Expectations are extraordinarily low for the 2011 New York Mets, and even the New York Yankees are underdogs of sorts, with the Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies the darlings of experts and critics everywhere. But when you live in the Yankees' universe, that's what defines an underdog, being the third best team in the majors. But as Herm Edwards famously said, "You play to win the game." Whether you're pegged for a last-place finish or first, you still have to go out and play 162 games, and you play each and every one of them to win, whether Chris Capuano, Chris Young, A.J. Burnett or Freddy Garcia is on the mound.
If things break right for the Mets they could surprise, that is if they still exist by the end of the year. They could end up like one of those old ABA or WHA franchises, where they go on a road trip and by the time they get off the plane at LaGuardia the team has folded. Or they've moved and become the Memphis Tams. Ok, everything would have to break right for the Mets to be a surprising success. Jason Bay and Jose Reyes have to have healthy, resurgent seasons. David Wright needs to have an in-his-prime All-Star-like season. Ike Davis, Angel Pagan and Josh Thole need to progress. Not much is expected out of the second base position, so if they don't get much it won't be a make-or-break situation for the team. What about Carlos Beltran, though? He's the biggest mystery as we get closer to opening day. It's most likely too much to count on him being a legitimate force in the lineup, but it looks like he may actually be in the lineup in Friday's opener, which wasn't looking good just a short week ago. If he can just stay on the field, that will be a bonus for the Mets. As for the pitching staff, Mike Pelfrey and Jon Niese fall into the needing-to-progress category, Chris Young and Chris Capuano fall into the healthy-resurgent-season category, while R.A. Dickey just needs to be R.A. Dickey. It's a must for Frankie Rodriguez to refrain from strangling family members (and to stay healthy). The rest of the bullpen is promising, with the possibility of old friend Jason Isringhausen playing a big role. And Terry Collins needs to make good on his word about having his team play the game the right way, which the Mets haven't done since, well, the 1980s?
See? How hard it all that to accomplish? Health, a realistic progression from the young players and don't slug any family members at Citi Field. Look at it this way: Their starting lineup on opening day of 2010 was Alex Cora, Luis Castillo, Wright, Mike Jacobs, Bay, Gary Matthews Jr., Jeff Francoeur, Rod Barajas and Johan Santana. Obviously, Santana creates a big hole, but the Mets will most likely have upgraded everywhere else. Their rotation that first week was Santana, John Maine, Niese, Pelfrey and Oliver Perez. Santana or no Santana, their present rotation might be better than what they threw out there the first week of April in 2010. And guys like Sean Green and Fernando Nieve were in the bullpen. Everything you can think of has gone wrong for the Mets the last few years, isn't it time something went right? The season hasn't even started yet, so I can be positive, right?
As for the Yankees, they have two question marks: rotation and age. CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes are the locks, though Hughes isn't exactly a sure thing quite yet. But he's more of a sure thing than A.J. Burnett. The only thing sure about Burnett is that at some point he'll suffer a self-inflicted injury doing something stupid or will mysteriously show up at Yankee Stadium with only nine fingers or one leg. And Joe Girardi will have to explain it away: "That's a personal matter that we'd like to keep in-house." We'll have to wait and see what the team gets from Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia. A youthful, phenom-like year from Nova and crafty, experienced production from Garcia? Or a youthful, can't-get-out-of-a-jam, not-quite-ready-yet start from Nova and a he's-all-washed-up performance from Garcia? Their bullpen, on the other hand, should be a strength, with the Methuselah of closers, Mariano Rivera, still throwing his cutter, and newcomers Rafael Soriano and Bartolo Colon added to the mix.
There's not much turnover from last year's opening-day lineup: Derek Jeter, Nick Johnson, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, Jorge Posada, Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner. The brittle Johnson is the only goner, with Russell Martin now behind the plate, which is a significant defensive upgrade over Posada, while if Posada can stay healthy for more than, say, three games, he'll be an improvement over Johnson in the DH spot. Interspersed in the lineup among in-prime players, like Teixeira, Cano and Swisher, are the aging Jeter, A-Rod and Posada. Are they in decline? Will they bounce back? Will Posada thrive as a DH? And will age take its toll through injuries and a batch of disabled-list visits? Francisco Cervelli is already there (as is Pedro Feliciano), and the youngish Granderson may begin the season on the DL, as well. Whatever the answers to those questions turn out to be, the Yankee offense should be able to generate enough runs. How will the starting pitching hold up, though? Will they need Jeter and company to cover up for the shaky rotation?
Talent (or lack of talent) doesn't mean much on paper. There will be surprises, disappointments and unforeseen events during the six-month season. Somebody we never heard of will come out of nowhere to make a contribution. And someone that was counted on will need season-ending surgery. The two local teams will underachieve or overachieve on the playing field, not on a piece of paper. But high or low expectations, no matter who's in the lineup on any particular day: You play to win the game.