from shoulder surgery.) As of now, it looks like the last two spots are going to be taken by two of those low-cost high-reward stopgaps I mentioned earlier: ex-Padre Chris Young and ex-Brewer Chris Capuano. Both of those guys have had success in the majors, but they've also had injury problems. If they can both stay healthy and return to a level that even remotely resembles where they were at their best, then the Mets' rotation will actually be pretty decent. (If they can't, then the other options waiting in the wings include mishandled prospect Jennry Mejia, minor league filler Dillon Gee, middling lefty Pat Misch, and total f***-up Oliver Perez.)

Who among their returning players had fluky seasons in 2010?

Who among their players didn't have fluky seasons might be a better question.

Start with Jason Bay, who signed a big FA contract after averaging 30 homers a year for the first six full seasons of his career, and then proceeded to hit only 6 in 401 PA in 2010, with a slash-line of .259/.347/.402. His season came to a premature end in late July when he suffered a concussion in a collision with the outfield wall in Dodger Stadium.

As I noted above, Carlos Beltran missed a lot of time with injuries, just like he did in 2009. The difference is that in 2009, he was still great when he was on the field, whereas in 2010, he wasn't. Will he ever be healthy again? And if so, will he return to his old form?

Jose Reyes stayed healthy after his injury-plagued 2009 and he played okay, but he wasn't close to the player he was before his injury. Was 2010 an adjustment year, or is this what Reyes has been reduced to permanently?

Johan Santana's DIPS were way worse than his ERA. If and when he comes back from the DL, will he regress? Or will newly found health help him to recapture what he once had?

And finally, there's R.A. Dickey. I don't even know where to start with this guy. His DIPS were worse than his ERA. He came out of nowhere. And he's a knuckleballer, so he arguably doesn't follow any of the rules that normally apply to pitchers. So he could be a giant fluke or he could do exactly the same thing he did in 2010.

Are any of their returning players old and/or likely to decline?

Tough to say. They do have some players who are starting to get up there in years (most notably Beltran and Bay). But both of those guys had such terrible years in 2010 that you almost have to expect some dead-cat bounces, which would offset any decline caused by age.

Are any of their players likely to improve?

Ike Davis, Josh Thole, Mike Pelfrey, and Jon Niese are all young guys, so they could get better.

Angel Pagan isn't really pre-prime (he'll turn 30 this year), but he's really underrated, so I figured I'd just mention that somewhere.

Are they going to get any help from their farm in 2011?

As noted above, Mejia and Gee could see time in the rotation at some point. Rule 5 draftee Brad Emaus could win the starting 2B job out of spring training, as could 26-year-old fringe minor leaguer Justin Turner, who posted an .862 OPS in AAA last year. 1B/LF Lucas Duda had a Rizzotti-esque breakout year in 2010, and could contribute as a bench bat with power.

Detailed Summary

Here's a side-by-side comparison between the guys who played the most innings at each position for the Mets last year, and the likely opening day starters this year (with projected stats by Bill James).   

C Barajas 267 12 8 .219 .677 .289 N/A 0.4 Thole 391 3 38 .737 .330
1B Davis 601 19 72 .321 .791 .345 +11.9 3.4 Davis 598 23 75 .862 .377
2B Castillo 299 0 39 .259 .604 .285 +6.7 0.6 Murphy* 469 12 38 .794 .348
3B Wright 670 29 69 .335 .856 .364 -9.5 4.1 Wright 683 27 82 .890 .389
SS Reyes 603 11 31 .301 .749 .329 -5.7 2.8 Reyes 606 11 44 .771 .344
LF Bay 401 6 44 .329 .749 .336 -3.8 1.4 Bay 534 21 69 .840 .368
CF Pagan 633 11 44 .331 .765 .341 +11.8 4.9 Pagan 582 10 42 .764 .340
RF Francoeur 447 11 29 .259 .662 .287 +2.3 0.1 Beltran 505 20 64 .847 .373

* I'm penciling Daniel Murphy in as the 2B for now, just because there's a four-way competition going on right now for that job, and Bill James has only run projections for two of the four guys (Murphy and Castillo). I've got to think the Mets would at least pick Murphy over Castillo, who's shot. You might remember Murphy as the guy who set the tone for the Mets' disastrous 2009 season by dropping a fly ball in April that cost Johan Santana a win. It really wasn't his fault, as he hadn't ever played the outfield in the minors.

Anyway, that lineup looks much improved to me. Bay and Beltran will probably be healthier and play better than was the case in 2010. Davis will probably grow. And Thole is better than Barajas and everyone is better than Castillo. (Of course, it's pretty tough for a lineup not to improve after finishing 13th in the league in runs.)

And now, the starting pitching:

Santana 199.0 6.51 2.49 .272 45.2 3.5 2.98 4.32 4.18 Pelfrey 220.0 5.44 3.31 4.07
Pelfrey 204.0 4.99 3.00 .300 32.0 2.9 3.66 4.46 4.59 Dickey 209.0 5.34 2.97 4.44
Dickey 174.1 5.37 2.17 .276 28.0 2.9 2.84 3.88 4.04 Niese 186.0 7.69 3.24 3.82
Niese 173.2 7.67 3.21 .324 31.8 1.9 4.20 3.94 3.91 Capuano 100.0 7.20 2.88 4.25
Takahashi 122.0 8.41 3.17 .298 45.1 1.6 3.61 4.01 3.72 Young 112.0 7.63 3.70 4.21

Most of the Mets' pitchers outpitched their DIPS last year, but some of that is repeatable since it's a function of their ballpark. Pelfrey and Niese are solid mid-rotation guys, and they may get better this year. But there's also a lot of uncertainty here, since Dickey, Capuano, and Young are all giant enigmas for one reason or another. The smart money is on the rotation getting a bit worse this year, although it could still be respectable. (I'm not going to look at the bullpen, for the same reasons why I didn't do it for the Braves or Marlins.)

So with a lineup that's gotten better and a rotation that's gotten a bit worse, you're looking at a team that's running in place, at least for the time being. It's easy to forget, though, that the Mets weren't really that bad in 2010. 79-83 isn't terrible and their pythag was right at 81-81. I'd bet on them doing about the same in 2011. And that's where they'll probably stay for a couple more seasons until Alderson & co. fix their player development pipeline and turn them into contenders again.