It was only after the breathtaking, Yankee-type winter highlighted by free-flowing cash and bling-bling press conferences that Omar Minaya finally went to work as the Mets' general manager. Winning the Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran sweepstakes? That was easy, given the money Minaya was dispensing.
But it's the subsequent smaller-scale trades that will forge Minaya's first-year legacy at Shea. And the clock is already ticking.
The deals for Doug Mientkiewicz and most recently, Kaz Ishii represent upgrades over the Mets' 2004 answers at first base and a No. 5 starter. Mientkiewicz was a distant second choice to Carlos Delgado, but he nevertheless anchors the infield more effectively than Todd Zeile. And Ishii, despite his unfathomable wildness, is still more talented than either Jae Seo or Aaron Heilman.
In that sense, Minaya is off to a good start in 2005, but the loss of Steve Trachsel to back surgery has tempered the club's offseason euphoria. Officials are now quietly envisioning a mid-80s win total, good enough for a third-place finish in the NL East. While that represents an impressive turnaround from those back-to-back 90-loss seasons in 2003-2004, the dream of toppling the Braves will probably have to wait a little longer before becoming a reality.
Still, Minaya kept the Mets from reeling after learning Trachsel's injury was more serious than originally thought. The club was initially ready to lean on Matt Ginter as the replacement, until doctors informed the Mets that a worst-case scenario could keep Trachsel on the disabled list past the All-Star break, if not through the season.
"That's when we decided to move in another direction," is how one front-office insider put it, prompting Minaya to swap backup catcher Jason Phillips for the Dodgers' Ishii. News about Trachsel was compounded by Victor Zambrano's 10.00 ERA this spring, which has made the Mets, if not nervous, at least uncomfortable.
The right-hander is recovering from elbow surgery and has thus far allowed 15 hits and 10 runs in nine innings. The Mets, however, are just focused on Zambrano's nine walks precisely one an inning, which indicates last year's problems (he and Miguel Batista led the AL in bases on balls) are still present today. Together, Zambrano and Ishii have the potential for a long summer of wildness. The Japanese left-hander has averaged a major league worst 5.8 walks per nine innings since signing with Los Angeles in 2002.
Curiously, Ishii isn't rattled by the number of baserunners he allows. Speaking with reporters in Port St. Lucie on Monday, Ishii said, "I may walk a lot of guys, but I provide a lot of wins as well. I want for everyone not to get too nervous about the walks."
That's easier said than done, of course, and the task of harnessing Ishii's stuff which his former catcher with the Dodgers, Paul Lo Duca, calls "great" will be left to pitching coach Rick Peterson. Talk about ticking clocks: He already used up an enormous amount of political capital last July, claiming he could fix Zambrano's control issues in 10 minutes.
No one in the Mets' family has to be reminded about the ugly dividend of that now-infamous trade with the Devil Rays. Zambrano was disabled after just three starts, on his way to the surgeon's table, while Scott Kazmir continues to average a strikeout an inning for the Devil Rays this spring. The Mets are obviously giving Zambrano as much breathing room as possible, and remain convinced he'll eventually become a Kevin Brown-clone. But until he raises his average radar-gun reading above the high-80s, the Mets are being wounded by Kazmir's every success.
"The only thing we can figure is that it's still early," one Mets official said of Zambrano. "He hasn't pitched great, but it hasn't been awful. We still have to give it some time before we can make any judgment on him."
The Mets' best-case scenario has Zambrano healthy and hard throwing by late April, if not Opening Day. And Ishii, who seems to have the charisma and personality for New York, will be just as effective. At least that's the back-of-the-rotation blueprint. The Mets count their blessings that Pedro Martinez has assimilated into the clubhouse so effortlessly, and that Tom Glavine is comfortable as the No. 2 starter. Kris Benson has given the Mets no reason to think he can't handle the No. 3 spot.
After that ... well, the Mets aren't ruling out the most optimistic diagnosis, that Trachsel might return as soon as June. That would make for an interesting squeeze in the rotation. In the meantime, the irony is thick enough to inhale: As hard as Minaya worked to get Al Leiter out of the organization, he effectively traded for his clone in Ishii.
Leiter and Ishii pitched almost the same number of innings last year (173.2 to 172) and finished with virtually the same walk total (97 to 98). Leiter heavily taxed the bullpen with his high pitch counts and early exits in 2004, and Ishii is likely to have the same debilitating effect on the relief corps. Which brings Minaya to his next challenge finding a setup man for closer Braden Looper.
"We're working on it," said one insider familiar with Minaya's game plan, no doubt hearing that ticking clock.
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.