March 2011

DiComo’s fearless MLB predictions

Everyone else is dong it, right? Let’s see how many angry comments this incites:

AL East: Red Sox
Well, duh.

AL Central: White Sox
Every year, I pick against the Twins. Every year, I’m wrong.

AL West: A’s
I wonder if Sandy Alderson will take any joy out of it?

AL Wild Card: Twins
While the East teams beat each other up, the Twinkies slip in.

NL East: Braves
The most well-rounded team in a tough division.

NL Central: Reds
Maybe a little regression, but no one else stands out.

NL West: Rockies
Tulowitzki helps them hold off the Dodgers; Giants finish third.

NL Wild Card: Phillies
Contrary to popular belief, they’re still quite good.

ALDS: Red Sox over Twins
Too much talent.

ALDS: A’s over White Sox
The young upstarts.

ALCS: Red Sox over A’s
In a sweep.

NLDS: Reds over Braves
Braves can’t get out of the first round.

NLDS: Phillies over Rockies
Rockies come in favored, walk out unhappy.

NLCS: Phillies over Reds
Phillies get healthy, gel at just the right time.

World Series: Phillies over Red Sox
Halladay beats Lester twice to win his first Series.


AL MVP: Evan Longoria
Huge year for the best overall third baseman in baseball.

AL Cy Young: Felix Hernandez
Yep, he does it again.

AL Rookie of the Year: J.P. Arencibia
With a nod to Jeremy Hellickson.

NL MVP: Troy Tulowitzki
Huge year for the best overall shortstop in baseball.

NL Cy Young: Roy Halladay
Yep, he does it again.

NL Rookie of the Year: Aroldis Chapman
With a nod to Brandon Belt.

And as for the Mets? Right where they were a year ago, finishing fourth at 79-83.

—–Follow along on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo.

The Opening Day lineup, minus Jason Bay

Jason Bay’s expected DL stint will introduce several unexpected wrinkles into the Mets’ Opening Day lineup. A team official said Wednesday that rather than start rookie Lucas Duda against Marlins right-hander Josh Johnson on Friday night, the Mets will play Willie Harris in left field (Harris, a lefty, is 4-for-15 lifetime off Johnson with seven walks and a home run). The Mets do, however, plan to start Duda regularly in left field, beginning Saturday and Sunday against two more Marlins right-handers.

Bay’s absence also weakens the back end of the lineup. To that end, manager Terry Collins said he will likely drop Angel Pagan down in the lineup, inserting Josh Thole into the two hole. The philosophy is that Pagan’s presence should help protect Harris and Brad Emaus at the bottom of the lineup.

Expect, in other words, an Opening Day lineup that looks something like this:

SS Jose Reyes
C Josh Thole
3B David Wright
RF Carlos Beltran
1B Ike Davis
CF Angel Pagan
2B Brad Emaus
LF Willie Harris
RHP Mike Pelfrey

—–Follow along on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo.

Hernandez, Evans clear waivers

Mets infielder Luis Hernandez has cleared waivers and has three days to decide whether or not to accept a Minor League assignment.

Hernandez plans to meet with Mets manager Terry Collins and general manager Sandy Alderson after Wednesday’s game to discuss his options. He said he will only accept a Minor League assignment if he has a chance to play every day in the Minors, but Ruben Tejada and Justin Turner may block his ability to do so at Triple-A.

“I want to play every day,” Hernandez said. “That’s the only way I can improve.”

Still no word on Nick Evans, whose waiver status remains on clear.

*****UPDATE, 2:53 p.m.: Evans has also cleared waivers and has been outrighted to Buffalo. Because this is his first outright assignment, he did not have the right of refusal.

—–Follow along on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo.

The future of baseball in PSL

As the Mets prepare to break camp in Port St. Lucie, Fla. for another season, it begs the question of how just many more times they might do so. Though the Mets’ lease at Digital Domain Park runs through 2018, the Grapefruit League has evolved to such an extent that it’s reasonable to expect they might not last that long on Port St. Lucie.

Recent years have seen the Dodgers and Indians bolt to Arizona, while the Nationals have been outspoken in their desire to move from the Atlantic side to Florida’s Gulf Coast. Though the Marlins and Cardinals recently agreed to a lease extension that could keep them in nearby Jupiter, Fla. through 2027, they are free to leave if the Nationals or Mets do.

