Browsing Archive January, 2007

Victor Zambrano a Blue Jay – Let the Healing Begin

The Victor Zambrano Era … also known as “After Kazmir” (or, “AK”), has come to an official close, as VZ has signed a minor-league contract with the Toronto Blue Jays.

(deep sigh of relief)

Finally, Mets fans can move on, and simply scratch off the trading away of Scott Kazmir as another bungled move of the past. Yes, we’ll still feel an ache every time Kazmir throws a three-hit shutout, but it should hurt less frequently now that the reminder of Victor Zambrano has been removed from the team. Instead of thinking about Kazmir every time we see Zambrano in a Met uniform, we’ll only be reminded when the Devil Rays are in town to play the Yankees, or when he does something remarkable enough to be featured on ESPN Baseball Tonight. Chances are pretty good that the Kazmir deal will not pain us nearly as much as the Nolan Ryan blunder.

Think about it … do any of us really feel a pang of anger every time Jason Isringhausen saves a game? Did it bother us so much when Carl Everett was in his prime? Or when Jeff Kent was named NL MVP while in a San Francisco Giants’ uniform? Of course not. Sure, we may have felt a bit of pain, but the fact that there weren’t any reminders of those deals in our face every day, had a lot to do with the recovery.

For example, do you even remember who Billy Taylor was? (Hint: not the Billy Taylor who used to be running back for the NY Giants.) He was the closer we received in return for Izzy … and yes he was a bust as much as Zambrano. John Hudek was the pitcher obtained for Everett. Carlos Baerga was the spoils when Kent was absconded to Cleveland. Ridding ourselves of the busts quickly, in turn shortened the healing process.

Consider this: if Jason Middlebrook or Steve Reed were still on the Mets, we’d likely be cringing every time Jason Bay hit a homer. If Mike Bordick were still playing shortstop, we’d still be kicking ourselves every time Melvin Mora spun a web gem. Instead, we barely even remember these guys were Mets property.

In contrast, every time a TV camera or photograph caught Zambrano in a Mets uniform, all we could think about was Kazmir. With Zambrano’s departure, the reminder is gone. In due time, we’ll bag Kazmir along with Isringhausen, Mora, Kent, Everett, Bay, Ryan, Terence Long, AJ Burnett, Paul Wilson, Kevin Mitchell, Jose Oquendo, Jeff Reardon, Mike Scott, Lenny Dykstra, Amos Otis, and every other young prospect that blossomed away from Shea. Eventually, we forgot what all those players looked like in Mets caps (except Dykstra, of course).

Goodbye and god bless, Victor Zambrano. Mets fans, let the healing begin.

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Keeping Things Quiet

Matthew Cerrone at MetsBlog.com made a great point about Omar Minaya’s surreptitious ways, and the tight-as-a-drum front office. In this day and age of information overload — pushed to the brink by the immediacy and popularity of the internet — keeping a rumor under wraps is next to impossible. However, this winter, the Mets have done a marvelous job of keeping nearly every acquisition a secret.

Although the early signing of Moises Alou was far from a shocker — the Mets were rumored to be after him at the trade deadline and as late as the last week of August 2006 — every other deal since was more or less a complete surprise, beginning with the Marlins trade for Jason Vargas et al, the signing of Damion Easley and going right up to the recent pickup of Aaron Sele. Seriously now, did ANYONE think the Mets were comfortable trading away fireballers Henry Owens and Matt Lindstrom, and potential fifth starter Brian Bannister? These deals came completely out of the blue. I also doubt anyone foresaw the departure of BOTH Royce Ring and Heath Bell in the same trade — it would seem too, I don’t know … appropriate.

Not one newspaper columnist, MLB “insider”, nor blogger saw those November deals coming, and I don’t recall seeing even a blogging commenter suggest that the Mets consider picking up Ambiorix Burgos, Jason Standridge, or Ben Johnson. Bloggers and commentors are always throwing out names and deals from left field, and not one ever said, “hey, the Mets should see if Jason Vargas is available.” Similarly, no one had David Newhan on their radar. Even as late as mid-January, with the Mets’ pitching staff in a complete shambles, and less than a dozen half-decent free-agent options out there, everybody was pointing to Jeff Weaver, Tony Armas Jr., and Tomo Ohka — while Scott Schoeneweis, Jorge Sosa, and Aaron Sele quietly snuck through Shea Stadium’s back door.

