Does Figgy Deserve a Spot?
Spring training “competitions” are usually nonsense, no matter what message is spewed by the team’s management (this is in regard to all clubs, not just the Mets). Management has predetermined thoughts about the lineup and most of the spots on the 25-man roster, and so spring training is used to support their “prevaluations” made long before pitchers and catchers report.
For example, is first base really an open competition? Both Ike Davis and Chris Carter are hitting the snot out of the ball, but we all know that — barring injury — Dan Murphy is the Opening Day first baseman. Why? Because Murphy proved satisfactory to the upper levels of Mets management based on his 2009 performance — if he wasn’t, we would be watching Adam LaRoche in a Mets uniform right now. (Note I stated “satisfactory” according to Mets management, rather than my or the popular opinion.)
Similarly, Angel Pagan would have to seriously falter — and Gary Matthews, Jr. put on a Roy Hobbs demonstration — to lose his grip on centerfield. Yes, Pagan’s mental issues were frustrating, but after what he did in the batter’s box from July through September, you can’t not put him in centerfield come April.
But another individual who seemed to “earn” a spot on the roster based 2009 was Nelson Figueroa. He wasn’t so “lights out” to deserve being named the #5 starter, but he did well enough in September to be given the status of “his job to lose” — and then if he lost that rotation spot, would be moved into the long man / swing man role. After all, Figgy averaged a little over 6 IP per start and posted a 3.76 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in that final month. His full MLB numbers as a starter for the season were similar, and his AAA stats were outstanding. In short, there wasn’t much more Figgy could do to earn some kind of consideration for 2010.
Yet, the message we’re getting from various sources is that the Mets want Jon Niese to “win” the #5 spot. Not because Niese did anything of consequence at the MLB level last year, and not because he was especially dominating in AAA (he was OK to good, but not dominating, for Buffalo). Rather, the Mets want him to be the #5 starter because they’ve been getting heat about the suckiness of their farm system for several years, and they want to prove to all the “experts” that the negative evaluations are off base (hmm … smells similar to the forcing of square peg Dan Murphy into the round hole that is first base).
This “open competition” for the #5 spot in the rotaton is reminiscent of 2007, when Aaron Heilman was told he’d have a “fair shot” to be a starter. Heilman pitched very well as a starter in winter ball, then was the best starter in spring training, yet Brian Bannister was given the nod. Why? Because despite all the hot air, the Mets never intended on giving Heilman a rotation spot — their minds were made up long before pitchers and catchers reported. It would’ve taken several injuries to others plus 25 no-hit innings by Heilman for him to crack the rotation. Similarly, Figueroa will have to pitch like a young Dwight Gooden to have a chance to beat out Niese this spring. Is that right or wrong?
The kid-loving Mets fan has a fair argument — that the Mets should go with Niese because he’s young, and he’s the future. Over the long run, it makes more sense to have Niese go 8-10 but get a full season of MLB experience under his belt, than let the 35-year-old Figueroa put up similar numbers. I get it; but, we’re assuming that Figueroa and Niese will be similar pitchers in 2010. Personally, I’m not so sure, and if indeed the Mets are serious about the postseason, I would lean toward Figueroa, because to me, he has proven he can be at least an average #5 starter. Niese, on the other hand, has proven nothing to me yet. He might be good enough to win 8-10 games but he might as easily lose 10-15 games — I’m not sure. Two years from now, I expect Niese to develop and be much better, but right now, I have nothing substantial to go on.
At the same time, based on what I’ve seen of Niese’s raw stuff and of Figueroa’s competitiveness, I believe there could be room for both pitchers in the rotation. Put more simply: given the choice, who would you give the ball to 32 times from the selection of Oliver Perez, John Maine, and Nelson Figueroa? Of course, there is no way in hell that Perez isn’t given a spot, due to the $24M left on his contract — yet if I had to take one or the other for a 162-game season my choice, today, would be Figgy. Maine has a lesser salary but it is still in the seven digits ($3.3M to be exact) so he also will be handed a spot, regardless of his ST performance. But again, who is more likely to make 32 starts — Maine or Figueroa? And assuming both started 32 games, would you expect Maine to be appreciably better than Figgy? If so, based on what? His 15-win season in 2007, which occurred before his debilitating shoulder injury? I’m not convinced that Maine will ever return to the promise that had us drooling from April through July 2007. He has regressed ever since — physically, mentally, and emotionally. To me, Maine and Perez are very much the same, in that both are wildly, maddeningly inconsistent, and ticking time bombs. It’s OK to have one such pitcher in the rotation to gamble on, but two? That’s really rolling the dice.
But back to Figueroa; does he deserve to be the #5 starter, if he continues to have a strong spring training? You would think so, but it seems more and more like a remote possibility — despite Niese’s unsightly ERA thus far. At the very least, he should be penciled in as the long man out of the bullpen — but even that appears to be less than a sure thing. The main problem for Figgy is that he’s not a “stuff” guy; in other words, he won’t impress anyone on the sheer strength of his ability. But he’s proven to be a competitor, and a survivor — someone who will take the ball every fifth day and find a way to give his team a chance to win most of the time. He’ll have one bad outing out of every five, and one great outing out of every 10, and everything else will be pretty much the same: 6 innings of unremarkable pitching that otherwise keeps his team in the game. What more is expected of a fifth starter?