- Bob Klapisch, MLB
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A devastating injury to closer Billy Wagner in August ensured the Mets' second September collapse in as many years. After blowing a seven-game lead with 17 to play in 2007, the '08 Mets squandered a 3½-game advantage with 17 to go.
Ownership decided to retain interim manager Jerry Manuel, who stabilized the team (55-38) after a sub-.500 start under Willie Randolph. But the ghosts still linger.
It'll be Manuel's job to convince the Mets they're just as good as the Phillies, whom they beat 10 out of 18 times in '08. It's those 11th-hour meltdowns that keep soiling the Mets' legacy.
There'll be an intense hunt for a closer, since Wagner's career with the Mets is over. He'll spend 2009 recovering from elbow surgery and likely will retire.
The club doesn't seem to have the appetite to pay Francisco Rodriguez, but could chase Brian Fuentes. But there's a strong need for starting pitching, too, since Pedro Martinez and Oliver Perez probably won't be back.
Pedro was the face of the Mets' renewal in 2005, but he's been on the disabled list for parts of the past three seasons. Perez, only 27, is blessed with a live arm but has Scott Boras as his agent. The Mets might just pass.
Aaron Heilman, once regarded as a high-end commodity, has worked his way down the ladder of success in Flushing; he needs a new home. But his 5.21 ERA in 2008 will be a turn-off to most general managers as the Mets attempt to deal him.
Moving second baseman Luis Castillo will be just as difficult -- not just because of his .245 average in 2008 (47 points below his career average) but because of the $18 million he's owed through 2011.
Prospects Eddie Kunz, Daniel Murphy and Jonathon Niese all made their major league debuts at various points in the '08 season. The one remaining mystery is Fernando Martinez, who is regarded as the organization's top up-and-coming position player.
The left-handed-hitting outfielder batted .287 at Double-A Binghamton last season and will be promoted to Triple-A Buffalo in 2009. Martinez is the left fielder of the future and could be at Citi Field by midsummer.
The core -- Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, David Wright, Jose Reyes -- will return in '09, and with Johan Santana at the top of the rotation, the Mets will at least continue to be a few notches above competitive. But that's far from good enough: After three close calls since 2006, this group has yet to win the pennant.
If time isn't running out, patience certainly is.
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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