Landing a big-time ace would help allay Mets' doubts

12/10/2007 - New York Mets

The date was Sept. 13, back when life was still plush for the Mets. They had a seven-game lead over the Phillies with 17 to go, on final approach to the postseason -- heck, the World Series -- with no reason to believe their world would soon disintegrate. Three months later, the Mets are still recovering from the worst collapse in regular season history. They're not even the favorites in the East anymore, let alone the National League's best team.

So what happened, exactly? The question has stumped everyone at Shea. Who loses six of their final seven games at home with a playoff berth at stake? The finish was ugly enough to soil even Tom Glavine, who was booed off the mound (and out of New York) after surrendering seven runs to the Marlins in just one-third of an inning in the season finale. Indeed, the gap between the Mets' before and after is too wide for any conventional explanation, forcing Omar Minaya to spin his way around the embarrassment.

The GM says, "We won 88 games. That's not a terrible season." Still, there are enough scars that Minaya was scouring the winter meetings looking for a blockbuster deal. The Mets' pursuit of Johan Santana has been noted everywhere -- of all the left-hander's suitors, the Mets have the most desperate need for him -- but so far, Minaya doesn't have the chips to tempt the Twins. Not if he's keeping David Wright and Jose Reyes off the table. Not if Carlos Beltran is staying put, and not if Lastings Milledge has already been dealt.

It's not that the Mets aren't trying: They've opened the vault of minor league prospects for the Twins to choose from -- Carlos Gomez and Fernando Martinez are both available, although not necessarily in the same package -- but the problem is Minaya likes his young stars more than anyone else does. Unlike the 2005-06 boom in Flushing, when the Mets acquired Beltran, Pedro Martinez and Billy Wagner, and instantly morphed into an NL powerhouse, the Mets could finish the winter as quietly as they started it. There are no free-agent checks for Minaya to write, no rabbits the GM can pull out of a hat, which is hardly good news for Mets fans.

The current battle plan for 2008 is tightly crossed fingers.

"Right now, you have to pick the Phillies [to win the East], because they're the champs," Minaya conceded recently. "But I still like our club. If I have to go into the season with what we have right now, I'm OK with that."

Minaya's peers don't necessarily believe that. Everyone thinks he'll do something, anything to keep from relying on the surgically-repaired Pedro Martinez as the ace. But Minaya's decision to send Milledge to the Nationals may have cost the Mets whatever chance they had of making a megadeal for Santana or Dan Haren without including Reyes. The swap itself, which brought Ryan Church and Brian Schneider, has met with mixed results in the industry. One general manager said during the meetings, "Now was the wrong time to trade Milledge. It was either last year when his value was higher or next year after he could've brought more [in return]."

Right now, you have to pick the Phillies [to win the East], because they're the champs. But I still like our club.

--Mets GM Omar Minaya

The Mets' response is that Church, even at 29 and having already peaked, is a legitimate threat against right-handers, evidenced by his 43 doubles last year. He'll play better outfield defense, and is more mature than Milledge. Schneider, meanwhile, trumps Paul Lo Duca behind the plate. For the short term, Minaya is probably right when he says, "This is a good trade for the team. It might not be popular, but these players are going to help us."

There's also cautious optimism about the return of Duaner Sanchez as the eighth-inning set-up man, a move that could allow the Mets to deal Aaron Heilman. Still, there's no mistaking the lingering wound this offseason, from Glavine's defection to the Braves, to the failed attempts to land Santana, to the uncertainty surrounding Reyes after his vanishing act in the final six games of the season.

Of all the players the Mets are counting on, it's Reyes who'll most greatly influence the franchise's course in 2008. Not Pedro, not Beltran, not even Wright can match Reyes' game-changing skills. The shortstop's combination of speed, defense and gap power made him one of the five best players in the National League at certain times, yet he batted .156 (5-for-32) while the Mets were being caught and passed by the Phillies.

The company line is that Reyes' collapse was merely a "slump at the wrong time," says Minaya. The shortstop says he was tired after playing 160 of 162 games, and finishing second in the NL in plate appearances. But Reyes' exhaustion bled into a bizarre moodiness. The 24-year-old shortstop gave away enough at-bats down the stretch that he, too, was booed by Met fans. The normally effervescent Reyes was so out of sync he ended up in a fistfight with the Marlins' Miguel Olivo on the second-to-last day of the season.

One major league executive believes Reyes is paying the price for his headfirst slides as his stolen-base total keeps skyrocketing. After 234 swipes in five seasons, including a major league-best 78 last year, "You have to wonder if all that punishment got to him," the executive said. A strained relationship with Willie Randolph didn't help, either. Reyes started distancing himself soon after the manager removed him from a game in July for failing to run out a ground ball. Now, says Minaya, "It's Willie's job" to rehabilitate Reyes' spirit.

The GM didn't have to say or else. The stakes are already high. Randolph was nearly dismissed after the collapse, and everyone will be waiting for ownership's response if the Mets start slowly in 2008. With September's echo lingering, it likely won't be pretty.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.