In a city known for having high-profile players, making more money in a season than most will make in a lifetime, there are still players left that everyone can root for. Most people would rather cheer for a player making the league minimum, rather than someone making $20 million a year. Fans tend to adopt the gritty, hard-nosed, hustle players, as their fan favorites. Granted, these attributes that we all love, can only take you so far with the fans, if you don’t produce up to the cities standards, you will be booed right out-of-town. But, for the time being at least, these are some of the players Mets/Yankee fan’s should be pulling for.
Scott Rice (LHP) – Rice has one of the best stories going for all of New York baseball so far this season. He has spent the last 14 seasons in the minor league’s, playing for 18 different teams. His commitment to stick with the game for that long without ever seeing the big leagues, more than shows his love for the game. The 31-year-old reliever was able to win a spot in the bullpen this spring as the second lefty, beating out his younger counterparts and finally earning his way on a big league roster.
As if his story wasn’t good enough, Rice pitched the 9th inning on opening Day for the Mets, he struck out the first two batters he faced on his way to a 1-2-3 inning. When the game ended, he promptly took the game ball for safe keeping’s and found his father in the stands to celebrate his much awaited, major league debut. Rice has appeared in four games so far this season, allowing only one run. Yesterday, he earned his first major league victory, as the Mets won in come from behind fashion in the bottom of the ninth. I only hope he was able to retrieve the game ball to mark his first career victory as well.
Mike Baxter (OF) – Baxter is a local kid, born and raised in queens, which is enough to make him a player all Mets fan want to cheer for. But, being the “Pride of Whitestone” can only take you so far, it was his play on the field in 2012, that made him a fan favorite. The 28-year-old outfielder, became a pitch hitting specialist off the bench for the Mets last season, while starting sparingly in the outfield. He seemed to be constantly coming through with a key hit in late game situations or working his way on base with a walk, which he set a Mets record by walking five times in one game against the Padres last season. It’s patience like that at the plate that has helped give him a .360 career on-base percentage, which could be key to increasing his role with the Mets this season.
However, there is one moment from Baxter’s young career, that already will have him remembered forever in Mets history. In the 7th inning, of Johan Santana’s no-hitter last season, Baxter made a running catch, while running into the wall, that kept the no-hitter intact. It turned out to be the defensive play of the game. Ultimately, the catch cost Baxter, when he crashed into the wall, he bruised his left shoulder which sent him to the DL. This play will have him forever in the good graces of Mets fans as they root for him to progress this season.
Francisco Cervelli (C) – Cervelli has had extended stints with the Yankees in the 2009-2011 seasons. Then in 2012, with the signing of Russell Martin, the Yankees optioned Cervelli to AAA for just about the entire year. Despite his proven ability to be a more than serviceable back up big league catcher, The Yankees decided to let him get more playing time in the minors. To me, this move didn’t make much sense, despite hitting 21 home runs, Russell Martin only hit .211 on the year. Cervelli could have provided a proven bat to back him up on days off, giving them a contact hitter, at a notoriously low hitting position.
With the departure of Martin in the off-season, many expected the Yankees to go out and sign a catcher to come in a take the starting role. The Yankees decided to do otherwise, it seems they are willing to give Cervelli the opportunity to play everyday at the big league level and see if he can handle the load for an entire season. The 27-year-old catcher is a career .272 hitter, so far he is off to a good start, hitting .308 after the opening week of the season. This will be a make or break season for Cervelli with the Yankees, either he will prove himself that he can be a starter for them for years to come or he could falter to a back up catcher where many believe he ultimately will fall to. He has earned this shot at the starting position at the very least, now its time to run with the opportunity at hand.
Brett Gardner (OF) – Gardner is entering his sixth season with the Yankees, after being a key member of the Yankees outfield from 2009-2011, a right elbow injury cost him just about all of the 2012 season. Now with a roster depleted due to injuries to much of the Yankees roster, they will rely heavily on players such as Gardner to carry the load early on. The 29-year-old outfielder is known for his speed, stealing 40+ bases twice in his career and possesses a good range in the outfield. He is a career .264 hitter, but is well-known for making contact at the plate and seeing among the most pitches per at bat in the majors.
The Yankees are missing most of the power that their line up is traditionally made up of early on. They will look to play a form of small ball, relying on base hits and speed to score runs early on. This will make Gardner’s production a key to early offensive success, as these are the attributes he has become known for. He has struggled early in week one of the season, but look for Gardner to provide a spark for the Yankees lineup going forward. I have always wondered if Gardner is nothing more than a fourth outfielder, who can provide speed on the bases in late inning situations. He has produced enough thus far in his career to keep himself in a starting role, this could be a year that he solidifies himself as a mainstay in the Yankees outfield.
