Free Agent Focus: Aaron Heilman
If you are one of those people ready to set fire to your computer after reading the headline, please click the “back” button or find your way to an angry Mets fan forum. Those with open minds and an appreciation for talent that extends beyond a flat change-up to Yadier Molina in October 2006, please read on.
Finally, Aaron Heilman is a free agent, and with that has the opportunity to shop his wares to a team willing to give him a shot as a starting pitcher. If you are a longtime reader of MetsToday, you know I’ve advocated and supported the concept for about as long as I’ve written this blog.
Unfortunately for Heilman, he’s now 32 years old and hasn’t started a big-league game since 2005; in other words, it’s an uphill battle for him to convince someone that he can fill a spot in their rotation. It’s also a damn shame, considering that Heilman’s arm was abused in a role not suited to his delivery, rather than leveraged for starting duty. I doubt he would have been a Cy Young candidate, but Heilman could have been a very solid #3 / #4 starter on a playoff team had he been used properly.
Beg to differ? Then you didn’t see or properly evaluate Heilman’s repertoire as a Met from 2005-2007. He threw two fastballs: a four-seamer that sat at 95-97 MPH and a hard sinker that rode in the 92-94 range. Complementing that was one of the top-ten changeups in all of baseball and a plus slider, along with a forkball that he mixed in as an alternative to the changeup. That’s four good pitches and a fifth for “show”; enough to get through 6-7 innings every five days, dontcha think? However, Heilman was stuck in his relief role as a Met, partially because he was “too valuable” in the bullpen but mostly because his presence as a leftover from the previous regime and his outspoken desire to start irked Omar Minaya.
Heilman was supposed to be inserted into the 2006 rotation after stretching out his arm in winter league, the trade of Kris Benson to Baltimore, and the acquisitions of relievers Jorge Julio and Duaner Sanchez. Despite outpitching everyone in spring training, the Mets instead sent Heilman back to the bullpen and handed rotation spots to Victor Zambrano (gasp!), Steve Trachsel, and Brian Bannister. A similar facade was played out in the springs of ’07 and ’08 before the Mets traded Heilman and 37 other players in a deal to acquire Sean Green and two other guys from Seattle. I never quite understood why the Mets were so inept in the handling of Heilman’s talent, but if I had to guess I’d say it had something to do with egos and a power struggle.
As it was, Heilman was given a chance to start for the Cubs in the spring of 2009 but fell short. It was eerily similar to his previous auditions with the Mets — a younger pitcher who did not project as well as a reliever (Sean Marshall) pitched about as well (or possibly a shade better) than Heilman, and was given the rotation spot. Following the trend of overuse, manager Lou Piniella ran Heilman’s arm through a meat grinder, putting him into 70 ballgames — 20 of which were on back-to-back days and another 19 on one day’s rest. This is what happens when you earn the moniker of “rubber arm”: irresponsible and ignorant managers believe such a thing exists and continue to feed the fallacy. After a predictably poor season, Heilman spent 2010 in Arizona’s bullpen, abused almost exactly as ’09: 70 appearances, 20 on no rest, another 20 on one day’s rest. (For more about the concept of rest with relievers, download the Bullpen Blueprint.)
At this point, I have no idea if Aaron Heilman can still be a starting pitcher in MLB. I know he could have filled a spot in the middle or back end of at least 20 (maybe 25) big league rotations five years ago, as well as four years ago and three years ago. But I haven’t seen enough of him in the past two years to know what he has left in terms of command and velocity. It may be too late at this point, but at the same time, Heilman is no longer anywhere near the special reliever he was from 2005-2007. That said, I hold hope that someone, somewhere, will sign him to be a starter, just to see what might happen.