PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Either New York Mets manager Terry Collins is one heck of an optimist. Or he can fake it very well.
Either way, the 62-year-old Collins has one of the most difficult jobs in baseball this season. The second-year Mets skipper needs to convince his team it can compete in a vastly improved National League East despite the losses of Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Francisco Rodriguez since last year's camp and a payroll reduction from roughly $143 million to $91 million in one year.
Say this for Collins: He is gung-ho. He arrived at the team's complex at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday to ensure he beat all of his players.
"The crux of the message is pretty obvious -- and that is, we're better than people think we are," Collins said about the speech he will deliver to his team once position players officially report to spring training on Saturday. "I don't want these guys to think for one second there's no expectations. There are expectations. This is the major leagues."
Collins suggested the Mets just need to compensate for arguably inferior talent by out-executing other teams. It's not quite that simple, but a premium will be placed on such areas as baserunning and bunting efficiency during camp.
Collins had lamented last year that the Mets were not as proficient as some other teams, say, going first to third on a single. And, he added, it cost his squad runs.
"We've got a good team," Collins insisted. "We've lost two real good players out of our lineup. We lost some good pitchers. But we've got to move forward. We were fortunate -- not fortunate, but we were lucky enough -- last year to take a look at our young players and see what kind of ceiling we think they're going to have. Without the job our young players did last year, we'd have been in big trouble.
"We're going to compete. We're going to go out every night and play the game right and play the game hard. But the one thing we've got to do, and I'm going to tell the guys this flat-out, we've got to play better. End of story. We've got to play better than the other team."
As the Mets went into finance-fueled austerity, the Miami Marlins opened their checkbook for Reyes as well as to sign closer Heath Bell and left-hander Mark Buehrle, and to acquire Carlos Zambrano. The Washington Nationals bolstered their rotation with the additions of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson. And the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves already were performing at a high level.
The Mets went 77-85 last year, and it is hard to determine how they can improve on that record. They are counting on players who were injured in 2011 -- such as ace Johan Santana and first baseman Ike Davis -- returning to offset the loss of Reyes. The Mets also hope several players take major steps forward in their careers, such as Jon Niese and Mike Pelfrey in the rotation.
"It's human nature to say, 'Wow, we've got a challenge on our hands,'" Collins said when asked about the Marlins' additions. "...The thing I want these guys to understand is, it's not going to be acceptable to say, 'Well, we're not supposed to be very good.' I will not stand for that. We've got to understand when we go out, we've got to execute the game better than who we're playing. Ultimately, as everybody knows and everybody has seen, it's not always the best team that wins. It's the team that plays the best that wins. And we've got to be that club."