NEW YORK (AP) — Few teams in baseball will feel more relieved than the New York Mets when the first pitch is thrown this season.
After making headlines all winter for all the wrong reasons — the Bernie Madoff scandal, serious injuries, sagging ticket sales — the familiar cry of “Play Ball!” will probably sound pretty good to owner Fred Wilpon, new general manager Sandy Alderson and the rest of the scrambling Mets.
Problem is, there are just as many issues on the field as in the board room.
Ace pitcher Johan Santana is sidelined until at least midsummer following shoulder surgery. Carlos Beltran’s achy knees kept him out of the lineup for almost all of spring training. Star shortstop Jose Reyes wants a contract that might cost too much.
The NL East competition looks awfully tough, led by rival Philadelphia’s four aces. And the high-payroll Mets have major question marks all over the diamond: second base, catcher, middle relief, starting pitching.
“We’re underdogs this year. Nobody expects much from us. We’ll just go out there and see what happens,” first baseman Ike Davis said.
New manager Terry Collins may be short on sure things, but he doesn’t lack enthusiasm. Hired by Alderson to replace Jerry Manuel after the club cleaned house last fall, the 61-year-old Collins has a boundless energy that caught on with players this spring.
The fiery Collins went 444-434 during 1990s managing stints with the Astros and Angels. Now, he’s charged with reversing the fortunes (in some ways, literally) of an injury-prone team coming off two consecutive losing seasons and four without a playoff berth.
“He just brings a ton of intensity, a ton of passion and I think that’s going to rub off on the players,” All-Star third baseman David Wright said. “I think everybody is going to enjoy playing for a guy with that type of passion.”
Wright rebounded from a 2009 power outage to finish with 29 homers and 103 RBIs last year — though he struck out a career-high 161 times. He anchors a lineup that could be adequate if the key components are healthy and productive.
Left fielder Jason Bay, signed to a $66 million, four-year contract before last season, hit only six home runs and missed the final two months with a concussion. He seemed healthy this spring, but was still searching for his power stroke.
Speedy switch-hitter Angel Pagan takes over in center for Beltran, a three-time Gold Glove winner who willingly shifted to right in an effort to reduce the strain on his knees. Beltran’s bat is crucial to the Mets, but he’s lost a few steps on the bases and it’s uncertain whether he’ll be able to play regularly.
Davis is coming off an encouraging rookie season (19 homers) and provides optimism for the future. Whether that future includes Reyes remains to be seen.
A homegrown All-Star with electrifying talents, the 27-year-old shortstop can become a free agent after the season and there is talk he wants a Carl Crawford-type contract ($142 million).
The Mets, muddled in a financial mess because of ownership’s dealings with Madoff, might not be able to afford that kind of commitment. Even if they can, Alderson and his Moneyball deputies in the front office may not think Reyes is worth a huge deal. So if the club drops out of contention by midseason as many anticipate, New York could try to trade its animated leadoff man for young talent.
“I still have one more year here and I don’t know what will happen after, but right now my main thing is play the game and try to help this team win ballgames every day and see what happens,” Reyes said. “The last two years have been kind of hard on me and I just want to prove to people I can stay healthy on the field. That’s why I worked so hard this offseason to try to put it together.”
On the mound, Mike Pelfrey slides up to become the No. 1 starter in place of Santana. The 6-foot-7 righty had his best season last year, going 15-9 with a 3.66 ERA in 204 innings. He’s scheduled to pitch the opener Friday night at Florida.
Veteran knuckleballer R.A. Dickey is back after his surprising success last season, and so is young left-hander Jonathon Niese.
To round out the rotation, Alderson picked up a pair of former All-Stars in Chris Capuano and 6-10 Chris Young, who once played basketball at Princeton. Both were available at a bargain price because of previous arm injuries, but they looked sharp in spring training.
“I don’t know if anyone can take (Santana’s) place, but everyone, myself included, we all need to step up. That’s quite a void to fill, and I think some of the offseason acquisitions, like Chris Young and Chris Capuano, I think they kind of went under the radar,” Pelfrey said. “I think our starting pitching is going to give us a chance day in and day out.”
Closing games again will be Francisco Rodriguez, who has an image to repair after attacking his girlfriend’s father at Citi Field last season. K-Rod pleaded guilty in December to attempted assault to settle the charges and is required to give the court updates on his anger management sessions.
“I feel more relaxed,” Rodriguez said in spring training. “It’s been a pretty good change all the way around.”
Meanwhile, the judicial ordeal goes on for Mets executives.
The club’s embattled owners recently filed legal papers disputing a court trustee’s claim that they owe more than $1 billion because they should have known their investments with Madoff were fraudulent.
Though searing allegations of shady financial dealings were made public, Wilpon and team president Saul Katz have steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, saying they were victims of the massive Ponzi scheme. Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo was appointed as a mediator to try to broker a settlement.
In January, Wilpon and his son, Jeff, the Mets’ chief operating officer, announced they were looking into selling up to 25 percent of the franchise because of “uncertainty” caused by the lawsuit.
“There’s probably two guys in this clubhouse that understand what is even going on, and one went to Duke (Capuano) and the other went to Princeton,” Wright said. “I don’t think it’s had any other effect on the clubhouse. Now, we’ll see after this season with Jose being a free agent, with some other guys becoming a free agent, with some money coming off the books.”
Indeed, this is a potentially turbulent transition year for the Mets as they wait for more than $45 million in bloated contracts to come off the 2012 payroll, including Beltran’s deal.
During spring training they dumped a pair of overpriced busts in Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo, eating $18 million. That appeased some angry fans a bit, but ticket sales could be slow for Citi Field’s third season and it appears every last dollar may be critical to ownership.
Forbes’ annual report said the Mets lost 13 percent of their value in the past year amid legal and debt problems.
“I think it’s going to take time to win back the fan base,” Dickey said. “It’s going to take more than a hot start.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)