While we Mets fans are getting stressed out over the current state of the starting rotation, if we would just take a step out of our little world we’d realize the Mets’ pitching staff isn’t that bad — certainly not the dire straits some would have us believe.
First of all, the bullpen — on paper — is as deep as any in MLB. Billy Wagner remains one of the top five closers in the game, and he has Duaner Sanchez, Aaron Heilman, Guillermo Mota, Scott Schoeneweis, Ambiorix Burgos, and Pedro Feliciano to bridge the gap. There’s a number of other names, but we don’t need to waste space and time going over the bullpen; the major concern is the starting pitching. However I think we’re all in agreement that the Mets’ bullpen is once again going to be a strength — even if Sanchez doesn’t come back 100%.
That said, the focus is on the starters, of which we have two 40+ year-olds and a host of question marks. On the positive side of things, the Mets have six guys aged 25 or under with a lot of upside: Oliver Perez, John Maine, Philip Humber, Mike Pelfrey, Jason Vargas, and Alay Soler. Think about it … if those six guys were on the Devil Rays, there might be some people picking the Rays to contend for a Wild Card spot in the AL. For the Mets, we’re just hoping that two or three out out of the group can prove they’re ready for prime time.
In addition to the youngsters, the Mets have Dave Williams, Jorge Sosa, and either Heilman or Schoeneweis lined up as a backup plan, in the event a fifth starter doesn’t emerge. Sosa may be underwhelming, but he did go 13-3 as a starter just two years ago. Williams is also unspectacular, but isn’t far removed from being a solid #4 starter, and his performances in the second half last year indicate that he should be adequate enough to fill up the innings left behind by Steve Trachsel — if necessary.
Now take a look at the rest of the NL East, which is the Mets’ main concern.
On paper, the Phillies and Marlins probably have the best starting pitching in the division. However, the Marlins’ success last year was due to a number of raw young arms that may have snuck up on people — and there’s no guarantee that they’ll continue to develop in their second year of Big League competition. Often, young pitchers take a step back before moving forward again. An obvious example is Jason Vargas, who was rushed to the bigs in 2005, did well, then fell flat on his face in 2006. A more glaring point is the fact that history has shown lower performance and more injuries to young pitchers in the year after they have completed their first full season. Young arms simply aren’t ready for the stress of MLB, and usually have thrown more innings than they ever did before — a recipe for a downfall. And while the Marlins are talented, they aren’t deep; if a few of their top guys go down, they’re dipping into AAA and AA for help, as they have no veteran arms on the roster. In addition, even if the Marlins youngsters do stay healthy and continue to pitch well, they still have to turn the ball over to a bullpen made of cheesecloth.
The Phillies, on the other hand, have put together a nice mix of veterans — Freddy Garcia, Jamie Moyer, Brett Myers, Jon Lieber, and Adam Eaton — to go with up-and-comer Cole Hamels. That’s a solid staff of innings-eaters, but hardly anything to get excited about. Moyer just turned 44 and his best days are behind him. Myers has talent but has been inconsistent throughout his career. Eaton has had recent injury problems and never won more than 11 games in a season. Lieber is a solid workhorse but has been shopped and may be squeezed out before spring training ends. Hamels has fantastic potential, but because of his youth is just as much a question mark as, say, Mike Pelfrey or Philip Humber. Freddy Garcia projects as their ace and top starter, and in my estimation could very well contend for the NL Cy Young — assuming his workload over the last five years doesn’t catch up with him. In the end, the Phillies’ rotation looks solid — good, not great, but not without question marks, either — and like the Marlins their bullpen leaves a bit to be desired. Beyond Geoff Geary and Ryan Madson, the Phils don’t have much to bridge the gap to Tom Gordon — who by the way isn’t getting any younger, and has perennial injury issues.
Outside of the Phillies and the Marlins, the next-best pitching staff is the Braves, who also have an over-40 guy, John Smoltz, anchoring their staff. OK, there’s every reason to believe Smoltz will have another fine season, but after him, questions abound. For example, which Tim Hudson will show up? The one who went 20-6 in 2000, looking to have several Cy Youngs stacked up by this time, or the one who struggled with his mechanics and location and became a .500 pitcher in 2006? Hudson’s gradual demise since his Oakland years are startling to most, and strike fear into the hearts of Atlanta fans. Sure, he has great talent, but there may well be something physically wrong with him. He, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito threw a lot of innings for those Oakland teams in the early 2000s; with Mulder suffering shoulder problems last year, is Hudson next?
After Hudson, the Braves are counting on 25-year-old Chuck James to improve upon his impressive 2006 debut. He went 11-4, and looked good … but then, Jorge Sosa once went 13-3 for the Braves. The rest of the rotation is just as up in the air as the Mets — a lot of candidates, just as many questions. Among them is 22-year-old Kyle Davies, who is in the same stage of development as Hamels and Pelfrey and therefore no sure thing. The Braves do have Mike Hampton coming back from elbow surgery and a year off. If he’s healthy, he might be one of the better lefty starters in the NL. But if he’s not, well … no one else really stands out as a solid choice to fill out their rotation. The Braves did bolster their bullpen by adding Rafael Soriano and Tanyon Sturtze to set up for Bob Wickman, but Sturtze may have been burned out by Joe Torre, and outside of these three men there is not a whole lot to talk about.
Do we really need to mention the Nationals? They have John Patterson coming off a forearm injury (which often develops into elbow problems), and then it’s a complete crapshoot. There are retreads such as Jon Rauch, Tim Redding, Billy Traber, and Jerome Williams on the roster — so it’s pretty clear this team will be in a rebuilding stage for a few years.
In the divisions outside the NL East, the teams with good pitching are equally hard to find, except for maybe the Dodgers and the Padres. You normally would include Houston among the elite, but they’ve lost Andy Pettitte, probably won’t have Roger Clemens returning, and closer Brad Lidge took a step back. Arizona has Brandon Webb and some good names behind him, though there are definitely some “ifs” regarding Randy Johnson and Livan Hernandez — not to mention the fact that their closer will be one of two highly volatile people (Jose Valverde or Jorge Julio). Even the reigning World Champion Cardinals have major pitching questions, to the point where relievers Adam Wainwright and Braden Looper may be moving to the rotation, leaving a big gap to Jason Isringhausen — who happens to be fighting both injury and consistency issues.
Looking at the whole picture, the Mets’ pitching situation doesn’t look all that bad now, does it? Suddenly, their bullpen depth and stockpiling of arms appears to put them in a very good position to win, when compared to what’s going on in other NL organizations.
Sit tight … we have just 29 days before pitchers and catchers report.