Mets camp report: Optimism rules, but 'plan' may not pay off quite yet

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- David Wright , the highest paid Met ever and a worthy franchise player, sits among much younger, far less well known and less accomplished ballplaying hopefuls in the clubhouse he amiably rules and identifies many more positive things than outsiders might see. After a run of years of second-half collapses, heartbreak and downright mediocrity, Wright remains, unashamedly, a "glass half full guy," as he put it.

"I signed on because I believe in the process and the plan," Wright said of his club record $138 million deal.

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Wright, obviously, is a true believer. He sees the scouting reports and catches glimpses of the kids here at camp. And indeed, the New York Mets possess an enviable stash of youthful talents. But the process and the plan likely will require patience.

For Wright, that’ll work, as he has eight years to go on his deal as the king of Queens.  And while the 2013 team doesn’t look like a contender -- even to those wearing orange-and-blue-colored glasses, the wait may not be quite as interminable as one might imagine.

"I think they’re going to surprise a lot of people," one competing general manager said. "Their young rotation is going to keep them in a lot of games. I think they’ll be around .500."

Word is, some Mets bigwigs even have claimed behind the scenes they think this team will contend, but the public talk is more often that it’s possible, if all or almost all goes right. "Who’s to say we can’t do it?" said manager Terry Collins, who heads into the final year of his contract.

Collins, reformed and refreshing for his candor and energy in his third managerial stint, said he didn’t ask about an extension, and none was offered. His bosses love him personally but remain concerned about the way the team has finished the last two years (second-half trades and injuries haven’t helped). "We like Terry. Terry’s done an excellent job, but we need to be better," general manager Sandy Alderson said.  

His bosses, to a man, say Collins won’t necessarily be judged only on wins and losses, which sounds a little bit like an admission that their expectation isn’t necessarily a first playoff appearance in seven seasons.

Alderson provided a pretty accurate portrayal of the state of the Mets, summing it all up this way: "We have a fairly strong rotation. We have a possibly improved, possibly even significantly improved, bullpen. We are solid behind the plate, solid on the infield and we have question marks in the outfield."

The outfield, charitably, is uncertain. Lucas Duda will get his chance in left field after proving he isn’t a right fielder. The rest is a jumble, filled only with candidates and no other certainties.

Alderson joked about the team's lack of proven outfielders back in November with the memorable retort to a question about their outfield. "What outfield?"

And while the Mets added a few pieces, such as youngster Collin Cowgill , reclamation project Marlon Byrd and a few other even longer shots than that to go with holdovers like Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Mike Baxter , it's surprising the GM could make the same joke today -- though at this late date there was no longer any humor. Alderson didn’t sugarcoat the situation, saying, "I thought there was plenty of time to improve things. And we did a lot of work to try to improve. But none of it came to fruition."

The Mets did try for  Michael Bourn when the late-signing star understandably took the Indians' solid offer rather than wait to find out if the Mets' provisional bid would become reality in several days, or perhaps even weeks, once MLB could schedule a hearing to determine whether the Mets would win the right to retain their first-round draft pick. The other issue, Alderson pointed out, was the Indians gave Bourn what is "tantamount" to a $60 million deal since he needs only 550 plate appearances in his fourth season to trigger the fifth-year option while the Mets hadn’t quite committed to raising their $48 million, four-year bid.

That Bourn, who according to the range ratings is the game’s best center fielder, would have helped is undeniable. Instead, the Mets will have to fill center field and right field from a mix of journeyman and unproven others. It isn’t a particularly good sign that one or another Mets person keeps touting Marlon Byrd, who played well in the Mexican League but was clearly one of the worst players in the big leagues last year despite his PED use (he was suspended 50 games). Plus, he’s 35.

Then there’s the closing situation, which remains a puzzle. Frank Francisco was given an early spring vote of confidence before telling Mets writers that, no, he wasn’t 100 percent but rather at a "zero level." On the plus side, that leaves room to grow.

Bobby Parnell is the new closer, at least until Francisco is a bit closer to full-strength or reinforcements are brought in. The Mets have been talking to veteran closer Jose Valverde, but despite longtime owner Fred Wilpon’s proclamation that they are ready to spend (curiously, it was made the day after the coveted Bourn came off the board), Alderson said they are "inclined to go with what they have." That could be a negotiating stance. (The Mets didn’t ask for resolution on the draft-pick question until late because they didn’t want to cede leverage to agent Scott Boras.) Most aren’t quite as secure the bullpen is as solid as Alderson seems to hope.

 "We’ve got to get our bullpen fixed," Collins said, flatly.

That’s going to be a chore as things stand. Francisco should rise from "zero level" but isn’t expected to be ready for the start of the season, leaving Collins to figure out a puzzle that could go either way. Latroy Hawkins has been a viable reliever, but he’s 40. Scott Atchison can be impressive when healthy, which hasn’t been all that often. The left side is a particular issue, with quite a bit of reliance put on second-year man Josh Edgin until Tim Byrdak, Pedro Feliciano or someone else can help.

At least the rotation remains strong. Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, who went in a very wise, forward-thinking trade that brought back young stud Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard, who immediately became the Mets No. 2 and 3 prospects, will be missed.  "It’s not the 20 wins, it’s the 245 innings," Collins said. (The 20 wins will be missed, too.)

Even without Dickey, what remains of the rotation is the team’s strength: Johan Santana , who could be a July trade candidate assuming he proves he's healthy, plus Jonathon Niese , Shaun Marcum , Dillon Gee and young, hard-throwing Matt Harvey .

What immediate optimism there is exists because of a hope they can get two great halves instead of one,  from Ike Davis , whose case of valley fever is said to be a non-issue now ("Ike’s finally healthy," Collins said), bigger seasons from Lucas Duda and Daniel Murphy , full seasons from Gee and Harvey, a late highlight last season. The team, too, needs to show it has a full year in it.

"If we do what we’re supposed to do, we can compete," Wright asserted. "It’s going to be a challenge, no question about it. But by no means is this a lost year or one where we’re punting."

No one is suggestion they give up, but few will publicly proclaim they'll contend, either -- not in that division. But for Wright, all is not lost because he still has seven more years.

The reasons Wright speaks so optimistically (beyond his nature) are obvious: there’s the young triumvirate of Harvey, Syndergaard and  Zack Wheeler , and there’s one of the top two catching prospects in the game in d’Arnaud. (Seattle’s Mike Zunino is the other.) Then there’s the camp star so far, 22-year-old righthander Rafael Montero, who is described by one Mets person as looking "looking like Pedro, with thicker legs," and who has been wowing them in Port St. Lucie. "Electric," Wright called Montero.

The trades of Carlos Beltran and Dickey have replenished a thin system and brought hope.

"I feel the sky’s the limit," Wright said.

For this year, though, the real objective might be slightly lower than that.

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