Archive: February 15th, 2007

Spring Training Pre-Predictions

Last year, right before Opening Day, I made some predictions about the 2006 season. Some were close to right on, some were completely off the mark, on the whole I was far from making people forget Nostradamus, or the local weatherman, for that matter.

But, predictions are fun for me to write, and fun for you to throw back in my face sometime in the future. So here I go with some pre-predictions … my predictions of what will happen in Mets’ spring training 2007…

1. John Maine will develop a split-finger fastball, add it to his repertoire, and as a result enjoy the strongest spring of all Mets’ starters — thereby earning the #3 spot behind Tom Glavine and El Duque.

2. Oliver Perez will continue his inconsistent ways, but show enough to earn the fourth spot in the rotation.

3. The identity of the fifth starter will remain a mystery on Opening Day. Jason Vargas is the frontrunner, but Chan Ho Park shows enough to be of value as a long man and/or trade bait. Vargas is sent to AAA for a few more starts while the Mets continue to weigh their options, as a fifth starter won’t be needed until mid-April.

4. Mike Pelfrey and Philip Humber both impress, but also prove to need more seasoning. The emergence of Perez, Vargas, and Park paves their way to New Orleans.

5. Both Juan Padilla and Ambiorix Burgos make the Mets roster by the skin of their teeth, as the Mets choose to carry 12 pitchers. Jon Adkins and Jorge Sosa are DFA’d.

6. Lastings Milledge belts a few home runs, but bats only .250 and struggles on defense, prompting assignment to New Orleans.

7. David Newhan becomes a favorite of Willie Randolph, for his sparkplug play and versatility. His hustling and contact hitting earn him the 25th spot on the roster as the Mets’ utilityman.

8. Ben Johnson and Damion Easley also impress Randolph, though he’ll have to cut one or the other. Johnson looks like the odd man out when Easley is used in the outfield in the last games of spring training, and looks capable.

9. Just days before Opening Day, the decision becomes unnecessary when Julio Franco abruptly announces his retirement as a player — but stays on as a coach.

10. Easley sprains his ankle chasing a foul fly ball in left field and is placed on the 15-day DL. Johnson makes the team and Franco is reinstated to the roster as a player.


Finally! Pitchers and Catchers Report

The Hot Stove season is finally over, and we can now stop speculating and wondering about things we can’t see. Spring training has arrived, pitchers and catchers are reporting to Port St. Lucie, and all is right with the world.

As spring training opens, the Mets have been indirectly blessed by the circus tent that just went up in Tampa. The regular-season crosstown Yankees have myriad issues swirling around Legends Field — most notably the absence of Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera’s lack of a contract extension, A-Rod’s opt-out clause, and Joe Torre’s tenuous status as manager.

Isn’t it great to be a Mets player in Port St. Lucie right now, with all the NY media pressure and tough questions being asked 3 hours away, on the other coast of Florida? Further, isn’t it wonderful to be a Mets fan right now, our only worries centered on the starting rotation? The Tom Glavine issue seems years ago, Willie Randolph is locked up through 2010, the starting lineup is set, and we’ve already written off Pedro for the bulk of the season. We can sit back and watch nine candidates fight over 3 spots in the starting rotation.

OK, there was a little mouse fart when camp opened … Aaron Heilman was approached about the subject of starting. He answered truthfully (he still wants to start someday) but also stated that he knows his role is in the bullpen this year and he’ll do whatever it takes to help the team win, blah blah blah. So the only bit of controversy has already been addressed and put to rest — long before the rest of the of the team shows up this weekend. No disruption. Nice.

The only other potential controversy — barring a surprise injury or other unforeseen circumstance elsewhere — is the rightfield situation. If by chance Lastings Milledge or Ben Johnson blast balls over the fence and hit about .400 on the spring, then there MIGHT be questions surrounding Shawn Green’s role on the team. As much as some fans may love Milledge or Endy Chavez (or hate Green), the reality is that Shawn Green has been penciled in as the regular rightfielder, batting seventh. It would take a mammoth effort by someone else, a horrific showing by Green, or an injury, for Willie to erase Shawn from the lineup. As talented as Milledge is, he’s still raw, and needs to play more games, get more reps — in AAA (he certainly didn’t help his situation by opting out of winter ball). Chavez will get his at-bats spelling all three outfielders, so his role is set. Johnson may not even make the team.

That said, the attention will be on arms — young and old — vying for spots behind Tom Glavine and El Duque. Many folks have already penciled in John Maine and Oliver Perez into two of those slots, but I’m not so sure it’s that cut and dried. Yes, Maine and Perez looked impressive in the postseason. However, Perez had a 6.55 ERA during the regular season, with performances varying from outstanding to awful to everything in between. And though Maine had a monthlong stretch of quality starts, he relies on a shallow repertoire that makes him vulnerable after going through a lineup the second and third time. Emotionally, Perez and Maine are the favorites, but realistically, they’ll have to fight just as hard as the other seven candidates to win their job.

It should be dogfight, and one that is fun to watch, mostly because of three exciting young arms in the picture. That’s right — THREE. Everyone is pumped about Mike Pelfrey and Philip Humber, but there’s also Jason Vargas to consider.

Ironically, Vargas comes in as the unknown quantity, despite he has two years in the big leagues while Pelfrey and Humber have almost no MLB experience. Pelfrey’s four games and Humber’s 2-inning cameo were a tease to Mets fans, who have been ripe for a home-grown farmhand to dominate the hill since the departure of Scott Kazimir. It’s part of Mets history — Seaver, Koosman, Gentry, McGraw, Ryan, and Matlack started it in the 1970s, then later Gooden, El Sid,
and Darling furthered the the tradition of arms from the Mets’ farms (yes I know Darling came from the Rangers, but he also spent two years in Tidewater). The ability for the Mets’ minor league system to produce solid, sometimes spectacular pitchers is a source of pride for an organization whose history pales in comparison to the crosstown Yanks. As a result, Jason Vargas is a mere reject of the Marlins, thrown into the same pool of interest as Aaron Sele, Chan Ho Park, and Jorge Sosa.

However, Vargas is only 24 years old — a few months younger than Humber, in fact — and climbed quickly through the ranks before failing miserably last year. Perhaps he moved too quickly to the bigs; imagine if Mike Pelfrey had begun last year on the Opening Day roster, and remained there to the end of the season. His numbers likely would not be outstanding, and most would say he was rushed. Similarly, Vargas began 2005 in low A ball, jumped quickly to high A, then to AA, then to the bigs, just one year after leaving Long Beach State. Pitchers don’t move up that fast unless they are special; similar points of comparison are Jeremy Bonderman, Justin Verlander, and Mark Prior — not bad company. So there’s no question about Vargas’ talent level; the question is what happened in 2006, and is it something that is easily fixed?

Supposedly he made some mechanical tweaks in the offseason. If so, and the result is that he comes into camp as the pitcher the Marlins rushed into their rotation in 2005, then Vargas might be the frontrunner for not the #5 spot but the #4 spot in the rotation. Yes, it’s a big “if” but not inconceivable. The point is, don’t be too quick to count out Jason Vargas from the equation — he may very well be the best of the bunch, at least right now.