Last week I reviewed Carlos Delgado, the Mets first baseman in 2008, and gave him a well deserved A on his report card. This week I will be assessing the group that played second this season, and as you can probably guess the marks are not nearly as good.
2008 METS SECOND BASE OVERALL GRADE: F
LUIS CASTILLO- 298 AB, .245 AVG, 3 HR, 28 RBI, 46 R, 17 SB
DAMION EASLEY- 316 AB, .269 AVG, 6 HR, 44 RBI, 33 R
ARGENIS REYES- 110 AB, .218 AVG, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 13 R, 2 SB
RAMON MARTINEZ- 16 AB, .250 AVG, 0 HR, 3 RBI, 0 R
In November 2007 Omar Minaya signed Luis Castillo to a four year contract worth 25 million dollars, a move that was met with a lot of criticism from fans and media alike. Castillo played decently for the Mets after they acquired him from the Twins in July of '07, hitting .296 and driving in 20 runs in 50 games. But the 32-year old looked more like 42 with ailing knees that had seriously hampered his speed, one of Castillo's main assets. Because of the injuries Luis played like a shell of the player who helped spark the top of the Marlins lineup in the early part of the decade. And once guys like David Eckstein and Tadahito Iguchi each signed one year deals at a similar salary the talk radio phones in New York were lighting up everywhere with complaints for Minaya. Even the people who didn't necessarily want to sign a new free agent to play second mostly just wanted the team to stick with young Ruben Gotay, who hit nearly .300 for the Mets in 2007.
Clearly Omar was worried the second base market would be depleted quickly, and he wanted to act fast to lock up Castillo. It definitely did not pan out like they thought, and in the end the team was stuck with Castillo. But I think even Luis' harshest critics thought he would perform better than he did this year.
Because of the short leash he was on with the fans it's no wonder the boo birds came early. After 16 games Luis was hitting .229, had one extra base-hit (a double), and was without a single RBI. But more disheartening than his slow start was his constant nagging injuries. Omar Minaya justified the signing by saying that Castillo was fully recovered from his knee ailments and that he would be the Luis of old in 2008. It was evident immediately though that this was not the case.
Castillo missed 3 games right off the bat in the 2nd week of the season- two of which were against their division rival Phillies- because of a sore right knee. He never looked fully healthy, despite what Omar promised, and by mid-April he was demoted in the lineup from 2nd to 8th. Luis did finish strong in April with two 3-hit games between the 16th and 30th, and raised his average to a modest .256.
In May he struggled through more injuries, and nearly went on the DL a couple of different times. However, when he did see the field his play improved dramatically. Not only did his average continue to rise, but he found a rare power stroke as well. Castillo belted all 3 of his 2008 homeruns in an 11 day span from May 10 through May 20, and his on-base percentage was just under .390 by Memorial Day. In addition, Castillo's defense was noticeably better. His range had improved, he was quick on his feet, and he was finally showing the heart and leadership we were all expecting. But like I said, his body just never seemed to hold up, and depsite his short stint of productivity Castillo's season was a mess from start to finish.
With Ryan Church out indefinitely due to his 2nd concussion Luis Castillo was back in the 2-hole, and he was not hitting a lick. So when he went on the disabled list in early July with aches and pains all over his body it felt like a blessing in disguise. Castillo's absence paved the way for Damion Easley to become the starting second baseman, and also meant a promotion for a young unknown in the minors named Argenis Reyes.
Easley stepped in and immediately the Mets offense got better. He had 83 at-bats in July and was on fire all month, hitting .313 while knocking in 15 runs. However, Easley is no longer a spring chicken at 38 years old, and needed some time off. So the young Reyes came in at times and did a great job backing him up. Argenis hit .286 in his first month as a major leaguer, and played spectacular defense in the field. The Easley/Reyes duo outplayed Castillo significantly, and it was no coincidence that the Mets went 18-8 in the month. Of course, the whole team played great in July under their new manager, but the second base production was one of the major contributors.
Unfortunately, that production did not last. Easley tired from the heavy work load and struggled through August and September, managing just 2 homeruns and 15 RBI the rest of the way. And big league pitchers caught up to Argenis very quickly. He went through 50 August at-bats without a run batted in, and hit an abysmal .056 in September, rendering him useless down the stretch.
Luis Castillo finally returned from the DL on August 20 after missing roughly 7 weeks, but he was no help at all. He had only 2 RBI and 4 runs the rest of the season, culminating one of the most overpaid years in recent Mets history.
Damion Easley went down with an injury in mid-September, and with Castillo and Reyes hitting like the last pick of a schoolyard stickball game the Mets turned to the most unlikely of sources for help at second in the final week of a tight pennant race; a journeyman 35 year-old named Ramon Martinez.
Martinez was signed by the Mets on August 2nd after he was released from Los Angeles. He remained in the minors until he was called up when the rosters expanded in September, but even then he was considered an afterthought. From the 1st through the 23rd Martinez only appeared in 2 games and had 1 at-bat.
Then on September 24, in the 7th inning of a tight game against the Cubs in the heat of a pennant race, Jerry Manuel sent Ramon Martinez up in a big spot. I, like thousands of other Mets fans I am sure, was completely speechless and ready for Manuel to get fired right there. But Jerry proved he is a better skipper than me, and he knew what he was doing. Martinez laced a clutch double in the gap, and an inning later worked a bases loaded walk that tied the game. The Mets eventually lost a heartbreaker 9-6, but Martinez showed that with only 4 games left the team needed to play the hot hand... and he was it.
So in a shocking twist the guy who came into the final week with 0 at-bats in 2008 ended up starting the final 4 games of a playoff push at second base, and actually came through with some big hits. Ramon knocked in 3 runs, including a clutch RBI double in the penultimate game to help Johan Santana secure a complete game shutout for the ages. He also played good defense, and helped inspire a floundering team in the waning moments of the year.
Of course, Ramon could not save the club from losing to Florida on the final day of the season, as the Mets missed out on the playoffs for the 2nd straight year. And while he certainly put together a nice string of games to end 2008, it did not come close to making up for the failures of the other 2nd basemen.
The bottom line is giving a four year deal to Luis Castillo was a monumental mistake, and it may go down as the worst move of the entire Minaya regime. The only good thing to really come out of his deal was the fact that his friendship with Johan Santana helped the Mets reel in the Cy Young winner. The team needs to cut ties with Castillo and get a better second baseman in the offseason, or it may be a 3rd consecutive disappointing finish. Damion Easley is simply too old to be anything but a bench player due to his injury risk, and while Argenis provided a spark for a few weeks I think he is in reality just an emergency minor league call up and a stopgap.
Orlando Hudson is at the top of mine and most people's lists, not only for his balanced hitting and fielding ability, but also because of his heart and clubhouse presence. It also seems that Hudson badly wants to play in Citi Field with the Mets, so maybe they can get him at a decent price. But even if they do not get the "O-Dog," a new second baseman is a must, whether it's David Eckstein, Julio Lugo, or any of the other guys mentioned in Hot Stove rumors.
The lack of production at second base was not the only reason the Mets stumbled down the stretch and failed to get into the playoffs. In fact, it wasn't even the main reason. But it sure didn't help, either.