Much Ado About El Duque

With the arrival of Johan Santana, who would have believed there’d be so much concern and discussion surrounding Orlando Hernandez at the beginning of spring training?

Only two weeks of workouts, and already pundits are clamoring for El Duque to move to the bullpen, citing his various physical woes.

For example, from Marty Noble in his most recent “mailbag“:

The Mets would be better off now and in the future if they move Hernandez into the bullpen and start Mike Pelfrey in the rotation. Hernandez would stand a better chance of lasting the entire season, and Pelfrey would get some positive big league time.

Really? Based on what? Pelfrey’s 5.57 ERA and 4 1/3 inning starts last year? Because his performances were so glowing and full of potential compared to El Duque’s 6-, 7-, and 8-inning efforts and his 1.17 WHIP?

I hate to single out Noble’s comments, because he’s far from the only pundit who has this stupefying notion that El Duque is somehow better off in the bullpen. In fact, the theory has spread like a virus this winter, and I suppose it’s based on Duque’s miraculous three innings of relief work for the White Sox during the 2004 ALCS and another single, hitless inning of relief in the World Series a few days later (he walked FOUR in that inning, by the way).

Take a look at Hernandez’s career, and you’ll notice that he’s pitched in 219 games — 211 as a starter. But those three innings against the Angels four years ago stick in people’s heads like a moth on flypaper.

I’m not going to argue the fact that Orlando Hernandez is fragile, and the fact that he might be surreptitiously carrying an AARP card doesn’t increase our confidence in his health. He’s going to break down — that’s for certain — and he’s going to spend at least one stint if not two on the DL this season. But we know that going in, and it’s OK because we have Pelfrey waiting in the wings to grab a dozen or so starts. It’s not unlike “the deal” we have with Moises Alou: no one expects more than 100 games from Alou — but no one is calling for the leftfield job to be handed to Endy Chavez, either. We know these guys are older than dirt, but also know that when they’re in the lineup, they’ll be better than at least 75% of the rest of the men who play their position. More importantly, we have Alou and Hernandez for the postseason. That’s really their singular purpose on the roster, to somehow keep their bodies patched together so they’re able to provide October heroics.

The notion of putting El Duque in the bullpen is not only baseless, it’s sheer stupidity. We all agree that Orlando has health issues — so why in the world would we think that putting him into a role of irregularity would somehow keep him healthier? People who opine that a relief role would be “best” for Hernandez based on health concerns clearly have no idea how the human body works in an athletic environment nor have any experience managing pitchers. Talk for a few minutes to a professional trainer or a physician and they will tell you that the ideal routine for an injury-prone athlete is exactly that: routine. Fragile (and recovering) players need to adhere to a strict, consistent program of physical activity — a starting pitcher’s routine, in fact, is ideal. You want to see El Duque land on the DL? Have him sit around the bullpen doing nothing for a week and a half, then put him into the fourth inning of a game for mopup duty. Better yet, tab him for a middle relief role, making him warm up and cool down three or four times during a game before getting in. Remember, he’s been a starter his entire life — to suddenly switch him to relief is not something that he can be expected to adjust to without a) difficulty and b) experimentation. For example, we don’t know if he can pitch on back to back days, because he’s never done it before. We don’t know if he can throw an inning or two, then come back two days later, on a consistent basis. Off the top of my head the only longtime veteran starters who made a successful transition to the bullpen were Dennis Eckersley and John Smoltz — but they were in their early 30s when they did so, not their early 50s. Change is difficult as one gets older.

Personally, I think bullpen management is challenging enough for Willie Randolph — he doesn’t need the added pressure of wondering whether he can use El Duque or not from day to day. Let’s remember that, when healthy, Hernandez put forth some of the best starts we saw all year — and with that in mind how should he be used out of the ‘pen? You certainly don’t want to waste his talent in a long relief, Aaron Sele role, where he may or may not pitch for weeks at a time. But does he have the physical ability to be useful in a middle relief or setup role? It might turn out that his body doesn’t recover quickly enough to pitch EFFECTIVELY more than once a week — and if that’s the case, wouldn’t you rather try to get 7-8 innings out of him rather than one or two? If he’s going to falter, I’d rather see it happen in the third or fourth inning of a game that can be salvaged, rather than the seventh or eighth frame of a 4-3 ballgame.

