Browsing Archive February, 2007

Pitching: Perfect World

Hope springs eternal, and as far as baseball goes, spring is eternally hopeful. Optimism abounds at every camp in Arizona and Florida in Februray through the end of March, as every team has a chance to contend in the coming year (OK, except for the Devil Rays). Inexperienced youngsters are “up and coming phenoms”; fading veterans are “providing experience and leadership”; last-minute free-agent pickups are “reclamation projects”. For everyone, the slate is clean, and on March 1st, every player in camp has a chance to have the best season of his career.

While the spring training buzz is still clouding our judgment, and the glass is half full, let’s take a look at some possibilities for the 2007 Mets pitching staff through our rose-colored glasses.

1. Oliver Perez regains the confidence and form in 2004 that made him the best young lefty hurler this side of D-Train. He wins 17 games, including three shutouts, and is among the NL leaders in strikeouts.

2. John Maine builds on his second-half performance of 2006, and gives the Mets consistent, quality starts. He wins 12 games, and the Mets win the majority of his no-decisions.

3. Tom Glavine is “Vintage Glavine” more times than not, doesn’t miss a start all year, and wins his 300th game shortly after the All-Star break.

4. El Duque starts out the season strong, winning his first eight decisions and is named to the NL All-Star team.

5. Chan Ho Park, healthy, happy, and benefitting from pitcher-friendly Shea, returns to being the pitcher that dominated NL batters from 1997-2001. He is dealt at the trading deadline to the surprising Baltimore Orioles in exchange for 2B Brian Roberts. The O’s are nine games behind in the Wild Card, but GM Jim Duquette believes Park and Carl Pavano (acquired earlier in the day from the Yankees) are exactly what the team needs to get them into the playoffs.

6. Jorge Sosa picks up where Darren Oliver left off, eating up innings and giving the Mets a chance to win when a starter has trouble early in the game. He is part of the package sent to Baltimore for Brian Roberts.

7. Dave Williams returns from back surgery to fill Sosa’s long relief role and sports a sub-3.00 ERA the rest of the way.

8. Guillermo Mota returns in June and shows that the end of 2006 was neither a fluke nor attributed to performance-enhancing drugs. He, a 100% healthy Duaner Sanchez, and Aaron Heilman form the deepest, strongest corps of setup relief in MLB history.

9. Mike Pelfrey impresses everyone in camp, but spends the first few months in New Orleans on very limited pitch counts honing his change-up. He is called up the day after the Park trade and is an immediate sensation, going 7-0 through the end of the year.

10. Scott Schoeneweis and Pedro Feliciano are outstanding in their two-headed LOOGY role of neutralizing lefthanded hitting. They are particularly effective against the Phillies, and seeing both of them appear in the same game is a common occurrence.

11. Pedro Martinez returns in mid-August and is without a spot in the rotation. He is used out of the bullpen to build up his arm strength and shake off the rust. His fastball has returned to the low 90s, occasionally touching 94.

12. Ambiorix Burgos and Marcos Carvajal spend the year in New Orleans splitting the closer role, and by August both are ready to contribute down the stretch if needed — or used as trade bait for the extra arm or bat the Mets need to put them over the hump. Burgos is used extensively in September and his performance is reminiscent of K-Rod’s 2002 debut.

13. Billy Wagner‘s newly developed forkball is devastating, and Wagner has the most dominating season of any NL closer. His 52 saves earn him the Cy Young Award.

14. The Mets make the playoffs, and all arms are 100% healthy and fresh come October. Willie Randolph can’t decide which of his starters are the “top three”, especially with Pedro’s return and Pelfrey’s dominance. He may have both El Duque and Pedro working out of relief, but the ‘pen is getting crowded too with the emergence of Burgos. All in all it’s a good problem to have, and despite another outstanding offensive performance, most onlookers point to the pitching staff as the Mets’ strength.

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Who Is Chip Ambres and Why Do We Care?

Chip AmbresOn December 19th, the Mets added invited several non-roster players to spring training, among them, Chip Ambres. The move was about as loud as a mouse fart, though a few decibels quieter. Very few, if any, Mets fans know who Chip Ambres is, and if they do, they likely had no idea he would be stealing precious at-bats from Ruben Sierra, David Newhan, Ben Johnson, and Lastings Milledge, among others.

So who is this guy and what is he doing in Port St. Lucie?

First, Chip Ambres is an outfielder. He’s 27 years old, and played in 56 games last year in Omaha, for the Kansas City Royals AAA club. His only MLB experience came in 2005 with the Royals, when he played in 53 games and hit .241. His real name is Raymond.

