Tomorrow pitchers and catchers officially report, and I will breathe a small but real sigh of relief. Depending on what’s going on in the winter, the lack of baseball is somewhere between an itch and an ache, but it’s always there somewhere. Tomorrow, we get to scratch. There will still be an agonizingly long stretch of time before there are fake games and an even longer, more agonizing stretch of time before there are real games, but tomorrow the season — with its promise of warm nights and life as it should be — will be in view once again.
What the season will bring is another story, of course.
Back in early December, elevendy-billion feet of snow ago, I reacted to the Mets’ re-signing of Alex Cora and the Red Sox’ pocketing of draft picks for Billy Wagner by vowing that I would print out and eat my just-written blog post on Opening Day if anyone could convince me that the Mets’ offseason reflected some sort of coherent plan. Having seen 10 more weeks of offseason unfold, it’s clear that I’m in no danger of having to choke down a paper meal. The Mets did sign Jason Bay, albeit without much competition, and he should help. But they completely failed to address the need for another reliable pitcher, apparently missing out on Joel Pineiro through simple incompetence. They claimed they weren’t broke, but acted like they were by passing on another chance to acquire Orlando Hudson and eliminate a defensive black hole at second base. Their surplus of backup catchers is a punch line throughout baseball — you know you’re in trouble when everybody agrees importing a guy who just posted a .258 OBP would be an upgrade. Elsewhere, they made small, baffling moves that may not hurt much but don’t seem likely to help. For a first baseman, Mike Jacobs is a heck of a designated hitter, and he’s left-handed — just like Daniel Murphy. Having Gary Matthews Jr. on the roster seems pointless, no matter how little he cost. And what would the off-season have been without the Mets mishandling an injury and engaging in their trademark finger-pointing and bungling?
It actually appears worse than I thought back in December: From what I can see the Mets not only have no plan, but as presently run are incapable of planning.
That “and yet” has little to do with Florida sunshine and people showing up in the best shape of their life and lessons having been learned and all the usual spring-training blather, though all of that will make us feel better. Six weeks in Port St. Lucie aren’t likely to turn Mike Jacobs into a first baseman or make Luis Castillo stop fielding like a concrete pylon. Starting with a 0-0 record won’t mean Liggy and Podie have quit the premises, though it will be a lot better than watching those two stumble around when you’re clearly ticketed for 90 losses.
No, the “and yet” has to do with the fact that the Mets still have decent ballplayers at the center of their circus. I expect David Wright’s 2009 will turn out to be an outlier, not a forecast of his future. Escaping the tender mercies of his own employer seems to have allowed Jose Reyes to heal. Defying his own employer ought to bring Carlos Beltran back more quickly. Johan Santana should, with any luck, be Johan Santana. There are loads of qualifiers there, yes, but there’s also a core of talent that more than a few teams would be happy to start with. To that, add Jason Bay, who may not age well but is a far better corner outfielder than anyone from 2009’s corps. And throw in Mike Pelfrey, John Maine, Oliver Perez, and Daniel Murphy — question marks who at least have some recent history of being exclamation points. And while we’re being optimistic, the farm system could actually show dividends relatively soon in Jon Niese and Josh Thole, and Ike Davis might not be too far behind them. (Hey, sometimes the Alex Escobars are interrupted by a Wright or a Reyes.)
As fans and bloggers we think we know everything when we don’t. But from all the reports pointing the same general direction, it sure looks to me like the Mets could have spent the offseason turning themselves into a team that a reasonable person could expect to win around 90 games. That they proved incapable of this is exasperating, to say the least. But we can dwell on that later. With spring training finally about to arrive, I’m reminding myself of something else: Teams that a reasonable person expects to win around 83 games get lucky sometimes.
Will the Mets be one of those teams? I doubt it — one of the many things Branch Rickey was right about is that luck is residue of design. But it’s not impossible. It’s not even wildly improbable. And if the Mets get lucky and/or put their house in order, I and many other Mets fans will proclaim ourselves dead wrong with full-throated glee. That’s one of the pleasures of sports — if you’re shown to be a hopeless pessimist, admitting it is bliss.
Odds are none of this will mean anything by the warm nights of July, but on a frozen afternoon in February it’ll do.