One idea, which Port St. Lucie’s local Treasure Coast newspaper floated earlier this week, would be to recruit another team to share Digital Domain Park with the Mets. “The cost of adding another team to this facility would be minimal,” Mets general manager Sandy Alderson told TCPalm.com. Such a move would almost certainly keep the Mets in Port St. Lucie for the duration of their lease, but it would also require a team to buck the trend of moving to Arizona or Florida’s Gulf Coast.

That may be hard to do. Those two areas boast clusters of teams in close proximity, allowing clubs to cut down on travel and avoid playing the same teams over and over (the Mets played 22 of their 35 games this spring against the NL East rival Marlins, Nationals and Braves). To stomach a move to the Treasure Coast, a team would need to be comfortable with the idea of playing the majority of its games against just three other teams, the Mets, Marlins and Cardinals. Unless St. Lucie County could sweeten the package with significant financial incentives, it seems unlikely that would happen.

At this point, the Nationals appear to be the fulcrum. If they bolt from Viera, Fla., other teams are almost certain to follow, and baseball may face extinction on the east coast of Florida. If they stay, the area could potentially begin drawing teams back.

Mostly, it’s an uncomfortable position for the city of Port St. Lucie, which has seen an incredible population boom in the 23 years since the Mets began training here. Every February and March, Florida’s Treasure Coast becomes a hub for scouts and executives, as it has been for nearly three-quarters of a century. Now, it seems, that era may be drawing to a rapid close.

—–Follow along on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo.

Mets’ bullpen a strength?

An MLB.com colleague recently asked me to rank the five NL East teams on offense, defense, starting rotation and bullpen heading into the season. Some of the choices were clear-cut: Phillies with the best rotation, for example (duh). Others, not so much.

When I submitted my NL East ballot, I had the Mets ranked highly in two categories: defense (in which I ranked them first), and bullpen. In my opinion, the Braves have the best relief corps in the division, despite the loss of Billy Wagner. After that, I grappled over whether to choose New York or Washington, in the end selecting the Mets because they possess a proven closer and the Nationals — right now, at least — do not.

After I sent in my picks, my colleague and I argued over that choice for quite some time. He pointed to the Marlins, who also revamped their bullpen this winter and look stronger than they did a year ago (in short, he accused me of drinking the blue-and-orange Kool-Aid). I pointed to the fact that the Mets ranked fifth in the league in bullpen ERA last year and arguably only got stronger this offseason, adding important arms such as D.J. Carrasco and Taylor Buchholz. Do I have concerns about the bullpen? Of course — most notably, I don’t trust Tim Byrdak to be the lockdown lefty specialist that Pedro Feliciano was in years past. But I feel strongly enough about the group as a whole to rank them ahead of the Nationals, Marlins and Phillies (in that order).

The point is, I felt somewhat vindicated today when I read this story on Fangraphs discussing the relative merits of New York’s bullpen. Does that mean the Mets will be great at closing out games this year? Maybe, maybe not — injuries and year-to-year variance always play a significant role in that. But consider that the Mets just left Jason Isringhausen and Manny Acosta – two very useful relievers — off their Opening Day roster. That, if anything, speaks to the strength of this new-look bullpen.

The Mets have problems heading into the season — that much is clear. I just don’t think the bullpen (or the defense, for that matter) is one of them.

—–Follow along on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo.

Poll: Who should make the bullpen?

Two days remain here in camp, and really only one major decision:  what to do with the one remaining bullpen vacancy? The Mets have six givens in their bullpen:  Francisco Rodriguez, Bobby Parnell, D.J. Carrasco, Taylor Buchholz, Tim Byrdak and Pedro Beato. Who would you like to see fill the final spot?

—–Follow along on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo.

Nick Evans’s life on the fringe

Often in Spring Training, I’ll work several days ahead on stories so that I have content prepared in the event that news doesn’t break. Sometimes, those stories never see the light of day.

A prime example is the following piece on Nick Evans, which I wrote almost two weeks ago but never had a chance to submit to my editors. You can thank Oliver Perez for that.  Regardless, it’s as relevant now as it was then, detailing the precarious status of the likable Evans, whose days with the Mets may be numbered. Give it a read:

***

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — The locker neighbors to either side of Nick Evans have departed, banished over to Minor League camp — but Evans remains, as is his custom this time of year. Like last spring and the spring before that, he holds out hope for a big league bench spot that may or may not exist. But the stakes for Evans have changed.

Bouncing between the Majors and Minors during each of the last three seasons has left Evans without Minor League options, meaning the Mets cannot send him back down to the farm without first exposing him to other teams. Considering the power Evans has displayed throughout his Minor League career, that process would quite likely lead to another team claiming him.

