Browsing Archive February, 2007

Kobe vs. Matsuzaka

What’s this? Daisuke Matsuzaka has challenged Kobe Bryant to a game of one-on-one? Or is Dice-K going against Masahiko Kobe on an episode of Iron Chef?

Neither. In fact, it’s a battle of the beef.

As you may be aware, Kobe beef has become de rigeur in the finer steakhouses and uppity restaurants. It’s revered for its well-marbled texture, tenderness, and flavor. Some people swear it is the best-tasting beef they’ve ever had. It’s also not unusual to see it on menus with a 3-digit price tag next to it.

However, there is an even better type of beef — if you believe the food critics of Japan — and it is called Matsuzaka beef. Rumor has it, the cattle are raised on beer and massage, which in turn produces a meat that melts in your mouth.

What does this have to do with the Mets? Nothing at all. However, being that most Mets fans live near the American epicenter of international cuisine, I wonder if the combination of this beef’s quality combined with the arrival of Dice-K will create a new sensation in New York restaurants. I am absolutely amazed that no one yet has linked the two Matsuzakas – the beef and the pitcher – in this the age of crossbranding. And won’t it be a fantastic joke to see “Matsuzaka Beef” on a chi-chi NYC menu at an astonishingly high price? How many times will the waiter have to tolerate a patron asking “yes, but what is the posting fee?”

Hey, I feel a publicity opportunity here. Imagine this: a restaurant announces that there will be just one dish of Matsuzaka beef served on a particular evening, and the lucky patron will have to negotiate with the chef on the price per pound. Naturally, there will be a sealed-bid auction for the right to that negotiation.

Of course, the above will likely not happen — at least, not until the Mad Cow-induced bans on imported beef are lifted (you didn’t think that $100 Kobe strip was really from Japan, did you?). Or until some genius marketer exploits the anticipated Dice-K sensation by repackaging all the American-bred “Kobe” beef as “Matsuzaka”.

Remember, you heard it here first.


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.


Hatin’ on Shawn Green

It’s amazing how quickly — and with such finality — New York fans can get down on a particular player.

In a town that boos the greatest baseball player on the planet (perhaps of all time), even after winning the AL MVP, it shouldn’t be surprising that New York Mets fans and media are down on Shawn Green.

The question is why? What did Green do, or not do, in the mere 34 regular-season and 9 postseason games he played as a Met?

I could maybe understand it if the price for Green was a top prospect, such as Lastings Milledge or Mike Pelfrey, or if he came in with a bad attitude or a Dave Kingman-like demeanor. Or if he jogged around like a prima donna. But instead, the Mets gave up a mediocre minor league prospect, he came in happy to be a Met, hustled all the time, and fit right in with his new teammates.

Lets see … he batted .257 with 4 HRs, 9 2Bs, 15 RBI, and 14 runs in those 34 games as a Met. Not outstanding, but not terrible, either. Then he batted .304 with a .407 OBP and 4 RBI in the postseason, including some big hits in key situations. As a Met, he had good at-bats, often getting into deep counts. He ran the bases well. His defense was somewhere between adequate and ordinary; his most embarrassing occurrence in the field was his too-big hat flying off his head on nearly every fly ball — something he joked about.

Oh, wait, no, actually his defense was awful, right? Dreadful. Horrendous. Disgusting. Or at least, that’s what the media and most rabid, perfection-seeking fans will tell you. They even have the “stats” to prove it.

Let me tell ya somethin’ about stats … as the great longtime minor league official Bobby Bragan once said, “Say you were standing with one foot in the oven and one foot in an ice bucket. According to the percentage, you should be perfectly comfortable.”

Go ahead and follow that link … I’ll offer it again – it is the Baseball Think Factory’s defensive leaders by position for the American League and National League. I encourage you, because I do want you to see that Shawn Green was statistically ranked as the fifth-worst defensive right fielder in the NL last year (just ahead of, ironically, Moises Alou). However, I also want you to look at where that same system ranked Andruw Jones (second-to-last among CFs), Aaron Rowand (third-to-last), Garry Matthews Jr. (second-worst AL CF), Torii Hunter (fifth-worst), and Melky Cabrera (second-worst LF).

So if we’re going to go purely by the numbers, I’m feeling confident that we have a right fielder that ranks right up there with Torii Hunter, and is better than the likes of Andruw Jones and Garry Matthews Jr.

Truth is, Shawn Green’s defense is not what it used to be. At one time, he was one of the better corner outfielders in the game, and strong enough defensively that the Arizona Diamondbacks used him in centerfield for 41 games as recently as 2005. His range has diminished a bit, and his arm is not the rocket launcher it once was. But he can still play well enough in right field to be an asset, rather than a liability. The problem, however, lies in two specific balls off the bat of Scott Spiezio. The first would have been a homerun, had Green not jumped up at the right time and deflected it just before it went over the wall. Unfortunately, he did not catch it, and Spiezio ended up with a triple anyway. The second, a perfectly-placed Texas Leaguer that Green may or may not have misjudged. He dove for the ball but it bounced off his face. He did the right thing by keeping it in front of him, but it still rolled around long enough for Spiezio to get another triple. (Interestingly, Endy Chavez misplayed at least two balls in the same game, yet he is forgiven — probably because he later made the second-greatest catch in the history of postseason baseball.) Since these two plays came at key moments in the postseason, coupled with the fact that the Cardinals were continually hitting balls into the right-center gap — thus, you were seeing Green constantly chasing after the ball — people judge him as an awful outfielder.

The same people that judge Green on those three plays also have erased Oliver Perez’s 6.55 ERA, based on 12 innings pitched in the postseason. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe Shawn Green should have caught some of those line drives in the gap. Maybe he should have come down with the ball in his glove on both of those Spiezio hits. But I think even Mike Cameron would have had some difficulty in those situations.