Conversely, it seemed that the more noise was made about a player or trade, the less likely it was to happen. We all know that Barry Zito was “supposed to” become a Met, Aaron Heilman and Lastings Milledge were to be ex-Mets, and any one of several second basemen were going to sign any day. Remember the earliest free-agent rumors? First Adam Kennedy was coming eastward, then Mark Loretta. Once the winter meetings were over, the Mets were sure to walk out with a pitcher from the A’s or White Sox, or have Jason Jennings fitting into the orange and blue. In the end, none of these things happened.

It’s clear that Omar and co. believe “loose lips sink ships” — but what does that tell us for the next few weeks as we restlessly await the reporting date for pitchers and catchers (which for the Mets is February 16th … one more day of agony than most other teams’ fans have to endure)?

I think it means one more bombshell is going to fall before mid-February. Last year, no one saw the the Jae Seo trade coming, and after that deal, everyone thought Kris Benson was safe. What will the late-offseason shockers be this year? Will Heilman and Milledge finally be traded, but for someone who hasn’t been mentioned thus far? Or now that Sele and Sosa have been added to the starter competition — seemingly solidifying Heilman’s place in the ‘pen — will it come out that Heilman will be a starter candidate anyway? Is Ronny Belliard the next out-of-the-blue free-agent signing? Will Bobby Ojeda or Frank Viola come out of retirement to claim a starter spot? Hey, we’ve got to really think out of the box to try and predict Omar’s next move. Try to think of a name that hasn’t been mentioned all winter long, and you might be on to the Mets’ latest target. Who knows, we may see Curt Schilling, Michael Young, or Vlad Guerrero find his way to Flushing. Maybe a way-off-the-radar deal will fetch Ryan Doumit, Phil Nevin, or Casey Fossum. Did we have a clue that Paul LoDuca and Carlos Delgado were available after the 2005 season? Would anyone have guessed Xavier Nady would be traded at the deadline in 2006?

With Omar Minaya in Africa for the next week, all will likely be quiet on the Mets’ front. But then, that’s the way it always is …

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Desperately Seeking Pitching

For a guy who is “comfortable” with his pitching staff, Omar Minaya sure is making the moves of an uncomfortable GM.

The signing of Jorge Sosa appeared to be the last piece of the pitching staff re-stock project. Though he received a guaranteed Major League contract, there is every reason to believe that Sosa is merely another can of paint to slap on the wall, and see if he sticks. Not a big deal, because if by chance he works out, super. If not, he wasn’t so expensive that you wouldn’t drop him into AAA or release him outright.

However, the Mets also just signed veteran has-been Aaron Sele, and are looking at bringing back Victor “Kazmir Deal” Zambrano. Two more cans of paint to throw at the wall, and two more arms for triple-A New Orleans.

So the competition for the starting rotation looks like this:

1. Tom Glavine
2. Orlando Hernandez
3. John Maine
4. Oliver Perez
5. Dave Williams
6. Mike Pelfrey
7. Philip Humber
8. Jason Vargas
9. Jorge Sosa
10. Aaron Sele
11. Alay Soler
12. Victor Zambrano?
13. Aaron Heilman?

Looking at things pessimistically, you’re counting on two over-40-year-olds to anchor your rotation, and hoping that three guys stick from the other eleven. If you see the glass half-full, then you are feeling confident about a nice mix of experienc and youth, with two cagey veterans heading the staff, two developing youngsters (Maine and Perez) that appear ready to break out, and one of three future aces (Pelfrey, Humber, Vargas) competing for the fifth spot.

Luckily, the Mets’ brass is seeing the glass as both half-full AND half-empty. However, if you are neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but rather a REALIST, you can see that the half-full crowd is:

1. Relying heavily on two 40-year-olds to maintain their production and remain healthy;
2. Hoping that Perez and Maine will pitch as well in 2007 as they did in the postseason;
3. Figuring that one of the youngsters will make a step forward and fill in the fifth spot.

There’s a lot of hoping going on with this outlook, and a lot that needs to go right.

