Delgado Resurgence = A Receded Slugger, No?

The Mets will play their first non-intrasquad game of the spring today against the University of Michigan, though their first televised game won't be played until Friday against the Cardinals in Port St. Lucie. If you're anything like me, you're practically seething at this point just to see some real game action, even if it's only of the half-assed spring training variety. MLB.com has the spring training broadcast schedule, and the good news is that nineteen games over the next five weeks can be seen on TV. No news on whether any of the exhibition games will be broadcast in high definition, though I have it on good authority that most if not all of the Mets' regular season road games *will* be in HD. This is great news for those of us with big flat panel teevees, and not really news at all for those of you still in the dark ages who would sooner spend their disposable income on "food" and "shelter" and other "conveniences that promote life". Good luck with that.

So we know that much of the next five weeks will be televised, and despite the Mets strengthening their rotation with the acquisition of Johan Santana, the team is not without its share of question marks. One of the biggest uncertainties is the future -- 2008 as well as beyond -- of Carlos Delgado. The Mets hold a $12 million option for 2009 with a $4 million buyout, which effectively means that Delgado will cost the team $8 million to keep him around after this season. The 2009 option could have vested at $16 million had Delgado collected enough MVP shares, but that seems pretty unlikely at this point. Considering the way the big guy seemingly fell off a cliff production-wise last season, that $8 million seems like a lot to swallow right now, especially when you consider that it could be put to better use on the Mark Teixeiras and Adam Dunns of the free agent world.

Offensively, the Mets got well below league average production out of their first basemen last year, and most of that blame falls on Delgado's shoulders. Here are the Mets' team ranks at first base relative to the rest of the National League last season.

OPS: 11th (.797)
AVG: 15th (.260)
OBP: 13th (.344)
SLG: 11th (.453)

That's terrible, and if we consider that Delgado is almost certainly a detriment on the basepaths as well as with the glove, we can reasonably conclude that the Mets got well below league average production all around. They more than made up for any shortcomings at first base with terrific performances at third and in center, but that only helps to disguise the fact that the Mets need to see some significant improvement at first. Not so long ago -- all the way back in 2006 -- the Mets got solid offense from Delgado. Here are their team ranks from 2006.

OPS: 6th (.887)
AVG: 12th (.272)
OBP: 9th (.359)
SLG: 5th (.529)

Delgado was a little better than those aggregate numbers: .265/.361/.548 overall, but any way you cut it the Mets lost a lot from 2006 to 2007. Can Delgado regain his form? Thirty-five year old sluggardly sluggers don't usually start improving in their old age, though Delgado blames his dropoff last year to mechanical problems with his swing. Willie Randolph has indicated that he didn't feel Delgado made adjustments quickly enough last year, though he seems to attribute that more to stubbornness than physical regression. In the afore-linked article, Ben Shpigel talks about Delgado's offseason workout program in which he dedicated himself to re-learning his swing.

At first, Delgado concentrated only on his swing mechanics, practicing with a tee so his muscles would remember how it felt. He moved on to a hitting machine and then took batting practice. Shortly after arriving here Monday morning, Delgado entered a batting cage with the process committed to memory. Stay back, recognize the pitch, step with the front foot -- the right foot -- and swing. Just as he once did.
Delgado even said, "It's harder to hit .240 than to hit .300 in a funny kind of way." I guess that's funny in an ironic sort of way, though when I relayed the story to Rey Ordonez, the former Met shortstop failed to see the humor.

The good news for Delgado is that he *did* seem to pick things up in the second half of last season. Here are his pre/post All-Star Game splits:

First half: .242/.305/.435
Second half: .285/.375/.469

The improvement is certainly encouraging, and supports Delgado's claim (or was it Randolph's?) that he was slow to adapt his swing to whatever was ailing him. Beyond even the first and second half splits, Delgado hit .321/.383/.566 over 60 plate appearances in September. It may just be a small sample size fluctuation, or it may be Delgado finally finding his stroke in the season's waning days. He seems to think that his early struggles were a result of a general lack of focus on his part:

"I wasn't as focused as I needed to be. I ended up thinking too much, trying to do too much, trying to fix it too quick, instead of just stopping for a second and making an adjustment."
Whatever the problem, Delgado committed himself this offseason to getting into shape and correcting whatever flaws his swing happened into last season. His appearance has been described as "leaner and stronger" (link), and I'm not going to discount the possibility that he could bounce back and have a season more in line with what 2007 should have been: a slight dropoff from his 2006 numbers, but not such a precipitous decline as 2007 actually offered. If we consider 2007 to be an abnormally unproductive year for Delgado, it isn't such a stretch to think that his performance could slide back into the gradual declination track that it appeared to be on prior to last season.

Delgado isn't the perennial MVP candidate that he once was, but the Mets don't really need him to be that guy considering the offensive surplus they have at some other positions. If Delgado can stay healthy this year and provide league average offense for a first baseman, that'll be more than enough to help push this team to the top of the NL East.*

* not a guarantee

Kudos to those of you who recognized the anagramic nature of this post's title.

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