Browsing Archive March, 2006

Heilman in the Bullpen

Aaron Heilman back to the bullpenSo now it’s official: Aaron Heilman is in the bullpen, supposedly for the good of the team. I don’t buy it.

How is this good for the team when you have Zambrano and Trachsel still in the rotation? I understand the Mets’ need to make up for the Kazmir deal and keep throwing Zambrano out there until he finally “gets” the 10-minute tutoring received from Rick Peterson. What I don’t understand is how and why Trachsel still has a job.

Yesterday, Willie Randolph was quoted as saying something to the effect of, the players know they need to do what’s best for the team, and Aaron may be unhappy but he’ll be fine with the decision because he’s a team player. Well if that’s true then again, why is Trax still on the roster? Last year he downright refused to go to the bullpen when he returned from back surgery. With the Mets already set with five starters, was that best for the team?

I have no problem with Brian Bannister being the #5 starter; in fact, I applaud it. The problem I do have, is with Zambrano and Trax #3 and #4. Get Trax out of there and insert Heilman; better to do it now than in June, when Trax is 1-8 and has re-busted his back.

Many of the fans posting on the Mets blogs are asking what the Mets owe Heilman … my question is, what do the Mets owe Tracshel? The guy is a career loser, never better than a #4 when 100%, and now 35 and coming off back surgery.

Some of the same fans are saying that Heilman’s best role for the team is to be in the bullpen because he was so dominant there last year as a setup guy in the late innings. Well guess what? That’s Duaner Sanchez’s role this year. So when does Heilman come in? The 6th? But isn’t that where Bradford, Heath Bell, and Jorge Julio will be? You wouldn’t need all these damn relievers if you had starters who could go more than 5 innings. I think Heilman has the guts and ability to be a 6-8-9-inning pitcher, if given the chance.

But of course, the naysayers point to the fact that Heilman is a two-pitch pitcher, and batters hit him after he goes through the lineup two or three times. Nonsense. First, he’s a three-pitch pitcher; he throws a slider that he didn’t need in relief outings. Second, even if he was only a two-pitch pitcher, there have been very successful starting pitchers in the past with just a fastball/changeup arsenal. Mario Soto, Tom Glavine immediately come to mind. Finally, I think every lineup in the big leagues is going to hit better against a starting pitcher in the third and fourth go-around. And I’ll take my chances with Heilman in a second, over Trachsel and Zambrano.

Unfortunately, Heilman is in a difficult predicament. If he continues to pitch well, coming out of the bullpen, the Mets will further feel justified in their decision and keep him there. If he pitches poorly, he may never get another chance to start. My greatest fear is this jerking back and forth injures his arm, and we won’t see him pitching anywhere. Let’s just hope he doesn’t become the next Tyler Yates or Grant Roberts, and be out of baseball due to arm problems by 2008. I’d rather see him anchoring the starting rotation, with Bannister, Pelfrey, and Humber right behind him.



Chad Bradford : the ROOGYFor those wondering what a LOOGY is, it’s not a gooey expectoration of the throat. Rather, it is a Lefthanded One Out GuY.

There seems to be concern in Mets’ camp over who wil retire lefthanded batters. Not sure why, other than the stupid thinking that you need a lefthanded pitcher to get lefthanded batters out. It’s an interesting theory, and if you dig enough, or manipulate enough, you’ll find numbers to support the theory. In reality, good pitching gets out good hitting, regardless of which hand is used to throw the ball.

The California Angels have earned the reputation as having one of, if not the, strongest bullpens in the Major Leagues over the last few years. They don’t have a lefty. Instead, they have great pitchers. The Mets say they can do the same, and in the next breath say they need Aaron Heilman to return to the pen partly because of his success against lefthanded hitters. What it comes down to is, Heilman is a great pitcher: he pitches well against lefties and righties.

Still, Willie Randolph is doing all he can in spring training to give looks to a plethora of less-than-adequate lefties, hoping that one will remarkably emerge as the perfect LOOGY. There is one HUGE problem with this goal: the Mets already have the Major Leagues’ only ROOGY. That’s right, the Mets have a Righthanded One Out GuY, his name is Chad Bradford. A Major League team cannot afford to have both a LOOGY and a ROOGY; it’s inefficient, stupid, and takes a bat and glove off the bench.

