St. Petersburg, Fla. — How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky? How far does one have to travel to see light at the end of the tunnel for the New York Mets, who finished 24 games behind the champion Philadelphia Phillies last year in the National League East?
Take this negative attitude to Manager Joe Torre and his answer is that for three months last season, from mid-May through mid-August, the Mets played some of the best baseball in the National League.
"What we accomplished as a team during that period was no fluke," Torre explained. "We played well in the field, we hit with men on base, our pitching held up, and we beat most of the league's better clubs at home and on the road."
"The bulk of our problems developed over the last six weeks of the season when we got hit with a series of injuries," Joe continued. "We just didn't have the depth to compensate for the loss of people like John Stearns, Craig Swan, Doug Flymn. Ron Hodges, and Pat Zachry."
Although the Mets helped themselves during the winter by signing free agents Mike Cubbage, Dave Roberts, and Rusty Staub and by trading for Randy Jones, Dave Kingmam, and Bob Bailor, these are basically short-term gains.
While Staub at 37 remains a good contact hitter, Rusty hasn't been in double figures in home runs simce 1978, and his range at first base is just slightly better than the Statue of Liberty's. Staub's late-inning replacement, Mike Jorgensen, can probably count on appearing in at least 100 games.
Desperate for a No. 4 hitter with power, New York is hoping that Kingman, who often has the temperament for grand opera, can again produce in the neighborhood of 40 homers and 100 RBIs after playing in only 81 games for Chicago last season.
It is also interesting and probably sigmificant that the Cubs, with the same kind of power needs as the Mets, were willing to trade Kingman for singles-hitter Steve Henderson. Although Henderson has none of Dave's muscle, he has more multiple skills, especially im the outfield.
The remainder of the outfield will have Lee Mazzilli in center and Mookie Wilson in right. Mazzilli, who took acting lessons this winter and has a Rudolph Valentino profile as far as most womem fans are concerned, hit 280, with 16 home runs, 76 RBIs, amd 41 stolen bases last year.
Wilson, a switch-hitter who appeared in just 27 games late last season with the Mets, had 655 consecutive at-bats without hitting into a double play during his last two years at Tidewater. Mookie (real first name William) keeps veteran Joel Youngblood on the bench if he hits.
In addition to Staub at first base, Torre will have Gold Glover Flynn at second and Frank Taveras at shortstop. There will be the usual subway rush-hour traffic at third base among Cubbage, Bailor, amd speedy rookie Hubie Brooks.
Stearns, who improved his batting average by 42 points last year, is scheduled to do the bulk of the catching, with backup help from Alex Trevino, who was a regular for part of last season when both Stearns and Hodges were hurt.
But in the final analysis, of course, how much the Mets improve will depend on the quality of their pitching.
Mark Bomback, the biggest winner on the club last season (10-8, but with only two complete games), might benefit from just being around the Mets' new pitching coach -Hall of Famer Bob Gibson.
Left-hander Randy Jones, the National League's Cy Young Award winner in 1976 with San Diego, is another sure starter.
Torre is also hoping for a comeback by Swan, who led the National League with a 2.43 earned-run average in 1978, topped the Mets with 14 victories in '79, but fell off to a 5-9 record last year when injuries limited him to 128 innings pitched.
Zachry and Pete Falcone are the other probable starters, unless rookie right handers Mike Scott and Ed Lynch show enough to speed up their personal timetables.
The bullpen, already anchored by on of the best relievers in baseball in Neil Al len (22 saves in 1980), will also benefit from the talents of Jeff Reardon, To Hausman, and the left-handed Roberts who pitched for Seattle last season.
In summing up, the Mets will receive few Oscar nominations from those who handicap the National League pennant race, but look for Flynn, Mazzilli, and perhaps Jones to draw high consideration in the area of best supporting players.