I can see you’re still scratching your head, wondering why the Mets would bother to bring in a guy who couldn’t crack the Royals roster all of last year, at 27 is too old to be a prospect, and with such limited time in MLB can’t even offer veteran leadership or experience. So again, why is he donning the blue and orange in sunny St. Lucie right now?

In contrast to the negatives, Chip Ambres has some positives — enough for the Mets to give him a good hard look this spring. Ambres was drafted with the 27th pick in the first-round in 1998 by the Marlins out of West Brook HS in Beaumont, Texas, where he was a 2nd-Team All-American. However, he “slipped” that low because of signability concerns — football was his best sport. Ambres was a highly recruited QB — so skilled that Texas A&M signed him to a letter of intent and planned to change their offense to make best use of his talents. As a result, he signed late (for a $1.5M bonus) and didn’t start his professional career until 1999. He immediately turned heads by batting .353 in Rookie League as a 19-year-old, and Baseball America ranked him as the Marlins’ #7 prospect — one notch above Preston Wilson. He moved up to #6 in the organization in 2000, but had some injury issues and was overmatched in high-A ball, struggling to hit .231. The rest of his minor league career was marred by inconsistency and nagging leg injuries from his football days.

Two Useless Points of Digression / Trivia

Ironically, Ambres shared the outfield pasture with Choo Freeman at AA Carolina in 2002. Freeman had been a highly recruited wide receiver in 1998, also signing with Texas A&M but also eventually choosing baseball. There’s an old but interesting article about the two “finally” becoming teammates at Baseball America.

Strangely, the Seattle Mariners drafted him in the 30th round of the 2000 draft. I’m guessing they did not realize he was already a professional. Interestingly, he was chosen 9 spots after the Rockies threw away their pick on Virginia Tech’s Michael Vick. Maybe the 30th round is reserved for waste picks and quaterbacks?

Back to the Facts

Ambres had a strong 2004 in AA, batting .265 with 20 HRs 65 RBI and stealing 26 bases, but it was his second year in the league and he was 24 years old — too little, too late. After that season, he was granted free agency and caught on with the Boston Red Sox organization.

In 2005, he finally busted out, stealing 19 bases and hitting .294 with 10 HRs, 20 doubles, 3 triples and 50 RBI in only 84 games for Pawtucket. His breakout, half-season performance turned Ambres into a valuable commodity, and the Red Sox traded him to the Royals as part of the deal for Tony Graffanino on July 19th. The Royals immediately placed him on the Major League roster and inserted him into the #7 spot in the lineup the following day; he went 2-4 with a double in his big-league debut, as the Royals beat C.C. Sabathia and the Cleveland Indians. His next start came on July 21st and he went 2-4 again, with an RBI and a stolen base, as KC beat Ted Lilly and the Blue Jays. He hit his first Major League home run about a week later, against — would you believe — Scott Kazimir, as he had 2 RBI and 2 runs scored batting in the second spot in the lineup. His batting average at that point was .471, and through August was often in the starting lineup, usually either leadoff, second, or fifth. By the end of August, however, his bat cooled and his playing time lessened as the Royals gave more at-bats to Aaron Guiel. He spent much of September flip-flopping with Guiel as the Royals’ sometime starting centerfielder, batting leadoff or second. Clearly, Kansas City was trying to figure out which of the two were worth keeping on for 2006 — or they were showcasing their talents as trade bait.

Chip Ambres HittingAs it turned out, Ambres and Guiel were the lead candidates in a competition for one of the backup outfielder spots in the Royals’ 2006 spring training. Unfortunately, neither impressed the Royals, Chip batting only .180 in the spring, and prospect Shane Costa came out of nowhere to make the club as the fifth outfielder. Guiel eventually was waived (to be picked up by the Yankees), and Ambres spent another injury-prone year in AAA, appearing in only 56 games and batting a dismal .203 before season-ending shoulder surgery on June 20th.

He may be a longshot to make the club, but he has some skills that could be useful to the Mets. When healthy, he runs with above-average Major League speed and can steal a base. At the plate the scouting reports say he has good plate discipline and strike zone judgment. In the field his arm is below average but he makes up for it with excellent range, athleticism, good instincts, and versatility — he can play all three outfield positions. In addition to his skills, Ambres has always been viewed as eager to learn, a hard worker, and an ideal teammate. His attitude is at least part of the reason he’s hung around pro ball for so long.

