March is the month when teams, as Shawn Colvin put it, smoke a lot of hope. Only for the Mets, their smoke comes from fires as irrational, inexplicable and seemingly unfair as those that rage in the California foothills most falls.
"We're past the point of talking about the negatives," said David Wright, the king of accountability. "Why dwell on the past or injuries?"
This is a prevailing theme in the Port St. Lucie, Fla., clubhouse. Last season's debacle is over: a 70-92 record; a minus-86-run differential; Johan Santana going down; only 36 games from Jose Reyes, 26 from Carlos Delgado and 81 from Carlos Beltran; a 20-22 record from their Nos. 2-3-4 starters; and a Movietone reel of media fiascos that was worsened by the Yankees' glorious season.
Then, the prelude to the 2010 season was Beltran having arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, Reyes being diagnosed with a thyroid condition this past week that could keep him out of the lineup for anywhere from two to eight weeks and reliever Kelvim Escobar not being able to pitch; not that Escobar was expected to be a significant factor at $1.25 million, but the Brewers were one team interested in his services and there was a glimmer of hope that he could come back from an injured shoulder. All-Star closer Francisco Rodriguez was set back by a pink-eye condition. Keep this team away from fishing knives and gas grills.
From a few hundred miles away, it does seem that only the Mets could lose their All-Star shortstop to a condition they think may have been caused by a change in his diet from chicken, rice and beans to fish. There is nothing funny about Reyes' thyroid condition, but the Farrelly Brothers would have thrown that script into the compactor because it's beyond comprehension.
Even though they made a major investment in an All-Star middle-of-the-order hitter in Jason Bay, the Mets took a lot of criticism for not signing a free-agent starting pitcher. The decision was made not to overpay for a back-end starter looking for Randy Wolf money so they could hold their current payroll level, which is third in the league, and then have $5 million to $8 million to spend in June and July, when they can see what this team can and will do; with $106 million tied up in eight core players, that seemed to make sense.
The 2007 and '08 Septembers helped spread a culture that led the clubhouse to an evacuation route after games, leaving Wright to bear the weight of the collapses and once caused Billy Wagner to erupt about his teammates' postgame disappearances.
"I realize what it's been like in the past," said Alex Cora, "but it's really different this spring. Upbeat. Positive. Jeff Francoeur and Jason have really added to the personality of the team and the clubhouse."
Francoeur has a never-ending battery. He talks to everyone about anything. He's taken Wright golfing 10-12 times to try to help him relax and not blame himself for the team's disappointments. Bay is the ultimate standup guy, respected by teammates when he was working his way up through the Expos' farm system to when he accepted the task of replacing Manny Ramirez in Boston.
"We can't think about players who aren't here or the past," said Jerry Manuel. "We have to look forward and get ready to play. No excuses. We can be all right."
Now, when the lineup was projected this weekend -- Angel Pagan, Luis Castillo, Wright, Bay, Daniel Murphy, Francoeur, Rod Barajas, Ruben Tejada -- it didn't send aftershocks down the Jersey Turnpike to Citizens Bank Park.
"We know we have a ways to go, but we're getting there, I really believe," said Omar Minaya, who, like Manuel, lives on the mythical hot seat. "Reyes is going to be all right. Beltran will be back sometime in May. We've actually had a lot of good things happen this spring, especially with our young players."
For an organization mocked for its development, the Mets have unveiled a bunch of impressive young players. Twenty-year-old Jenrry Mejia has looked good, and he's displayed such a moving, cutting fastball that Manuel has compared it to Mariano Rivera's. ("I never compared his future to Rivera's career," said Manuel, "I was just trying to describe his fastball.") First baseman Ike Davis has been very impressive, going 11-for-22 with two homers. Twenty-one-year old outfielder Fernando Martinez has gone 11-for-19 with a 1.655 OPS. Twenty-year-old shortstop Tejada has started off hitting .364, and he's played so well defensively, he may split time with Cora at short until Reyes gets back. Twenty-three-year-old left-hander Jon Niese may very well be the fifth starter.
Yes, indeed, it is not even the Ides of March. "We start watching when we get past March 20," cautions Minaya. But the kids have stopped the flood, for now.
With the energy and attitude of Bay and Francoeur and the rejuvenating spirit that talented young players bring, things aren't as bad as it seems.
"We have to build with this group and see where we go forward," said Minaya.
He knows. The Mets averaged 91 wins from 2006-08. But in the past seven years compared to the Marlins, they've won 13 fewer games, had one less pennant and World Series, had one fewer winning season and spent $560 million more than Florida, which is why the young players are so important and why the failure to sign another mid-30's back-end starter to front-end money was not.
Minaya insists the Mets will get Reyes back, and while the time away from baseball may require weeks to have him in full gear, they will get him back. Beltran should be back by Memorial Day at the latest, and they have Gary Matthews Jr. ready "to prove to people that I can still play." Wright believes the work he did this offseason "gave me back my legs, which is the most important thing for my hitting," and said that a dead-pull loft hitter like Bay will not be affected by Citi Field "because the ball to dead left carries well."
"Everyone here believes that eventually we're going to score runs," said Francoeur. "That's not going to be a problem. If our pitching comes through, we'll be fine."
Santana will be fine, as long as he adds eight to 10 starts to the 25 he made last season. Oliver Perez will forever be, to be kind, unpredictable, but he has thrown better this spring. John Maine? It's a matter of his shoulder. The key is Mike Pelfrey, who regressed last season, but this spring, he has thrown 92-95 mph with a much improved slider.
"He's got the ability to throw 200 innings and win 18 games," said one Met. "If he does, we'll be fine."
If Maine doesn't hold up, the Mets may have the prospects and the reserve capital to acquire someone.
"The price during the season is usually a lot better than the price in the winter," said COO Jeff Wilpon.
Or the baseball folk may win out and send Mejia to the Minor Leagues to start for the first few weeks, with the idea that by midseason, he could fill a need in either the rotation or the bullpen.
Said Minaya: "We need to play good baseball and fight through the first couple of months, and by July, we could be a pretty interesting team."
If they don't, there will be a lot of public pressure on Wilpon to sacrifice Minaya and/or Manuel.
But if Santana, Pelfrey, Wright and Bay have big Aprils, Minaya may be vindicated, and the pink eye, fish diets and Colorado surgery can be an appendix to Casey Stengel's book. The fact that, unlike the past few seasons, when they opened with grand expectations, the Mets will be picked to finish somewhere between the Marlins and Nationals may be a good thing.
"It can't get any worse than the last 12 months," said Wright. "And it can be a whole lot better."
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.