In a fantasy world, where all we rely on are PECOTA or Strat-O-Matic cards, having Orlando Hernandez in the bullpen seems like a great idea. In reality, where we must deal with the quirks and inconsistencies of the human body, it’s not so clear-cut. Maybe El Duque’s body will easily transition to the rigors of relief — but maybe it won’t. In a rotation where he’ll take the fifth turn — a turn that won’t be needed until late April — and isn’t expected to make more than 20 starts, is it worth the gamble?

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.
  1. isuzudude February 26, 2008 at 9:57 am
    AMEN, BROTHER! It may not be often that we agree, but we definitely see eye-to-eye on this issue, Joe. I concur 100% that moving Hernandez to the pen is much easier said than done.

    “It’s not unlike “the deal” we have with Moises Alou: no one expects more than 100 games from Alou — but no one is calling for the leftfield job to be handed to Endy Chavez, either.” Perfect analogy.

    It’s not that the idea of moving El Duque to the pen is completely out of the question. But I believe that role is best suited for him either 1) in the playoffs, or 2) if he completely breaks down as a starter in 2008. But let’s get real. On the current staff, Duque is only expected to give us the performance of a #5 starter. And it’s not like we have a Scott Kazmir or Tim Lincecum waiting in the wings. Duque is by far our best #5 starter available, and need only give us around 20 starts during the regular season and by healthy by October to be of service to the Mets. Mike Pelfrey is better off developing more and gaining confidence in AAA, and being summoned when Hernandez gets injured.

    Additionally, a point few pundits are bringing up, is who gets bumped from the bullpen to make room for Hernandez? With a returning Duaner Sanchez, it’s hard to find room for Duque, what with Wagner, Heilman, Feliciano, Wise, Schoeneweis, and Sosa already holding firm grips on their spots.

    All in all, Joe, I couldn’t agree more with your synopsis. Although I am somewhat surprised you aren’t lobbying at least a little bit for Heilman to replace Hernandez in the rotation. Maybe you’re saving that bullet for the offseason.

  2. whatdatmean February 26, 2008 at 11:44 am
    Realistically…the BP starts the year as show, sosa, sanchez, feliciano, heilman, wags, + wise/register/smith/other.
    El duq should get the #5 spot out of camp. He is the best #5 in MLB, hands down…that is, until he hits the DL. i
    f Pelfrey takes the ball and runs with it, when Duq is on the DL, Duq goes to the BP. There are a number of options to do this.
    *Sosa &/or show get traded…there are rumors, + there are takers
    *wise/register start in AAA, moved to AAA, or released…as they are not guaranteed contracts,
    *all other RP’s have minor league contracts and can/will start the season in AAA
    *they rotate BP members to the DL, for rest a.k.a. “shoulder fatigue”
    *it is easier to call up BP, where we have the most depth, bc SP are called up by turns in the rotation. The Mets have already said that Pelfrey will not pitch from the BP
    *it will be easier to spot start el duq in place of perez/pedro/maine, when they need a rest, or to run a 6 man rotation mid-season
    *el duq could benefit from the BP. In the “Oliver/Sele role”…his usage would be spread out, and in less volume. But, he will be warm and loose almost every day…which may PREVENT injs.

    There are +/- to both sides. the key is having a plan.
    There have been rumors that the Mets are marketing show, sosa, easley, & gotay, to try and get some prospects.
    The roster may not even be set yet.

