Archive: February 6th, 2007

10 Pitching Questions Entering Spring Training

For now, we’re going to avoid the open issues of second base, right field, and the bats off the bench. As always, pitching is the key to success, and the Mets have a lot of question marks when it comes to the arms.

Herewith are ten questions (actually, 11 … you always get more than your money’s worth at MetsToday) for the Mets’ pitching staff that should be answered by April 1.

1. Will Oliver Perez and John Maine build off their postseason performances, and learn to repeat their mechanics — in turn becoming more consistent, 6-7-inning starters?

2. Is Duaner Sanchez 100% healthy after his season-ending injury, and can he pitch at the same level that he did in 2006?

3. Is Ambiorix Burgos ahead of where Jorge Julio was last year, and if so can The Jacket develop him into a 7th or 8th-inning setup man?

4. If Burgos is indeed further along, and Sanchez is healthy, will it make sense to give Aaron Heilman a crack at the rotation?

5. Can Mike Pelfrey develop a MLB-quality secondary pitch/pitches and grab hold of the #5 spot in the rotation?

6. Can Jason Vargas recapture the magic that propelled him to the bigs after less than 150 minor league innings? If so, can he make an impact on the Mets’ staff in 2007?

7. Is Philip Humber healthy? If so, is he ready for prime time?

8. Will Steve Schmoll or Joe Smith “submarine” other pitchers and steal a bullpen spot? (If not, who will bring the funk?)

9. Is Juan Padilla healthy, and if so, is he the effective setup man of 2005 or the journeyman mop-up guy of 2004?

10. Do the Mets own the 13-3 Jorge Sosa of 2005, or the 3-11 Sosa of 2006?

11. (bonus question) Where does Jon Adkins fit in, if at all?

Of course, these are not the only questions surrounding the pitching staff, but they are the ones that I personally expect to have answered by the time camp breaks at the end of March. Yes, two huge question marks are at the top of the rotation, where Tom Glavine and Orlando Hernandez anchor the staff with 41-year-old bodies. But its unlikely we’ll know from spring training whether those bodies can handle another 162-game season.

Comparatively, we don’t really know for sure whether Scott Schoeneweis will be an effective LOOGY in the NL. We do know that he is virtually guaranteed a roster spot for the next 2-3 years, and thus will have some role, most likely in the bullpen. But his value cannot be measured until the Mets face the Phillies in a regular-season game, with men on base at a critical point of the contest, Chase Utley at bat and Ryan Howard on deck. Unfortunately, there’s no means of reproducing that scenario in a meaningless spring training game.

In contrast, most — if not all — of the questions posed above can be answered in six weeks of spring training. Sure, we don’t know if Perez and Maine can improve their 2006 numbers, but we will have an idea where they’re going if their mechanics are consistent. Similarly, we won’t really know if Sanchez and Padilla can be solid setup relievers again, but we’ll at least see how healthy they are. Vargas, Pelfrey, Humber, and Burgos may well begin the season in AAA, but all are close enough to MLB-ready that Rick Peterson can discern in six weeks whether their stuff is up to snuff. For example if Humber is snapping off knee-buckling, 12-to-6 curves and buzzing a 94-MPH heater at the knees, he won’t have the pleasure of hanging out at blues clubs in the Big Easy come April.

Some of these questions will be answered very quickly, others will take some time. What the answers are, in the end, will have a significant impact on the shape of the Mets’ pitching staff, and their potential for success in the first half of the 2007 season.


Dave Williams Opens the Door

The biggest news is that we’ll be without lefty Dave Williams until at least May. That said, I’ll stick to the old saying “no news is good news”, and hope that there isn’t any more news at all from the Mets for the next nine days.

It’s kind of a shame, since Williams was penciled in to be the 2007 Darren Oliver and possibly have a chance to be the #5 starter. However, it’s not the end of the world, and he won’t be out for too long. If nothing else, it gives more spring training innings to the younger arms and cuts down the competition a bit. For those wondering why in the world Omar Minaya would sign scrap heap rejects such as Aaron Sele and Jorge Sosa, Williams’ back surgery is why — you just never know who is going to go down, and it can’t hurt to have some veteran depth.

In the end, this could be a blessing in disguise. First, we already have a pretty good idea of what Dave Williams can do: he can throw strikes for 2-3 innings out of the bullpen, and can serve as an acceptable to effective spot starter for about 5 innings. He proved last year that he could keep the Mets in a ballgame, most of the time, work quickly, and be fairly efficient with his pitches. Assuming he can pitch reasonably close to what he did last year, he’ll be perfect in the “Oliver Role”, and maybe a bit better because he has shown he can start when needed. In other words, Dave Williams is a known quantity (if unspectacular).

On the other hand, there are about a dozen question marks on the pitching staff, from whether youngsters such as Mike Pelfrey, Philip Humber, and Jason Vargas are ready for prime-time, to wondering if veterans such as Sele and Sosa have anything left, to what happens next with enigma Alay Soler. And we’re taking for granted that John Maine and Oliver Perez will continue to move forward after stellar postseason performances. Just as many question marks litter the bullpen — for example, where will Jon Adkins, Juan Padilla, and Ambiorix Burgos fit in? Will there be a funk thrower such as Steve Schmoll or Joe Smith? Does Clint Nageotte have anything left? The only way to find answers to these questions is to give all these guys innings, and not having Williams around means someone gets to throw a few more meaningful pitches.

Further, it means the Mets will be carrying north someone in Williams’ penciled-in spot of long relief / spot starting — who otherwise would not have made the team. Maybe it’s Sosa or Sele, or maybe it’s Jason Vargas. Maybe Schmoll is on the Opening Day roster to appease Willie Randolph’s desire for a sidewinder. And maybe, just maybe, that guy does something really special and the Mets have another strength on the pitching staff. By the beginning of June, both Dave Williams and Guillermo Mota should be ready to resume their roles on the Mets’ pitching staff. Wouldn’t it be a nice problem, at that time of year, to have too many valuable arms on the 25-man roster? Perhaps it would give the Mets flexibility to swing a deadline deal for that impact starter or position player they need to get them over the hump in the second half of the season.

The old saying “When one door closes, another one opens” is fitting for the injury to Williams in relation to the Mets’ pitching staff. Last year, the Mets — at the very last minute — chose to bring north two lefties, Darren Oliver and Pedro Feliciano. Victor Diaz was sent to Norfolk to clear roster space while Oliver and Feliciano fought it out in the first month of the season. It was assumed that one or the other would make the team as a LOOGY, and the other would be released or returned to the minors and Diaz or some other bat would come back up. Well, Diaz never did return, and we all know the story of the two lefties — each carved themself a niche deep into the Mets’ bullpen, remaining valuable assets throughout the year. If Diaz doesn’t get sent down, we might never have seen one of those two guys blossom in a Met uniform (Oliver, for example, made it clear that he was going to retire if he didn’t make the team). Similarly, closing the door on Williams until May/June opens the door of opportunity for someone else. Ideally, that person will do as Oliver and Feliciano did last year — seize the opportunity and fill a valuable role on the staff that otherwise would not have existed or been available.

Wow … I’m sounding quite the optimist today … spring training must be near …

Hope springs eternal in 9 days !