To look ahead, Mets may have to first look back
Parallels exist between '83 and '13 clubs; all eyes to be on prospect d'Arnaud
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Every 30 years or so comes a need to take a step back in order to take a longer stride forward. Sometimes the strategy even works. How such maneuvering will affect the Mets of 2013 and beyond began to play out Tuesday, the eagerly anticipated first day of pitchers and catchers ... and crossed fingers.
Manager Terry Collins initiated a "Let's Go Mets" chant with his usual passion, energy, sincerity and commitment -- and without R.A. Dickey, whose departure hereby is identified as the proverbial backwards step.
The longer stride forward is, of course, a variable at this prenatal stage of the baseball annum. No one can say with any degree of certainty how long it will be or even that it will occur at all. Moreover, no guarantee exists that the longer stride will be in the preferred direction. But the Mets will give it a whirl, sans their primary weapon from last summer and with some young folks who will emerge as components of the stride, regardless of its direction.
A link can be drawn between the Mets of the moment -- aka, the un-Bourn Mets -- and those who gathered in St. Petersburg 30 years ago. That was an unremarkable group. Its backward step was the 1982 season, a dreadful six months that produced 65 victories, 97 losses, a fifth last-place finish in seven years and abject hopelessness. If a face must be linked to that summer, the distinctive face of George Foster is the appropriate one. The Mets didn't intend to take a step back with their acquisition of the Reds slugger. They did nonetheless, tripping over foolish expectations in the process.
The Mets of the moment have no such obstacle in their reverse path. Whatever expectations have developed among the public and realists who will wear Mets uniforms since the day Dickey's knuckleball floated across the border to Toronto have more to do with another fourth-place finish -- or worse -- than with a compelling October.
Expectations be damned. This collection of Mets -- with a strong infield, weak outfield, plebe catcher, wait-and-see rotation and who-knows-what bullpen -- could produce a fifth straight fourth-place finish and still accomplish the step forward general manager Sandy Alderson seeks. Such results are not mutually exclusive in the most competitive division in the National League.
The players who will gather here -- the first full-squad workout comes Monday -– have one primary commonality. For the most part, they're hungry. The Mets of '13 -- Collins' third Mets team -- are hardly an accomplished bunch. Johan Santana has won two Cy Young Awards, but he is six years removed from his second plaque. He has new incentive, though, and he is a proud man who misses embarrassing hitters. David Wright participated in the Mets' most recent postseason adventure, but he too is six years removed from that glory. And he comes equipped with motivation.
With few exceptions, the other players who will dress in the rearranged and more airy clubhouse here are without significant resumes or without much achievement in recent seasons. They ought to be hungry. Frank Cashen, the mastermind of the club's most recent run of successful summers, wanted players with "fire in the belly." Dallas Green, who managed the Mets in forgettable seasons in the '90s opted for "empty bellies." He said, "Hunger is a great motivator. Talent wins pennants. But if two teams are equal, hunger will make one of them stand out."
Talent and hunger too often are mutually exclusive in a player.
"Imagine if you put Pete Rose's drive in the body of Rickey Henderson," Sparky Anderson once said. He left that stirring possibility as an unfinished thought. Or Darryl Strawberry's skills with the attitude of Joe McEwing.
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Travis d'Arnaud has talent, incentive and a pending assignment as the Mets' regular catcher. The club sees him as the longer stride forward. Folks who have seen him play say they like the "late speed" in his smooth swing and his on-field demeanor. They have noticed a healthy degree of growl in his game, and they like the sound of it. Motivation would be the most noticeable aspect of his play were his talent not so conspicuous.
J.P. Ricciardi, special assistant to Alderson, has tracked the career of the Mets' plebe catcher from his days as general manager of the Blue Jays. He planned to draft d'Arnaud, but the Phillies beat the Jays by one selection. The Jays tried in 2008 to acquire him from the Phillies and succeeded in December 2009 as part of the package that moved Roy Halladay south. And two months ago, after a whole-hearted endorsement from Ricciardi, the Mets imported d'Arnaud.
"Yeah, you can say I've like him for a long time," Ricciardi said Tuesday. In his estimation, d'Arnaud can be an impact player, a complete player, not one of the catchers who is defensively challenged, "but you say, 'He gives us so much with the bat,'" nor one who's defensively gifted, "but you say, 'Whatever he does with the bat is gravy.'
"We wanted to get better quickly. We have other catchers in the organization, but they're probably two or three years away. Travis is the best we have, and he's ready."
Even with pitching prospect Zack Wheeler trying to make the most positive impressions, with Santana convalescing, with Ike Davis now conspicuous by his presence and Wright being Wright, d'Arnaud is the critical figure in this camp.
"Fair or unfair, he is," Wright said. "That's the nature of the beast. He's been traded for a Cy Young Award winner twice. In the market we play in, he'll be watched. They want to know, 'What did we get for Dickey?'"
In exchange for a 20-game winner and the two young catchers who caught him last season, the Mets imported their future, his mentor, veteran catcher John Buck, and two other Minor Leaguers. They brought in a kid of Filipino descent who was introduced to his position 10 years ago "and fell in love with it" because "you're involved with every play," a kid who learned the game in the baseball hotbed of Southern California and who has added some 20 pounds since the Phillies drafted him. A kid who is teased about the size of his head (7 7/8 cap) by his buddies, a kid who holds Giants catcher Buster Posey in high regard and one who has a way with string instruments, a kid who was assigned uniform No. 15 -- the one worn by the best defensive catcher in Mets history, Jerry Grote.
d'Arnaud, 24 and a gap-to-gap right-handed hitter, may be the most scrutinized Mets rookie since Strawberry in 1983. Even Dwight Gooden wasn't watched so closely in the first days of camp in 1984; nobody believed until late March that Davey Johnson could convince Cashen to take a teenager north. Gregg Jefferies was something of a known quantity in 1987. And when Paul Wilson made a Spring Training splash in 1996, he shared the billing with Bill Pulsipher and Jason Isringhausen.
"I don't feel that, but a new guy is always watched," d'Arnaud said. "I was traded before, so I have an idea what to expect."
No he doesn't. But he's learning.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.