That’s what the Mets don’t want to happen. But they also aren’t sure of the alternative. Such is the intersection Evans now faces with less than two weeks remaining before final cuts.

“Obviously you want to know what’s going on, but at the same time I don’t want to concern myself with it,” Evans said. “I know it sounds stupid, but I just try to play.”

Perhaps not stupid so much as prudent. When the Mets signed first Willie Harris, then Scott Hairston this past offseason, they sparked a chain reaction that may ultimately lead to Evans’ exit as a Met. Hairston, on a guaranteed Major League contract, boasts a similar skill set to Evans — namely, right-handed power — plus the ability to play center field. Having both men on the team would be a practice in baseball redundancy.

That’s why Evans has bounced from left field to first base to third base this spring, in a team-designed program to increase his versatility. After Evans played exclusively first base in the Minors last season, then-manager Jerry Manuel surprised him upon his late-season promotion, slotting him regularly into the lineup in left field, where he struggled. Though current manager Terry Collins, then the Minor League field coordinator, later apologized to Evans for not expecting the shift, Evans blamed no one but himself. He wants to be proficient wherever the Mets put him.

“That’s probably the most important thing for me is being versatile,” Evans said. “The more opportunities you have to get in the lineup, obviously the better.”

“But the one big thing with him,” said former Triple-A manager Ken Oberkfell, “is his bat. He can hit. And that’s important.”

He can hit for power, to be certain, slamming 24 homers over three levels last season and slugging .557 at Triple-A, despite battling a wrist issue for much of the summer. Over the equivalent of four full Minor League seasons dating back to 2004, Evans has slugged 99 homers with an .820 OPS, numbers that have translated well to sporadic at-bats in the big leagues. Friendly and polite, he has gained something of a cult following among the team’s fan base.

It helps, of course, that Evans finished 2-for-3 with two RBIs in Saturday’s game, raising his spring average to .288 in a team-leading 52 at-bats. But at this point, even that hardly matters. The Mets already know what Evans can and can’t do.

“He’s just a blue-collar player,” Oberkfell said. “He just comes to play every day and plays.”

The Mets once saw him as an everyday player, moving Evans from his natural position at third base so that David Wright would not block his path to the Majors. Now 24, he is perhaps destined for a career as a pinch-hitter or platoon outfielder. As a Met, at least, he is unlikely to earn an opportunity for much more.

Making the Opening Day roster, however, is not necessarily out of the question. If Carlos Beltran is not healthy enough to make the Opening Day roster — more probability than possibility at this point — the Mets could platoon Hairston and Harris in right field in his place. That would open up one roster spot, which could belong to Evans.

The Mets also could hand the everyday right field job to Lucas Duda, whom the team is more committed to giving consistent at-bats. But if the Mets feel Beltran will only be sidelined for a short while, Evans could benefit.

Could, should, maybe, perhaps — such are the buzzwords that have dominated Evans’ career to date, and that’s not likely to change. Even if he does make the Opening Day roster, the Mets might have to expose him to other teams at some point during the season, giving him a fresh opportunity but also plucking him from the only organization he has ever known.

Could, should, maybe, perhaps.

“That’s just the way it goes sometimes,” Evans said. “You start thinking about that and you’re not going to play the way you want to play. You just try to do the best you can with what you’re given.”

—–Follow along on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo.

Here’s to the Heroes

One other plug for today: during the 2011 season, Budweiser will launch its “Here’s to the Heroes” Home Run Program, donating $100 to the military charity Folds of Honor for every home run hit this season.

Last year, 110 home runs were hit at Citi Field and over 4,600 in Major League games. Similar numbers this season would result in a $460,000 donation.

Folds of Honor is a non-profit organization that provides post-secondary educational scholarships for children and spouses of military service men and women killed or disabled.

—–Follow along on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo.

Maple Street Mets

Just received a copy of Maple Street Press’s 2011 Mets Annual from an old colleague. It’s 128 pages of Mets info, including scouting reports, predictions, opinion and even a look back at uniforms through the ages. At $9.99 it’s on newsstands now, and certainly worth a look.

—–Follow along on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo.

Pedro Martinez was framed

Seriously. Martinez had his portrait unveiled Friday at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington. At 40 years old, he became the youngest of more than 50 baseball figures in the exhibit.

Check out Peter Gammons’ account of the unveiling for a shot of the portrait.

—–Follow along on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo.

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