By Rich Coutinho
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The 2011 Arizona Diamondbacks were one of the real feel-good stories in baseball last year, rebounding from a 90-loss season in 2010 to win the NL West and come within an eyelash of the NLCS. The Mets should look very closely at this team when they hit the field this weekend at Citi, because in many ways the Mets may be this year's version of the D-Backs. The similarities are striking -- both teams came off difficult seasons, made very few changes and were relying on starting pitchers that most experts felt were deficient. In addition, Arizona, much like the Mets, was playing in a division in which many of the other teams were viewed as much better squads.
The thing that really helped the Diamondbacks turn the corner was the two-headed monster at the top of their rotation, coupled with an airtight bullpen. Their offense was considered pedestrian at best, and in fact they scored fewer runs in 2011 than they did in their 90-loss season of 2010. So far, the Mets' starting pitching has been pretty good with Johan Santana steering the bus. He has pitched like a bona fide ace, while both R.A. Dickey and Jonathan Niese have shown flashes of brilliance. In fact, except for the series with the Astros, the starting pitching has been very good, aside from the fifth-starter spot which the Mets will try to manage until Chris Young is ready to pitch.
The bullpen has not been consistent, and that is the element of this team that needs to be fine-tuned. The first thing I would do is put another lefty in that 'pen, because there are times that Terry Collins has been reticent to use Tim Byrdak, since he is saving him for potential eighth inning matchup situations. Another lefty could give him more flexibility to match up with a tough left-handed hitter, like Brian McCann for instance, earlier in the game. And the best candidate is Josh Edgin, who showed great promise in Spring Training.
Jon Rauch has been superb and so has Bobby Parnell, while Frank Francisco and Ramon Ramirez have been spotty at best. I fully believe that Ramirez will get better. but I am afraid that with Francisco what you see is what you get. That is why I feel that Parnell will eventually be given a chance to close at some point this season. He has really matured on the mound, realizing that dialing up the fastball is far less important than commanding it, all the while sprinkling in a "knuckle-curve" that he learned from Jason Isringhausen to round out his arsenal. I also think that at some point Jenrry Mejia will surface in this Mets bullpen -- replacing the spot that Manny Acosta currently holds -- with the chance that he will be given an even more prominent role in the bullpen after the All-Star break.
If you look at the Diamondback' 2011 season, this is exactly the time of year when they started to define bullpen roles, getting maximum efficiency from their relief corps. It was also the time that they began to assert themselves as bona fide contenders in the NL West. The Mets have already proven that they can more than hold their own against NL East foes, going 10-5 against them. But more tests await for them, including a six-game road trip to Philly and Miami next week. As a consequence, the bullpen will now become a hot-button issue for this team.
And if the Mets can get some consistency from this group, they may very well experience the same level of success that the Arizona Diamondbacks enjoyed in 2011.
Mets fans, with a second Wild Card spot to be had for the first time ever, can the 2012 Mets be the Diamondbacks of last season? Offer your thoughts and comments below...
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