9:50 am Feb. 15, 2013
Now that Fred Wilpon's odd declaration of financial health is over, the Mets can concentrate on a spring training as wide-open, in personnel terms, as any they've had in years. Multiple jobs are likely to be won or lost on the strength of spring training performances.
The parts of the team that appear to be set are the team's infield and its starting rotation. With newly acquired John Buck set to act as placeholder until Travis d'Arnaud, the centerpiece of the R.A. Dickey trade, is deemed ready, along with a full returning infield of Ike Davis at first, Daniel Murphy at second, David Wright at third and Ruben Tejada at short, the Mets look to be set at each spot, assuming no injuries hit. The fall-off from that group to backup catcher Anthony Recker, middle infielder Brandon Hicks, and Justin Turner (who is being groomed for the outfield as well this spring), is enormous.
Instead, it is the outfield ("What outfield?", as general manager Sandy Alderson put it) that is a complete free-for-all. Someone, or even several someones, might win regular outfield jobs on the strength of a few dozen at-bats against pitchers who are still toying with their offerings as they try to make major league rosters.
The Mets have publicly declared that Lucas Duda is the guaranteed left fielder. Poor Duda, who would make a perfectly competent first baseman or designated hitter, was the worst every-day defender in the major leagues last year, at any position. But that was in right field. Somehow, some way, the Mets hope he'll be a passable enough left fielder that his hitting (which was inconsistent, likely related to his problems at the defensive position) will give the team value.
Center field looks to be Kirk Nieuwenhuis' job to lose, and Nieuwenhuis has the ability to field the position well. Reportedly, so does his competition for the starting job, Collin Cowgill. The likeliest outcome is a platoon consisting of the two, with Cowgill's .784 career O.P.S. against lefties pairing with Nieuwenhuis' .740 mark against righties. Both of those came in fewer than 100 plate appearances, though, so it is impossible to know yet if either mark represents a true talent level.
The only alternative is veteran Marlon Byrd, who ended a poor 2012 season with the Red Sox early, thanks to a suspension for performance enhancing drugs. He's also 35. Fortunately, the general manager who thought it was a good idea to start Gary Matthews Jr. over Angel Pagan is no longer with the Mets, so Byrd is probably just an insurance policy.
In right field, the Mets have Mike Baxter, Queens native and maker of the Johan Santana No-Hitter Miracle Catch, to play one side of a platoon. (Career O.P.S. against righties? .810. Against lefties? .295.)
Joining him will be someone right-handed, with Andrew Brown, Jamie Hoffman, and Brian Bixler possibilities. The first two have put up decent numbers at Triple-A, with little to show for brief major league time. Bixler can back up infield positions as well. Maybe Byrd earns a shot in right with a good spring. And Turner, should the outfield experiment take, could figure in the mix here, too.
The other area of battle will be for virtually every bullpen spot. Frank Francisco, last season's closer, showed up to camp having failed to properly rehabilitate his elbow following offseason surgery. For now, that makes Bobby Parnell the closer, and he'd be a perfectly reasonable one. But the Mets have hesitated to give him the job in the past, and some hiccups could allow recently-signed Brandon Lyon to step in.
Beyond those two in the pecking order, the bullpen can be best summarized by Alderson, the man who built it, Wednesday on W.F.A.N.: "I have no idea."
There are plenty of relievers with injury histories looking to come back, from former Met Pedro Feliciano to 40-year-old Latroy Hawkins and 36-year-old Scott Atchison. There's a group of holdovers from last year's group, Josh Edgin (a lefty specialist, if used correctly), Robert Carson, Jeurys Familia, Elvin Ramirez and Jeremy Hefner. And there are some new pitchers from the periphery of the major leagues, like Carlos Torres, Scott Rice, and my personal favorite near-major leaguer, Greg Burke, who pitched to a 1.53 E.R.A. in Triple-A last year in the Baltimore system, but just turned 30 and is hardly a prospect.
Any of these pitchers could conceivably win a bullpen spot with what will probably be around 15 good innings.
Beyond that, there's drama like whether the Mets will name David Wright captain, officially, or just keep his captaindom unofficial.
But this spring, the drama doesn't need to be manufactured. Huge swaths of the 2013 New York Mets are still to be determined.
As Casey Stengel once asked, "Can't anybody here play this game?"
Terry Collins is about to find out.
Elsewhere in New York sports:
New Yankee third baseman Kevin Youkilis asserted his loyalty to the Red Sox.
Mike Piazza makes a hard-to-believe claim that Vin Scully "crushed" him.
St. John's showed fight against Louisville, taking a second-half lead, but fell short, 72-58.
Steve Lavin will return next week, after missing the past two games due to the death of his father.