We are starting a weekend series with the Mets tonight so Steve Schreiber and I have exchanged questions about each other's teams. The Mets are a surprising 21-17 to start the season, so life is pretty good for the folks at Citi Field.
You guys signed the pair who, at various moments, were our closers last year (generally closing out games by giving up out a walkoff home run). How are Jon Rauch and Frank McFrankFrank doing for you? Are they the fan favorites they were here?
Yes, they certainly have become "fan favorites" early on this year. Honestly, the whole bullpen has been a pretty big disappointment so far, save for last year's holdovers Bobby Parnell and Tim Byrdak. Francisco and Rauch have been a big part of that, as Francisco currently sports an ERA over 8 thanks to a few implosions and Rauch has been up and down but has just stopped striking guys out. Couple that with the early struggles of Ramon Ramirez and Manny Acosta and some liberal bullpen usage by Terry Collins and there really aren't a lot of "safe" arms to go to late in games at the moment. Also, I think Rauch's greatest moment with the Mets may've come off the field last weekend, when he demolished an annoying Mets fan on Twitter.
All that being said, these guys will improve over time. They're certainly better than what they've shown so far. And if not, well at least the Mets have a few interesting young bullpen arms that are close to big league ready that they can test out.
Who's been the biggest surprise this season? Biggest disappointment?
The Mets have had one big surprise, though I guess you could probably call David Wright's performance a surprise as well (I think we all expected him to hit; just not at this level). David has been tearing the cover off the ball all season and his defense has improved after three years of devolving into one of the worst defensive third baseman in the league. Putting aside David's early season dominance, though, the biggest surprise is easily the pitching of Johan Santana. Many Mets fans assumed that coming off of shoulder capsule surgery and a missed season in 2011, that Johan Santana's career as a front of the rotation starter was basically done (and you can count me in there too). Well, not only has Johan made every start, he's pitched like vintage Johan Santana. His strikeout rate is the best it's been since 2007, his command wavered early on but has improved immensely and he's even given the Mets plenty of innings, throwing 6+ innings in each of his last five starts. Expectations were incredibly low for Santana coming into spring training but he's been spectacular so far and he's a huge reason why this team finds itself four games over .500 at the moment.
In terms of the biggest disappointment, it has to be Ike Davis, who's just been lost at the plate since the start of the season. Ike had a solid rookie year in 2010 and got off to a huge start last year before going down with a perplexing ankle injury in early May. His hot start to 2011 got Mets fans excited and had everyone expecting a huge breakout this season. So far, Ike hasn't even come close and really the only that's saving him at the moment is that he's the best defensive first baseman the Mets have. He's shown signs of breaking out a number of times over the last few weeks but he's in one of those slumps where you look up and suddenly he's 0-22 again. His timing at the plate seems to be off, which makes sense considering how much time he missed last year. He's also gotten a steady diet of curveballs, which he's had trouble adjusting to (I think the low point of his season may've come in Philadelphia a week and a half ago, where he swung and missed at a curveball that ended up hitting him in the leg). Ike's better than this. It's just really hard to watch when he's so bad that he's being pinch hit for by the likes of Justin Turner.
Could we get scouting reports on the starting pitchers the Jays will be facing this weekend?
Tonight you'll see lefty Jon Niese pitch for the Mets. The 25-year old is off to a nice start this year coming off of two promising but ultimately frustrating seasons. Niese tosses his fastball in the low-90's, typically sitting in the 91-92 range and he also features a cutter and a big breaking 12-6 curveball. His biggest issues the last couple of seasons have been durability (he's ended the last two seasons on the DL and hasn't thrown over 200 innings yet) and the fact that he's a bit too hittable, making the results worse than his peripherals indicate they should be. Niese is comfortably the Mets' third starter behind Johan Santana and R.A. Dickey but is usually good for a quality start and sometimes more.
I'm sure Blue Jays fans will remember Miguel Batista, who's somehow still pitching at age 41. Batista, who made the team as the long man, is making his fourth start of the season for the Mets in place of the injured Mike Pelfrey and is basically just a placeholder until better options present themselves. He still throws in the low-90's, impressive for a guy his age, but he has little command of where it's going and as a result, he walks a lot of batters. Somehow, he managed to troll Mets fans with a shutout of the Brewers over seven innings in his last start but I can't say I'm expecting anything like that again. We'll be happy if Batista throws 5 innings and doesn't leave us down by 5 or more runs.