While Chip Ambres may be sent to minor league camp before the exhibition games start, if he’s healthy there’s a slight chance he’ll see some spring action. From his resume it doesn’t appear that he’ll be a threat to Shawn Green nor Moises Alou, but his skills and makeup might suit him perfectly as a bench player — an ideal righthanded bat to use as a pinch-hitter, with enough speed to stay on the bases (or be used as a pinch-runner). With a little luck, he could be this year’s Endy Chavez.

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The Business of Milledge

This week, before either player even stepped on to the field, many members of the media and blogosphere were debating the “competition” between Shawn Green and Lastings Milledge. (For the record, Willie Randolph has already stated that as of now, Green is his rightfielder.)

It’s clear to anyone with two eyes that Green is in the twilight of his career, while Milledge is on the way up. At the moment, Milledge has fresher raw skills, as Green’s previously all-around talents are diminishing quickly. However, Green has a mountain of experience that Milledge has yet to climb, and in baseball it is often the player with more guile who wins the battle. If pure, raw talent meant the most in our great American pastime, then Oliver Perez might be the #1 starter and not Tom Glavine.

While Randolph has already endorsed Green as his current rightfielder, he also stated, “Obviously he gets some respect for what he’s done and who he is. And to me right now he’s my right fielder. But you have to work and impress and show. … We come to spring training to compete.” In other words, it’s Green’s job to lose, which means that Milledge, Ben Johnson, and Endy Chavez all have at least some chance of winning the starting RF position.

In addition, Omar Minaya has recently stated, on several occasions, that Milledge will not be a bench player. If he’s not starting for the Mets, he’ll be starting in New Orleans. His logical reasoning is that Milledge needs reps, at-bats, and games to hone and polish those raw skills. A player can get much better playing every day at AAA than he can sitting the bench in MLB.

Or is there something else to it?

Over at MetsBlog, comment poster Danny brought up an intriguing issue concerning Lastings Milledge and the possibility of his taking the rightfield job from Shawn Green:

“… if they’re still close (i.e. Green can still be productive), I see them holding LM back to stall his arbitration clock. If they wait until mid-season or so, they will still get Lastings at the major league minimum for 2 more years, whereas if he starts from the beginning, the Mets might only get 1 more year of the major league minimum. While the Mets have deep pockets, the flexibility of Milledge at the lower salary is still appealing.”

Well now there is a whole new perspective on Shawn Green’s stability, and the trade for Ben Johnson. As fans we’d like to think that economics don’t factor into the fielding of a Major League team, but in reality they do. Of course they do. Shawn Green is being paid $4M this year, and it’s not to sit on the bench. Further, if Lastings Milledge indeed turns out to be the superstar everyone predicts, he’ll be very expensive. That’s at least part of the reason Ben Johnson is now a Met. And perhaps part of the David Newhan signing, as well as the reason Ruben Sierra and Chip Ambres were invited to camp.

While it’s true that the Mets are aiming to win a Championship, and it’s doubtful that they will allow business to get in the way of choosing one player over the other, you have to believe — by their offseason moves — that the economics are entering the picture. From a business perspective, the Mets’ brass would very much like to see Shawn Green have at least an average spring. He doesn’t have to hit .300, he merely has to hit the ball hard, field well well enough not to be a detriment, and appear to be in good shape. In other words, they want anything other than a meltdown. With Green’s history, experience, and approach to the game, it’s a safe bet that he’ll meet those expectations.

However, if by chance Green does become injured or falters terribly, the Mets will look first to Endy Chavez, second to Ben Johnson, third to David Newhan, fourth to Ruben Sierra, and fifth to Chip Ambres as his replacement. You might think it’s insane that Newhan, Sierra, and Ambres are even in the conversation, but in reality any of them — with a good spring — could conceivably be carried as part of a platoon with Chavez, Johnson, or Green (if Green loses his starting job, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s off the roster). To push the gap even further between Milledge and rightfield, remember also that Damion Easley is a natural second baseman, and Jose Valentin can play the outfield.

Let’s also not overlook the Moises Alou signing, which is getting lost in the Lastings Milledge story. Less than a year ago, many people thought the reason Cliff Floyd would not be re-signed was to make room for Milledge to start in leftfield. The Mets put a very quick end to that discussion by signing Alou early in the offseason, all but installing him as the everyday leftfielder.

Looking at the whole picture, and the number of possibilities, it looks as though the Mets have made a very strong effort to insure that Lastings Milledge begins the year in AAA. A big part of that decision no doubt is based on the feeling that Milledge needs more experience in the minors. But going to the lengths of acquiring Alou, Johnson, Newhan, and Easley, and bothering to bring in Sierra and Ambres, seems to me to be overkill. With all these much more experienced ballplayers in front of him, Milledge needs the combination of a mammoth spring and at least five competitors faltering, to make the big club.

