Mets aim to be a sleeper hit this spring

Mets aim to be a sleeper hit this spring

NEW YORK -- Jaded or otherwise, there exists a significant sect of Mets fans already looking forward to 2012, when the team will shed tens of millions of dollars off its payroll and, presumably, take major strides toward competing in the National League East. But Spring Training is a time for optimism. Spring Training is nearly here. And the Mets are collectively hoping for their improvement to begin this spring -- not next.

In addition to general manager Sandy Alderson's stable of low-risk, potentially high-reward offseason signings, the Mets will return a core of veterans that, at least on paper, appears formidable. The first six hitters in the lineup rank among the better groups in the NL. The pitching staff has a history of quality production.

Add to that the return of feel-good stories Angel Pagan and R.A. Dickey, and things suddenly don't appear quite so dim for the Mets.

Competing with the Phillies and their otherworldly pitching staff may be a difficult task -- perhaps one too difficult for the Mets to overcome. But they're brimming with confidence. They have a new manager. They have a new GM. They have two new starting pitchers, several new bench players and an entirely new perspective.

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If nothing else, they plan to show improvement in 2011. Underperforming expectations for the past four seasons, the Mets are now eager to exceed them.

Pitchers and catchers report

Feb. 15

Full squad reports

Feb. 19

First Spring Training game

Home vs. Atlanta, Feb. 26, 1:10 p.m. ET

Opening Day

Away vs. Florida, April 1, 7:10 p.m. ET

Triple play: Three questions that need answers

1. Who's the second baseman?
The Mets selected Brad Emaus in the Rule 5 Draft to compete for an infield spot -- and a crowded competition it will be. In addition to incumbent Luis Castillo, Emaus will battle Daniel Murphy and Justin Turner for the starting gig. All four men have a shot at the job, making this a true Spring Training competition.

2. Who's the center fielder?
Presumably healthy, Carlos Beltran is the favorite to start in center field -- as he has throughout his previous six seasons with the Mets. But Beltran will turn 34 this summer while Pagan, in his prime, may already be the better defensive center fielder. Considering that Beltran's days in New York may be numbered, the Mets must decide which man is better for both the present and the future of the franchise (with the loser of the competition starting in right field).

3. Can Beltran and Jose Reyes still be stars?
A significant portion of the Mets' recent struggles can be traced back to Reyes and Beltran, both of whom have missed significant time due to injury over the past two seasons. If Beltran and Reyes can both manage to play at the elite levels they have established in previous years, the Mets may have a chance to surprise their critics. If not, those odds significantly dim.

2010 record

79-83, fourth place in the NL East

Projected batting order

1. SS Jose Reyes:
  .282 BA, .321 OBP, .428 SLG, 11 HR, 54 RBI in 2010
2. OF Angel Pagan:
  .290 BA, .340 OBP, .425 SLG, 11 HR, 69 RBI in 2010
3. 3B David Wright:
  .283 BA, .354 OBP, .503 SLG, 29 HR, 103 RBI in 2010
4. OF Carlos Beltran:
  .255 BA, .341 OBP, .427 SLG, 7 HR, 27 RBI in 2010
5. OF Jason Bay:
  .259 BA, .347 OBP, .402 SLG, 6 HR, 47 RBI in 2010
6. 1B Ike Davis:
  .264 BA, .351 OBP, .440 SLG, 19 HR, 71 RBI in 2010
7. 2B Brad Emaus:
  .290 BA, .397 OBP, .476 SLG, 15 HR, 75 RBI in 2010 (Minors)
8. C Josh Thole:
  .277 BA, .357 OBP, .366 SLG, 3 HR, 17 RBI in 2010

Projected rotation

1. RHP Mike Pelfrey, 15-9, 3.66 ERA in 2010
2. RHP R.A. Dickey, 11-9, 2.84 ERA in 2010
3. LHP Jon Niese, 9-10, 4.20 ERA in 2010
4. RHP Chris Young, 2-0, 0.90 ERA in 2010
5. LHP Chris Capuano, 4-4, 3.95 ERA in 2010

Projected bullpen

Closer: Francisco Rodriguez, 25/30 saves, 2.20 ERA in 2010
RH setup man: Bobby Parnell, 2.83 ERA in 2010
LH setup man: Taylor Tankersley, 7.50 ERA in 2010

The new guys

RHP Young: Coming off several injury-riddled seasons, Young was the poster child for the type of free-agent starter the Mets were seeking: cheap and projectable. Certainly, he is an injury risk. But Young is also only a few years removed from being one of the better right-handed pitchers in the game.

