Archive: February 7th, 2007

Ten Things that Must Go Right in 2007

In 2006 the Mets benefitted greatly from a combination of breakout or career years from many of their veteran bats and an overall lack of depth and talent in the NL East — a combination that allowed them to breeze to an easy division title. However, 2007 promises to be a much more difficult season for success by our Flushing favorites.

First of all, the Mets can’t count on the bats to produce as well as they did in 2006. Carlos Beltran, for example, had the kind of year the Mets envisioned when they gave him a $120M contract. And maybe we can expect him to continue to put up monster numbers in 2007, and expect to see continued improvement from youngsters David Wright and Jose Reyes. However, the rest of the lineup is frighteningly old, causing one to wonder if a downslide is near — if not already taking place. The most glaring regression, of course, is Shawn Green, who seems to have completely lost the bat speed and power that once produced 40 homers in a season. The 34-year-old’s spiraling path downward is similar to the declining years of Dale Murphy, Robin Ventura, and Jim Rice — when they were around the same age. Call me a cynic, but those players and Green would be primary candidates for the performance-enhancing “supplements” that derailed the decline of aging ballplayers such as Rafael Palmeiro, Barry Bonds, and Mark McGwire … but that’s for another discussion.

Getting back on track, there are two veterans in particular of specific concern: Jose Valentin and Paul LoDuca. Valentin’s career seemed over before his renaissance season in 2006, and one has to wonder if he can repeat the performance — the odds are against it. Similarly, LoDuca was previously a solid .280-.285 hitter who suddenly jacked up to .318, leading the team. The problem is that LoDuca will be a 35-year-old catcher come April, and catchers usually start regressing around age 32-33 (just ask Johnny Bench or Mike Piazza). Maybe LoDuca and Valentin can fend off the inevitable, but more likely they can’t.

Interestingly, the Mets added another age-susceptible veteran to the lineup in Moises Alou. Again, here is a guy who seems to be fighting nature, batting .301 as a 39-year-old. However, he missed more than 60 games due to various nagging injuries. Can he really be expected to continue to produce at such a high level, in spite of his worn, 40-year-old body?

Despite the issues surrounding the aging bats, most pundits have taken for granted that the Mets offense will be dominating once again, instead focusing on the pitching staff as a weakness. The bullpen should be strong and fairly deep, but the starting rotation is a disaster, headed by two 40-year-olds and completed by three question marks.

Further compounding the situation is that their NL rivals appear to have strengthened themselves — at least on paper — so it will not be such an easy ride in 2007. The Phillies, in particular, had a banner offseason, following the momentum of a strong finish in 2006. After the departure of Bobby Abreu, the Phillies became a new team seemingly overnight, and would have been a force to be reckoned with in September had the Mets not staked such a steep lead at the top of the NL East. The Phils’ answer to Wright and Reyes is Howard and Utley, with Jimmy Rollins mixed in. Add to those young superstars the competitive fire of players like Shane Victorino and Aaron Rowand, plus the underappreciated numbers put up by Pat Burrell, and their everyday lineup looks pretty competitive. Burrell, in particular, has been perceived as an underachiever, and is a constant subject of trade rumors. However, he consistently puts up 25-30 HRs, 90-100 RBIs, and walks almost 100 times per year — nothing to sneeze at. In short, the Phillies’ lineup is comparable to the Mets, and though they don’t have the bullpen depth, they do have a strong, if unspectacular, and deep starting rotation.

To start, the 26-year-old Brett Myers seems poised to have a breakout season, after winning 12 games with a 3.96 ERA and 189 Ks in 2006. He’s joined by another up-and-comer, Cole Hamels, who at 22 is ahead of Mike Pelfrey after going 9-8 with a 4.08 ERA in his debut half-season. Holdovers Jamie Moyer and Jon Lieber are solid veterans for the youngsters to lean on and learn from, and GM Pat Gillick was smart to add Freddy Garcia, a consistent horse who will head the rotation. After a 116-71 career AL record, there’s every reason to believe Garcia will come into the NL and immediately become a 17-20-game winner. While it’s true the Phillies’ bullpeni is not deep, it doesn’t need to be when iinnings-eaters like Garcia, Lieber, Myers, and Hamel are routinely pitching into the 7th and 8th innings. Jimmy Rollins has every reason to be speaking confidently about his team — on paper, the Phillies do indeed look like the team to beat.