On Sunday, it'll be 26 year old Dillon Gee on the mound. The results haven't been there for Gee early on this year but his underlying peripherals have at least improved a bit from last season. He's just been way too hittable early on this year, which probably isn't a surprise for a guy who's fastball averages 89 MPH from the right side. His best pitch is his changeup and his curveball also gets good reviews, too. He's always been a bit homer-prone, which could be an issue in Toronto against the Jays lineup.
Who has replaced Jose Reyes at short? How is he doing?
Jose's replacement is 22-year old Ruben Tejada, who has done a great job of replacing Reyes when he's been on the field. Tejada was signed by the Mets out of Panama as a 16-year old and was incredibly rushed through the system by the previous regime (he hit .229/.293/.296 as an 18-year old at High A St. Lucie back in 2008 and actually received a promotion to AA the next year). It's a testament to his ability that he was able to get to where he is now and he already looks to be close to a solid regular at this point. Tejada is not Jose Reyes--he's not flashy, he doesn't have blazing speed or hit a ton of triples but he's a really solid all-around shortstop. He gets on base at a good clip, he makes a lot of contact and hits line drives, he plays good defense at shortstop and has a solid arm. He's also a really smart ballplayer, which really is impressive compared to his youth. Whereas Jose Reyes would make mistakes and be able to use his athleticism to make up for them, Tejada really doesn't make those types of mistakes and if he does, he works on them (for example, last year he had a tough game where he botched a groundball to his backhand and acknowledged that it was something he was never taught to do. In less than a year, he's become adept at fielding balls on the backhand). He's a quick learner, he's smart and that bodes well for his ability to continue to improve down the line as the team's shortstop.
Now, Tejada is on the disabled list at the moment with a strained groin he suffered tripping over first base about a week and a half ago, so you won't see him this weekend. The shortstop position without Ruben has been handled by a combination of Ronny Cedeno, Justin Turner and Jordany Valdespin who all do not measure up to Tejada's abilities.
I don't know much about your manager Terry Collins. What are his strengths and weaknesses?
I would classify Terry Collins as an average big league manager. On the field, he'll make a head-scratching decision once in a while that might cost you a game or two but he's not inept (and Mets fans know a thing or two about inept managers--paging Jerry Manuel). His bullpen management is probably his biggest weakness, as he's a little too fixated on specific roles (like most managers are). Thankfully, he doesn't really get too bunt-happy, though in close/late situations all bets seem to be off.
I think his biggest strength comes in the off the field situations. From everything we hear about him, he's a great communicator with the players and they play hard for him day in and day out. He always sticks up for his players, sometimes to a fault (like when he said a couple of weeks ago that Manny Acosta, who has a 9.17 ERA, had been "throwing really well his last few outings"). The ironic thing is that this was not the case with Collins in past managerial jobs, to the point where when he was managing the Angels back in the late-90's, the players petitioned to get him fired. So he's certainly changed a lot from then and those changes have stuck. I think it also helps that this team is very young, for the most part, and everything I've heard about him says that he's a great teacher (he's been a minor league coordinator with a number of teams, including the Mets in 2010).
Have to ask about Canadian Jason Bay. What's his injury? When is he due back?
Jason Bay fractured a rib diving for a fly ball in left field last month. Just a few days ago, the word on Bay was that he's been cleared to begin baseball activities and that he may head down to Port St. Lucie for rehab soon but the Mets seem to be taking things really slowly with him. His struggles with the Mets have been well documented and 24-year old Kirk Nieuwenhuis has done a fantastic job filling in for him, so there's really no rush to get him back on the roster. Plus, there's a bit of a logjam in the outfield and it's arguable whether Bay is better than guys like Scott Hairston and Mike Baxter at this point. It looks like when he comes back, he'll get his starting job in LF back for a little while but his return probably won't happen for a couple of weeks at the earliest.