Looking at things realistically, Perez fashioned a 6.55 ERA with a 3-13 record last year. His fearless postseason performances made a lot of people forget just how wildly inconsistent he was in 2006. In fact, I remember being flamed off of MetsBlog.com in mid-September for suggesting that Perez be placed on the posteason roster — nearly everyone thought it was a horrendous idea. Now, I’m not saying I’m some kind of genius; my theory was that even though there was a good chance he’d be knocked out of a playoff game by the third inning, there was the slightest possibility of him throwing a 3-hit complete shutout. Going into 2007, predicting Oliver Perez’s performance is just as dicey — he may occasionally look like Sandy Koufax, but more often look like Jose Lima (circa 2006). In other words, we have no idea what Perez will bring to the table, and the Mets have to brace for the very real possibility of another season-long implosion.

Similarly, John Maine is no guarantee to step into a #3 or #4 spot in the rotation. Yes, he had a marvelous three-game stretch, and finished the season looking like a solid Major League starter. However, two issues must be considered: 1. he didn’t face many teams in the last two months of the season; and 2. he’s shown to have a lot of trouble after going through a lineup twice. Even during his playoff heroics, he was only a four- to five-inning pitcher. What will happen after he faces the entire league once, and will he be effective after five innings? Once more teams and scouts see him, and the information gets out in video, scouting reports, etc., will John Maine be able to make the necessary readjustments during the season? Only time will tell.

A lot of people are penciling in Maine and Perez as the #3 and #4 starters, and figuring that the #5 is a tossup. However, after considering the above points on Maine and Perez, it really looks more like all three rotation spots are up for grabs — with Maine a near lock for at least one of those three spots. And in all reality, even if Maine continues to be the pitcher he was from August through October, he’s probably more of a #4 or #5 than a #3. Which means that someone from this group needs to really step it up a notch.

To summarize, the realistic view of the Mets’ starting staff goes like this: Tom Glavine and El Duque are filling the top of the rotation, and the other spots will be filled by three arms coming from a group of nine, ten, or eleven (depending on whether Zambrano and Heilman are candidates). So for everyone penciling in Maine, Perez, and Pelfrey (for example), understand that there is every chance you will be erasing those names and writing in Aaron Sele, Jorge Sosa, and Jason Vargas.

Surely I jest, you say, but it’s probably true: the last three spots for the Mets’ starting rotation is a wide-open competition. Looking at the number of paint cans (or are they tomato cans?) being thrown at the wall, there doesn’t appear to be enough time in seven weeks of spring training to hold a tryout for 11 pitchers. Consider that last year, the Mets were auditioning Aaron Heilman, Darren Oliver, Brian Bannister, and Jose Lima for the #5 spot. Lima and Oliver dropped out of contention quickly, and it became a dogfight between Heilman and Bannister. By the end of spring training, each of those two had thrown about 15 innings. Think about that: winning the fifth starter job was based on 15 innings of work — and the only reason there were that many innings available was because two people emerged early as the favorites.

Spring training games begin on March 1st. What happens if, by, say, March 15th, none of these nine (or eleven) pitchers are showing anything special? How do you split up the innings over the next 17 games? Remember now, the Mets won’t just have a dozen or so starters who need innings — there will be another dozen or so relievers who need to get their game work in as well (that’s not counting guys like Blake McGinley, Willie Collazo, Clint Nageotte, Lino Urdaneta, and others who will be getting a quick look). It will be difficult enough getting everyone the work they need, much less trying to make a competition out of the spring. That said, it would appear that the “tryouts” for the last two or three spots in the rotation could very well extend into April, May, and June. In other words, it may be another year of starters by committee, shuttling arms back and forth from New Orleans every week. Last year, the shuttle was happening with only one spot in the rotation, occasionally two. In 2007, we may be watching the “three spot shuffle”.

Twenty days before the madness begins.

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John Maine: Split the Difference?

What a difference a year makes … this time last year, John Maine was considered a bust by the Baltimore Orioles, and being shopped around as a throw-in as “Genius Jim” Duquette tried to make his team less competitive and more expensive — not an easy thing to accomplish (though he did have experience with that in Flushing).

Even after Maine was shipped to New York, little was expected from him. Most figured he’d fill out the roster in AAA, maybe get a few spot starts if there were some injuries.

