Desperately Seeking Pitching

For a guy who is “comfortable” with his pitching staff, Omar Minaya sure is making the moves of an uncomfortable GM.

The signing of Jorge Sosa appeared to be the last piece of the pitching staff re-stock project. Though he received a guaranteed Major League contract, there is every reason to believe that Sosa is merely another can of paint to slap on the wall, and see if he sticks. Not a big deal, because if by chance he works out, super. If not, he wasn’t so expensive that you wouldn’t drop him into AAA or release him outright.

However, the Mets also just signed veteran has-been Aaron Sele, and are looking at bringing back Victor “Kazmir Deal” Zambrano. Two more cans of paint to throw at the wall, and two more arms for triple-A New Orleans.

So the competition for the starting rotation looks like this:

1. Tom Glavine
2. Orlando Hernandez
3. John Maine
4. Oliver Perez
5. Dave Williams
6. Mike Pelfrey
7. Philip Humber
8. Jason Vargas
9. Jorge Sosa
10. Aaron Sele
11. Alay Soler
12. Victor Zambrano?
13. Aaron Heilman?

Looking at things pessimistically, you’re counting on two over-40-year-olds to anchor your rotation, and hoping that three guys stick from the other eleven. If you see the glass half-full, then you are feeling confident about a nice mix of experienc and youth, with two cagey veterans heading the staff, two developing youngsters (Maine and Perez) that appear ready to break out, and one of three future aces (Pelfrey, Humber, Vargas) competing for the fifth spot.

Luckily, the Mets’ brass is seeing the glass as both half-full AND half-empty. However, if you are neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but rather a REALIST, you can see that the half-full crowd is:

1. Relying heavily on two 40-year-olds to maintain their production and remain healthy;
2. Hoping that Perez and Maine will pitch as well in 2007 as they did in the postseason;
3. Figuring that one of the youngsters will make a step forward and fill in the fifth spot.

There’s a lot of hoping going on with this outlook, and a lot that needs to go right.

Looking at things realistically, Perez fashioned a 6.55 ERA with a 3-13 record last year. His fearless postseason performances made a lot of people forget just how wildly inconsistent he was in 2006. In fact, I remember being flamed off of in mid-September for suggesting that Perez be placed on the posteason roster — nearly everyone thought it was a horrendous idea. Now, I’m not saying I’m some kind of genius; my theory was that even though there was a good chance he’d be knocked out of a playoff game by the third inning, there was the slightest possibility of him throwing a 3-hit complete shutout. Going into 2007, predicting Oliver Perez’s performance is just as dicey — he may occasionally look like Sandy Koufax, but more often look like Jose Lima (circa 2006). In other words, we have no idea what Perez will bring to the table, and the Mets have to brace for the very real possibility of another season-long implosion.

Similarly, John Maine is no guarantee to step into a #3 or #4 spot in the rotation. Yes, he had a marvelous three-game stretch, and finished the season looking like a solid Major League starter. However, two issues must be considered: 1. he didn’t face many teams in the last two months of the season; and 2. he’s shown to have a lot of trouble after going through a lineup twice. Even during his playoff heroics, he was only a four- to five-inning pitcher. What will happen after he faces the entire league once, and will he be effective after five innings? Once more teams and scouts see him, and the information gets out in video, scouting reports, etc., will John Maine be able to make the necessary readjustments during the season? Only time will tell.

A lot of people are penciling in Maine and Perez as the #3 and #4 starters, and figuring that the #5 is a tossup. However, after considering the above points on Maine and Perez, it really looks more like all three rotation spots are up for grabs — with Maine a near lock for at least one of those three spots. And in all reality, even if Maine continues to be the pitcher he was from August through October, he’s probably more of a #4 or #5 than a #3. Which means that someone from this group needs to really step it up a notch.

To summarize, the realistic view of the Mets’ starting staff goes like this: Tom Glavine and El Duque are filling the top of the rotation, and the other spots will be filled by three arms coming from a group of nine, ten, or eleven (depending on whether Zambrano and Heilman are candidates). So for everyone penciling in Maine, Perez, and Pelfrey (for example), understand that there is every chance you will be erasing those names and writing in Aaron Sele, Jorge Sosa, and Jason Vargas.

Surely I jest, you say, but it’s probably true: the last three spots for the Mets’ starting rotation is a wide-open competition. Looking at the number of paint cans (or are they tomato cans?) being thrown at the wall, there doesn’t appear to be enough time in seven weeks of spring training to hold a tryout for 11 pitchers. Consider that last year, the Mets were auditioning Aaron Heilman, Darren Oliver, Brian Bannister, and Jose Lima for the #5 spot. Lima and Oliver dropped out of contention quickly, and it became a dogfight between Heilman and Bannister. By the end of spring training, each of those two had thrown about 15 innings. Think about that: winning the fifth starter job was based on 15 innings of work — and the only reason there were that many innings available was because two people emerged early as the favorites.

Spring training games begin on March 1st. What happens if, by, say, March 15th, none of these nine (or eleven) pitchers are showing anything special? How do you split up the innings over the next 17 games? Remember now, the Mets won’t just have a dozen or so starters who need innings — there will be another dozen or so relievers who need to get their game work in as well (that’s not counting guys like Blake McGinley, Willie Collazo, Clint Nageotte, Lino Urdaneta, and others who will be getting a quick look). It will be difficult enough getting everyone the work they need, much less trying to make a competition out of the spring. That said, it would appear that the “tryouts” for the last two or three spots in the rotation could very well extend into April, May, and June. In other words, it may be another year of starters by committee, shuttling arms back and forth from New Orleans every week. Last year, the shuttle was happening with only one spot in the rotation, occasionally two. In 2007, we may be watching the “three spot shuffle”.

Twenty days before the madness begins.

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.