Another Heilman Harangue

No, the Mets are not trading Aaron Heilman for Aaron Harang (I don’t think). Pass on this post if you’re tired of my ranting about putting Aaron Heilman into the rotation. But I need to vent.

With the trade deadline less than a week away, the pickings are slim. The ludicrous Dontrelle Willis rumors were without sense and foundation and seem to have finally died down. Barry Zito is still a possibility, though it’s difficult to imagine him going anywhere while the A’s hold a slim first-place lead and will be without Rich Harden for an indeterminate period. GM Billy Beane needs Zito now, and knows he’ll need him even more come playoff time. It would take a remarkable offer to see him go. Similarly, the Giants’ Jason Schmidt is staying put. San Francisco is tied for second place in a weak but competitive NL West. You don’t trade away an ace while in that position.

The only other top-of-the-rotation arms that might be available would require big bats to pry them away; we’re talking the White Sox and Angels, both of whom might trade an arm for a middle-of-the-order masher. In that case, the Mets could offer, say, Cliff Floyd, but is there really a possibility of that happening? I’m thinking no. Had Lastings Milledge set the world on fire, or if Victor Diaz were doing something in AAA, it might be a different story. But the Mets most likely are relying on Uncle Cliffy to provide punch down the stretch and through the playoffs.

All that said, the Mets’ possible targets include some of the following: Gil Meche, Rodrigo Lopez, Livan Hernandez, Cory Lidle, Jon Lieber, Greg Maddux, Paul Byrd, or Jamie Moyer. Meche is probably the most desirable of that group, though he’ll never be more than a decent #3. I might take a flyer on Maddux, since he has extensive playoff experience, but would he be much of an upgrade over Orlando Hernandez? The rest of the bunch may or may not outperform Steve Trachsel, and none would be the answer for the #2 or #3 starter come playoff time.

In other words, unless the Mets can somehow pull off a Barry Zito-type deal, they’re better off standing pat. Which brings us back to the internal issue of having a bucketload of #5 starters but no true #3. Other than the ’01 Diamondbacks (who had Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson) and the ’87 Twins (who couldn’t lose in the Metrodome), there haven’t been too many World Series teams lacking a legit #3 starter. True, not every WS team had a Schilling-Johnson type combo, and not all had Cy Young candidates, but they all had at least three solid, 15-win-type starters. We have Pedro, we hope Glavine turns things around, and then things get murky. You can’t tell me, with a straight face, that Steve Trachsel is a legit #3; he’s a career .469 pitcher who has reached 15 wins twice in 13 years. The only reason he’s still in the rotation is the combination of run support and the lack of quality on the roster. In a short series, such as the playoffs, I’m not even convinced he’s a #4 guy.

So who else is there? If John Maine can pitch all the time like he did in his last start, it’s a no-brainer. Unfortunately, I doubt he can keep that pace. He’s more a #4/#5. Mike Pelfrey may one day be a #1, but this year, I don’t see him starting a playoff game. He would have to make remarkable strides over the next two months to reach that level. He could, however, be valuable out of the ‘pen, for 2-4 innings, in a playoff series.

Some may point to Brian Bannister, but even at the beginning of the season he was penciled in as a #5. The few games he did pitch, he looked adequate, not great. And he’s missed most of the season — time essential to his development. Maybe he’ll turn into a #3 in the coming years, but, like Pelfrey, I don’t see it in 2006.

Then there’s El Duque, the legendary big-game competitor. Problem is, if he continues the current cycle — one good game, one awful game, one mediocre game — he won’t put together a strong enough record to justify being a #3 playoff starter. We can only hope that he’s toying with us now, saving his strength, so that he can catch fire and win his last seven starts in September, thereby earning him a spot.

Outside of an El Duque epiphany, or sudden spectacular development by Bannister/Maine/Pelfrey, the Mets will go into the playoffs with a very shaky starting rotation.

As long as auditions are being held now, why not give Aaron Heilman an opportunity? Admittedly, there’s no reason to assume that he’s the answer. However, he showed enough in his seven starts last year to at least beg the question. He also pitched very well in winter league (which seemed to matter for Endy Chavez and Jose Valentin, but didn’t matter with Heilman), and was the Mets’ top starter in spring training. There are those that will argue that Heilman was inconsistent as a starter, and didn’t show much, but let’s remember the circumstances. He had just returned to his natural arm slot only a week or two before the end of spring training, and was readjusting to the motion. In addition, he wasn’t really a member of the rotation, and not going through the routine of preparing for a start every five days. At his best, he threw a complete-game shutout and a seven-inning two-hitter. At his worst, he was shelled for seven runs in four innings. As the season progressed, he became more comfortable and consistent with his mechanics, and evolved into an outstanding pitcher.

Notice I said “pitcher” and not “reliever”. This bunk about him being unable to go through a lineup more than once, needing another pitch, and other weak statements are exactly that: bunk. There is an outcry on the bloglines stating that his current woes are due to the league catching up with him, and that he can’t survive as a two-pitch pitcher. More bunk. My theory? He’s overworked, was not conditioned for relief pitching, and is not truly “wired” nor physically built for relief pitching.

