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What Went Wrong: New York Mets

The following completes a series profiling some of 2009’s biggest disappointments.

New York Mets

Record: 69-92 (4th in NL East)

How It Happened:

The Mets entered their inaugural season at Citi Field with legitimate questions about the back-end of their rotation and their corner outfield spots, but with four of the best players in the game and a retooled bullpen, it appeared that they were in fine position to reclaim the top spot in the National League East. The baseball gods had a different plan in mind.

The team has endured injuries to nearly every significant player on their roster (David Wright, Johan Santana, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado among them). Reyes hasn’t appeared in a game since May 20 (hamstring) while Delgado has been sidelined since May 10 (hip surgery). And J.J. Putz, who was expected to be the bridge to new closer Francisco Rodriguez, hasn’t thrown a pitch since June 4 (elbow). Oliver Perez, who was signed to a mind-boggling three-year, $36 million deal over the winter, was limited to just 14 starts (knee). But with an awful 6.82 ERA and 58 walks in 66 innings, that’s probably for the best. Even their top minor league reinforcements (Jon Niese and Fernando Martinez) suffered season-ending injuries.

Their depleted lineup has managed a major-league worst 95 home runs, the franchise’s lowest output since another over-hyped, over-priced flameout in 1992. Daniel Murphy leads the team with just 12 homers. Critics have been quick to blame Citi Field for Wright’s power outage (career-low 10 home runs), however his home-road splits are even. With 140 strikeouts in 533 at-bats (26.3%), he’s clearly changed his approach at the plate with a lack of protection around him. He plans to work with hitting coach Howard Johnson during the offseason to round himself back into shape for 2010.

While the off-field distractions were utterly embarrassing (Tony Bernazard, Omar Minaya-Adam Rubin, Jerry Manuel’s very public rivalry with Ryan Church), what was left of the product on the field set new standards of losing in the most epic and painful ways possible. From missing third base (Ryan Church) to a dropped pop-fly by Luis Castillo against the Yankees in June to a pair of walk-off grand slams served up by Francisco Rodriguez (the first ever to do it in one season), the Mets were not satisfied with simply slipping into unremarkable mediocrity. They lost. A lot. And they wanted you to remember it.

Silver Linings:

After his unforgettable drop against the Yankees, I wondered out loud if Luis Castillo could survive the blunder. Well, he’s done that and then some, batting .316/.398/.351 with 25 RBI, 44 runs scored and 14 stolen bases since June 12. With an overall line of .304/.389/.347 with 77 runs scored in 141 games (shockingly, the third most among Mets position players this season), Castillo is no longer the fans’ favorite whipping boy. While Omar Minaya can now claim that the signing isn’t a complete disaster, he should be looking for a taker during the offseason.

Angel Pagan has earned himself a spot on the Mets’ bench next season. Plugging a hole while Carlos Beltran was on the mend, the 28-year-old outfielder has batted .298/.343/.469 with six home runs, 32 RBI and 14 stolen bases in 339 at-bats. He surprisingly ranks fourth in the league with 10 triples.

Looking to shake things up, Omar Minaya acquired Jeff Francoeur in exchange for Ryan Church in a classic “change of scenery” trade on July 10. Apparently Minaya was enamored with Francoeur’s ability to play in a lot of games, an underrated quality in a season like this. Francoeur actually played quite well in what was effectively an audition for a new contract, batting .311/.338/.498 with 10 homers and 41 RBI in 289 at-bats. There has been talk about buying out his arbitration years, but the Mets would be wise to take it a year at a time with a player who is just as likely to revert to being one of the least valuable players in the league.

Looking Ahead:

There’s no perfect elixir to what ails the Mets. They will have to fill significant holes at first base, catcher and left field. Though they have shown flashes, Daniel Murphy, Omir Santos, Josh Thole and Angel Pagan shouldn’t be expected to carry the load at those respective positions if they want to be competitive. After a disappointing year by Mike Pelfrey, who looked downright lost at times, it’s imperative that the Mets find a No. 2 starter.

Not counting arbitration candidates (Francoeur, Pagan and Pedro Feliciano, among others) the club has roughly $105 million tied up in contract commitments for 2010. In this post-Madoff world, they will likely have somewhere in the vicinity of $20-25 million to improve. For an organization exposed as lacking in major-league ready prospects, it will be difficult to upgrade via trade.

The injuries are a convenient excuse, but no manager who leads his team to a lifeless 20-48 stretch deserves to be considered “safe.” That’s why I expect and urge the team to replace Jerry Manuel before next season. In recent weeks, there’s been a movement building for Bobby Valentine to return as manager in 2010. Nostalgia? Sure. But what it reveals is a longing among the fanbase. They want an overhaul. Not just someone who pitches every five days (Johan Santana) like after they collapsed in 2007; not just someone who pitches the ninth inning every couple of days (Francisco Rodriguez) like after they collapsed again last season. They want a change at the top. Valentine wouldn’t be a long-term solution, mind you, but they could find a worse steward to change the culture of the clubhouse and restore some faith heading into an uncertain future. Fred Wilpon and company shouldn’t expect fans to line up with the same leadership in place, no matter how much they cut ticket prices.