So what to make of this team? Are they finished, as I lamented in an e-mail to a few people Monday morning, doomed to play uneven ball and hover around .500 while the Phillies gradually put the division away? Or are they just another ten-game winning streak from first place, ready to close the gap and more? I have no idea, but there are good arguments to support both predictions.
First, the good news:
Starting Pitching. Despite the rocky week the team has had, the Mets' starting pitching still looks like the best in the division. In July, only the Dodgers and the Cubs had better ERAs than the Mets' pitchers. Johan Santana is, as advertised, more and more dominant as the season progresses (but for the bullpen, he would have closer to 15 wins than the nine he has now). And as one of my co-contributors has already observed, the development of Mike Pelfrey into a front of the rotation starter has come at exactly the right time. Throw in an improving (if still uneven) Oliver Perez and a serviceable (and hopefully healthy) John Maine, and the Mets field a potential winner every single game. And Pedro is . . . well, Pedro. No other team can lay similar claim to that much depth in the rotation.
Carlos Beltran. Carlos Beltran has had a somewhat disappointing season. His offensive production is not too far off of what is fair to expect, and he continues to dazzle in centerfield. But Beltran has earned a reputation for catching fire two or three times a season, and going on a 10-15 day tear when he bats over .400, drives in a ton of runs, and hits a bunch of home runs. He has not had anything close to that kind of streak this year, and he is due. What better time for him to carry the team than in August, when, for his career, he is a .299 hitter with a .390 on-base percentage and a .537 slugging percentage (his best of any month in all three categories)? If Beltran gets hot, especially now that he is hitting in the number two spot in the batting order, this offense could easily put up six or seven runs a night.
Schedule. The Mets have, by far and away, the easiest remaining schedule of the three team competing for the NL East division title. As ESPN observes:
The clear edge goes to the Mets -- at least on paper. They only play seven road games after Sept. 3, and all seven are against non-contenders -- unless the Braves somehow play themselves back into the bidding. What's more, the Mets' only meetings with their division competitors -- the Phillies and Marlins -- are both at home. The Mets close out the final week at home; then again, that didn't seem to help them last September, did it? The Phils play 16 of their final 29 on the road, though they do have the luxury of playing their final six at home. Of the last three series with the Marlins and Mets, two are on the road, and the Phils still have a challenging seven-game West Coast roadie left, to say nothing of a four-game visit to Chicago to close out August. Florida's September schedule is split pretty evenly (12 home, 13 away). But with paltry attendance, can the Marlins count on much of a home-field advantage?Phillies and Marlins. The Mets' chief rivals for the division title - Philadelphia and Florida - are good teams with a lot of strengths, but neither has shown any ability to put the Mets (or each other) away. They have questionable starting pitching, holes in their offense, and (as noted above) have tough schedules for the rest of the year. If the Mets can manage 87 or 88 wins (an achievable 30-21 between now and the end of the year), that might be enough to win the division.
But then again . . .
Bullpen. The Mets' bullpen is utterly unreliable. Of course, relief pitchers are typically not as good as starters (that's why they are in the bullpen and not the starting rotation), but the Mets do not have a single relief pitcher who can consistently be called upon to get outs in a tough spot. Even All-Star closer Billy Wagner has seven blown saves (I cannot help but think where the team would be if he had only blow, say, three of those, but whatever). I respect the team's decision to balk at the trading deadline when the asking price for bullpen help got too steep, but I wonder if they will regret trying to go it alone.
Carlos Delgado. What a month. Delgado (.357, 9 HR, 24 RBI) narrowly lost out to Ryan Braun (.366, 9, 23) for NL player of the month for July. But is there any way he can continue at his current pace? Answer: of course not. It seems reasonable to expect Delgado to come back down to earth in the next few weeks, and with that, the team's offensive production could falter a bit. I think the same argument can be made, to a lesser extent, about Fernando Tatis. If the Beltran hot streak isn't coming (see above), and if Delgado cools off considerably, the offense begins to look very mediocre.
Injuries. Injuries have been a problem for this team all year, and it's starting to get worse. There is still no indication when injured right fielder Ryan Church will be back. John Maine is on the disabled list. Billy Wagner is on the disabled list. Ramon Castro had to be helped off the field after a Saturday collision. And Pedro is . . . well, Pedro. The rookies and the veterans are filling in nicely, but this team is not going far with Dan Murphy and Fernando Tatis as its corner outfielders. And while I criticize Billy Wagner as much as anyone, he is the only guy I can see closing for this team in meaningful games in late September and beyond.
This team is not the best team in baseball, but neither were the 2006 Cardinals. This team does have a few of the best players in baseball, and if everything clicks at the right time, watch out.