Catching up with the Mets: Faith and Fear in Flushing

To help get to know a little bit more about our current opponent, the Mets, I sat down to talk with both Jason and Greg from the outstanding Mets blog, Faith and Fear in Flushing. They brand themselves the blog for Mets fans who like to read, and you’ll see why in this interview, which very well may be the best one we’ve had yet on The Nats Blog. Great stuff here:

The Nats Blog: My dad grew up a Mets fan, each year since 2006 he has said it was their year, but each year ends up being worse than the last. Why will this be the year the Mets make it back to the playoffs? Or will they?

GREG: Where did your dad go wrong in letting you slip away to a division rival? But seriously, this will not be the year the Mets get back to the playoffs. There is not nearly enough starting pitching and not a whole lot of relief pitching and, until Beltran and Reyes are back for good and playing like the Beltran and Reyes they have been, this is a lineup only intermittently informed by offense. In a best-case scenario, this will be a transition year for the Mets, wherein the three core stars, including Wright, get back on track; Bay fits in; Francoeur finds consistency; Ike Davis is called up; and Luis Castillo finds a new and rewarding career in the field of home electronics repair. They still need pitching beyond Johan, Feliciano and Frankie, however, and I’ve yet to detect any sign of it.

JASON: If everything breaks right, the Mets could sneak into the postseason. But it’s famously said that luck is the residue of design, and I don’t have a lot of faith in the current designers. Over the last couple of years Omar and Co. haven’t just had buzzards’ luck — they’ve misread markets, evaluated players poorly and seemingly done no investigation into players’ abilities beyond gut feelings. I don’t trust the Mets’ baseball-operations folks to make the right moves that would let everything break right for this team. That said, I think the 2011 club could potentially be a very good one, if some young players and prospects keep developing and the core veterans return to health and form. Granted, that’s a lot of ifs, but baseball fans live on a steady diet of hopeful ifs.

TNB: What do you think about what Omar Minaya has done with the team in the last four years?

GREG: A war crimes tribunal might be too strong a tack to take, but I think Omar has destroyed a team he played a major hand in building. If we were having this conversation four years ago, I would have been singing the GM’s praises to high heaven, so take this with a shaker of salt, but in retrospect, I wonder how much of what he did right was grab the Wilpon checkbook and not let go. In his first two seasons, he signed or traded for five key high-priced players: Beltran, Pedro Martinez, Carlos Delgado, Billy Wagner and Paul Lo Duca. The Mets got out of them what remained to be gotten; except for Beltran, they were all essentially short-term buys, but it worked. Omar’s other genius was detecting value in players others were ready to ignore or discard: Endy Chavez, Jose Valentin, Julio Franco, John Maine, Chad Bradford, Darren Oliver, Oliver Perez. All of them clicked in ’06, fewer of them were clicking in ’07, only Maine and Perez remain (neither particularly clickable) and almost nobody Omar has brought in around the edges since ’06 has made the kind of impact those guys made when they got here. So while your dad has kept the faith since 2006, Omar has been letting him down steadily.

JASON: I heard a critique of Omar that he does pretty well with high-value players and bit players, but is bad at finding the right full-time players to complement the stars. That struck me as about right. The deals for Luis Castillo and Oliver Perez are hideous examples — huge amounts of money over a lot of years for a guy who’s a liability and a guy who’s so erratic as to be completely untrustworthy. Omar also showed distressing signs of losing track of the basics last year: He seemed to have forgotten that Johan Santana had had an elbow scare in spring training, which is amazing, and the Adam Rubin contretemps was astonishing and awful. This seems to have continued in the offseason: It was reported that Joel Pineiro — who would have slotted very nicely into the starting rotation — wanted to come to New York but couldn’t get the Mets to pay attention to him because they were so busy working on Jason Bay. You can’t multitask at that basic a level? I don’t know if whatever happened was a problem with Omar, or ownership hamstrung him, or what, but it was a sure sign that something’s broken.

TNB: How does Citi Field compare to Shea?

GREG From a playing standpoint, the gaps are astounding. I heard a stat that 19 different Mets tripled in 2009. You don’t have to be much of a player to triple there. Angel Pagan tripled regularly last year and he’s not much of a player. The home run aspect is still a work in progress. It psyched out David Wright last year (if not Adam Dunn). The lack of foul territory has come into play every now and then, such as in the second game this season when Fernando Tatis seemed assured (to himself anyway) of scoring on a passed ball that turned out to be not so past the Marlins’ John Baker. All of this was intended to make the ballpark interesting, which I find a reach. Baseball is interesting enough without spicing it up with phony angles; it’s one thing when the contours of the street demand a Fenway Park, but this was just cutesy-poo planning. I liked Shea’s boring symmetry.

I am, however, happy to be thinking of your question in terms of baseball and not the fan experience. I spent all of last year immersed in my distaste for Citi Field on a number of disappointing levels, and I’m happy to say I’m moving past that thought process. I loved Shea because it was home. Citi Field was an alien, but now it’s getting a bit more familiar and less implicitly hostile to my sensibilities.

