Heilman in the Rotation?

After writing my last post, and looking over the pitching staff, it appears that the Mets might be considering a move of Aaron Heilman to the starting rotation.

Yes, it could just be my wishful thinking overpowering the truth, but consider the offseason moves the Mets have made so far:

1. Re-signed Guillermo Mota, despite the fact he’ll miss the first 50 games of the year.

2. Traded starter candidate Brian Bannister for Royals’ closer Ambiorix Burgos.

3. Signed middle reliever Jason Standridge.

4. Acquired middle reliever Jon Adkins from San Diego.

Of course, a few other moves go against my theory, namely:

1. The trading of potential setup man Henry Owens, for potential starter Jason Vargas.

2. Allowing Chad Bradford to move to Baltimore.

However, when you look at the potential bullpen, you have to wonder where Heilman is going to fit in — especially with Mota arriving around June, the possible return of Juan Padilla, the presence of Burgos, and Willie Randolph’s obsession with sidewinders who “can bring the funk” and “give a guy a different look”.

Billy Wagner owns the ninth inning, that much is a given. Duaner Sanchez — if healthy, which he should be — owns many 8th innings. Considering the Mets’ investment in Mota, and in light of his performance in September of last year, you’ve got to believe that he is going to be the man in the 7th and/or 8th. Remember, Heilman was nearly forgotten once Mota got hot — and that was without Sanchez on the roster, and during playoff games that starters couldn’t get through fifth innings. Add Sanchez back to the equation, as well as Burgos and Padilla — who pitched quite well in 2005 — and where does that put Heilman? As a situational righthander, in Bradford’s old role? That would seem to be Padilla or Burgos territory — if not the role for newcomers Jason Standridge or Jon Adkins. Or a submariner who emerges (or submerges?) such as Steve Schmoll or Joe Smith.

Surely the Mets do not intend to waste Aaron Heilman’s talents as a ROOGY, or as a backup to both Sanchez and Mota. I also don’t see the Mets shortening their starter’s games to five innings — although anything is possible.

Maybe I’m wrong, but it appears that the Mets are going to see how Sanchez rebounds from his season-ending injury. If he looks as healthy and dependable as he was for the first half of 2006, then Heilman will finally get his shot at a rotation spot. Heilman has too much talent — and trade value — not to be providing a substantial contribution to the Mets’ pitching staff. If he’s not going to be the main setup guy, by all logic he has to be moved to the rotation. This concept is further supported by the signing of Mota and the trade for Burgos.

The flamethrowing Ambiorix Burgos is only 23 years old, but already has two years and 127 games of MLB experience. His walk rate (about 4 1/2 per nine innings) is higher than you’d like, but his strikeout rate is much higher – 9.02 per nine innings. A lot of pundits are already comparing Burgos to the Jorge Julio project — which was fairly successful — but in reality Burgos is ahead of where Julio was. Jorge Julio had — and still has — confidence issues, and major control problems. Burgos’ issues are more about youth, and his control is getting better each year. Plus, this is a guy who was the closer for the Royals. This may not hold much weight, but you have to take notice of a guy who saves 18 games in the American League, for a last-place club, at the age of 22.

The trading of Brian Bannister — Heilman’s roadblock to the rotation last year — in return for a guy with legitimate closer experience, is a strong indication that the Mets made such a deal with Heilman’s transition in mind. It’s hard to imagine the Mets sending Burgos to AAA after two solid years at the MLB level, and doubly difficult to comprehend sending away Bannister when the team’s most glaring weakness is the starting rotation — unless they had a plan to add another MLB-ready starter.

Meanwhile, the Mets very quietly brought in another hard-throwing closer product of the KC Royals’ system — a righthander named Jorge Vasquez, signed as a free-agent and invited to spring training. He saved 40 games in AA over 2003-2004, and has since bounced up and down from the minors as part of the Royals’, Braves’, and Pirates’ organizations. Like Burgos and Julio, he has put up big K ratios (10-11 per 9), but is at age 26 is nearing non-prospect status. He’s not unlike Henry Owens in that way, and might be the paint that sticks. Most likely, he’s destined for AAA, but he’ll get a good look in March.

While Opening Day — and pitchers and catchers reporting, for that matter — is a long time away, this is a conceivable 7-man bullpen on April 1st:

1. Billy Wagner
2. Duaner Sanchez
3. Ambiorix Burgos
4. Pedro Feliciano
5. Dave Williams
6. & 7. Combination of Juan Padilla, Jason Standridge, Jon Adkins, unknown flyer or funk-thrower.

Come the end of May, you add Guillermo Mota and delete one of the guys from the 6&7 combo. Then you have:

– Wagner closing
– Sanchez, Mota, and Burgos handling setup
– Feliciano and unknown in situational work
– Williams handling the Darren Oliver role

This is a fairly strong bullpen that most teams in baseball would love to have, and the roles are pretty clearly defined. So again, where does Heilman fit in ?

Of course, we’re assuming two things: first, that all of the above-mentioned arms are healthy, and second, that these acquisitions were not designed so that Heilman could be moved to another team. There’s been a lot of speculation regarding the second assumption, and, as mentioned in the previous post, I think that window of opportunity has been closed. Whereas Omar might have packaged Heilman and Lastings Milledge in a deal to land a Jason Jennings or Freddy Garcia, I don’t see him doing it for another back-end starter such as Javy Vazquez or Joe Blanton — not when there is every reason to believe that Heilman can be at least a #4 or #5, and might even develop into a #3 if given the chance. I also don’t see Omar sending away Heilman until he’s absolutely certain that Duaner Sanchez is 100% — unless a talent like Brad Penny or Jake Peavy is coming back to the Mets. But a deal like that is a longshot, considering the Mets would be expected to include Mike Pelfrey and/or Philip Humber.

The future remains uncertain for Aaron Heilman, but the way Omar is shaping things, it shouldn’t be a complete surprise if we see Heilman taking the mound at the beginning of a game, instead of the end, come April.

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.