With opening day only 4 days away I would like to take a moment to discuss what I feel are the keys to the Mets having a successful, or at least productive, 2013 season. I am not naive fan, I like to think of myself as a realist, I do not see this roster winning a championship this season. At the same time I see no reason why they cannot be a fun group to watch showing signs of promise for the very near future.
There are 3 keys that I feel are necessary for the Mets to have a successful season:
1) The Outfield
This might be the biggest question mark heading into the 2013 season. ESPN, as they so kindly put it, said they are “likely not the worst ever.” As of today the Mets look to be heading into the season with Lucas Duda in left field, Marlon Byrd in right field and a platoon situation of Colin Cowgill and Kirk Nieuwenhuis in center field. These aren’t exactly the most exciting names in the world, but this is the hand fans have been dealt and the front office seems to be more than willing to put them out there.
Lucas Duda is a power hitting outfielder that the Mets have been high on since his late season surge in the 2011 season. Many people, myself included, thought 2012 was going to be a breakout season for Duda. But that didn’t exactly happen; he struggled early and often batting only .239 with 15 homeruns and 57 RBI. Not exactly the production the Mets were looking for. He has looked better at the plate so far this spring and if he provides the power numbers that they believe he is capable of, he can be the difference in giving the Mets a formidable lineup.
The centerfield position is going to be an interesting one to watch this season. With Mets not possessing one standout player in center, it likely means we are looking at a platoon to start the season off. Both Colin Cowgill and Kirk Nieuwenhuis are tough, gritty players, who are going to play hard, which is why I have been rooting for both of these guys. Nieuwenhuis gave the Mets a spark last season when he was first called up and showed promise of becoming the center fielder of the future. But as pitchers adjusted to him he quickly began to struggle at the plate, so much that he was sent down to triple A. He then injured himself and missed the remainder of the 2012 season on the DL. If he can return to his early season form, don’t be surprised to see him become the full time center fielder. He plays a very solid center field and can do a lot of different things with the bat.
Cowgill came over in an off season in a trade with the Oakland Athletics. From what I have seen of him he certainly plays the game hard, very rarely will you see him with a clean jersey at the end of a game. He has shown that he can play the outfield at a respectable level and has hit the ball quite well this spring. My concern with him is I don’t know if any of his tools are at an above average level to make him an everyday player. He does make up for what he lacks with hustle and a high baseball IQ which could quickly make him a fan favorite. I think he may be best left as a platoon player for this team, getting the occasional start in center, filling in as a late inning defensively replacement along with pitch hitting/running.
It has become very clear that Marlon Byrd will be the starting right fielder for this team. He has gotten the majority of the playing time out there and has produced very nicely all spring long. Byrd is coming off a difficult season; his production dropped and he later served a suspension for failing a PED drug test. I must say I am quite hesitant to root for anyone that has ever failed one of these tests, as they are each responsible for ruining the reputation and integrity of the game. With that being said, The Mets have given him his second chance and he has taken full advantage of it. They are hoping he can return to his all star form and all signs point to this being a comeback season for Marlon.
Two names to keep a look out for in the outfield are Jordany Valdespin and Matt Den Dekker. Valdespin has been on fire most of the spring, but the Mets seem unsure as to where play him. Although he has little experience in the outfield they have gotten him some playing time out there and he seems to have held his own defensively. It will ultimately be his bat that will get him playing time if any of the starters don’t produce. Den Dekker was fighting for a roster spot in center field before breaking his wrist just a few days ago. He has proven to be a tremendously defender and if he can improve on his offense he can earn a spot on this team.
2) Starting Pitching
The one thing that has been consistently proven throughout time, is that pitching wins baseball games more than anything else. With the news breaking today that Johan Santana will in all likely hood require surgery to miss the entire 2013 season the emergence of their young starters has become even more important. This has been something the organization has really been focusing on, trying to develop a young core of starting pitchers to build around. Although some of that core has yet to arrive, there are some exciting arms already in the staff.
Matt Harvey might be the player fans are most excited to watch to start off the season, and for good reason. He became the talk of the rotation from the moment he made his debut last year. Harvey has the size, ability and attitude that everyone wants to see in a front line starter. This season everyone is hopefully that he can continue to progress into a potential ace of the staff. With a fastball in the high 90’s and a plus curve ball, he will make every fifth day a must watch when he takes the mound. What impresses me the most about him is his desire to become the leader of the staff, someone the others can look up to, I would love to see him become the anchor of this staff for years to come.
