Finally! Pitchers and Catchers Report

The Hot Stove season is finally over, and we can now stop speculating and wondering about things we can’t see. Spring training has arrived, pitchers and catchers are reporting to Port St. Lucie, and all is right with the world.

As spring training opens, the Mets have been indirectly blessed by the circus tent that just went up in Tampa. The regular-season crosstown Yankees have myriad issues swirling around Legends Field — most notably the absence of Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera’s lack of a contract extension, A-Rod’s opt-out clause, and Joe Torre’s tenuous status as manager.

Isn’t it great to be a Mets player in Port St. Lucie right now, with all the NY media pressure and tough questions being asked 3 hours away, on the other coast of Florida? Further, isn’t it wonderful to be a Mets fan right now, our only worries centered on the starting rotation? The Tom Glavine issue seems years ago, Willie Randolph is locked up through 2010, the starting lineup is set, and we’ve already written off Pedro for the bulk of the season. We can sit back and watch nine candidates fight over 3 spots in the starting rotation.

OK, there was a little mouse fart when camp opened … Aaron Heilman was approached about the subject of starting. He answered truthfully (he still wants to start someday) but also stated that he knows his role is in the bullpen this year and he’ll do whatever it takes to help the team win, blah blah blah. So the only bit of controversy has already been addressed and put to rest — long before the rest of the of the team shows up this weekend. No disruption. Nice.

The only other potential controversy — barring a surprise injury or other unforeseen circumstance elsewhere — is the rightfield situation. If by chance Lastings Milledge or Ben Johnson blast balls over the fence and hit about .400 on the spring, then there MIGHT be questions surrounding Shawn Green’s role on the team. As much as some fans may love Milledge or Endy Chavez (or hate Green), the reality is that Shawn Green has been penciled in as the regular rightfielder, batting seventh. It would take a mammoth effort by someone else, a horrific showing by Green, or an injury, for Willie to erase Shawn from the lineup. As talented as Milledge is, he’s still raw, and needs to play more games, get more reps — in AAA (he certainly didn’t help his situation by opting out of winter ball). Chavez will get his at-bats spelling all three outfielders, so his role is set. Johnson may not even make the team.

That said, the attention will be on arms — young and old — vying for spots behind Tom Glavine and El Duque. Many folks have already penciled in John Maine and Oliver Perez into two of those slots, but I’m not so sure it’s that cut and dried. Yes, Maine and Perez looked impressive in the postseason. However, Perez had a 6.55 ERA during the regular season, with performances varying from outstanding to awful to everything in between. And though Maine had a monthlong stretch of quality starts, he relies on a shallow repertoire that makes him vulnerable after going through a lineup the second and third time. Emotionally, Perez and Maine are the favorites, but realistically, they’ll have to fight just as hard as the other seven candidates to win their job.

It should be dogfight, and one that is fun to watch, mostly because of three exciting young arms in the picture. That’s right — THREE. Everyone is pumped about Mike Pelfrey and Philip Humber, but there’s also Jason Vargas to consider.

Ironically, Vargas comes in as the unknown quantity, despite he has two years in the big leagues while Pelfrey and Humber have almost no MLB experience. Pelfrey’s four games and Humber’s 2-inning cameo were a tease to Mets fans, who have been ripe for a home-grown farmhand to dominate the hill since the departure of Scott Kazimir. It’s part of Mets history — Seaver, Koosman, Gentry, McGraw, Ryan, and Matlack started it in the 1970s, then later Gooden, El Sid,
and Darling furthered the the tradition of arms from the Mets’ farms (yes I know Darling came from the Rangers, but he also spent two years in Tidewater). The ability for the Mets’ minor league system to produce solid, sometimes spectacular pitchers is a source of pride for an organization whose history pales in comparison to the crosstown Yanks. As a result, Jason Vargas is a mere reject of the Marlins, thrown into the same pool of interest as Aaron Sele, Chan Ho Park, and Jorge Sosa.

However, Vargas is only 24 years old — a few months younger than Humber, in fact — and climbed quickly through the ranks before failing miserably last year. Perhaps he moved too quickly to the bigs; imagine if Mike Pelfrey had begun last year on the Opening Day roster, and remained there to the end of the season. His numbers likely would not be outstanding, and most would say he was rushed. Similarly, Vargas began 2005 in low A ball, jumped quickly to high A, then to AA, then to the bigs, just one year after leaving Long Beach State. Pitchers don’t move up that fast unless they are special; similar points of comparison are Jeremy Bonderman, Justin Verlander, and Mark Prior — not bad company. So there’s no question about Vargas’ talent level; the question is what happened in 2006, and is it something that is easily fixed?

Supposedly he made some mechanical tweaks in the offseason. If so, and the result is that he comes into camp as the pitcher the Marlins rushed into their rotation in 2005, then Vargas might be the frontrunner for not the #5 spot but the #4 spot in the rotation. Yes, it’s a big “if” but not inconceivable. The point is, don’t be too quick to count out Jason Vargas from the equation — he may very well be the best of the bunch, at least right now.

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.