Mets Hot Stove Roundup: The Pilot Light Is Out

The Mets went into the offseason with many big needs: No. 2 starter, power-hitting leftfielder, catcher, setup man, and upgrades at second base and on the bench. As spring training begins, they have successfully addressed only one of those needs.

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In January, the Mets signed Jason Bay for $66 million over four years, with an option for a fifth. Some criticized the Mets for giving a player with some injury risks such a big deal. Bay appeared to take a long time to agree to join the Mets, leading to speculation that he hoped to play somewhere else. Peter Gammons claimed that Bay “would rather play in Beirut than Queens.”

But the Mets desperately needed another power bat in their lineup, particularly in left field, where injury-prone Angel Pagan seems more suited to be the fourth outfielder. So signing Bay meant the Mets addressed at least one major need. The signing became even more important when Carlos Beltran underwent knee surgery in January, meaning that the Mets would start the season without one of their few power bats and that Pagan would be needed in center field.

Matt Holliday is generally considered to be a better player than Bay, but the Scott Boras client ended up getting a seven-year, $120 million contract, so the Mets were able to get one of the of the two very good leftfielders available at a much lower price.

The third top free agent available, John Lackey, would have filled the Mets’ pressing need for a No. 2 starter. Many Met fans, including this one, would have preferred Lackey to Bay. But if the Mets passed on Bay and Holliday, there were a few other good free agent or trade options available for left field.

While Lackey was far and away the top pitcher available, there were several other pitchers in the free agent market who could have upgraded the Mets’ rotation. There was said to be mutual interest between Joel Pineiro and the Mets and native Staten Islander Jason Marquis said he wanted to go to the Mets.

But the Mets ended up making no upgrade to their starting pitching, meaning they will go into spring training with many question marks behind Johan Santana. Oliver Perez looked good in minicamp and John Maine looks healthy, but it remains to be seen whether those two and Mike Pelfrey can pitch up to their potential.

As of now, the leading candidates for the fifth spot in the rotation are Jon Niese, coming off a serious hamstring injury, and Fernando Nieve, hoping to prove that he was more than a flash in the pan last year.

Of the six starters mentioned above, five spent time on the disabled list last year. Yet the Mets failed to bring in another established MLB starter, settling instead for the likes of Josh Fogg and Hisanori Takahashi.

The other big whiff in the offseason was at catcher. The Mets were linked to Bengie Molina for weeks, but he ended up returning to the Giants. Another free agent, Yorvit Torrealba, was always less of an option because he has filed a grievance against the Mets over their decision to back out of a deal after the 2007 season because they were unhappy with the results of his physical. Rod Barajas currently remains a free agent option.

The Mets did pick up three catchers – Henry Blanco, Chris Coste and Shawn Riggans, but the latter two appear ticketed to the minors. Blanco could stick as a backup, but he is 38 years old. However, the Mets’ two main catchers, Omir Santos and Josh Thole, also appear better suited to be backups. Thole might well get another year of season in the minors. The catching situation is so bad that when the Mets signed first baseman Mike Jacobs, some pointed out that he had caught in the minors.

At second base, the Mets once again tried to trade Luis Castillo so they could sign Orlando Hudson. Once again, nobody wanted to pick up Castillo’s contract, which has two more years to run at $6 million/year, so he remains the Mets’ second basemen. Ironically, the Twins, the team that traded Castillo to the Mets in 2007, just filled their second-base spot with Hudson.

After last season’s J.J. Putz debacle, the Mets tried again to find a setup man. They signed Kelvim Escobar, who was injured almost all of the last two years, and Japanese pitcher Ryota Igarashi. Bobby Parnell returns from last year’s squad, but he struggled when given a shot at the setup role.

As the Mets struggled to fill their many holes, a new one opened up when Beltran went under the knife. Beltran will probably miss at least the first month of the season.

As bad as the Beltran injury news was – the aftermath might have been worse. The Mets accused Beltran of having the surgery without their approval. After last year’s medical snafus, the Mets had vowed to improve communication between the team, the medical staff and the public. Instead, they potentially antagonized a key player and added to speculation that they downplay injuries internally and to the public.

Putz recently claimed that the Mets told him to hide his elbow woes from the media. Eventually, Putz had to undergo surgery in the middle of the season.

To replace Beltran, the Mets will probably turn to Angel Pagan, but they also traded for Gary Matthews. Jr. The Angels were so eager to get rid of Matthews that they were willing to eat $21 million of his salary.

Along with bringing back ex-Met Jacobs, the Mets re-signed Alex Cora and Fernando Tatis. Once again, the bench looks like it will consist mostly of aging veterans with very little upside.

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