JASON: I loathed Shea Stadium, a fetid dump that bred surly incompetence in nearly everyone who worked there. So I was more than ready for Citi Field, and I liked a lot of it right away: the great food, the way you meet friends and fellow bloggers circulating at the field level, the Pepsi Porch, the center-field bridge, exiting games through the rotunda. But I thought the Mets blew a couple of things about it pretty badly. As has been discussed quite a bit, they opened the park with very little Mets stuff in it — it almost felt like someone thought it would make the place less classy. They’ve come a long way in fixing that, and it’s much appreciated. What’s harder to fix is that there are swathes of the Promenade level from which you can’t see TWO outfielders. Even the announcers lose fair balls in the corners. I don’t know if the relevant folks with the club didn’t notice or didn’t care, but either way it boggles the mind.

TNB: What is the latest on the Murphy and the Beltran injuries? How important are they to the club?

GREG: Beltran supposedly making progress toward a second week of May return. That could be Metspeak for see you in 2011, but we’ll hold out hope he really is coming along. Beltran is a huge piece of this team on both sides of the ball. The lineup is almost Quadruple-A without him and he’s a true Gold Glove in center. Murphy’s immediate future is a bit murkier (hence the nickname Daniel Murky that I just came up with this very second). He was deemed out two to six weeks, which is a pretty Metsian time frame, meaning they have no idea when he’ll be back. Murphy is miscast as a first baseman, not so much defensively (where given his learning curve he was adequate in 2009) but as an occupant of a power position. You can get away with a line drive hitter at first — line drive hitters are great — if you have, say, a Piazza catching or a 1959-vintage Ernie Banks at short. The Mets are mostly marking time with Murphy until Davis is ready. I honestly believe his future is as a pinch-hitter, which is an odd thing to forecast for a 25-year-old. Good kid, works hard, but there’s a reason he’s now known as Daniel Murky.

JASON: Who knows with Murphy? Like Greg, I suspect he won’t hit enough to be adequate at first and he doesn’t seem to have any other position. I like him and am rooting for him, but wonder if he’s part of this team’s long-term future. Given his huge salary, it seems a bit silly to say Beltran is a hugely underrated player, but he is. The Mets are in many ways an ordinary team on offense and defense without him. If only he could pitch.

TNB: When are we likely to see Fernando Martinez finally make the jump to a Mets uniform?

GREG: F-Mart (which is a terrible nickname, btw) made the jump last year because of injuries and clearly wasn’t ready. I’m not sure he’s ready yet despite putting up some fine numbers in Spring Training. He has lousy outfielder instincts and I don’t know how you teach away from that, though at 21 you want to give him every benefit of the doubt. I recently read the Willie Mays biography and it was clear to everyone who watched him come up that this kid — Willie, that is — could do everything well. They talk about Martinez as that kind of talent, but if he didn’t come with the advance hype, I’d wonder what all the fuss is about. If Beltran is healthy, the three OF slots are spoken for for 2010, which may not be the worst thing. Fernando has had injury problems, so maybe a year at Buffalo…as depressing as that sounds for him…as depressing as that sounds.

All that being said, the chance to view young talent is not to be utterly dismissed, readiness be somewhat damned. I don’t know how “ready” Jenrry Mejia and Ruben Tejada are, but I was thrilled to see them make the roster. There are only so many retreads a fan catch before wondering if your roster will ever be supplemented by a little fresh blood. (This is the sort of thing that’s supposed to make fans of non-contenders happy, so take that as an indictment of the 2010 Mets’ chances if you must.)

JASON: It depends on whether F-Mart can stay healthy in AAA, and his track record at doing that is poor. But he’s still just 21, and has lived through the experience of flopping in New York and appears stronger and better for it, so I have hope. What might have more bearing on his medium-term future is how committed the Mets are to Jeff Francoeur. I fear they’re very committed, and part of me hates thinking that’s a bad thing, because Francoeur is the kind of outgoing, fan-friendly player you wish you had 25 of. The problem is he seems to have no idea that there’s more than one way to reach first base, and that’s a fatal flaw more often than not.

TNB: All time favorite Mets memory?

GREG: For a single moment, nothing will ever top Mookie/Buckner. For an extended ride, I am partial to the final month of 1999, when the Mets began to let the Wild Card slip away, improbably fought back, forced a one-game playoff, won the one-game playoff, won the NLDS on a walkoff homer by the backup catcher and then engaged in an unbelievably frustrating and exhilarating six-game NLCS against their bitter rivals the Braves. I know we ended up losing, but it’s never felt like that.

JASON: The 10-run inning against the Braves on June 30, 2000. Greg and I were in the Shea mezzanine with my wife and a friend of ours, with the Mets down 8-1 in the eighth. The inning was a small spark of faint hope that burned brighter and brighter and was carefully nurtured and finally burst into flame. Baseball can be slow even when it’s good, with each pitch ratcheting the tension higher until it becomes unbearable, but it can also be shockingly fast. Mike Piazza capped that inning by hitting Terry Mulholland’s first pitch over the wall for an 11-8 Mets lead, and it was like an emotional volcano blew. I was leaping up and down and screaming and hugging everyone in sight, and managed to think two things: 1) Shea may actually fall down; and 2) I may be having a heart attack. I decided I was so happy that I didn’t care.