Though some have talked about the Mets' swift exit from the playoff race as if the season were over, the remaining quarter of the season is extremely portentous and potentially valuable to the Mets.
Fortunately, despite what seem like their best intentions at times, a number of answers for 2011 already exist.
We know that David Wright and Jose Reyes have bounced back from a down year and an injury-marred one, respectively, and are building blocks at third base and shortstop.
We know that Angel Pagan's 2009 was no fluke, and that he can hold down a corner outfield spot or center field admirably.
We know that the pitching rotation has four strong alternatives-Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey, Jonathon Niese and R.A. Dickey-all of whom are under contract for 2011.
Now, here are some questions the Mets must begin to answer over the final 38 games. Some of them seem ready to be answered; others, not so much. The sample size is not going to be definitive. But it will be far better than just guessing, or as the team has done in recent years, employing the same failed solutions and hoping for the best.
Who will be the everyday second baseman in 2011? Every at-bat that Luis Castillo takes up is a wasted one-we already knew coming into this season that he was not a viable alternative at the position, and 2010 has reinforced this. If Ruben Tejada isn't playing, Justin Turner should be. Realistically, Turner has the better chance of taking over the position in 2011. But the Mets need to know how desperately they need to allocate any free agent money on a reasonable solution to the position.
Who will be the everyday catcher in 2011? The Mets seem eager to get this answer, and the hope is it will be Josh Thole. If Thole plays the lion's share of remaining games-say, 30 of the final 38-he'll accumulate about 200 plate appearances. If his season-ending numbers are where they are now-around a .700 OPS-that should be more than sufficient to allow him to start in 2011. A reasonable backup-one who can step in if necessary, not just a defense-only guy like Henry Blanco-will be ideal.
Who will be the four men in the outfield in 2011? The question seems like a strange one, but bear with me. Angel Pagan is a given, whether in a corner or center field. The Mets have another 38 games to evaluate Carlos Beltran. Assuming reasonable rest, he'll end up with around 220-240 plate appearances. If his production stays at current levels-a .665 OPS-he is not a reasonable Plan A for 2011. Not in center field, not in a corner.
Given that Jason Bay is a pretty decent bet to rebound from his 2010, and untradeable at any rate, the Mets have to determine whether Beltran can play, and be prepared to eat his contract if he can't. They also have a single outfield position open over the final 38 games to find out if there are alternatives within the organization.
I say open, but I'm obviously referring to right field, patrolled by Jeff Francoeur. For Francoeur, the season has been Beltran-like-a .655 OPS, so ten points worse than Beltran-but unlike Beltran, he has no history of success well beyond this, nor is he coming back from a year-plus layoff. This is who Francoeur is.
A single at-bat for Francoeur is a wasted one. You can make the argument that the Mets should rest Pagan more down the stretch-they now know who he is, and that he should be in the plans for 2011.
If Fernando Martinez is injured again-and he is-then it is time for Kirk Nieuwenhuis to play right field. Or Sean Ratliff. Or Nick Evans. Or Lucas Duda. The Mets actually have numerous alternatives to potentially help them in corner outfield positions in 2011, and with Pagan in center, they can hold down right and even left field should Bay fail to recover his previous form. But the sooner they find out how any of these alternatives hit major league pitching, and how decently they can field their positions, the better-informed they will be come this winter.
Who will be the closer in 2011? This could very well be Francisco Rodriguez-certainly, Ken Davidoff feels this is the logical end result of all the legal maneuverings, and you don't make a lot of money betting against Ken Davidoff's opinions.
But let's just say something goes wrong with that scenario. Wouldn't it be worthwhile to find out how Bobby Parnell does in that role, a pitcher ten years younger than current closer Hisanori Takahashi? Parnell is having a strong year, holding both righties and lefties to a sub-.700 OPS, and he's more than halved his 2009 walk rate while bumping his strikeout rate almost two strikeouts per nine innings.
In short, the Mets have a closer solution for 2011 who is almost certainly better than anything they could get via free agency or trade. It behooves them to make sure the relatively small number of innings he's thrown for them aren't a statistical blip-something they could know better if they'd started the season with him.
Who will be the manager in 2011? Look, there have been people calling for Jerry Manuel's head, and I get it-his bullpen management is incomprehensible, his inability to stick to a plan for more than a few days is infuriating, and clearly, his team isn't making the playoffs, yet he continues to allocate playing time as though they might be.
But firing Jerry Manuel has always seemed to be beside the point to me. When the Hindenburg crashed, no one worried about changing the man piloting it. It was designed to inspire the cry of "Oh, the humanity!"
However, if Jerry Manuel won't play his players to answer the above questions, he probably does need to be jettisoned. And if someone in the organization is the planned skipper-particularly if it is someone without major league managing experience-getting Wally Backman those 38 games now would be a helpful head start on 2011.
I'm not endorsing Backman, mind you. I've yet to be particularly convinced in either direction on him, frankly, and suspect the Mets can do better. I'm just pointing out that if the plan for 2011 is being formulated now, these final 38 games need to be geared toward doing so with the most knowledge possible.