Similarly, the Braves look a lot tougher than they were in 2006. Their young lineup continued to progress, but did not have Chipper Jones for 50 games due to injuries. More devastating to the team was their pitching, which was hit hard (pardon the pun) by the absence of Mike Hampton, the regression of Tim Hudson, the departure of Leo Mazzone, and the derelict performance of their bullpen. Specifically, the bullpen destroyed the Braves, blowing 29 saves — an extraordinary amount. Even without Hampton and Hudson, if the Braves could have held on to just half of those games — a reasonable expectation — they would have finished with 94-95 wins, or right on the Mets’ neck. With that in mind, GM John Schuerholz made the bullpen his primary concern in the offseason, and added flamethrowers Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez to bridge the gap to closer Bob Wickman. Wickman wasn’t added until late July, and was only responsible for one of those blown saves. Gonzalez was an effective lefty closer for the Pirates, going 24 for 24 in save situations. Soriano was the primary righthanded setup man in Seattle, and most scouts consider his stuff and makeup good enough to be a dominant Major League closer. Suffice to say, even if Hampton and Hudson don’t rebound, the Braves should improve by at least 10-15 games in 2007. If either of those starters do return to their previous levels of performance, the rest of the NL East could spend most of the season looking up at the Braves.

The Marlins’ youngsters opened a lot of eyes in 2006, but it seems likely they’ll regress in 2007. First of all, they won’t surprise anyone — every team will have a full scouting report on most of their players. Secondly, it is common for first-year pitching stars to fall back in their second year, for several reasons. So it will be a year of adjustments for the Marlins, but they should still be fairly competitive — not enough to contend for the NL East title, but enough to be spoilers and make things difficult for the teams in the hunt.

With the above issues at hand, the Mets will require a number of things to go right if they intend to repeat as division champs. Here are ten absolutes for success in 2007 in order of importance:

1. John Maine must progress and become a 6-inning, solid #3/4 starter.

2. Oliver Perez must harness his talent and return to the pitcher he was in 2004.

3. Tom Glavine and Orlando Hernandez must both start at least 25 games, and perform similarly to their 2006 output.

4. Someone among Mike Pelfrey, Philip Humber, and Jason Vargas must show they’re ready for prime time and grab hold of the #5 spot in the rotation by the beginning of June, in much the same way Hamels did for the Phillies last year.

5. Duaner Sanchez, Aaron Heilman, and Gullermo Mota must pitch at the same level they did in Met uniforms last year.

6. Scott Schoeneweis and/or Pedro Feliciano must neutralize the big LH bats in critical situations.

7. Moises Alou, Shawn Green, and Jose Valentin — or whoever is in lineup slots 6-8 — must offer above-average production compared to other bottom-of-the-order NL batters.

8. Jose Reyes, David Wright, and Carlos Beltran must avoid injury and continue progressing offensively and defensively.

9. Carlos Delgado needs to be the same old Carlos Delgado he’s been for the past 10 years.

10. Billy Wagner needs to be the same old Billy Wagner he’s been for the past 10 years.

Naturally, there will be some pleasant surprises along the way — perhaps similar to the blossoming of Xavier Nady, Endy Chavez and John Maine last year, or a comeback performance along the lines of what Valentin and Chad Bradford provided. However, chances are that every positive surprise will balance out a negative unknown — such as an injury or a regression. Outside of something truly remarkable (Pelfrey becomes Verlander? Reyes bats .370?), the above 10 points are necessary to the Mets’ success in 2007 — with the top four being most crucial.


Aaron Heilman’s Elbow

Most people probably glazed right over this little tidbit in Marty Noble’s recent column on the New York Mets — it was under the heading “Returning from Surgery”:

“Heilman: The right-hander kept his need for elbow surgery quiet. He suffered from tennis elbow last season.”

Quiet? That is an understatement. Other than this little sentence lost in long, dry spring training preview, I hadn’t seen hide nor hair of Heilman’s injury nor his surgery. In this day and age, in the New York market, Heilman’s ability to keep this out of the media is downright amazing. If his baseball career doesn’t last much longer, Heilman may have a future in the CIA.

Now that the dirty little secret has been revealed, is it of concern? After all, it was just “tennis elbow”, a minor injury requiring minor surgery. If it were a serious issue, there’s no way it would have been kept under wraps this long, right? And just what the heck is Aaron Heilman doing playing tennis, anyway?

Well, it IS a minor injury, but it is a glaring sign of Willie Randolph’s abuse of Aaron Heilman. I hate to say “I told you so” (actually, that’s not true, I LOVE to say that), but this injury is without a doubt the direct result of Heilman’s overuse in the first half of 2006, which concerned me to the point of writing this post on Heilman’s arm angle. Have a look at what I stated as early as game 55 of the season — it’s free and will only take about five minutes.

Assuming you’re not interested in re-reading my drivel, I’ll make Heilman’s issue more succinct, adding in the information we now know about his “tennis elbow”:

1. The technical term for “tennis elbow” is epicondylitis, and it is the result of strain and/or overuse. Tennis players and baseball players suffer from this condition usually as a result of playing or practicing beyond fatigue, and then repeating bad mechanics.

