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Thursday, December 16, 2010
Yes, Mets fans, there is a Santa Claus

By Mark Simon
ESPNNewYork.com

Hey, Mets fans, I know you're pessimistic. But for one day, let's pretend.

Maybe something will go wrong for the Phillies this season, a combination of injuries (there's lots of mileage on those "Phab Four" arms), ineffectiveness and bad breaks.

Maybe instead of winning 108 games (like the 1986 Mets), the 2011 Phillies will "only" win 94. As Rob Parker wrote Wednesday, four aces are no guarantee of anything.

So how do the Mets get from 79 wins in 2010 to an NL East-best 95 in 2011 with limited payroll flexibility?

Stop laughing and play along with me. It's the holiday season. It's OK to make a wish list. Here are the five keys to those wishes coming true.

1. The Core Four

The Mets need big seasons from their version of the Core Four -- David Wright, Carlos Beltran, Jason Bay and Jose Reyes.

They need Wright, Beltran and Bay to be Evan Longoria, Nick Swisher and Ryan Braun circa 2010. And they need Reyes to be Reyes circa 2007.

They need this to happen and happen early in the season. If the Mets are .500 at the end of June, Beltran and Reyes are more likely to be dealt than kept in desperate hopes of a three-month pennant push.

An article on the blog Amazin' Avenue a few weeks ago projected the Core Four for a wins above replacement of 12.0 in 2011 (meaning the four would be 12 wins better than "replacement-level" players at the plate and in the field). To get from 79 wins to 95 wins, the Mets need something closer to a 20 WAR from them.

2. Good health in the field

Good health means fewer replacement-level players filling in (i.e., less playing time for the Alex Coras of the world) for the everyday guys.

The Mets haven't had that in a while. Since 2007, the Mets have had 15 player seasons of 500 or more plate appearances. The Phillies, by comparison, have had 24. The Mets' need for fill-ins during the past four seasons has hurt the team's performance significantly.

Practically speaking, what does this mean for the 2011 Mets?

It means Ike Davis can't break his arm falling over a dugout railing. It means Angel Pagan can't collide with Beltran and suffer a season-ending concussion. It means the Mets must get 150 starts with reasonable production out of Josh Thole and Ronny Paulino.

That's asking a lot, given the Mets' health history. But figuring out how to beat the Phillies isn't meant to be easy.

3. A good-natured surprise

Last year, the Mets thought R.A. Dickey's job would be to make Triple-A Buffalo more respectable. Instead, Dickey defied expectations with a career-changing season. He's now a legitimate candidate to be the Opening Day starter. The Mets also expected Pagan to bring average production into what eventually would be a platoon role. Pagan proved himself as an everyday player.

Let's come up with a big surprise for 2011. Our pick will be either Rule 5 draftee Brad Emaus or returnee Daniel Murphy .

The Amazin' Avenue article gives Luis Castillo a 1.0 WAR in 2011. But maybe Emaus or Murphy will give the Mets a .333 on-base percentage and a .720 OPS (both matching the 2010 NL averages). If management thinks they can do that, maybe Castillo will never see the field.

Do you know how much of an improvement a .333 OBP/.720 OPS combo would be? It would be huge.

A .720 OPS would be a jump of nearly 130 percentage points from 2010. And if Emaus or Murphy were just average defensively, it would be an improvement from the minus-3 runs saved that Mets second basemen posted in 2010. (Runs saved measures a fielder's ability to convert batted balls into outs and turn double plays.)

That's gotta be better than a group that had negative value in 2010 (a minus-0.4 WAR), right?

4. A fresh start

There's room for improvement with the Mets' offense. Some of the things I listed above seem somewhat reasonable based on the history of the players involved. With Johan Santana out for a good while (let's say he'll pitch half the season), it's harder to do that for a pitching staff that has a ways to go to be complete.

Jose Reyes
Will Jose Reyes and the Mets crack open some bubbly in 2011? One can dream.

But let's try.

To get 95 wins, a team needs its five starting-pitching slots to average 19 wins. Here's how that could happen for the 2011 Mets:

Mike Pelfrey can do it. The Mets won 19 games in his 33 starts last season.

Dickey can do it. The Mets were 14-12 in his 26 starts last season, which projects to 17-15 in 32 starts. Dickey exceeded expectations by a lot in 2010. Is it too much to think he could exceed them again in 2011?

Beyond that, we're going to be reaching, just as the Mets are, if they think they can get 19 wins from the slot reserved for the free-agent pitcher who eventually will be signed.

But the Padres got 18 wins from Chris Young's 31 starts in 2006. The Rockies got 22 wins from Jeff Francis' slot in 2007. Maybe one or the other will sign with the Mets, find Citi Field much to his liking and give the Mets 15 wins in 25 starts. Various fill-ins could supply a .500 record and four more wins to get to 19.

It's hard to be that optimistic for Jonathon Niese, who closed with a 7.57 ERA and a 1-6 team record in his last seven starts in 2010. But the Mets were 11-7 in his first 18 turns (in which his ERA was 3.43). Over 32 starts, that projects to 19 team wins. So pitching coach Dan Warthen has some homework to do these next two months in figuring out how to keep Niese fresh for a full season.

The fifth slot currently is being kept warm for Santana by rookie Dillon Gee, who impressed in his brief stint in September. If Gee and whoever else is in his role can give the Mets eight team wins in their first 16 starts, they'd need to go 11-5 in Santana's 16 to reach the target total. It's not likely but not impossible.

Of course, for all this to happen, the yet-to-be-fully fortified bullpen needs to be pretty good, too. Here's hoping the extra month off gave Francisco Rodriguez's arm a couple of miles per hour back on his fastball and that a winter's rest heals what ailed Bobby Parnell at year's end.

5. Good fortune

Remember early last season when Jayson Werth's dink, game-tying, three-run double with two outs in the ninth inning helped the Phillies later beat the Giants in extra innings?

David Wright
Mets fans are hoping David Wright can give them what they want most next year.

That is the kind of break the Phillies have gotten the past three seasons, one the Mets have not gotten with the same kind of regularity.

Since 2008, the Phillies are a major league-best 80-61 in one-run games. The Mets are 60-73. That's a swing in the standings of five games per year.

Maybe Mets manager Terry Collins could make a good decision or two and Phillies manager Charlie Manuel could make one or two that don't pay off. Maybe the Mets' bullpen could get favorable calls on a couple of checked swings and cut the number of grand slams the Mets allowed in 2010 (12) by a significant number.

In our season of wishful thinking, maybe for one year, the Mets could act as though they're the Phillies when it comes to playing in one-run games.

***

So to review, the Mets are wishing for great seasons from Wright, Beltran, Bay and Reyes. They're wishing for their other regulars to stay injury-free. They're wishing for Emaus or Murphy to surprise us.

They're wishing Niese can raise his game, a free-agent starter can resurrect himself like Dickey and Santana can come back strong. They're wishing for K-Rod to anchor a still-to-be-constructed bullpen. They're wishing for a bit of good luck, which is a few years coming.

All said, it's a rather lengthy wish list for Mets fans to ponder.

Santa, can you help them out?

Mark Simon is a researcher for "Baseball Tonight" and a frequent contributor to ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @msimonespn or e-mail WebGemScoreboard@gmail.com.