Pitching Shaping Up

The bulk of the pitching questions have been answered, though things didn’t turn out quite the way everyone planned.

Yesterday, Willie Randolph anointed Mike Pelfrey as “one of my guys”, which is Williespeak for “Pelfrey is the number-five starter”. Pelfrey will follow Tom Glavine, Orlando Hernandez, John Maine, and Oliver Perez in the starting rotation.

Also over the weekend, Chan Ho Park was abruptly told that he’ll be a setup reliever, sharing the eighth-inning duties with Aaron Heilman. Park was visibly upset with the news, and did not immediately embrace the idea. So now we have two guys who don’t want to be in the bullpen, responsible for the second-most-important relief job on the team.

With Pelfrey tagged as the fifth starter, and Jorge Sosa grooving chest-high fastballs, it appears that Aaron Sele will be the long man / this year’s Darren Oliver. Finally, it seems certain that Joe Smith has taken Chad Bradford’s ROOGY role, with Ambiorix Burgos probably starting the year in New Orleans.

Initially, we thought Park or Sele would keep Pelfrey in AAA for at least the first few months, and Duaner Sanchez would be recovered and ready to resume his setup role. And if Sanchez wasn’t 100%, we thought for sure that flamethrower Burgos or Juan Padilla would step up to take the job until Dirty was ready. Burgos, however, isn’t quite ready, and Padilla had a setback in his recovery from Tommy John surgery.

So here is what the pitching staff will most likely look like on April 1:

El Duque
* Pelfrey

Pelfrey probably won’t join the roster until mid-April, as the Mets won’t need a fifth starter until then. There has been a lot of speculation that Lastings Milledge will take the 25th roster spot for the first two weeks, then go down to AAA when Pelfrey comes up. However, that makes little sense, as much as people would like to see Milledge on the club. As has been stated several times by both Omar Minaya and Randolph, Milledge will play every day, wherever he is. With Shawn Green penciled in as the starting rightfielder, Milledge’s starting job is in New Orleans. In the first two weeks of the season, the Mets will need an extra arm more than they’ll need an extra outfielder.

Though the starting pitchers have been stretched out in Florida, that doesn’t mean they’ll be ready to go 6-7 innings in the damp and cold April weather in the Northeast. And with Willie’s strategy of changing pitchers like it’s the seventh game of the World Series, compounded by the absences of Dirty Sanchez and Guillermo Mota, it would seem that the full 12-man staff would be necessary, even if it doesn’t include a fifth starter.

First of all, it’s doubtful the Mets are 100% sold on the idea of Park in a setup role. When he had success in the past, he relied heavily on a mid-90s fastball and a sharp curveball. He now throws in the high 80s/low 90s, his curveball is inconsistent, and his other pitches — changeup and slider — are much less effective as his velocity decreases. Chan Ho’s biggest problem has been keeping the ball in the park, and the strong winds blowing in — rather than his stuff — made his most recent appearance successful. Further, though he’s pitched some relief in the past, it’s never been in a role that required him to be ready every day. So we have no idea whether he’ll be able to pitch on back-to-back days, nor if he has the mental makeup to come in and close the door in the seventh and eighth innings.

Initially, Willie may go with Scott Schoeneweis as the setup man on Heilman’s “off” days, while Park gets physically accustomed to pitching every day. (Personally, I’d be just as comfortable with Joe Smith in the 8th, rather than Park — but it’s pretty clear that his job will be the handling 6th and 7th inning situations.) With Park getting conditioned for one-inning spurts, and Schoeneweis penciled in for a setup role, that leaves Sele as the lone long man. This wouldn’t appear to be a problem, until you remember that both El Duque and Oliver Perez could easily be out of ballgames by the fourth inning. We’d like to think optimistically, but the fact is that both of those guys are a crapshoot every time they go on the mound — a 3-hit shutout is just as likely as a third-inning exit. If they both implode in the same week, the bullpen will be severely taxed — though in that case the Mets would certainly summon an arm from AAA.

Even if Park does slide right into the setup role, and the Mets aren’t in need of excessive long relief, I still see Willie bringing seven relievers north, for two reasons. First, Aaron Heilman’s elbow tendinitis has to be a concern — we’d assume that Willie will be hesitant to use him on back-to-back days right away. Secondly, there are three pitchers still on the bubble: Jorge Sosa, Ambiorix Burgos, and Jon Adkins. Their fates may well be sealed within the next few days, but if not, the Mets may want to bring one of them north. Adkins has no options, and will have to be released outright. However, he did have a solid 2006 as a middle reliever in San Diego, so the Mets may want to hold on to him as trade bait. With several teams desperate for bullpen help (read: every MLB team), it may be worthwhile to trade Adkins for a low-level minor leaguer, rather than let him go for nothing. If that trade doesn’t happen before camp breaks, it may be possible in the first week of the season. Similarly, Jorge Sosa might have trade value, and may not accept a minor league demotion. Again, if a trade can’t be worked out earlier, it might be worth keeping him around and then dealing him before Pelfrey returns.

The most intriguing arm in camp is Burgos, and the Mets may want to handle him similarly to Jorge Julio last year. In other words, keep him with the big club, which offers him the opportunity to be educated by Rick Peterson and Guy Conti. With an open roster spot, it may be more beneficial, in the long run, for Burgos to get an extra two weeks under the Jacket’s guidance, mixed in with a few confidence-building appearances, rather than send him immediately to New Orleans.

What ends up happening will be clear in the next few days — possibly highlighted by a last-minute trade. Until then, a few questions remain unanswered. All in all, the Mets’ pitching staff looks — on paper — to be strong enough to get through late May, at which point Duaner Sanchez, Guillermo Mota, and possibly Dave Williams could be ready to contribute.

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.