2. Aaron Heilman throws with a low three-quarter to sidearm delivery. Though his mechanics are far from ideal, he’s been throwing this way his whole life without incident. However, his arm action is susceptible to injury if not monitored closely. Generally speaking, a pitcher’s arm angle will drop a few degrees as he tires. This isn’t a big problem for overhand pitchers because the angle drops them to three-quarter (not harmful), and a three-quarter thrower will drop to near sidearm. Heilman, however, is already close to the sidearm level, and when he fatigues, his arm drops to an angle that is dangerous and detrimental to the ligaments in his elbow.

3. With starting pitchers, it is fairly easy to see the arm angle drop. You watch a guy throw 75-80 pitches in a game, then one inning he’s all of a sudden dropping down, the ball is getting up, etc. In other words, there is an immediate base of comparison. With a relief pitcher, your base of comparison is a day, two days, or three days old. In this case, a person’s memory can’t always be trusted, and the eyes may not pick up on the minute change in arm angle from one day to the next.

4. Though Heilman has two coaches — Guy Conti in the bullpen and Rick Peterson in the dugout — neither has a complete view of his mechanics. Conti sees Heilman during his warmup sessions in the bullpen, where Heilman is unlikely to be throwing at 100% effort for more than a few pitches. Though Conti sees him up close every day in the pen, he doesn’t have much of a view once Heilman jogs 200 feet away onto the mound — and that is where the fatigue would become noticeable to Conti. On the other hand, Peterson generally only sees Heilman on the mound in the games he pitches. Therefore The Jacket can miss those little signals of a problem — such as the arm dropping ever so slightly.

5. Before 2005, Heilman was a starting pitcher his entire life, from little league through college and the minors. He pitched on a regular schedule, so many pitches per day, with regular rest. A routine is what his body and arm were used to for about 15 years. Then, out of the blue, on May 5th 2005, he becomes a bullpen guy. That season, he pitched in a total of 53 games, averaged about 8 games per month (never more than 11 in a month), and was used on back-to-back days only 4 times all season. In other words, he was given pretty good rest, was not overused. In 2006, he trained came into spring training as a starter, having pitched in winter ball as one. Thus, he once again was back to his routine: game day, four days off. At the end of spring training, however, he was thrown back in the bullpen. By the first week of August last year, Heilman had already surpassed his 2005 appearance total, averaged over 11 games per month, and had pitched on back-to-back days 7 times. Is it any wonder that he started to pitch ineffectively? Is it a surprise that he developed an overuse injury? The man was ABUSED.

If Heilman were an ordinary talent, it wouldn’t be such a big deal. The problem, however, is that Heilman has skills that are difficult to find in a pitcher these days. He can get big leaguers out with three pitchers (yes, Virginia, he does throw a slider), he’s a tough competitor, and at times he is dominant. He has all the makings of a #3 starter, something that the Mets desperately need. Even his harshest critics acknowledge that at worst, Heilman would be a decent fifth starter. In a market where fifth starter talent such as Jason Marquis and Gil Meche are getting 5-year / $50M dollar contracts, you’d think the Mets would more closely protect their relatively cheap investment in Heilman.

We keep hearing the same tired excuses from Omar and Willie … “Heilman is more valuable to us being available several times a week as a reliever, than just once or twice as a starter.” Or, “our bullpen is a strength that we like to have, and Heilman is part of that strength.” Blah blah blah. Guess what? The fact that Heilman is used so often out of the bullpen is the exact reason he SHOULDN’T be a reliever. The more he’s used, the more likely he is to break down. He’ll eventually pitch ineffectively, and will probably injure himself again. Last year it was tennis elbow; at the end of this year it may very well be Tommy John surgery.

The solution? Put Heilman in the starting rotation, where he belongs. As a starter, he’ll have the benefit of a routine, a structured throwing program that his body responds to well: one day on, four days off. In games, Rick Peterson and Paul LoDuca will see his arm angle from pitch one, and notice immediately when the slot drops to a dangerous level. It’ll happen in the seventh or eighth inning, at which point you bring in Ambiorix Burgos, Guillermo Mota, or Duaner Sanchez to relieve. No harm done. In fact, the worst thing that can happen in this situation is the Mets will have a reliable #3 or #4 starter who can go deep into games. That’s one less day a week you need Heilman the reliever bridging the gap for the collection of five-inning floosies currently assembled for this spring’s starting rotation competition.

Sound crazy? May be. But just look at how the Boston Red Sox have decided to handle their 2006 closer Jon Papelbon. They’ve left the closer position up for grabs and moved Papelbon to the rotation because 1. it’s better for his health and 2. he’s a special pitcher worthy of protecting. The Bosox are doing this despite the fact that they have five solid starters —Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield, and Jon Lester — already in the rotation, and despite having a frightening collection of youth and hasbeens left in the ‘pen. Maybe the Red Sox are crazy too, but these days you really need to protect the few valuable arms in your stead. In the long run it’s better for both the player and the team.