Heilman or Bannister?
The big dogfights this spring were supposed to be Xavier Nady vs. Victor Diaz for right field, and Boone vs. AHern vs. Kepp vs. Matsui for 2B. It looks like RF is settled with the X-man, and Anderson Hernandez will be the Opening Day second baseman. So what’s left to settle? The fifth starter in the pitching rotation.
What it boils down to is Aaron Heilman vs. Brian Bannister, and there is all kinds of speculation by the Mets pundits, bloggers, and columnists that Bannister could win the 5th spot and send Heilman back to the ‘pen. The reasoning behind this, is that Heilman will be more valuable to the Mets as a reliever in a setup role and facing lefthanded batters.
However, there are a few problems with this thinking. First of all, Heilman has been in a starting pitcher’s throwing program since the beginning of winter ball; his arm and body have been conditioned to throw 100+ pitches once every five days. Should the Mets decide all of a sudden to make him a reliever again, he will need to completely change his conditioning program so that he’s able to throw 25-35 pitches on an almost daily basis. This is a significant change, and would require at least 3-4 weeks. Of course, the Mets could do what they did with Grant Roberts a few years back, which was an eerily similar situation. Roberts, like Heilman, was originally a starter who was moved to the bullpen, was very effective in a bullpen role for a year, but told management he wanted to be a starter. Roberts trained to be a starter during the 2002 offseason and 2003 spring training, only to be put back in the bullpen about a week before Opening Day. Warming up on a nearly daily basis, and having to throw full speed in games at least 3 times a week, it’s no wonder he blew out his arm within a month and a half. Only 25 at the time and a promising talent, Roberts never was the same again. (To this day I contend that had the Mets not mishandled Grant Roberts, he’d have been a solid 15-18-game winner.);
With Heilman’s outstanding performance out of the pen last year, it would be conceivable that Willie Randolph would start using him on an almost daily basis right from the start. Maybe Heilman would be fine, but maybe he wouldn’t. His mechanics are frightening enough — landing with a closed front toe and throwing across his body — without putting further strain on his arm. We don’t want to see Heilman turn into another Grant Roberts.
Even if Heilman can physically handle the switch, where does that leave Duaner Sanchez, and, to a lesser degree, Jorge Julio? Sanchez was fairly impressive last year with the Dodgers when thrown into the closer’s role; he can handle the pressure of the late innings, and he has a live arm. The Mets traded away their #4 starter because they were getting what they believed to be a legit setup guy. If Heilman becomes the setup man, does that mean Sanchez pitches the 7th and Heilman the 8th? If so, when does Julio pitch? We didn’t trade a #3 starter (Kris Benson) so that Julio could be a mop-up man. His 95+MPH fastball will find a role somewhere in the late innings. Julio may not be the answer at the beginning of the season, but I can see him working his way into a significant role by mid-season.
Another issue: what happens when Trachsel goes down? There is no “if” here; Trax will either pitch so horribly he’ll be taken out of the rotation, or his back will go out—and one of these things will happen before June, I guarantee it. He’s looked very sketchy so far in spring training, with poor command, poor velocity, and suspect endurance. Even at 100%, Trachsel is nothing more than a decent #4 starter; in his current condition, he’s well-done piece of meat needing to be taken off the grill quickly. So when his inability to pitch is established, who takes over his spot in the rotation? Are you going to jerk Heilman back into the rotation, after getting his arm conditioned for the bullpen? I don’t think so. If the Mets insist that Trachsel be in the starting 5 (and Zambrano as well), then they need to have Heilman in there and Bannister waiting in AAA; he’ll be up soon enough.
Finally, what becomes of Heath Bell? There are 29 Major League teams interested in Heath Bell, and none of them are based in Flushing. If Heilman goes to the bullpen, where does Bell go? Norfolk, most likely. Which makes no sense. Heath Bell is a legit reliever, and it’s about time he’s given a fair shot. The Mets had a very similar pitcher a few years ago, his name was Dan Wheeler. They need to recognize the fact that the pen will be just fine with the arms they have, and their real concern is to find starting pitchers who can give you six to seven to eight good innings. Trachsel will not give them that, and neither will Zambrano. Bannister might, and Heilman probably will. That said, the answer to the question Heilman or Bannister? should be: both!