With that kind of uphill battle against him, my “money” is on Mets’ management starting Milledge in the minors, and keeping him there until all other options have been completely exhausted.

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Pitching: Keeping Seats Warm

Obviously, we won’t know anything about how the Mets’ pitching staff will shake out come the end of March. Right now, it’s all guesswork. Injuries can occur to anyone at anytime; for all we know, we’ll start the season with Tom Glavine and Billy Wagner on the DL. Or Willie Collazo will surprise everyone and make the team as the #5 starter.

Until the exhibition games start, we’re relegated to making projections based on assumptions. That said, here are some possibilities on how the Mets’ pitching staff will look come Opening Day.

1. Aaron Sele, Chan Ho Park, and Jorge Sosa all make the big-league team. Park is penciled in as the #5 starter, Sele as the “Darren Oliver” long man, and Sosa bounced between middle and long relief.

2. Jason Vargas, Alay Soler, Mike Pelfrey, Philip Humber, Adam Bostick, and Clint Nageotte start the year to comprise New Orleans’ starting rotation. Pelfrey and Humber are on strict pitch counts / innings limitations and are not expected to contribute to the big-league club until at least July. The others are considered to be part of an extended audition for the Major League rotation.

3. Ambiorix Burgos, Juan Padilla, Joe Smith, Marcos Carvajal start the season in New Orleans but will be counted on to continue developing and expected to join the big-league team at some point before the year is over. (Remember, Padilla is still recovering from last March’s Tommy John surgery. It may take him some time to come all the way back.)

4. Sandy Alomar, Jr. and Mike DeFelice are assigned to New Orleans to play the Crash Davis role of mentoring all these young arms.

5. Someone among the original starting rotation will falter and/or suffer an injury before the halfway point of the season. Sele and Sosa will get first cracks at spot starts, much in the same way Dave Williams, Jose Lima and Jeremi Gonzalez were given opportunities last year. At the same time, the Mets will be closely watching Vargas, Soler, and Bostick, and if one of those three is dominating AAA, he will get a callup for a spot start.

Again, this is all guesswork is based on many assumptions — the most fragile assumption being that all of these people will be healthy. Of course, the chance of that is nil, which makes the quantity of arms — or as Omar likes to say, strength in numbers — a signficant strength. While it’s true that the Mets are without a true ace, Tom Glavine and El Duque are realistically back-end guys rather than front-end at this point in their careers, and the rest of the rotation is a collection of question marks, you still have to be impressed with the quality of reinforcements that will be at the ready come May, June, and beyond.

For example, people are looking past Vargas, Bostick, and Soler, but in reality these are three quality young arms that could be part of a starting rotation somewhere in MLB. Maybe that place would be Kansas City or Tampa Bay, but still they have the raw talent to be at the Big League level. Allowing them to further hone their skills at the AAA level could be the best thing for their careers, and exactly the preparation needed to make them into legit #4 or #5 starters (for the Mets, not Tampa Bay).

Similarly, with all the veteran arms available, the Mets can let Humber and Pelfrey take their time and develop at their own pace, yet still be ready to contribute to the stretch run in August and September. Speaking of developing at their own pace, the Mets will have the luxury of giving flamethrowers Ambiorix Burgos and Marcos Carvajal the opportunity get a handle on their erratic control, and perhaps even develop secondary pitches. There is a lot less pressure at the AAA level, and much more forgiveness — in the name of learning — when mistakes are made in the minors.

Finally, let’s not forget that Dave Williams and Guillermo Mota are scheduled to return sometime in May or June. That gives the Mets two more proven arms in the bullpen and in Williams, another candidate for the rotation.

In synopsis, as “bad” as the Mets’ starting rotation looks right now, it doesn’t appear to be something that will significantly hamper the team’s success, not when you look at the potential depth of arms that will be available. Unlike most teams, whose pitching staffs become decimated as a season wears on, the Mets will grow stronger as the months pass. Who else will be able to add a potentially lights-out setup man like Mota at the beginning of June? How many teams will have on their AAA squad two young triple-digit fastballers with MLB experience, one of which saved 18 American League games last year? Who else will have the likes of Pedro Martinez, Mike Pelfrey, and Philip Humber coming in to bolster the staff during the stretch run in September?

There will be a lot of talk regarding the weakness of the Mets starters all though March and most of April and May. However, the Mets are being built for the second half of the season, and by that time the cream will not only be rising to, but spilling over the top. The only thing guys like Park, Sosa, and Sele need to do is keep the seats warm until the reinforcements arrive.

