PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Among the biggest mysteries in the baseball universe these days are, in order: Where will the Montreal Expos be playing in 2004? Did the owners really collude in order to hold down salaries over the winter? And how big of a scale, exactly, do the New York Mets need to ascertain Mo Vaughn's correct weight?
We come today to solve Mystery No. 3.
|Mo Vaughn hopes to attack at the plate this season after a down year by his standards.(AP)|
Vaughn was big last year, so big that in a meeting at season's end, owner Fred Wilpon offered the not-so-subtle suggestion that he'd better get into shape, if for no other reason than he was contractually obligated to do so, and by not doing so, he was gobbling up the Mets' chances for success (so to speak).
And so, with Vaughn coming off of his worst season since 1992 -- both statistically and mentally -- it's a slimmed-down version working under the sun while wearing the Mets' new construction-pylon orange practice jerseys this spring.
"Look, Mo is never going to be a ballerina," Mets general manager Steve Phillips says. "But he put a lot of effort and work into his offseason. He looks great. He's moving better, he's swinging better. He's significantly ahead of where he was last year at this time."
With the club's season hanging in the balance and the man's career at a definite crossroads, that's very good news for the Mets.
It was bad enough last year that Vaughn came to camp overweight and continued to gain through the spring and the season.
Add to that the fact that Vaughn missed all of 2001 with a ruptured biceps tendon and was making his comeback in a new league against unfamiliar pitching, and, well, the guy never had a chance.
"The way I worked out this winter, I never knew I could get like this," Vaughn says. "This is a whole new thing."
He hired a personal trainer during the offseason and a personal cook. Unlike a year ago, when he was so concerned with rehabbing his bad arm that he neglected the rest of his body, he says he benefited from a total conditioning program.
Yes, he still looks big, but not as big as he was last summer, when scouts marveled at his inability to even bend over to field some ground balls.
Though he won't reveal his exact weight other than to say he is "within five pounds of where I want to be," sources close to the Mets put him at somewhere between 260 and 265.
Last year, the Mets listed him at 275, and the belief was that he was much more than that by season's end.
Perhaps more significant than the weight is that Vaughn says his body fat is just 13.5 percent, while it was somewhere between 18 and 20 in 2002.
"When I came up (in the early 1990s), I was strong and lean," Vaughn says. "I am back to the lean point. My great year was 1998 (.337, 40 homers, 115 RBI for Boston), and I'm at the same leanness now -- and stronger."
While that is one small step for the Mets and one giant step for Vaughn, it certainly isn't a blanket guarantee of success in 2003. There are no guarantees no matter what Vaughn weighs in at, though there are at least three other indicators that leave room for optimism over his comeback.
The first is simply that he played in 139 games and collected 487 at-bats last season after being off for 16 months (the winter following the 2000 season, all of 2001 and the offseason between 2001 and 2002). That's a long time to go without seeing live pitching and game action.
The second is while he struggled at the plate in his first National League season (.259, 26 homers, 72 RBI), he at least became acquainted with NL pitching he had never before seen.
|The Mets hope a slimmed down Mo Vaughn will pull his weight in a once-again revamped offense.(AP)|
"We thought there would be some time to take him to get his feet back under him," Phillips says. "Then he had a couple of setbacks (he strained a hamstring toward the end of spring camp last year and was hit by a pitch in the hand early in the season) that pushed it further back.
"It would have been unfair to expect from opening day the same Mo Vaughn."
Then again, neither the Mets nor Vaughn expected his least productive season in 10 years.
"Usually, you're lucky enough to have a (winter) and revamp your game, make adjustments," Vaughn says. "It's hard when you haven't played in a year-and-a-half. Now, I've had four months off instead of 16. You remember why this didn't work, or why that didn't work.
"You have 16 months off and then, before you know it, it's strike one, strike two."
What went awry last season, Vaughn remembers, is that he struggled with finding the right hitting position for the first 80 games. He describes himself as an "open" hitter, meaning he starts each at-bat with his legs spread apart in a wide stance. When he rocks back, his front foot becomes parallel with his shoulder as he brings his bat through the hitting zone, finishing with his powerful follow-through.
For a long time last season, he says, he was starting each at-bat with his legs "parallel" to his shoulders and not open wide enough. That, he says, often led to him getting his legs crossed up and not being able to swing "through" the ball.
At the same time, with his mechanics in a state of confusion, his mind wasn't as sharp as usual, either, given the time off and unfamiliar pitchers.
"The one thing I didn't realize is how much information I had compiled in the American League, a database," Vaughn says. "You face pitchers throwing in relief for 10 years, there are certain things you understand. Then all of a sudden your comfort level isn't there, and with that is anxiety that you're not used to having.
"When you have a weekend against the Baltimore Orioles, you know who that guy is that you're going to be facing three times in a four-game series. It was different last year."
Explaining all of this, of course, is much easier than putting it into practice -- particularly when it's the ninth inning and you're facing Los Angeles closer Eric Gagne with the game on the line. The Mets' best hope is that 2002 for Vaughn wasn't the beginning of the end of his career, but a simple off year in which he still was able to glean valuable information that will help him in the future.
It all makes sense, and the meeting with Wilpon last September does appear to have scared Vaughn straight. One key is, now that Vaughn has reported in better shape, will he be able to keep the weight off all season? The Mets love his attitude, and new manager Art Howe has been very impressed by the number of extra ground balls Vaughn is taking after regularly scheduled drills.
That's also good news for expensive new free-agent acquisition Tom Glavine and the rest of the pitching staff, because the Mets don't exactly have Gold Glove center fielder Andruw Jones and the rest of the Atlanta Braves fielders backing them up. With Roger Cedeno in center and Vaughn at first, things could get real interesting real fast around Shea Stadium.
But you've got to start somewhere, so Vaughn keeps plugging away. The way he figures it, he punched 26 homers last season with his swing never being near the same ZIP code as consistent, so who knows what he's capable of doing this year?
"That's one of the bright lights at the end of the long, dark tunnel," he says. "I figure if I can hit .300, all of the other numbers will take care of themselves. I've been able to hit for a solid average my whole career. When you're getting hits, everything else takes care of itself."
Next stop: Florida Marlins camp Monday in Jupiter