The New York Mets’ offseason was littered with news about the financial troubles of owner Fred Wilpon and his dealings with disgraced financier Bernie Madoff.
The bad news off the field continues to plague the Mets well into spring training.
Steve Popper, who covers the Mets for The (Bergen) Record, says it is hard to ignore the ownership issues and how that might affect the on field product for the Mets. He says the Mets players have taken notice.
“I think the players are trying to ignore it and put it out of their heads,” Popper said. “But when you talk to guys off the record, I think it is clearly something they cannot ignore. Guys are wondering what the future holds.”
The biggest statement that the Mets front office can make to their fans this season is how they are going to handle All-Star shortstop Jose Reyes, who is in the final year of his contract.
“Guys are wondering how it is going to affect Reyes,” Popper said. “Will they lose their All-Star shortstop? Until you see baseball decisions made that don’t reflect a low budget operation I think people are going to wonder. I think if people saw them reach out and sign Reyes that would probably alleviate some of the concerns. That said, I don’t think that is going to happen.”
So, if the Mets don’t re-sign Reyes, Popper said 21-year old Ruben Tejada could get the call. But that would be a major change from what Reyes provided when healthy.
“They view Tejada as the replacement in waiting,” Popper said. “But you talk to scouts who say he is no where near the talent of Reyes. A slick fielder, but not a dynamic hitter and not the offensive force that Reyes is. If Tejada takes over, people would look at that as a low cost alternative to Reyes.”
Physically, the Mets are in much better shape they have been in the past. Popper said Reyes looks in great shape after various injuries last season.
“Carlos Beltran looks good but you still have to wonder about him,” Popper said. “He is taking a very slow approach to getting back to 100 percent health. You wonder with all the time he had in the offseason, it is kind of disturbing he is not ready to run when he gets here.”
Beltran has done some hitting and is expected to be the designated hitter starting Sunday and a week beyond that start playing in the field.
On the pitching front, Popper said left-hander Chris Capuano and right-hander Chris Young could perform and be the kind of guys that could get 25 to 30 starts each. “So far so good for them one year out of surgery, they both seem fine,” Popper reported.
The news is not as optimistic for Johan Santana.
“They are hoping to have Santana back by midseason at best,” Popper said. “When you look at guys that have had the injury he had, the anterior capsule tear, guys like Mark Prior and the (Nationals’) Chien-Ming Wang, it has to concern you that if he does come back will he be any where near the pitcher he was before?”
One connection within the Mets is former Nationals utility player Willie Harris, who has already put his stamp on the team on the field and in the clubhouse as a leader.
“He has kind of taken that role here already,” Popper noticed. “Harris is pretty vocal and has a very bubbly personality. He lights up the room. He has performed here, he has been a Mets killer for a long time. At the first intrasquad game he hit a home run. Then he followed it up in the first Grapefruit League game with a home run in the 10th inning to tie the game. He has done some nice things already.”
Popper expects Harris to have a similar role with the Mets as he did in D.C.
“Ideally, they look at him and Scott Hairston as utility outfielders,” Popper said. “But with what the Mets have had in the past with injury problems, not only with Beltran but even Angel Pagan, I think those two guys can be a real insurance policy that will really play out well this year.”
Popper said if the Mets can erase the injury bug that hampered them last season, they can put a potent lineup on the field.
“It is all huge ‘ifs’, but if these guys are healthy, this is a pretty good veteran position-to-position lineup,” Popper said. “Look at an outfield of Bay, Beltran and Pagan. Then you have David Wright, Reyes and Ike Davis. Josh Thole is the incumbent starter at catcher.”
Popper says the competition at second base will be interesting the next few weeks.
“The only position up for grabs is second base,” Popper said. “That one is a hard one to judge right now. (Manager) Terry Collins said as much as he like to do it another way and get a guy set in there, this may go to the end (of spring training).”
Popper said Luis Castillo is not a fan favorite, but there is not a real clear cut second baseman to take over. The guys behind him are pretty good hitters, but none are really slick fielders.
Brad Emaus and Daniel Murphy will get some reps at second base to see what they can do. But Castillo has the experience.
“Castillo, even with all his flaws, is still a 15-year former All-Star second baseman,” Popper said. “He knows how to handle the position and can help them out defensively. With that being said, I believe Emaus looks to probably be the front runner for the job.”