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Pelfrey and Humber

Philip Humber on the pitching moundThe multitude of young arms will make this spring will be especially exciting for Mets fans, with the bulk of the eyes glued to Mike Pelfrey and Philip Humber. There are even a number of MLB writers and pundits projecting Pelfrey as the #5 starter. However, Mets fans should enjoy the spring moments of these two youngsters while you can, because in reality neither will be breaking with the big club come April.

Understand, that is not a negative outlook; in fact, it’s quite positive. It means that at least 3 of the other two dozen starters in camp are competent enough to provide important innings for the Mets — at least for the first half of the year. It also means that Pelfrey and Humber are able to further hone their skills at the AAA level, which is a much better place for their personal development at this stage in their respective careers.

While it would be fantastic for the Mets if one of these two studs blew away everyone at spring training and pulled a Justin Verlander this year, such a turn of events might not be the best thing over the long-term. One only needs to look at Tyler Yates, Francisco Liriano, or Jason Vargas as examples.

Yates, as you may remember, was the surprise of 2004 spring training, winning the #4 spot in the rotation just a year and half after receiving Tommy John surgery. Though he blazed through March, he fizzled in April and was back in the minors by May. The once promising prospect did not return to the big leagues until 2006, after suffering a rotator cuff injury that required surgery in 2005. It’s quite possible that coming back too soon in ’04 contributed to the shoulder woes.

Humber is in a similar situation, right now close to two years after TJ surgery. Since the surgery, he’s pitched about 75 innings, half of it below AA. Even if he’s now 100%, and showing that he has Major-League-ready stuff, it would not make sense to put him into the Mets rotation in April. Ideally, a starter on the Opening Day roster is expected to give a team somewhere between 180 and 200+ innings. That’s well more than twice as many innings he pitched last year. For the Mets to simply double his workload to 150 innings is more realistic, and a safer route for the long-term. That means he may start 25-30 games, but only expected to pitch 4-5 innings. As deep as the Mets’ bullpen is, it doesn’t make sense to force that load on it once every five days. Better to let Humber start out in New Orleans, gradually build up his pitch counts, and perhaps come up sometime in the second half of the season to make spot starts. Philip Humber’s year to shine will be 2008.

Mike Pelfrey delivers a pitchSimilarly, Mike Pelfrey — though completely healthy — threw less than 120 innings last year, his first as a professional. He was worked pretty hard at Wichita State in 2005, and didn’t pitch at all after his college season — probably a good thing as he needed the rest. More toward that end of keeping him healthy, the Mets were cautious in his first year of pro ball, and will probably continue that trend in 2007. They’re likely looking for Pelfrey to get up to 160-180 innings total — a safe and logical progression. Again, it makes more sense to give him 4- and 5-inning starts early in the year at the AAA level, rather than tax the Big League bullpen. Further, Pelfrey needs to further develop his secondary pitches, specifically his change-up. New Orleans is a much better place than Shea for him to be making mistakes. Plus, at the minor league level, there will be less pressure to win, and therefore he’ll have more room to freely tinker with grips and release points. A mistake at AAA means little in comparison to losing ground in what promises to be a tight NL East race.

If Pelfrey advances his secondary pitches in AAA, and the Mets slowly build him up to 6- or 7-inning starts, he could negate the need to trade for an impact starter at the end of July. Two months of a strong, more experienced, better-equipped Mike Pelfrey may be exactly the jolt the Mets need down the stretch. It would be similar to Cole Hamels’ burst on the scene last year. In addition, by spending most of the year in the minors, MLB teams will have incomplete scouting reports, and will not have seen him — more advantages for Pelfrey. Not making the team out of spring training could be the best thing that happens to Mike Pelfrey.

Naturally, Pelfrey and Humber need to progress, and the Mets have to figure out a way to stay on top of the NL East for the first half of the season, while they wait for the cavalry — Pelfrey, Humber, and Pedro Martinez — to arrive. Now you know why Omar Minaya has been stockpiling pitchers. He figures that if he can somehow squeeze enough quality starts out of the current quantity, he’ll have one or two among Pedro, Pelfrey, Humber and perhaps an acquired veteran arm to finish off the year — at perhaps the most important stage of the season. It’s doubtful that the Mets expect to get 200 innings out of Chan Ho Park or Aaron Sele, but they do hope to get 150-200 frames between them from April through July. In other words, don’t expect the spring training audition for starters to end at the end of March — there will be “tryouts” from now through at least mid-June. If by then there are still question marks, perhaps Philip Humber or Mike Pelfrey will be ready to lead the cavalry, and help carry the Mets to another NL East title.

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