Today, John Maine is more or less expected to take hold of the #3 spot in the Mets’ 2007 rotation … quite a bit to put on a young man’s shoulders. The Mets, fans, and pundits justify their expectations based on a string of successful starts from July 21 through the NLCS in October. Indeed, Maine proved that he could pitch under playoff pressure, and he showed that he had a good moving, Major League-caliber fastball.

However, he’s far from being a #3 at this point in his career — at least, based on his 2006 skillset. After his fastball, his repertoire is mediocre to below average on most nights. While there were at least two magical nights (back-to-back starts on July 21 and 26) when he had his offspeed pitches working well, he often struggled during the opposing lineup’s third time around. Willie Randolph and Rick Peterson were quick to realize this, and usually rescued him before the breakdown began. However, that strategy resulted in bullpen-taxing, five-inning and six-inning starts. In fact, Maine did not pitch more than six innings in one game after July 26. Further, the postseason heroics that everyone gets excited about, were actually two four-inning performances and one five-inning outing — back in the day, that was considered “getting knocked out early”.

A solid, six-inning starter is exactly what a team needs at the back-end of their rotation. Unfortunately, the Mets need Maine to be a middle-of-the-rotation guy. Maine’s current supporting arsenal — a below-average changeup, big slow curve, and inconsistent slider — will not help him progress.

However, a split-fingered fastball / forkball, might.

While struggling to get downward movement on his change-up in August of last year, Rick Peterson suggested to Maine that he try a forkball. Maine tinkered with the pitch through September and may have used it a bit in the postseason. He has the biological makeup — big hands, long fingers — to be successful with the pitch. And we already know he has the mental makeup to put the time in to hone it. Hopefully, the forkball will be a “Maine” focus in spring training.

Although Maine started to use the slider with some success toward the end of the year, and it can be a decent “out” pitch, it loses its effectiveness when used more than 5-10% of the time — unless you are a reliever (see: Sparky Lyle) or your name is Steve Carlton. A starting pitcher needs to be able to change speeds, and the best do it with a strong change-up that moves, or a good overhand curve. John’s curve is big, slow, and awful, and from what I gather, has already been ditched from his bag of tricks. He’ll need to continue develop his change-up no matter what, but until it reaches Johan Santana / Aaron Heilman – like consistency and movement, he’s going to give up a lot of gopher balls. Ditching the change altogether to concentrate on improving the forkball may be his quickest-developing, best choice — because even if it doesn’t break, it can still be effective for its change of speed and location (at the knees). More importantly, it could be career-changing pitch.

Old-time Mets fans remember Mike Scott of the Houston Astros; even older-time Mets faithful remember Mike Scott pre-Astros — when he was a Met. When Scott was on the Mets, he was very much like Maine — a tall (6’3″) guy with long fingers who threw a good fastball with hop, but could never seem to develop secondary pitches. After a 14-27 career with New York, he was sent to Houston after the 1982 season in return for pinch-hitting specialist Danny Heep. He had the same issues with his offspeed stuff, then worked with Roger Craig (ironically, an original Met) to learn the forkball during the 84-85 offseason. The result was mindblowing, as Scott, over the next few years, became the ace of an excellent Houston staff (one that included Nolan Ryan), won a Cy Young, threw a no-hitter, and struck out 300 batters in a season.

But Mike Scott wasn’t the only pitcher to go from so-so to spectacular after learning the split; Roger Craig’s earlier protege was Jack Morris. Morris was another strapping (6’3″), hard-throwing righty whose hard fastball and slider got him through the minors, but weren’t enough to get him to the Bigs. While managing the Tigers in 1978, he taught the split-finger to Morris so he’d have an offspeed pitch, and the rest is history.

For a while, the splitfinger was the “de rigeur” pitch, but fell out of favor for two reasons. First, you need to have long, slender fingers to pitch it with effectiveness — and not everyone does. Secondly, there were rumors that throwing too many were bad for your elbow (in reality, guys were probably suffering overuse injuries because they spent so many extra throws learning the pitch). Admittedly, the splitfinger is not a good choice for most people, but John Maine has the right hand size, and for him, it could be a godsend.

We’ll find out in 28 days whether it’s part of his training program.

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Mets Pitching: Not That Bad

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.

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