Another problem is the group of lefties in camp. The best of the group is Royce Ring, but Omar and Willie will never concede that fact. They have some strange, unexplainable abhorrence for Ring and righthander Heath Bell. Maybe it’s the combination of the names: Ring, Bell. Anyway, I digress…

Outside of Ring, the Mets have Pedro Feliciano, Juan Perez, and Darren Oliver auditioning for the LOOGY spot. Feliciano couldn’t cut it in the ML in the past and went to Japan, where he was only OK. Perez has spent his career in the Red Sox minor league system and not yet thrown a ball at the ML level, a scary thought considering the demand for lefthanded pitchers (Jesse Orosco is still getting calls to come out of retirement). And get this: Oliver, who was released by two teams last year, is a better pitcher against RIGHTHANDED hitters, lifetime, than against lefties!

So what should the Mets do? Forget about the LOOGY. Keep Ring around, dump the other three pretenders, and make the final week of spring training a competition among the best PITCHERS, and bring the best arms north. Wasting valuable innings on these lackluster LOOGYs is an exercise of futility.


Give Heath a Chance

There was a great John Lennon song, it went: “… all we are saying, is give Heath a chance …”

OK, maybe those weren’t quite the words, but if they were, they would be very fitting. And, I’d play the song non-stop, 24 hours a day, within earshot of Willie Randolph and Omar Minaya.

What’s wrong with Heath Bell? I ask Omar and Willie. Does he throw too many strikes? Is he too tough? Do you not like the fact that he’s unafraid? Has he too much gumption?

Perhaps it’s an issue with his fastball; it’s only around 91-92, and not 94-95. But it does have good movement, usually sinking; the kind of sinking that produces ground balls. Are you afraid to overwhelm the infield with ground balls, Willie? Do you not like to see double plays in tight, late-inning situations, Omar?

Hopefully, I can get down to Port St. Lucie before the roster gets cut down, and get the whole crowd to sing “Give Heath a Chance”. Maybe Willie or Omar will be listening, and light bulb will go off, and Heath Bell will be part of the Mets’ bullpen.


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!


Nady in RF

The way he’s been hitting this spring, it’s pretty clear that, barring a remarkable turn of events over the next two weeks, Xavier Nady has won the right field job for the Mets. Which is fine, because that’s what Omar and Willie want, and Victor Diaz might be better off spending a few more months in AAA working on his defense and fundamentals.

Personally, I’m a Victor Diaz fan, and didn’t feel he was going to get a fair shot this spring anyway. So in a sick kind of way it’s a relief that the X man has hit so well and actually earned his spot — unlike what is happening at the second base position, where AHern and Keppinger have no realistic opportunity whatsoever.

Hopefully, Nady will stay hot as the season begins and come up with some big hits in April and May. After watching his swing, however, I’m convinced that he is not the long-term answer for the Mets in RF. To me he looks like he’ll always be a very streaky hitter: either red-hot or ice cold. Rather than using a controlled stride toward the pitcher, he dives over the plate and commits his weight and hands at the same time, leaving very little room for error. Seeing his swing, I fully understand why he has so much trouble with righthanders: all they need to do is throw breaking balls away and then jam him up inside.

In fact, his swing reminds me a LOT of a former Met’s: Joe McEwing (although McEwing never hit with the power of X man). Laugh all you want, but Super Joe took that same diving approach, and had two productive years with it: 1999 and 2001, the two years he had the most playing time. Playing regularly, a streak hitter can work his way out of the cold streaks and eventually hit another hot streak. Unfortunately, Super Joe became a super sub and could never get enough consecutive games and at-bats to get the hot streaks going. There are a lot of Major Leaguers who use this diving approach, and they are all streaky.

That’s not to say Nady won’t survive, but I think he will have trouble down the road, especially with Diaz waiting in the wings. It’s possible that he’ll start the season hot, cool off in Mid-May, then have Willie put in Diaz. The problem for Nady, then, will be finding a way to get hot again, which is next to impossible from the bench. If Diaz is given an opportunity and hits, Randolph will likely use Nady as a pinch-hitter and late-inning replacement, which in my estimation is the worst possible scenario for him. Nady will not succeed as a part-time player; he needs to play every day, and his manager needs to wait out the cold streaks. A lot like Jeromy Burnitz or Geoff Jenkins.

Remember, you heard it here first: if Nady plays every day, starting 145-150 games, he’ll have a solid year (.275 – 25 HR – 85 RBI). If Randolph jerks him in and out of the lineup, he’ll be a sub-.250 disaster.

