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This Is No Eighth-Place Ballclub

Leo Durocher would have relished this weekend in Las Vegas. The Cactus League Cubs — the team he managed to its only oasis of success in a nearly 40-year schlep through a desert of futility, and the Grapefruit Circuit Mets — the team that inevitably turned 1969 into a Near North Side mirage, will square off in a pair of exhibitions in so-called Sin City. Durocher would’ve gotten a kick out of this geographically illogical Spring Training detour because it would’ve given him an excuse to visit Vegas on somebody else’s dime. Seeing as how these games don’t count, Leo probably would’ve handed the reins to coach Pete Reiser [1] and looked up Frank [2] as soon as the Cubs’ plane landed.

Leo liked to live the life (not always to everybody’s satisfaction [3]). The Lip also wasn’t afraid to speak up in favor of whatever pies Leo had his fingers in. Maybe you’ve heard the line about Durocher from when he took over the Cubs after their eighth-place finish in 1965. This, he said with characteristic brio, is no eighth-place ballclub.

His figurative money laid down where his mouth was, Leo charged into his first season as Chicago’s skipper…and led the 1966 Cubs straight into tenth place.

In something approaching that spirit, wouldn’t it be great if the business about Mets management fancying their team a 90-win outfit was proven inaccurate, except in the other direction? Wouldn’t it be great if somebody was repeating an anecdote in the far-off future about how somebody running the 2014 Mets suggested, “this is a 90-win team,” [4] but it turned out to be wrong because they won so many more?

Yeah, that would rule. As would many largely elusive fantasies that pop to mind across a weekend in Las Vegas.

The Mets probably should have more good players set to play more positions. That is if they’re serious about this 90-win thing, which they probably aren’t. The 90-win goal that’s become this spring’s Underdog t-shirt [5] wasn’t something they issued a statement to explain or deputized Mr. Met to Tweet [6]. Sandy Alderson reportedly dropped that number in an internal meeting and Fred Wilpon reportedly got caught up in the moment and endorsed it less as an aspiration than an imperative.

“We better win 90,” said Fred, channeling his inner Christopher Moltisanti [7].

Can the Mets, who at the very least have no chance of finishing eighth in the five-team National League East, win 90 games? Hell yes. They can win 162. They can also win none. Or any total in between. There’s a divergent array of potential outcomes. Consult your local numerologist for a more accurately assessed win total if you really want one pulled out of the air or any given ass.

But can the Mets really win 90 games? No. Don’t be silly. Do Alderson or Wilpon remember what 90 wins look like? The Mets have hit that mark once in the last thirteen years, and that includes years when they had certifiable talent rarin’ to go, not a pool of ellipses bracketed by bold-faced question marks.

Have you seen this team? It lacks legitimacy at two of eight positions. There’s 25% of your defensive alignment right there. Put aside normal questions about leadoff hitters and which partially accomplished outfielder will be granted playing time over which other partially accomplished outfielder and whether the rookie catcher is ready to not only strap it on but step it up. The Mets entered the offseason with only the faintest outlines of a shortstop and the iffiest conception of a first baseman. Two-and-a-half weeks before the season starts, the possible solutions have grown less certain.

Terry Collins recently speculated aloud about batting his pitcher eighth [8] and some underwhelming non-pitcher ninth. He was thinking about doing it, he said, to generate as many opportunities as possible for Murphy, Wright and Granderson to drive in runs. Well, sure, you strategize over lineups to create the most offense you can. Whether any of it amounts to any kind of net-plus is always up for grabs. I wouldn’t automatically dismiss the pitcher batting eighth on principle, because not doing something because almost nobody’s ever done it isn’t a valid reason for avoiding it. Not doing something because Tony La Russa did it and Tony La Russa strikes most of us as a plague isn’t a disqualifying element, either.

But what got me when I read that Collins was resorting to considering this unorthodox tactic was it was early March and he was already groping in Something/Anything territory. A powerhouse lineup doesn’t figure to be built on Niese batting eighth and Lagares batting ninth. A powerhouse lineup is leading off Henderson and surrounding Piazza with lefties like Olerud and Ventura. Or it’s figuring out where to best bat Beltran and Delgado in order to maximize your Carlos quotient. Those are the offensive versions of pleasant problems. Digging deep into the eight- and nine-spots and juggling .138-hitting pitchers with .219-hitting anybody-elses is what you do when you’re desperate.

