Pelfrey and Humber

Philip Humber on the pitching moundThe multitude of young arms will make this spring will be especially exciting for Mets fans, with the bulk of the eyes glued to Mike Pelfrey and Philip Humber. There are even a number of MLB writers and pundits projecting Pelfrey as the #5 starter. However, Mets fans should enjoy the spring moments of these two youngsters while you can, because in reality neither will be breaking with the big club come April.

Understand, that is not a negative outlook; in fact, it’s quite positive. It means that at least 3 of the other two dozen starters in camp are competent enough to provide important innings for the Mets — at least for the first half of the year. It also means that Pelfrey and Humber are able to further hone their skills at the AAA level, which is a much better place for their personal development at this stage in their respective careers.

While it would be fantastic for the Mets if one of these two studs blew away everyone at spring training and pulled a Justin Verlander this year, such a turn of events might not be the best thing over the long-term. One only needs to look at Tyler Yates, Francisco Liriano, or Jason Vargas as examples.

Yates, as you may remember, was the surprise of 2004 spring training, winning the #4 spot in the rotation just a year and half after receiving Tommy John surgery. Though he blazed through March, he fizzled in April and was back in the minors by May. The once promising prospect did not return to the big leagues until 2006, after suffering a rotator cuff injury that required surgery in 2005. It’s quite possible that coming back too soon in ’04 contributed to the shoulder woes.

Humber is in a similar situation, right now close to two years after TJ surgery. Since the surgery, he’s pitched about 75 innings, half of it below AA. Even if he’s now 100%, and showing that he has Major-League-ready stuff, it would not make sense to put him into the Mets rotation in April. Ideally, a starter on the Opening Day roster is expected to give a team somewhere between 180 and 200+ innings. That’s well more than twice as many innings he pitched last year. For the Mets to simply double his workload to 150 innings is more realistic, and a safer route for the long-term. That means he may start 25-30 games, but only expected to pitch 4-5 innings. As deep as the Mets’ bullpen is, it doesn’t make sense to force that load on it once every five days. Better to let Humber start out in New Orleans, gradually build up his pitch counts, and perhaps come up sometime in the second half of the season to make spot starts. Philip Humber’s year to shine will be 2008.

Mike Pelfrey delivers a pitchSimilarly, Mike Pelfrey — though completely healthy — threw less than 120 innings last year, his first as a professional. He was worked pretty hard at Wichita State in 2005, and didn’t pitch at all after his college season — probably a good thing as he needed the rest. More toward that end of keeping him healthy, the Mets were cautious in his first year of pro ball, and will probably continue that trend in 2007. They’re likely looking for Pelfrey to get up to 160-180 innings total — a safe and logical progression. Again, it makes more sense to give him 4- and 5-inning starts early in the year at the AAA level, rather than tax the Big League bullpen. Further, Pelfrey needs to further develop his secondary pitches, specifically his change-up. New Orleans is a much better place than Shea for him to be making mistakes. Plus, at the minor league level, there will be less pressure to win, and therefore he’ll have more room to freely tinker with grips and release points. A mistake at AAA means little in comparison to losing ground in what promises to be a tight NL East race.

If Pelfrey advances his secondary pitches in AAA, and the Mets slowly build him up to 6- or 7-inning starts, he could negate the need to trade for an impact starter at the end of July. Two months of a strong, more experienced, better-equipped Mike Pelfrey may be exactly the jolt the Mets need down the stretch. It would be similar to Cole Hamels’ burst on the scene last year. In addition, by spending most of the year in the minors, MLB teams will have incomplete scouting reports, and will not have seen him — more advantages for Pelfrey. Not making the team out of spring training could be the best thing that happens to Mike Pelfrey.

Naturally, Pelfrey and Humber need to progress, and the Mets have to figure out a way to stay on top of the NL East for the first half of the season, while they wait for the cavalry — Pelfrey, Humber, and Pedro Martinez — to arrive. Now you know why Omar Minaya has been stockpiling pitchers. He figures that if he can somehow squeeze enough quality starts out of the current quantity, he’ll have one or two among Pedro, Pelfrey, Humber and perhaps an acquired veteran arm to finish off the year — at perhaps the most important stage of the season. It’s doubtful that the Mets expect to get 200 innings out of Chan Ho Park or Aaron Sele, but they do hope to get 150-200 frames between them from April through July. In other words, don’t expect the spring training audition for starters to end at the end of March — there will be “tryouts” from now through at least mid-June. If by then there are still question marks, perhaps Philip Humber or Mike Pelfrey will be ready to lead the cavalry, and help carry the Mets to another NL East title.

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.