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Mets Opening Day outlook

Mets Opening Day outlook

The weather during the Mets' six-week stay in Port St. Lucie, though uncommonly temperate, warmed them up for what they expect to be their most successful season since 1988, when they last won a division championship.

With Billy Wagner closing, Jose Reyes running, David Wright emerging, Carlos Delgado swinging and Pedro Martinez seeming healthy, the Mets have more players with dominating talent than any team in the division.

The left-handed-right-handed balance in their batting order, improved overall speed and increased left-handed power ought to serve them well in a division that has no team with deep pitching. Problem is the Mets' pitching isn't too deep, either.

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The exhibition season seemed to answer some questions -- Martinez can pitch with his new shoe, new reliever Duaner Sanchez fits well in the setup role, new catcher Paul Lo Duca is a good fit with the rotation, Xavier Nady seems right in right and Delgado still looks menacing in the batter's box.

The second-base assignment and the condition of Wagner's finger are questions without answers, for now.

BATTING ORDER
1. Jose Reyes, SS:
The Mets will be surprised if Reyes doesn't emerge from the season as the National League's stolen-base leader and one of the primary top-of-the-order players in the game. They expect him to develop greater patience and, at the same time, maintain his aggressiveness. He scored 99 runs and had a .300 on-base percentage last season. What will he do if he increased OBP a modest 15 points?

2. Paul Lo Duca, C:
Lo Duca's greatest value to his team will be as a catcher. But he's widely regarded as a tough out and a contact hitter with the mind-set of a No. 2 hitter. How much he'll be asked to hit and run is difficult to say. Reyes is such a stolen-base threat, Lo Duca may not have give himself up too much.

3. Carlos Beltran, CF:
He clearly is bigger in the upper body than he was last season when he survived the new-to-New York challenge. And the quad injury that was an issue from April into mid-summer is fully healed. Teammates anticipate greater production. But Shea Stadium still is home run-stingy, and Beltran still likes to bunt. He may be in a position to on days Lo Duca doesn't catch. Beltran probably will bat second then. Understudy catcher Ramon Castro won't.

4. Carlos Delgado, 1B:
Not since Darryl Strawberry have the Mets had so fearsome a left-handed bat in their order. Delgado's presence reverberates throughout the order. Shea Stadium's dimensions will have little impact on him. His defense will be something of an issue only if he doesn't deliver as expected.

5. David Wright, 3B:
The protection for Delgado comes from the No. 5 hole, uniform No. 5, the guy who plays the No. 5 position. As a right-handed bat between Delgado and Cliff Floyd, Wright will be a force directly and indirectly. His play at third ought to be more than adequate.

6. Cliff Floyd, LF:
The Mets' first-half MVP last season won't have to do so much heavy lifting this season. Production comparable to what he provided as the No. 4 hitter last season will make the order deeper than it has been since 2000. Floyd was recognized for his play in left last season, and now aggressive defensive play appeals to him more than ever.

7. Xavier Nady, RF:
The competition for the right-field assignment was over rather quickly. Nady's energy and aggressiveness in the outfield and his arm backed up what the Mets already knew about him -- that he can hit, particularly against left-handed pitching. The Mets have high regard for Victor Diaz, but Nady is less of a project.

8. Anderson Hernandez, 2B:
The injury that cost Kaz Matsui the last three weeks of exhibition games probably will cost him his job as well. Hernandez has more quickness and better hands than Matsui. He lacks experience at the position, but so does Matsui. His offense is an unknown, but if Willie Randolph wanted offense, he would given Jeff Keppinger more of a chance before and after Matsui went down.

ROTATION
1. Pedro Martinez, RHP:
Even if his toe and shoe and abridged Spring Training no longer are issues, Martinez doesn't appear to be the pitcher who can win 2-1 and 1-0 games -- if only because his workdays tend to end at about 100 pitches. He needed help last season -- help that wasn't always available -- as the team's 17-14 record in his starts attests.

