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?).