Five-and-a-half innings into the 2011 season, the Mets already appeared to be playing meaningless baseball. Down 5-0 to the Marlins and being no-hit by a locked-in Josh Johnson, Terry Collins brought in Rule 5 pick Pedro Beato to pitch the bottom of the sixth. If your bullpen is a wardrobe, then Rule 5 pitchers in April are sweatpants. It’s an admission that the situation is relatively unimportant. So using Beato, a Rule 5 pick facing the combined jitters of a major league debut, Opening Day, and having never pitched above Double-A before, is admitting that the situation is really, really unimportant. This would be like putting on cutoff sweatpants. Terry Collins was basically saying, “If he’s going to implode and give up 20 runs in his debut, we might as well get it out of the way on a night when we’re being no-hit by one of the best pitchers in baseball.” If not a concession, using Beato was at least an admission that the game seemed out of reach.
But here’s the thing: Even though the Mets were losing a game that seemed out of reach in the sixth, it was not a meaningless moment. Pedro Beato is a 24 year old, former first round pick with a sinking fastball and a little breaking ball. He’s probably going to struggle a bit this year, but he could improve and become a bullpen piece for the next few years. So while Beato’s appearance may have had little effect on the Mets’ chances of winning, it could potentially help them win in the future. There was meaning to be found.
That’s an important difference between 2011 and the past two losing seasons. You know who pitches in meaningless spots a year ago? Oliver Perez. Maybe Elmer Dessens. Or Fernando Nieve. Possibly even Raul Valdes. Pitchers who couldn’t help the Mets win today or tomorrow. The final months of last season felt so uninspiring because the Mets were playing meaningless games, often without helping themselves in the future — making those games truly meaningless. At various points, known quantities like Jeff Francoeur, Chris Carter, Rod Barajas, Luis Castillo, and Luis Hernandez played ineffectively as the relatively untested likes of Fernando Martinez, Nick Evans, Ruben Tejada, and Josh Thole sat on the bench (while Justin Turner, who was playing well in Triple-A, didn’t even get an invite). This is not to mention that Perez sucked up a spot on the 25 man roster for months. It was, to channel my inner twitchy Thom Yorke, both hysterical and useless. If you can’t win right now, you should at least be helping yourself win in the future — too often over the past two years, the Mets have been doing neither.
Last night, the hysterical and useless Mets were nowhere to be seen. In their place were young and potentially useful players like Beato, who despite giving up four hard hit balls in the sixth, wound up throwing two scoreless innings. With the deficit cut to three in the seventh, another Rule 5 pick, second baseman Brad Emaus, knocked Josh Johnson out of the game, drawing a walk and bringing the tying run to the plate. Thole and Ike Davis were in the starting lineup, Daniel Murphy was on the bench, and Lucas Duda made a pinch hitting apperance. The Mets lost last night, but compare the lineup to Opening Day last year, when Mike Jacobs, Gary Matthews Jr., Alex Cora, Rod Barajas, and Jeff Francoeur all started, and it sure feels like some sort of victory. Maybe guys Beato and Emaus will prove unable to keep their jobs as well . . . but they might not, either, and there’s value in trying to find that out. Which is different than trying to see if Gary Matthews Jr., thirty-five and coming off three straight bad seasons, is spontaneously going to age in reverse.
This isn’t to say the Mets are giving up on 2011 already. They still have David Wright, Jose Reyes, half of Carlos Beltran, Angel Pagan, Jason Bay, Francisco Rodriguez and enough talent to make a run at 85 wins. But instead of filling in the gaps around that group with players who will definitely be bad, this year the gaps are being filled with players who might not be bad. Pitchers like Chris Young, Chris Capuano, and Taylor Buchholz appear healthy and could recover to their pre-injury forms. Infielder Chin-lung Hu is smooth fielding shortstop and a .300 hitter in the minors. Lucas Duda might become a poor man’s Adam Dunn. There are a bunch of players on this roster who could be something, instead of a bunch of players who already aren’t anything. It’s Pedro Beato instead of Oliver Perez, Brad Emaus instead of Luis Castillo. It’s your fitter . . . happier . . . more productive Mets. Even when they’re not winning today, they’re trying to win tomorrow. This season, the meaningless moments aren’t quite so meaningless. That’s a step in the right direction.