As much as I like Diaz, I think it is in everyone’s best interests if Nady gets the opportunity to play everyday. Diaz is the type of hitter who can develop with part-time play, and eventually work himself into a starting role (LF in 2007?).


Mets vs. Puerto Rico Postgame Notes

Mets lost 6-1 to team Puerto Rico … who cares, the game means nothing and I should hope the PR All-Stars can beat a Mets’ split squad that is further decimated by players gone to WBC teams.

One good thing about the loss, is the fact that Carlos Beltran looked good and drove in a few runs.

Some notes on the game:

  • Lastings Milledge swings REALLY hard, and has good bat speed. He does look like he’s got the goods to be a Major Leaguer, and I now understand the comparisons to Gary Sheffield.
  • Kaz Matsui looks OK, he made a few nice plays in the field. Also, he did something mostly unnoticeable in the 4th , with Milledge on 2B: while batting RH, used an inside-out swing to push an inside pitch on the ground to the right side to move Milledge to third. (Wright drove him in on the next pitch with another ground ball to the right side.) That’s something I never saw him do, and it is defintely one of the “little” things he needs to do, and Willie Randolph notices. However, he still looks absolutely awful from the left side of the plate; in two of his at-bats, he looked like he was merely waving at pitches, not swinging.
  • Mike Pelfrey is the real deal.
    • He has GREAT mechanics; reminds me of Seaver/Koosman: very fluid, lots of leg power, not much strain on the arm
    • He showed a good hard fastball, spotting it on the outside of the plate
    • Good composure and confidence. He looked good vs. what was essentially All-Star competition; he faced Bernie Williams, Alex Rios, Carlos Beltran, Javy Lopez, and Pudge Rodriguez (who he struck out looking) — not a slouch in the bunch.
    • Only negative: threw too many balls. But it’s early in spring training, hopefully he’ll have better command as he continues to compete. I’d also like to see his off-speed pitches.
    • I think we may see him later in the year, making a few starts in August/September. He could move as quickly as Mark Prior did.
  • Fernando Martinez made his pro debut
    • This is an outfielder that the Mets signed out of Dominican Republic as a 16-year-old for $1.4M, including $100,000 toward his studies. He has been compared to a young Ted Williams (hmmm, so was Straw man)
    • He definitely looks like an athlete, and is a big boy for 17 years older; in fact, he looks a lot older than 17
    • That is, until he got up to hit. In only one at-bat against a very tough pitcher (Fernando Cabrera of Indians) and was clearly overmatched. But hey, it was his very first pro at-bat, and he’s only 17!
  • Brett Harper looks like a big lug who loves the low pitch. He might be the reason the Mets didn’t mind trading Mike Jacobs — not because Harper will hit 11 HRs in 100 Abs, but because he looks like a very similar player/hitter: LH 1B, lowball hitter — and put up similar numbers in the minors (though not as high a batting average). If I were Mets management, and was able to look at things objectively — which means dismissing Jacobs’ outburst as an aberration of Shane Spencerlike proportions — then I couldn’t justify keeping both Harper and Jacobs in the organization. And since Jacobs’ stock shot up from last September’s performance, it made sense to trade him while his value was high.

The next televised game is Monday afternoon at 1:00 pm on ESPN again, against the Indians. So for those of you who don’t have jobs, enjoy the game!


Pitching Problems ?

The path to the pennant is guided by pitching — every year, for every team, in every league that doesn’t use a metal bat. That said, there certainly is concern when looking at the Mets’ pitching staff; there seem to be a lot of question marks, gambles, and finger-crossing.

Even before the questionable trades of Kris Benson and Jae Seo, the Mets’ staff was pretty underwhelming. But at least there was depth. Depth is important, considering Pedro’s toe, Trax’s back, and Aaron’s entrance to the rotation. Not to mention the fact that Tom Glavine is not getting any younger, and Victor Zambrano is not getting any better. With Benson and/or Seo around, we had at worst a serviceable #4 starter to take over if any of the aforementioned five faltered.

With both gone, the Mets’ rotation is remarkably vulnerable. The fill-ins to choose from are last-minute addition Jose Lima, the unproven Brian Bannister,  and former Oriole John Maine. “Lima Time” might bring some color to the clubhouse, but he is the epitome of a loose cannon. He might pitch lights out and give us a 12-14-win season, or he might have a 10.00 ERA by mid-May and be on his way out of town. His signing is not unlike the Mets’ pickups of Scott Erickson and David Cone over the last few years: a HUGE gamble that they might catch lightning in a bottle. (Same with Bret Boone this year … thank goodness he left quickly.)