Jonathon Niese has steadily improved each year in the big leagues. Last year was a big step forward as he was able to finish the season strong compared to the previous seasons when he withered away by September. This could be a sign that Niese is ready to hit his prime. The only question I really have with him is his peak as a top of the rotation or in the middle? For this season’s sake, I hope he takes the next step to win 15+ which would put him in line as a very solid #2 of a staff.
Dillon Gee was off to a nice 2012 season before an injury cut it short and ended his year. Gee is a nice change of pace pitcher as he mixes his pitches and location up very well. I don’t think Gee has that high of a ceiling, but with a solid young staff forming, he could benefit very well throwing in the 4-5 slot. Jeremy Hefner will be filling in the spot behind Gee in the rotation. I view Hefner as more of a long reliever/spot starter, but due to injuries he will get his shot in the rotation early on. He is still young and I would love to see him prove me wrong but I see him falling out of this slot as the staff gets healthy and younger stars begin to emerge.
The overall health Shawn Marcum will be crucial to the Mets going forward. With Santana out for the season, the Mets cannot afford to take another hit to the rotation for any extended period of time. I thought the Marcum signing was the best move they made this off season, signing only a one year deal with the numbers he has produced when healthy, I felt he can be a great addition. However his health already seems to be an issue before we even get the season underway. This is not a good sign, we have seen this all too often with the Mets the last few seasons. I foresee Marcum having an up and down season with the club. Solid starts for a few weeks at a time followed by stints on the DL, repeat, throughout the year. That’s just how I see his season playing at.
3) Zack Wheeler and Travis d’Arnaud
These are the two names we will be talking about until May 1st or whenever the day they are called up turns out to be. These two players are going to be the most interesting to watch this season and you can argue the performance of these two will be the ultimate difference between the future looking bright or bleak for this franchise.
Travis d’Arnaud was acquired in the off-season from the Blue Jays in a trade that sent R.A. Dickey to Toronto. Although Dickey was coming off of a Cy Young season and was a fan favorite, he was up there in age and that ball could stop knuckling any day now. I was a big fan of his and always enjoyed watching him pitch but I felt this was the right move to make. D’Arnaud could potentially give them a difference behind that we haven’t seen since Mike Piazza. I’m not saying he will become the next Piazza, but as long as he is being compared to him rather than Todd Pratt, that’s a start. He looks to have a very good bat from what I saw of him this spring. What impressed me most was his ability to go the other way with the ball and hit for power into the right center gap. To me that is always the difference between an average and a good hitter, the ability to hit the ball all around the field is a great sign at a young age.
Zach Wheeler was sent to us in the Carlos Beltran trade two years ago. From the moment he was traded to the Mets there has been a buzz surrounding this kid as the future the ace of the Mets. I have only seen him pitch a few times in the minors last season but I have not seen anything that tells me otherwise. He had a little set back this spring with a minor injury that prevented him from have any major league starts. I have seen interviews with Wheeler and I love the confidence he possesses in himself, he has a bit of that cocky confidence that a lot of great athletes have which I think is a great sign. I don’t think it will be long till we are looking at a 1, 1A situation made up Wheeler and Harvey.
I am torn with these two players being sent down to start the season in the minors because of financial situations. The fan part of me, wants to see these two up right now, but the logical side of me, understands what the Mets are doing. I realize this is for the best to keep them under our control for as long as possible. Whenever the date comes that these two arrive, all eyes will be on them. These two could provide an early/mid season spark to make them competitive or at the very least exciting to watch. Fans will be eager to watch these two make progress this season in hopes of them joining David Wright, Ike Davis, Matt Harvey and Jonathon Niese as the core of this team.
This could be an exciting 2013 season for the Mets as they look to turn the corner and once again become a relevant franchise. This season could turn out being similar to the 1984 season when we look back on it. Similar to how the past young talent began to take shape and gain experience before ultimately winning a title in 1986. If the right progress is made with their young stars they could be just a few key moves away from being a real contender again.
For as long as I can remember, I have been infatuated with the game of baseball. Growing up on Long Island, I was taught first and foremost to root for the New York Mets. I have been a die-hard fan my whole life, which has had its ups and downs over the years, to say the least. But this is the fan path I have chosen for myself and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
But being raised in the New York area you learn at an early age, whether you like it or not, The Yankees dominate the city. All season long I find myself as intrigued and interested in everything and anything related to the historic franchise. From their 27 Championships to George Steinbrenner to the walking tabloid that is Alex Rodriguez, how could I leave out the Yankees?
This is why I have decided to focus my blog on New York City baseball as a whole, rather than just one team. Baseball is life to me once the season begins. I plan on expressing my thoughts, opinions and maybe some venting throughout the course of the season.