  3. isuzudude February 26, 2008 at 12:02 pm
    “*el duq could benefit from the BP. In the “Oliver/Sele role”…his usage would be spread out, and in less volume. But, he will be warm and loose almost every day…which may PREVENT injs.”
    Did you not read Joe’s post? Sporadic periods of rest and work are much more DETRIMENTAL to a fragile pitcher’s health than beneficial. And again, why are you looking to only get 2-4 innings per week out of El Duque out of the pen in mop-up work when he could be pitching 7+ innings per start and giving the Mets much better chances to win ballgames?

    “There have been rumors that the Mets are marketing show, sosa, easley, & gotay, to try and get some prospects.”
    Do you have any links to these rumors that we can read for ourselves? If so, I’d love to see them.

    “wise/register start in AAA, moved to AAA, or released…as they are not guaranteed contracts,”
    Wise’s contract IS guarenteed, so he cannot be demoted without passing through waivers. Please see rotoworld:
    Also, to clarify, Register cannot be demoted to AAA as he is a Rule 5 pick, which means he would be returned to the Rockies if the Mets don’t carry him on the 25-man roster.

  4. joe February 26, 2008 at 12:35 pm
    Since El Duque is already “behind” the other pitchers, coupled with his age and the fact no fifth starter will be needed for at least the first two weeks, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that he starts the season on the DL, and the Mets either carry an extra reliever or keep Ruben Gotay around (if he isn’t traded by then).

    Much depends on how the pitchers fare in the spring — particularly Register. I imagine that if Register shows any kind of ability, the Mets will want to keep him around as long as possible before selling him back. With Duque on the DL, there’s potentially an extra spot, and who knows what could happen in the first two weeks of the season (i.e., an injury to another pitcher).

  5. whatdatmean February 26, 2008 at 1:20 pm
    dude…you take blogging a tad too seriously…no need to be so jumpy. its an opinion.
    1. no offense to Joe, but last time i checked, he wasnt a major sports analyst, former MLB player, or a physician. I have seen espn/sny discuss transitions to the BP and have heard the contrary. since he is not a hard thrower and is in very good shape, he may benefit from the daily routine of the BP. rather than letting his body freeze up during downtime, he will be loose everyday. Plus, logging around 80 IP in the BP is less taxing than 150 Ip as a SP.
    2. wise was signed to a minor league deal..dont know the clauses. register was a rule 5 and it would be up to the rox if he was to be kept.
    3. in the offseason, i saw rumors re: show + gotay on various blog sites and heard the same on FAN. Easley & Sosa i heard discussed on FAN as players other teams may want. Again, I dont take rumors too seriously. but they are possible.
    the point with el duq is that he SHOULD start[dont know if you missed that]. but, if he gets hurt, and Pelfrey comes in and does well…***IMO***[key phrase], he should be kept in the BP as long as Pelf doing well, the team can benefit from having the #5 doing well and have Duq spot start when other SP get dinged, or exit early. they can expand to 6 man as needed to, bc duq is that flexible of a talent. If you havent noticed, he gets hurt more when he IS NOT on the mound.
    This is not a bad problem to have.
    However, left as a SP after his 1st prolonged stint. Pelfrey would have been called up and sent down already. Then, when Duq goes on the DL say 3-4 more times, odds are Pelf will be inbetween starts, as it is common. So, we call up someone else for a start, or tax sosa, then call up Pelf, then shuttle him up and down as the injs come and go.
    If its chronic, which it seems to be, you cant let him mess with the continuity. it would be better to shuttle the BP around than SP.
    It is merely another opinion, with a whole other school of thought.
  6. joe February 26, 2008 at 1:36 pm
    whatdatmean, no offense taken but FYI — I played and coached at the NCAA D1 and semipro levels and I’ve been coaching pitchers for over 15 years — several went into pro ball and one is still active in MLB. As a pitching coach I’ve spoken with and consulted other coaches at all levels, physicians, trainers, and biomechanics experts, and feel I have a pretty good handle on the mechanics and stress of throwing a baseball. I may not be a “major sports analyst, former MLB player, or physician”, but I’m certain I know more about handling elite pitchers than the typical NY beat writer / TV personality / radio loudmouth.

