NEW YORK -- At a press conference one day after the 2010 season ended, Mets principal owner Fred Wilpon stated, with unusual firmness, that the past four years have been the most disappointing of his 30-year relationship with the franchise. Things, Wilpon said, must change.
Soon after, Wilpon hired new general manager Sandy Alderson, who cautioned that such change may not occur immediately. Sustained success is not an overnight endeavor, meaning that while 2011 may represent a new beginning, it also may be nothing more than that. But for a team so completely beaten and bruised over the past four seasons, such beginnings are also quite necessary.
The Mets do hope to win this season, but they're more concerned with sustained success beyond it. If nothing else, they know, the 2011 season should provide them with answers to some of the franchise's most pressing questions. Is the current core good enough to win? Are the breakout players of '10 for real? Is Terry Collins the man to lead the Mets back to glory?
They're not easy questions, and the Mets don't expect to find any easy answers. But they do hope to start that process in 2011, engineering the franchise's freshest start in years.
And they do hope to win.
So then, with the dawn of the new year just past, here's a look at the 10 most pressing questions facing the Mets in 2011:
10. Is Ike Davis the long-term answer at first base?
The gut answer is "Yes." Davis has some power, he's a wizard on defense, and he has a chance to become the team's most successful homegrown position player since David Wright. Already, Davis is an overwhelming fan favorite, but a closer look begs some more thorough criticism. At 24 years old entering this season, Davis is not necessarily far off from his ceiling. So at one of the game's premium offensive positions -- think Pujols, Howard, Teixeira -- can he hold his own with 20 to 25 home runs per year? Davis makes up for some of his bat's modesty with his glove, but the Mets must determine if that's enough to be a cornerstone player.
9. Can Josh Thole be a successful everyday catcher?
A year ago, many within the organization might have answered this question with an unequivocal "No." But Thole has since displayed a remarkable aptitude for contact hitting at the big league level. If he can develop some power to go along with it, Thole could become one of the game's better offensive catchers. Helping his cause is the fact that Mets pitchers and coaches alike have raved about the natural infielder's improvement calling games behind the plate. In 2011, Thole will have every chance to prove he's capable of being the long-term guy. It's his job to lose.
8. Now healthy, can Jason Bay overcome Citi Field's dimensions?
Sometimes forgotten amid Bay's season-ending concussion is the fact that even before his injury, Bay was struggling through the worst offensive season of his eight-year career. Citi Field was not built with right-handed power hitters in mind; on more than one occasion, Bay appeared to crush balls to left field only to see them die at the warning track. Considering the Mets still owe Bay $48 million over the next three seasons, that lack of power is a genuine concern. David Wright had the same problems in 2009 and recovered just fine -- the Mets can only hope for a similar bounce-back from Bay.
7. Where will the Mets find innings?
Armed with a paper-thin rotation last season, the Mets struck gold when R.A. Dickey, Jon Niese and Dillon Gee all provided them with some desperately-needed innings -- well beyond what the team expected. Time to repeat the trick. With Johan Santana recovering from shoulder surgery until at least midsummer, the rotation appears even thinner this year -- meaning the Mets remain just an injury or two away from disaster. Can they find another Dickey? Can Niese shrug off last season's heavy workload? Can Mike Pelfrey continue to develop into a much-needed horse? If the answer to any of those questions is "No," the Mets may be in some trouble.
6. What about the bullpen?
Pedro Feliciano is gone. Hisanori Takahashi is gone. The only bullpen holdovers, in fact, are Francisco Rodriguez and Bobby Parnell -- both of whom finished last season nursing injuries. Despite the December signing of right-hander D.J. Carrasco, the Mets remain in a tough spot with their bullpen, and may ultimately have to lean on multiple untested rookies. Perhaps they'll find a gem. Perhaps they'll receive a rude dose of reality. Either way, their lack of depth should keep the bullpen issue burning all summer.
5. How will Alderson cope with a limited budget?
The offseason is not yet over, and the Mets may still sign a starter, a reliever, or both. But with more than $111 million tied up in eight players this season, flexibility for a big move simply does not exist. So Alderson has two options: stay the course and wait for 2012 to make some splashes, or try to be creative at the Trade Deadline. If Carlos Beltran or Jose Reyes has a big first half, Alderson could try to deal one of them. No one, right now, is off-limits for the Mets.
4. Will Terry Collins survive in New York City?
Fire and intensity, the most popular characteristics of the Mets' new manager, are the same ones that led to his messy endings in Houston and Anaheim. In his first two months as manager of the Mets, Collins has said and done all the right things. But he has yet to face any of the adversity that will inevitably surface in the country's largest media market. How Collins handles it may mean the difference between a long, healthy relationship and an early breakup with the Mets.
3. Can Angel Pagan and Dickey hold onto their gains?
Had Dickey not burst out of nowhere with a career season at the age of 35, the Mets might have endured quite a few more issues than they did in 2010. Same goes for the wildly-talented Pagan, who finally rid himself of the injury bug that latched onto him years ago. Now, though, the Mets expect excellence from both players. If Dickey and Pagan can provide it again, the Mets may just surprise some people in '11. If not, the road will grow ever tougher.
2. What are the Mets going to do about second base?
Alderson has made it clear that if Luis Castillo does not produce in Spring Training, he will not be on the roster come April. But who will? Daniel Murphy has been playing second base in Winter Ball and has vowed to make the team. Rule 5 pick Brad Emaus is another possibility. Ruben Tejada, who manned second base for much of the 2010 season, is a last resort. All that's clear right now is that the Mets need some sort of production out of the position if they have any intention of competing.
1. Can Reyes and Beltran still be elite players?
Both Reyes and Beltran have suffered through untold injuries in recent years, both have heard their names bandied about the trade market, and both will be free agents after the season. Beltran is now 34 years old with perhaps his best baseball behind him -- but if last September was any indication, that doesn't necessarily mean he's cooked. Reyes, meanwhile, has managed to stay productive while healthy, even if he's hardly the player he was back in 2007. How this pair progresses -- or regresses -- in '11 may determine not only whether the Mets play winning baseball, but whether the team's current core can remain in place for the foreseeable future.