LHP Capuano: In some ways a mirror image of Young, Capuano is coming off the second of his two career Tommy John surgeries. The Mets need him to give them both innings and consistency at the back end of the rotation.

2B Emaus: A Rule 5 Draft pick from the Blue Jays, Emaus will battle Murphy, Castillo and Turner for the second-base job this spring. Though the Mets like Emaus' power potential, this position battle is a tossup.

RHP D.J. Carrasco: The Mets love his versatility -- Carrasco is capable of starting, as well as pitching in either long or short relief. Most likely, he'll be the bridge between the starting pitchers and end-game relievers.

OF Scott Hairston: Signed to a big league contract, Hairston is the favorite to win the fourth-outfielder's job behind starters Beltran, Bay and Pagan. But he'll need to beat out both Nick Evans and another new acquisition, Willie Harris, to seal the role.

LHP Tankersley: Despite his poor showing in 2010, Tankersley boasts the most significant upside of any of new reliever. He'll have every chance to assume Pedro Feliciano's old lefty specialist role in the bullpen -- though another Minor League signee, Tim Byrdak, is also vying for that job.

Prospects to watch

RHP Jenrry Mejia: After speeding to the Majors last year at the age of 20, Mejia will most likely take a step back and open this season at Triple-A Buffalo. If he satisfies the Mets with his performance there, Mejia could rejoin the rotation at some point this summer.

OF Lucas Duda: After his cup of coffee last season, Duda will be back this spring for another shot at the Majors. Most likely, though, he'll start the season in Buffalo, where he can play every day and continue to develop.

OF Kirk Nieuwenhuis: Perhaps the club's center fielder of the future, Nieuwenhuis' development could play a prominent role in the Mets' decision whether to trade Beltran this summer. After making it all the way to Triple-A last season, he's nearly ready for the big leagues.

OF Fernando Martinez: It's a make-or-break season for Martinez, once one of the top few offensive prospects in baseball. Now 23 years old, Martinez must prove he can avoid injuries and hit at a high level, lest he fade back into obscurity.

On the rebound

OF Beltran: After an offseason knee surgery robbed him of the season's first half, Beltran didn't truly recover his strength and timing until last September. Now with another offseason of rest under his belt, he should -- the Mets hope -- produce something closer to his career norms.

OF Bay: Even before Bay suffered a year-ending concussion in late July, he was stumbling through the worst offensive season of his eight-year career. With three years remaining on Bay's $66 million contract, the Mets need him to start justifying their investment.

SS Reyes: Missing time first due to a thyroid imbalance and later because of a nagging oblique injury, Reyes put up a second straight disappointing season in 2010. Now in his final season under contract with the Mets, he is playing for a new deal -- and to prove he can still be an elite player.

LHP Johan Santana: Barring an exceptionally speedy recovery, Santana should be out until around midseason recovering from shoulder surgery. Worse, when he does return, the Mets can't be certain he'll be the same old Santana.

Long gone

LHP Feliciano: The longest-tenured Met has switched allegiances and fled to the Bronx, leaving his old team without a reliable left-handed specialist. Tankersley and Byrdak are the two most prominent candidates to assume his old role.

LHP Hisanori Takahashi: No one, save perhaps Takahashi himself, expected the 35-year-old Japanese rookie to accomplish what he did in 2010. Now, however, Takahashi has moved to Orange County, and the Mets need to find someone -- Carrasco, perhaps -- to fill his jack-of-all-trades role on the pitching staff.

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDicomo. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.