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Mets have unfinished business in '07

Mets have unfinished business

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Perhaps the New York Mets will have to win a bunch of 8-6 games this summer. But the thing is, the idea of them being able to outscore people appears a lot closer to fact than fiction.

The Mets won 97 games in 2006. They were landslide winners in the National League East. They had the National League's best record by a margin of nine games.

And yet, they left themselves unfinished business by coming up one victory short of the World Series. This was painful in October, but it is useful now. For all of their regular-season success, they come to this Spring Training hungry for more.

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Yes, there are questions about the starting rotation. Tom Glavine is just 10 victories away from 300, and even if he has a track record of remarkable durability, he turns 41 next month. But watching him pitch last season, or even watching him throw a bullpen session at Tradition Field on Monday, age does not seem to be a particular barrier to his continued success.

Orlando Hernandez is 37, and his neck has been bothering him.

"He'll be fine, he's coming along," manager Willie Randolph said on Monday, when asked about El Duque's throwing schedule.

Randolph had the tone of someone who had already heard the question too often.

John Maine pitched with effectiveness last year, but this will be his first full big-league season. Oliver Perez has undeniable ability, but the reason he was available to the Mets was that he was 2-10 with a 6.63 ERA for the Pirates before being traded. Chan Ho Park's last really good season was 2001, but it is possible that the extremely promising Mike Pelfrey, 23, might be able to grab this rotation spot.

And of course, Pedro Martinez, following shoulder surgery, is months away from taking the mound on the Mets' behalf.

So the pitching questions seem serious, but then again, so do the run-producing answers.

"I think we're going to be better this season," second baseman Jose Valentin said on Monday. And Valentin knows something about being better than the previous year. He was thought in some quarters to be through, finished, cooked after a dismal 2005 with the Dodgers. But he was coming back from an injured knee then.

In 2006 with the Mets, at age 36, he had 18 home runs and 62 RBIs in 384 at-bats. Even better, although he had been primarily a shortstop for his entire career, he moved over to second without a hitch, fielding superbly, committing only six errors. What once appeared to be a questionable position for the Mets, became a source of stability. Valentin would never receive the acclaim of the club's superstars or the club's superstars in the making, but his veteran presence was invaluable to them last season.

"I think we're going to be better this season, even though we lost Cliff [Floyd] and a couple of guys who did a great job in the bullpen, [Darren] Oliver and [Chad] Bradford," Valentin said. "But then we pick up a guy like Moises [Alou] this year. So we add another hitter to the lineup, a right-handed hitter.

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"There was a time last year when we ran into a lot of left-handed pitching and we had some problems with left-handed pitching. Now with Moises, our lineup can match up with any pitcher. He's a guy who knows how to win, he's still got something left and I think he's going to be a great addition to our lineup. I think we're going to score more runs than we did last year."

That would be a lot of runs. The Mets were third in the NL in runs scored last season, at 5.15 runs per game. But they were probably alone at the top in terms of offensive versatility. They were first in stolen bases and fourth in home runs. Nobody else had their combination of speed and power, their combined ability to both pound the ball and manufacture runs.

The bullpen should be fine again, given the eventual return of setup men Duaner Sanchez, from injury, and Guillermo Mota, from suspension. Billy Wagner remains as a closer of the first rank. Lefty Scott Schoeneweis should be a helpful addition.

If you're going to question the Mets' chances, you are left to question the starting pitching. This is not exactly a unique situation in the contemporary game.

"There are questions about the pitching staff, but I think every team has the same problems with the pitching staff," Valentin said. "We did it pretty much without Pedro last year. Now we're going to have El Duque at the beginning of the year where last year, we didn't have him until the middle of the season. This is a guy who knows how to pitch.

"The thing is, if we keep everybody healthy, we're going to be OK. Then if Pedro comes back healthy, the way we want him, it makes this team even better. The pitching staff, if you play good defense behind it, if you get some runs for it, you're going to win."

True enough, with this offense, the Mets do not require dominant pitching to win. They were third in the NL in team ERA at 4.15 last season. That kind of pitching performance, basically above average, would probably be more than enough to get the Mets back into the postseason.

"This is a team that knows how to play the game," Valentin said. "We've got speed, we've got power, we've got guys who know how to handle the bats. Overall, we do the little things, get the runner over, and our defense is a great one. If you put those skills together, your chances of winning are pretty good."

That's a fair summation of this team. Plus, for all those 97 victories, last year, because of the defeat in the NL Championship Series, stands as an incentive for the Mets to take the next step.

"There's still kind of a sour taste in our mouths," Valentin said of the 2006 postseason. "It was real disappointing. We put our hearts on the field every day, and we got beat on that one day. But this is a new year, and we're looking forward to going far."

Given starting pitching that is no worse than all right, "far" is a fair estimate of how far the Mets could go.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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