When Casey Stengel managed the original New York Mets, losers of 120 games in 1962, he was often cleverly blunt in assessing the team's legendary lack of talent. ''See that guy on the left,'' he once told reporters upon noticing two rookies standing together. ''In 10 years he's got a chance to be a star. In 10 years the other guy's got a chance to be 30.''
The point is that Stengel, if he were around today, would be hard pressed to say anything uncomplimentary about the Mets, whose recent eight-game winning streak gave them first place in the National League East. With Chicago and Philadelphia also playing well, there are no guarantees that New York will stay there. But for a team that finished 22 games behind the division-winning Phillies last season, the Mets have accomplished a remarkable turnaround under Manager Dave Johnson, the club's fourth new pilot in as many years.
What Johnson has developed is a Kiddie Korps pitching staff, headed by 19 -year-old Dwight Gooden and Ron Darling, that has a chance to win every time either of these players takes the mound. Ed Lynch and Bruce Berenyi, the club's other starters, aren't far behind them in talent, either.
Gooden, of course, isn't just a hard-throwing young phenom whose 90 m.p.h. fastball intimidates hitters. Dwight also knows how to get people out with a curve he must have borrowed from the Long Island Railroad and a changeup that most hitters seem to discover too late.
Yet even with Gooden and Darling going for them, the Mets wouldn't be anywhere near the pennant threat they are without what is probably the best bullpen in the National League. It is manned by left-hander Jesse Orosco and right-hander Doug Sisk.
Orosco and Sisk were involved in 33 of the team's first 42 wins this season. Jesse, a fastball pitcher with control, handles pressure so well that he probably should be invited to cap oil well fires in the off-season. Sisk, whose natural sinker forces hitters to beat the ball into the ground, had a recent stretch in which he allowed only three earned runs in more than 53 innings.
Despite opposite personalities (Orosco is library quiet; Sisk video arcade loud), the two pitchers share an apartment in Maspeth, N.Y., only minutes by car from Shea Stadium.
Incidentally, Johnson rates right there with Jim Frey of the Cubs as a National League Manager of the Year candidate. Cuban flashes hitting potential with Tigers
Infielder-outfielder Barbaro Garbey, who came to the United States from Cuba as part of the 1980 Freedom Flotilla, still doesn't play regularly for the Detroit Tigers, and several other American League rookies had better overall credentials. But Garbey, who has hit close to .300 all year for Manager Sparky Anderson, has the ability to become a top RBI man, according to Tigers' batting coach Gates Brown.
''Barbaro is a kid I've had to reason with quite a bit because he came to us with a lot of bad habits as a hitter,'' Brown explained. ''For example, he's not a power hitter, yet for a while home runs were all he seemed to have on his mind. He had a tendency to overswing. But once we convinced him that his future was concentrating on just making contact and driving the ball somewhere, not too many pitchers have been able to stop him.''
Garbey, older than most rookies at 27, has a wife and two small daughters still living somewhere in Cuba. California Angels third-base coach Preston Gomez , who knows something about how tough it is to get relatives out of Castro country, has been working through Cuba's Olympic Committee on behalf of Barbaro. Elsewhere around the majors
* From Houston Astros' strikeout pitcher Nolan Ryan on the fact that he has issued more walks than anyone in baseball: ''I never would have been able to do it without the umpires.''
* At the moment, most baseball people give little thought to expansion, but by 1990 the major leagues probably will have grown to four eight-team divisions. Top candidates for new franchises include Indianapolis, Vancouver, Denver, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C.
* The Los Angeles Dodgers, no matter what a player does, almost never criticize him publicly. The Dodgers, for example, are voluntarily paying all the day-to-day expenses of pitcher Steve Howe, who is currently on a one-year suspension from baseball for drug abuse. L.A. was also the first National League team to recognize the problem of alcohol among employees and establish a permanent program to combat it.
* Asked what happened to his brother Tim, who used to be a running back in the National Football League, shortstop Dale Berra of the Pittsburgh Pirates replied: ''Tim runs our family-owned racquetball club back in New Jersey and does a great job at it. But let me tell you something: Tim could have played major league baseball if he'd wanted to, which he didn't. He was one of those naturals who could have played any position, including pitcher.''