It’s March. It’s not supposed to be desperation time yet. Or it’s not supposed to be desperation time at all if your front office is talking and your owner is demanding 90 wins. (And if the pitcher batting eighth is real, why do we keep using DHs in exhibition games?)

Where’d they get 90 wins from, other than it’s a round figure and it implies a very imposing team? Best I can come up with is the old saw about every team winning a third and losing a third [9], which puts the Mets at 54-54 no matter what. That other third, where the gold supposedly lies, comes to those who execute and angle and hustle and get breaks and avoid injuries and are led by real men of genius. Perhaps when the Mets look in the figurative mirror, they see all the attributes that show up in neither the scouting reports nor Baseball Prospectus and they are charmed by their appearance. They fancy themselves a scrappy collective set to outmaneuver opponents, a unit overdue for some dumb luck to land their way.

“We live clean. We take pitches. We don’t unduly raise the league average payroll just because we need more good players at more positions. We apologize for insensitive remarks [10]. We can win 90 games!”

They can, if they go 1-0 90 times, which is more in line with how I like to approach seasons. I’m a disciple of Bobby V, who never failed to identify tonight’s game as the most important game of the year because it’s the only one we’re playing tonight. Or they can go 36-18 in the mystery 54. If an inside straight is drawn, they can go 82-79 as in 1973 and keep going well into October (or, should playoff systems revert, they can go 98-64 and go home like they did in 1985 — though that wouldn’t be much fun).

Or you can forget anybody said anything about 90 wins and brace for the worst, thus being satisfied when something less bad happens. We do that a lot around here.

And yet…when you commence to sneaking up on two weeks from Opening Day, you scrunch your face, squint your eyes and focus real hard to see if there’s a way into this almost prohibitive phony-baloney goal that would be inarguably neat to meet. You give d’Arnaud a gently sloping learning curve. You give every pitcher — each of them at least pretty good at base — his best possible season and then sprinkle a little more WAR on top for good measure. You wipe away your wondering about Granderson having been out almost all of last year and check those bulging statistics of campaigns past. You bolster yourself with the knowledge that Grandy (Grandy?), CY2 and Colon have all been recent playoff participants and experience as winners has to count for something. You take Lagares’s defense, EYJ’s speed and the other Young’s 2010 and create a three-headed left-center fielder that will, in the sainted memory of Ralph Kiner, cover two-thirds of the earth.

You think back to Gil Hodges projecting 85 wins for his team the spring after they won an all-time franchise high of 73 and challenging himself to come up with a few more — 15 more, as it turned out in ’69, plus another seven in the postseason. You recall having little confidence in the myriad second base candidates of March 2006 and winding up by May with Jose Valentin and his 18 home runs. You even remember (because you are the way you are) that the Mets made late trades twenty years ago this very spring, filling holes at short and first with Jose Vizcaino and David Segui, each of whose modern equivalent would be an upgrade over Ruben Tejada and Ikas Duvis. If you like harbingers of something other than doom, those 1994 deals were pulled off by then general manager Joe McIlvaine, the same Joe Mac who’s been scouting the Mets for the Mariners all spring [11], the same Mariners who are said to have a talented shortstop to spare [12].

But that’s best-casing this scenario. Sure, maybe someone emerges from the crowd to make a Valentin type of difference and maybe a Vizcainoish transaction emerges. Summoning 1969, though? When the best possible answer to my doubting George Thomas tendencies is invocation of the most Amazin’ aberration of all as precedent, I’m mostly saying you need something that happens once in a lifetime to happen again…to happen right away.

Y’know what ya do? Ya hope anyway.

Ya hope other teams aren’t very good.

Ya hope our team is better than I believe it is.

Ya hope a cable-ready kid pitcher can be plugged in as soon as fiscally amenable.

Ya hope Pythagorean lightning can be caught in a bottle, as it was thirty years ago; the 1984 Mets, expected to do nothing, scored and allowed enough runs so they “should” have won 78 games — they wound up with 90.

Ya hope the BABIP bounces charitably and the FIP flies our way.

Ya hope magical thinking translates to a 16-game improvement from a year ago, even if there’s no Byrd anymore, no Harvey for now and no Syndergaard yet.

Mostly, ya keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars [13], one game at a time. You can only win that many at once anyway.