And then there are the youngsters, Bannister and Maine. Bannister was a non-prospect from the time he was drafted, and somehow bulldogged his way to the attention of the Mets’ front office. As much as I’d love to see him succeed, in reality he’s probably destined to amount to not much more than a Mike Bacsik: a crafty, overachiever who manages to spot start here and there before fading away to mop up duty and a career minor leaguer. At best, he can be the next Aaron Small … but really, what are the chances of that?

Similarly, Maine would seem to have switched fast tracks: before, he was on the fast track to the Majors, but after looking mediocre in AAA and completely overmatched in a short stint in the Bigs, he’s now on the quick slide to nonprospectville. However, he IS only 25, so assuming that his arm is healthy, there’s still time for him to turn his career around. Unfortunately, that adds up to another Mets “IF” … and the staff is loaded with them.

Most likely, I wouldn’t be so concerned if not for three developments that occurred so quickly this week. The first red flags were Pedro and Billy Wagner pulling themselves out of the World Baseball Classic. Don’t get me wrong, I’d prefer they stay out of that debacle. But, the fact that they did pull out — citing that they weren’t ready to compete at that level — has to be somewhat concerning to the Mets fan. Pedro has now made it clear that his toe is not right … and this toe was not right in September, over five months ago. In other words, five months of rest did not make it better, and now it’s too late for any kind of surgery, meaning Pedro will pitch through the year with it. Meaning he won’t be the Pedro we saw in 2005. In fact we’ll be lucky to see him start 20 games, never mind 30. So, even if he is as stellar as he was last year in those 20 games, what is the best he can give? 15 wins? That won’t be enough to help the Mets win a pennant.

The Billy Wagner thing is slightly disturbing, and more disturbing after seeing him barely break 90 MPH in his first outing of the spring. Sure, it was only the first outing, it’s still early, but I’m a Mets fan, and I have full rights to believe that something is terribly wrong. This is the guy we brought in to flirt with triple digits on the radar gun, not barely break 90. Chance are he’s OK, but if you’re a true Mets fan you understand my concern.

Finally, there is the Trachsel issue. First off, it’s bad enough he missed nearly all of 2005 with a back problem, and a 35-year-old guy with a back problem is a major issue (I know, because I am a 35-year-old guy with a back problem). Now, he’s been hit with the flu, and lost ten pounds (where was that flu when Mo Vaughn was in camp?), a setback he surely can’t afford at this point. Put those factors together with something people keep forgetting: even at his BEST, Trachsel is only a .500 pitcher.

It’s one thing if you are a Cubs fan and concerned for the health of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. After all, if those guys are healthy, the Cubs will win the pennant. But when you are a Mets fan, and concerned about whether Steve Trachsel will be able to put up his typical 12-12 season … well, you know the rotation is in big trouble.

Hopefully, these early red flags will amount to nothing but forgettable blips in a long five weeks of spring training. Hopefully, hopefully, hopefully …


Bye Bye Bret Boone

Bret Boone criesYesterday, Bret Boone tearfully announced that he was retiring from baseball, citing that the sport had become a job, and he had lost his passion for the game.

Passion, eh? So that’s what they’re calling steroids these days. I guess I’m a little behind the times.

I have mixed feelings about Boone’s retirement. On the one hand, I’m convinced his sudden power surge from ages 32-34, then just as sudden power outage in 2005, had something to do with juice (and not the kind you call “oj”). On the other hand, I held fast to this tiny shred of hope that somehow, someway, through some undetectable synthetic drug (perhaps the one Jason Giambi used in the second half last year), Boone would recapture the magic, the biceps, and the Gold Glove style, win the Comeback Juicer … er, Player, of the Year, and spark the Mets to their first pennant since 2000.

That hope is gone, and Crapsui remains the incumbent. With Jeff Keppinger suffering from back problems and a “bench guy” label, the second base job looks to be a two-horse race between Kaz Matsui and Anderson Hernandez. Even though AHern had a breakout year in the minors in 2005, then was the Rookie of the Year in the Ligas de Beisbol del Caribe, he still has options and he doesn’t make nine million dollars. Kaz does, however, so unless Ahern bats .500 this spring, expect him to win the job.