    Again, no offense, just want to let you know a bit about my background — and that my theories / opinions are based on hands-on experience with successful pitchers as well as information from respected and legitimate authorities.

  7. isuzudude February 26, 2008 at 1:48 pm
    I apologize for sounding too “serious,” but please don’t take anything on this blog too personally. I’m passionate about the Mets and I enjoy a good debate. I respect your opinion, but please accept my ability to disagree.
    As per your points…
    1. I’ll let Joe handle
    2. Wise was NOT signed to a minor league deal. If you had clicked on the link I attached to my last post, you would have learned that for yourself. So instead, let me copy and paste the info:
    ***Matt Wise’s one-year deal with the Mets is worth $1.2 million.
    It’s a partially guaranteed deal. He’ll receive $750,000 if he’s cut by the team during spring training. The $1.2 million is $200,000 more than he made with the Brewers last year.***
    So if Wise performs well in ST and over the first few weeks of the season, how do you explain cutting Wise to use an inexperienced Duque in the bullpen, as well as a potentially underachieving Pelfrey in the rotation?
    3. I guess we disagree over who should be starting, Duque or Pelfrey, if both are healthy and pitching well. Personally, I’d prefer sending Pelfrey back to AAA than demoting Duque to the bullpen. But your whole argument stems on Pelfrey pitching well in the majors while spelling for an injured Hernandez, which is, by no stretch, a given. If he comes up and pitches poorly, I’d assume you’d be in favor of Duque reclaiming his rotation spot. At least that’s not as bad as some of the whack-jobs out there who think Hernandez should be the permanent long-man out of the pen, pitching once every 2 weeks, while someone like Lohse, Armas, or Vargas should be the #5.
  8. whatdatmean February 26, 2008 at 2:14 pm
    *joe-i had no idea. which makes you more informed than me…thats for sure. i heard one of the analysts on espn/sny discussing el duq at the end of last season/this off season that for him particularily, it may be better. there was a solid logic behind it. im not saying that you dont make sense, but i dont see it as moronic either. i typically agree with you…but i dont think its bad if he ends up in the pen. i dont by any means believe he should start there.
    *izu-i respect your opinions, and you typically support them with solid facts. the point that seems to be missing is that duq SHOULD be the #5, but not if he has a chronic problem or “loses his job” to Pelf. Id rather have him than not. He was arguably our best pitcher last year, when healthy. I respect you being an avid Met fan, as i am. So im sure you can see that the one thing we lacked was a consistant guy at the back of the rotation for the last few years. Consistancy is the key. Shuffling Pelf back/forth bc Duq has a hang nail could be bad business.
    Joe is 100% correct that the duq should start on the DL until the #5 is needed, then get the spot.
    Ride him until he goes down. but IF pelf does well in his absence, you shouldnt move the kid. Odds are Duq wouldnt be a SP in the post season, so if Pelf is hot, let Duq get used to the BP where he can patch the holes, where we otherwise lack depth.
    If Pelf struggles…Duq has to be in the rotation and we have to be in the market for depth for down the stretch.
  9. Micalpalyn February 26, 2008 at 9:55 pm

    as always nice topic:

    1. El duque: I am a proponent of El duque the reliever, but that has more to do with the Mets needs (last yr). 2008 is different. My view is El duque is excess to requirements. what is missing is a statement OMAR made reference the Santana trade, and that is Pelfrey was not on the table.

    2. To me that reads as the Mets are committed (today) to Pel. I thought Pel was perfect for Minn as a 4th-5th starter but for now I am seeing himas the Mets #5.

    3. El duque and injuries: Yes there are times/stretches when he is inconsistent. but the TIMING of the injuries has been ‘bad’.
    given Santana-Pedro-Maine-Ollie make an awesome rotation….
    Plus Pelfrey & Vargas can fill the #5 slot why not trade El Duque and pick up some younger players/projects? Could El Duque fetch an Edwin Jackson? Arz traded El Duque to the Mets allowing youth to compete for a slot. The same D-backs were NL West champs last yr.