Archive: February 20th, 2007

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.


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.


Continuity is Key

For once, let’s forget about the Mets’ starting rotation and focus on a positive: the continuity of the regular lineup from last year to this year.

It may seem like a small detail, but in fact it may be significant that the 2007 lineup will look very similar to the 2006 lineup. Let’s look at the starting lineup in the last game of 2006, game seven of the NLCS:

1 Jose Reyes SS
2 Paul LoDuca C
3 Carlos Beltran CF
4 Carlos Delgado 1B
5 David Wright 3B
6 Shawn Green RF
7 Jose Valentin 2B
8 Endy Chavez LF

Now let’s look at the “penciled in” 2007 Opening Day lineup:

1 Jose Reyes SS
2 Paul LoDuca C
3 Carlos Beltran CF
4 Carlos Delgado 1B
5 David Wright 3B
6 Moises Alou LF
7 Shawn Green RF
8 Jose Valentin 2B

It doesn’t take a genius to see that the Mets are returning a nearly identical lineup, the only difference being the addition of Moises Alou. This may prove to be a good thing for the Mets, because the last time the lineup in Shea looked as similar from one year to another was 1985 – 1986.

In this day and age, as a result of free agency and contract shedding, most teams experience some turnover from year to year. It is rare for a team to return the same infield in consecutive years, for example. Looking at the NL East, the only other team that has similar continuity is the Florida Marlins — though they have a new manager.

There are a few reasons why continuity can be an advantage for the Mets. First and foremost, by playing together, players become more comfortable with each other and have a good understanding of each others’ talents. Learning to work together takes time, and the more people work together — in any sport, job, or project — the better they get at achieving the end goal. Players learn to trust each other, anticipate each others’ actions, and rely on each other for support — not unlike a family. It’s a lot easier to “pick up” a guy you’ve been playing with for 200+ games, than a guy just joining the team.

Secondly, the Mets last year formed a strong bond as teammates, succeeding all season and then losing game seven of the NLCS. They experienced the best and the worst together, and therefore go into 2007 with similar feelings — feeling the confidence that they know how to win, simultaneously tasting that bitter defeat vs. the Cardinals. Outside of Alou, the entire starting lineup will have an extra special motivation to get back to the postseason and turn things around, after getting so close. They also have the knowledge of the preparation necessary to get that far with their collective skills. In contrast, last year the Mets were learning how to win together, under Willie Randolph. This year, there is no learning about each other, only execution. They know what to expect, and what adjustments are necessary to win.

For example, though Shawn Green only played a month as a Met last year, he learned very quickly that he didn’t need to be the “main guy” in the lineup — something that had been expected of him every other place he’d been. He learned that by shortening his stroke, taking more pitches, and being more of bat control guy, he’d be much more important to the Mets’ offense than if he was swinging for the fences. Similarly, Carlos Beltran learned that if he didn’t get the big hit, Carlos Delgado was behind him to do it. As a result, Beltran laid off bad pitches and set a career high for walks. In the field, Delgado may not have been a Gold Glover, but he did learn the the way his fellow infielders threw the ball, and by the end of the year was better able to anticipate how each player’s ball sails or dips. It may seem like a little thing, but knowing whether a shortstop’s throw tends to tail one way or the other, and its speed, can be the difference in a ballgame. In the same vein, Jose’s Reyes and Valentin can only improve their double-play execution by continuing to play together. Last but not least is Paul LoDuca’s emergence as a leader behind the plate, earning the respect of both the pitching staff and the players on the field.

In a lot of ways, the 2006 Mets were very much like the 1985 Mets. The ’85 Mets had just turned a corner, and the core of a championship team was assembled — but it took them a year to learn about each other. Still, they won 98 games during that learning process, losing a bitterly fought battle for first place in the final days of the season to — who else? — the St. Louis Cardinals. The exact same lineup returned in 1986, though as the season wore on, two key changes took place: Ray Knight experienced a renaissance and replaced Howard Johnson at 3B, and rookie Kevin Mitchell displaced George Foster. In 2007, we already have Alou in the spot vacated by Cliff Floyd, and there’s a possibility that Lastings Milledge or Ben Johnson push Shawn Green out of RF. Or maybe Green has a Knight-like rejuvenation. The point is, the Mets were very successful in 2006, and are returning essentially the same squad in 2007. Yes they’re a year older, but they’re also on year two of togetherness. While every other team in the NL East is learning about each other for the first 75-100 games, trying to figure out what works, the Mets are building on the foundation built in 2006. Assuming they have no major injuries, the continuity of the Mets can be looked upon as an advantage over their opponents.