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The Fight for Second Place: How the Mets Can Be Contenders in 2012

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The only people in New York who probably are not excited by the impending arrival of spring are New York Mets fans. Typically, as the sap starts coursing through the branches of trees with longer, warmer days and as early season flowers start poking their way through the earth in search of sunshine, a baseball fan's juices start flowing with the herald of "pitchers and catchers" reporting to spring training. For Mets fans there has only been dread at the specter of yet another season of manifest mediocrity.

We've all been party to the stories of the ongoing litigation between the team owners and the trustee for the Madoff Ponzi scheme for gazillions of dollars as well as the tottering and precarious financial state of the team itself, being kept solvent with loans from Major League Baseball. The drastic payroll cuts that have whittled the Mets down to nearly Billy Beane/Oakland A's Moneyball territory in a town where the bling and swagger from The Bronx and their fans makes it impossible to accept all the bad news with complete equanimity. It's hard not to fall prey to "salary envy" when the Steinbrenners spend as though they have the only American Express Plum card in the world.

To all those who find American League baseball repugnant (particularly as personified by those Yankees), I submit that the 2012 season may not be as bleak and full of despair as the augers of doom would have you believe. There is a sunrise on the near horizon for those willing to "say hallelujah" and have a little faith, at least until July.

The first "station of the cross" towards Met fan redemption is the clear-eyed acknowledgement that the Mets are absolutely, positively not going to win the NL East pennant and that the Philadelphia Phillies will be the major force in the National League they were the past few seasons (especially with the addition of their new closer, former BoSox pitcher Jonathan Papelbon to their already nearly impregnable stable of hurlers). Giving up the ghost of pennant glory even before Grapefruit League play commences is the first step towards achieving inner peace.

The next move is not looking back and wringing one's hands over the departure of Jose Reyes. Even if he stays healthy (a prospect which is highly unlikely, not to wish him any ill) the Mets couldn't afford him. Met fans need to think of themselves as Paul Ryan Republicans, wielding a sharp meat cleaver to baseball salary fat and deficit spending so as to balance the budget. Winning at any price didn't work for the Mets from 2006 to 2008 when former general manager Omar Minaya had carte blanche with Madoff money. Winning is a state of mind, not just a state of finance, regardless of what the Yankees do.

Third, the Mets have a very good manager in Terry Collins. Plagued by stars hobbled with injuries for much of last year, he nevertheless managed to keep the team hovering around .500 until around Labor Day. He guided the team to a run of winning 50 of 88 games after a poor start in April and early May. He put the kibosh on the seemingly endless bad karma and prima donna nonsense that permeated the dugout and locker room for much of the last decade.

With the anticipated return of ace pitcher Johan Santana (who will not be the Santana of yore, accept it) we could see maybe 23 starts from him and 12 to 14 wins if he stays healthy. If R.A. Dickey has a season like he did in 2010, if Dillon Gee can put on a performance through the season as he did in the first part of last year, if Jonathon Niese keeps getting better and if Mike Pelfrey can get out of his own way and his own head, the Mets have a reasonable shot at stopping many of the National League sluggers. On the infield, David Wright is still a profound defensive asset at third base, Ruben Tejada at short is no Reyes but he's no slouch either. He's young, nimble and full of energy and moxie. With perhaps a combination of Lucas Duda and Daniel Murphy at second base, this should not be a huge defensive gap. Assuming Ike Davis is back on first, when he's on his game, few balls get past him.

At the plate, with the Mets both lowering and moving in the fences at CitiField, perhaps David Wright will hit like he did back at Shea and start producing homers. Ike Davis was belting it out to the Shea Bridge and the third deck at CitiField even with the old dimensions. If the batting order goes something like this: Tejada as leadoff man (he had a .360 on-base percentage last year -- the kind of Moneyball number that makes things happen) could be effective if followed in the two spot by Murphy (who was hot on the bat through much of last season) to put runners on base for Wright batting third followed by Ike Davis in the clean-up spot with Duda batting fifth. Against the Yankees this lineup might not mean much, but against the Nationals, the Pirates, the Braves, the Mariners, Dodgers and Padres it could work. A Gary Carter memorial patch on the uniforms combined with the team's 50th Anniversary could also do a lot for morale.

All this adds up to a credible Met run at second place in the NL East if they can win in excess of 82 games. It adds up to a possible Mets season at or above .500 in a year of zero expectations. It adds up to what could be a very entertaining year watching the best Triple-A team in the Majors -- a lot of young, emerging talented guys playing for the sheer fun of it for a manager who knows how to keep kids motivated. "You gotta believe," or you can't be a Mets fan.

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