Where Did the Bullpen Arms Go?
We’re all in agreement regarding the current state of the Mets bullpen, correct? It’s a travesty, a red flag, in a slump, and a cause for panic. Yes, panic, because, after all, Omar Minaya built this Mets team with the idea that games would last 8 innings, rather than 9 — on the assumption that Billy Wagner would save about 90% of the ballgames he entered. So all the Mets had to do was ask starting pitchers to do their best for about six innings, and then hand over the ball to the bridge men to take over the seventh and eighth.
For the most part, the starters have done a commendable job all season. And Wagner has more than fulfilled his end of the bargain. Unfortunately, the bridge in between has collapsed.
As a fan, you’ve witnessed it with your own eyes, so no point in going into detail. Things started out badly when Duaner Sanchez and Juan Padilla were lost for the season, and got worse when Scott Schoeneweis showed us an 89 MPH fastball — rather than the 93-94 velocity that earned him a three-year contract. Guillermo Mota was supposed to save the day, but it turns out he’s not the same pitcher without artificial enhancements. For a while, Joe Smith and Pedro Feliciano were lifesavers, but have since flamed out. Aaron Heilman has been inconsistent, and at this point close to burnout. We’re now counting on starter-turned-reliever Jorge Sosa to be the rock out of the ‘pen, but with Willie Randolph using him similarly to the way Joe Torre abused Scott Proctor across town, we can’t expect Sosa to keep up his effectiveness — certainly he can’t be used seven days a week, in any case. So the Mets bullpen — once a strength, and full of depth — is the weak link of an otherwise fairly strong ballclub.
How did this happen? Why didn’t Omar have a disaster plan in place?
In fact, he did. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a second disaster plan.
We now can look back to the winter of 2006 and think, what was Omar thinking when he traded Heath Bell, Royce Ring, Henry Owens, and Matt Lindstrom? All four of those arms have been effective in MLB this year for their respective teams. The Mets bullpen wouldn’t be in such a quandary if they had kept those youngsters in the organization — right? Why weren’t those pitchers replaced, knowing how much the big league club would rely on the bullpen depth?
The fact is, they were replaced. Bell was a hard-throwing righty with some MLB experience who showed promise but never quite took hold of a bullpen role. Most likely, his failure in New York was due to either mismanagement or a personal dislike on the part of Willie Randolph — the reason why matters not for the focus of this article. Point is, Bell was a guy in his late twenties who threw in the mid-90s and had decent secondary stuff. The Mets replaced him with a very similar, but younger, pitcher — Ambiorix Burgos. Burgos throws in the upper 90s, two developing secondary pitches, and two years’ MLB experience. He would have been counted on to help the bullpen right now (or earlier), had he not gone down with an elbow injury earlier in the year.
Similarly, Lindstrom and Owens were two hard-throwing righties also in their late twenties who were running out of time in the minor leagues. Both had reached a point where they would have to either break through to MLB or forever be labeled as career minor leaguers. Neither had significant experience above the AA level, and the Mets’ internal staff wasn’t convinced either would be ready to contribute to the big club in 2007. After they were traded, they were replaced by similarly cast, hard throwing righthanders Marcos Carvajal and Lino Urdaneta. Carvajal appeared to have more upside because of his age (he turns only 23 tomorrow), and, like Lindstrom and Owens, wasn’t expected to make an impact in 2007. Indeed, instead of putting him on the fast track to help the team in the bullpen, the Mets sent him down to AA as a starter. While he may not project as a starter, the Mets feel better about getting him lots of innings and developing secondary pitches at his young age. If he shows progress over the next two years, he could very well turn into a gem … but he’s unlikely to help in 2007. As for Urdaneta, he technically wasn’t an acquisition, as he’d been in the Mets organization since 2005. However, he spent most of his time with the Mets recovering from an elbow injury, so for all intents and purposes, he was “new”. Looking at his career, Urdaneta was similar in many ways to both Lindstrom and Owens — a career minor leaguer who touched the upper 90s but never quite broke through to MLB. Unfortunately, Urdaneta — after coming back 100% from his injury — was suspended by MLB for using a performance-enhancing substance. He’d already gotten a cup of coffee with the big club in May, appearing in two games, and had he not been suspended he in all likelihood would have found his way to New York by now for another chance. After the suspension, though, he may never get that second chance.
The one guy they didn’t necessarily replace was Royce Ring — who could be aptly described as a “tweener” or “AAAA” guy whose ceiling most likely is as a LOOGY. There could be an argument that he was replaced in the organization by Scott Schoeneweis, but “The Show” was supposed to take the innings left behind by Chad Bradford. It’s probably more correct to say they obtained lefty Adam Bostick (who was and continues to be a starter) to replace Ring, and/or the Mets were just as happy going forward with Willie Collazo — who is currently toiling for AAA New Orleans and projects as a situational LOOGY at best.
But Omar didn’t simply replace Ring, Bell, Lindstrom, and Owens. He also added 25-year-old Jason Vargas (effectively replacing Brian Bannister), former hot prospect but injury-riddled Clint Nageotte, and Jon Adkins. Adkins has been the biggest disappointment, after displaying decent numbers as a middle man in 55 games for the Padres — though most statheads predicted his failure long before Bell and Ring were sent West. Still, no one was counting on Adkins to provide anything more than depth — to perhaps fill in for a few weeks here and there and eat up some innings.
Unfortunately, a number of events obliterated Omar’s “plan B” for the bullpen. The injury to Burgos and the suspension of Urdaneta were the most impactful, and the ineffectiveness of Adkins has been particularly hurtful. Carvajal might have been the “next Burgos”, but the Mets chose to stick to the plan of keeping him in AA to develop for the future. Carvajal has the kind of electric arm that could have been rushed to the big club, but a.) it would have been a roll of the dice; and b.) that’s exactly the kind of thinking that has stunted his development over the last few years (he was a rule 5 pick in 2005). Nageotte was more of a “let’s throw paint on the wall and see what sticks” acquisition, and found himself back on the DL by May. As a result, the Mets were left with either promoting the untested Collazo, the sidearming Schmoll, or converting someone from starter to reliever. You saw the decision: Sosa’s switch to the ‘pen.
Unfortunately, with the continued ineffectiveness of Mota and Feliciano, combined with a lack of trust in Schoeneweis (who, when you look at the grand scale, is the major malaprop of the bullpen plan), the Mets still find themselves looking for a quality arm for the bullpen. It’s too late to make a trade for someone who’s having a strong year (i.e., Damaso Marte), so “Plan C” depends on those on the scrap heap (Mike Myers, Joe Kennedy, Byung-Hyun Kim), the aforementioned Collazo and Schmoll, or another conversion (Mike Pelfrey? Philip Humber? Vargas?).
Which way the Mets go is anyone’s guess, but one thing becomes more abundantly clear every day: they cannot continue through the next six weeks with the bullpen as it is currently constructed. At least one member has to be changed — at least temporarily — or preferably two or even three. Maybe Feliciano goes on the DL while someone gets a 15-day look. Perhaps Aaron Sele and Scott Schoeneweis swap roles. Maybe Joe Smith comes back, or Burgos is deemed healthy enough to return. Willie loves to have someone who can provide “a different look”, so there’s always the possibility we’ll see Kim (egads, no!) or Schmoll in a Mets uniform. Who knows, maybe Omar Minaya will sign Scott Strickland or Turk Wendell from the over-30 league teams they’re playing with. The point is, it’s time to quickly put together a Plan C.