2. Tom Glavine, LHP:
Glavine is 40 now, and his repertoire has been expanded to make him less predictable. It works. Who knows what to expect from him? His first half last season was unbecoming. His second half was brilliant, but the improvement barely was reflected by the results.

3. Steve Trachsel, RHP:
The Mets thought Trachsel was as good a No. 4 starter as there was in the league last season before his back surgery. A year later with two other starters traded, he is the No. 3 starter. His track record projects a record somewhere between a 14-8 and 12-12 finish.

4. Victor Zambrano, RHP:
That teammates consider Zambrano more likely than Martinez to pitch the franchise's first no-hitter and not unlikely to lose it tells you everything you need to know.

5. Brian Bannister, RHP:
The 25-year-old son of former Major League pitcher Floyd Bannister becomes the third rookie starting pitcher to begin a season with the Mets in a four-season span. He clearly has a big breaking ball. He learned his curve from Bert Blyleven, which is akin to learning to play the blues from B.B. King. He loves being a Met. How he will fare is a March question to be answered in April.

BULLPEN
The final-week inclusion of Aaron Heilman changes the dynamic of the Mets' bullpen as much as the presence of Wagner. Randolph won't say how he expects the 'pen to work, i.e. the sequences he is most likely to use. And rest and matchups will influence his decisions. But nobody in the Mets clubhouse will be surprised if Heilman does the majority of his work in the eighth inning and that the majority of eighth-inning work goes to him.

If Heilman pitches as he did the second half of last season and Wagner is Wagner, this late-inning tandem will be the best the Mets have made since Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco. On his own, Wagner is the best combination of dominance and reliability in a Mets closer since Randy Myers in 1989. Heilman appears to be their best setup reliever since McDowelll. Each is less reliant on his defense than most of the late-inning guys that have come and gone in the last 16 seasons.

Even substandard closers with poor teams can earn 25-28 saves. If Wagner isn't in position for at least 45 saves, the Mets won't need to worry about October.

Sanchez appears to be equipped to provide the kind of set-up Roberto Hernandez provided last season. But what can the Mets get from Jorge Julio? So much of his spring was spent in World Baseball Classic situations, it's difficult to say, but it's unlikely Julio will be anything close to what Heilman was last year. But that may not matter much with Heilman back in the 'pen after hoping to win a rotation spot in camp.

OPENING DELAYED
Matsui was the Mets' March second baseman mostly because the club was trying to showcase him, because Bret Boone retired and because the club wasn't comfortable starting either rookie -- Hernandez or Keppinger. So the sprained right knee that has interrupted his third year with the Mets will end up costing him a job he really didn't have.

BURNING QUESTION
Doesn't the primary question for every team involve pitching? They say you can never have enough. The Mets seem to have enough until the surface is scratched.

Like the best-equipped teams, everything has to go right -- Martinez has to make 30 starts; Glavine has to pitch at the level he established after the All-Star break last season; Trachsel must be what he has proved to be over the years, a double-digit winner; Bannister's March into the rotation must translate into April results; and Zambrano must perform to the levels Randolph and pitching coach Rick Peterson foresee.

Clearly, they have upgraded at the closer role. Wagner is a force. And the return of Heilman in the 'pen is a boost. At the same time, the current rotation doesn't appear as solid as the rotation that existed last summer.

The Mets won 28 of the 42 games started by Jae Seo and Kris Benson last year. Part of the reason both were traded is that the club didn't anticipate either being so productive this year. But how will that quantity of quality be replaced?

If Mike Pelfrey develops quickly and prompts a mid-to-late summer promotion, things could change for the better.

The emergence of the two rookie starters in the same season would be a compelling storyline. But a club with an agenda that includes late October probably shouldn't begin the season looking down while it plans to move up.

ON THE RECORD
"I want to win again before I'm done, and I'm running out of time. Everyone wants to know what they can give me for a 40th birthday present. There you go. They told me they'd try." -- Glavine

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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