Let’s look at the numbers. In 2005, Heilman pitched back-to-back days five times. He pitched in a total of 53 games the entire year. He never pitched more than 11 times in one month, and averaged about 8 appearances per month. In the first 100 games of 2006, he’s already pitched back-to-back 7 times. He’s already appeared in 45 games. He’s averaging over 11 games per month. Considering that he’s been a starter his entire life until last year, he’d conditioned himself to starting from October of last year through April 1 of this year, and he’s never been used with this frequency before in his life … isn’t it within reason to consider that perhaps his current slump has something to do with being used too often? A starting pitcher has four days to physically and mentally prepare himself for a game; a reliever must be “up” — physically and mentally — every single day. Maybe Aaron Heilman just isn’t built for this. Maybe the reason he was so good last year was due to Randolph using him sparingly — once or twice a week, in specific situations — and gave him plenty of rest between outings. This year, he was leaned on from the get-go, after spending all of spring training preparing for a starter pitcher routine. From game one on, Mr. Willie made it absolutely clear that Aaron Heilman would be pitching the seventh and/or eighth inning in every game where the Mets had an opportunity to win. Some pitchers — Turk Wendell comes to mind — thrive in that role. Others do not. Perhaps Heilman does not have the mental / emotional ability to be “up” for every single game, over the course of a full season. It’s not an unreasonable possibility, and it’s not something that should be held against Heilman, if it’s true.

Look at the way he was used in April and May, and you will see why he’s falling apart in July. His poor outings of late are due to mental and/or physical fatigue, and I’ll point directly to the May Yankee series as the beginning of his issues — when Mr. Willie used him for three innings and then brought him back with one day’s rest for another. Randolph burned him out in two months.

Why should we care? Why shouldn’t we just force the issue, until Heilman does build the mental toughness to be an everyday pitcher?

Several reasons. First, he’s established that he can be a dominating pitcher. Shut up about “… only as a reliever …”. A guy who throws lights out the way he did last year, and continued to do so up until June of this year, is a Big League Talent. When on, he makes minced meat of opposing batters, using his moving, sinking fastball and his change-up. He throws a slider but rarely needs it (for those who think he’s a two-pitch pitcher). When he’s off, it’s due to his loss of command, which is the first sign of fatigue (read: overuse) for any pitcher. As a starter, he’ll use that devastating fastball-change-slider combo to do just as well as anyone else in the rotation, and have the potential to do 2-3 innings better, once he’s reconditioned and “stretched out” for starting. So, a dominating pitcher who might be able to get through the seventh inning … isn’t that #3 quality?

Second, he’s always been, and in the future will be, a starter. This was why he was drafted not once, but three times, and twice in the first round: he was seen as a potential ace starter. If Mr. Willie doesn’t blow out his arm and end his career (can anyone say Grant Roberts?), Heilman will be a starter within the next two years, be it here or somewhere else. And he will succeed, and be a solid 14-16-game winning workhorse. While we have him here, now, and are in need of a starter, why not find out if he can be that starter — now?

Third, he’s lost his confidence and effectiveness as a reliever. Whether you believe my theory (burned out) or have some other reason, the plain fact of the matter is that Heilman cannot be counted on to bridge the gap to Wagner anymore. He’s too inconsistent. Omar and Willie’s stupifying comment that “he’s too valuable in the bullpen” no longer applies. Heilman is quickly taking the role that Jorge Julio left behind. We already have Darren Oliver and Heath Bell filling in quite nicely, and Henry Owens looks close to ready to contribute. Why take up a roster spot with another mopup man?

Finally, and maybe most importantly, he wants to start. He’s aching to start. It’s all he thinks about. And by the way, I’ve seen a lot of blog commentors stating that he should stop pouting and just keep quiet and be happy. To set those of you straight: he has never pouted, and other than offering to start twice, has kept quiet. The only remarks about him wanting to start have come from us blowhard bloggers and other pundits. Under the surface, though, we all know that what he wants. If given the opportunity, there’s an excellent chance that he would be highly motivated to show the world he belongs in a Major League rotation, much the same way he needed to prove he belonged in MLB last year. In fact I think a big part of his effectiveness as a reliever last year was due to being motivated to quiet anyone who questioned his ability. This guy is a bulldog, a tough son-of-a-gun, an Orel Hershiser type that you want on the mound in a playoff or World Series game.

Considering the above, would it hurt the Mets to at least consider the possibility, and give him one or two starts between now and the end of September? It could be done without disrupting the team, especially considering his current lack of value out of the ‘pen. He could immediately begin a throwing schedule similar to what he did in spring training, gradually working up to 75-100 pitches once every five days. In fact, I would even consider sending him to Norfolk to get ready, and replace him with Henry Owens, at least until Brian Bannister comes back. With Pedro coming off the DL, there is already a surplus of starters, so someone will go to the pen anyway. Make Pelfrey or El Duque the new long man, and use Darren Oliver and Heath Bell in the situations where Heilman would be used. ChadBrad has proved effective and resilient enough to handle Heilman’s previous role, so there’s no impact on that precious bullpen. Spend the month of August getting Heilman ready to start, and bring him up right before the rosters are expanded. At worst, you’ll have another long man to help Oliver clean up after the five-inning specialists, and at best, you might have the #3 starter you so desperately need.

What do the Mets have to lose ?

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.
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