Personally, I think it’s silly to dismiss Green because of his defense, but if you do that’s fine. Overall, he’s still a solid option to start in right field, and should do just fine batting seventh in the Mets’ powerful lineup.

There’s something in particular that many Mets fans and pundits miss when it comes to Shawn Green: he is a BALLPLAYER. Some people don’t know what that means, so I’ll explain. A ballplayer knows how to play all aspects of the game, and is equally adequate in every facet. That means a player may not be fleet of foot, but he’ll cut the bags perfectly, hustle, know when to take an extra base on an outfielder, and know how to get a good jump. A ballplayer uses his mind as well as his body. He understands what preparation means, and does all he can to gain an edge on the opposition. So he’ll see things others may not, such as a pitcher telegraphing his pitches, a catcher falling into a pattern of game-calling, or a fielder cheating one way or the other. A ballplayer plays the game hard, all-out, all the time, and through pain when necessary. He also knows his limitations, and is constantly making adjustments.

That last point Shawn Green is certainly past his prime as a superstar slugger, and his skills have diminished. But he still exhibits all of the traits mentioned above. Yes, he’s lost some range in the field, but I guarantee he will do a better job of positioning himself from batter to batter, and pitch to pitch, to make up for it — and you’ll never see him lazily trot after a ball. He’ll also be sure to take better angles toward balls in the gap, and make accurate throws to the correct bases, all the time, and hit the cutoff man when necessary. Yes, these are small, boring things, but if you pay attention to MLB games you’ll be surprised to see how many times big league outfielders misplay balls off the wall, or overthrow a cutoff man. The little defensive plays don’t make ESPN’s web gems, but they’re just as important as the diving, sliding, sno-cone catches that make the highlight reel.

Similarly, Shawn Green is well aware that his bat speed is not what it used to be. He’s just as aware that he doesn’t need to be middle-of-the-order slugger in the Mets’ heavy-hitting lineup. In the limited time he played last year — September and October — he already started to cut down his normally big, loopy swing, worked the pitcher, slapped the ball the other way, and performed well as a situational hitter. Sure it would be great if he could blast 35 jacks again but he’s not that hitter any longer, and batting seventh he doesn’t need to be. His new approach is perfect for his new role, and his presence doing all the little things at the bottom of the lineup will pay off in spades for the top of the lineup. For example, his ability to take pitches and go deep into counts help wear out a pitcher. Similarly, his ability to put the bat on the ball and go the other way makes him ideal for executing the hit-and-run — those are also skills put to good use with a man on third and less than two out. Further, now that he’s not swinging for the fence, I can see his average staying up around .280 – .290. If he can hit at that level, work counts, prolong innings, and drive in runs, I don’t care if he goes the whole season without a tater — the home runs will be a bonus. We don’t need bombs from the bottom of the order, we just need people to push the lineup back toward Jose Reyes et al.

Some people are so down on Shawn Green they’re convinced that he won’t last the season as a Met. I for one, am hoping he does. He’s a solid, heady veteran and team player who plays hard, gets big hits in the postseason, and does all the little things you need to win. Isn’t that exactly the type of guy you want on your team?


Chan the Man

By now you’ve no doubt found out that the Mets have signed yet another c(h)an of paint to throw at the wall — Chan Ho Park.

Last year, a few days before pitchers and catchers reported, the Mets gave a flyer to another righthander who had success in the past — Jose Lima. Hopefully Park will be able to give us a better show than what LimaTime! presented.

There are at least a few reasons Chan Ho Park can please us more in 2007 than Jose Lima did in 2006. First of all, Lima’s terrible performances have set the bar pretty low for all spring training invites — we’re not expecting much. Secondly, Park should be a lot quieter, keeping a much lower profile than Lima. Lima’s colorful personality — which often matched his just as colorful hairdos — was a strike against him from the get-go. It’s hard enough to compete in MLB with decaying skills; to attract attention to yourself at every turn only compounds the situation.

Park may also have some talent — something Lima lost a few years ago. Though he’s the same age as Lima (34), he’s only had an ERA over 6 once in his career, and that in an injury-shortened 2003 season. In contrast, Lima’s ERA through the years has been on a rollercoaster ride from the time he broke into the bigs in 1994 — from one year to the other his numbers alternated between good and godawful. Even after winning 21 games in 1999, Lima returned the next year to post a 7-16, 6.65 ERA at age 27 — presumably a prime year in his career.

In contrast, Chan Ho Park put up fairly consistent numbers while healthy and performing in a pitcher’s park (Dodger Stadium) in the National League. His career hit rock bottom after four things changed: 1. his salary rose to meteoric heights; 2. he moved to the American League; 3. to a hitter’s park; 4. and became injured.

A long-term, multimillion-dollar contract seems to be the kiss of death for starting pitchers (see: Park, Mike Hampton, Denny Neagle, Carl Pavano, Don Gullett, Catfish Hunter, Wayne Garland, etc.). There may be some explanation to it … for example in some cases perhaps the pitcher tries harder to justify his contract, and pitches through pain he normally wouldn’t — thereby causing injury. Maybe that was part of Park’s problem — the mental side of owing up to his side of the bargain. We know for sure that the Ballpark at Arlington did not help his case, nor did the addition of the DH instead of the automatic out at the end of the lineup. There’s no doubt Barry Zito and his agent Scott Boras — formerly Park’s agent — took a good long look at what happened to Chan Ho Park while they considered the Rangers’ contract offer this past winter.

After his first few years in Texas, Chan Ho Park had no chance to win — not games, not fans, and not forgiveness. His situation is much like Pavano’s is now in the Bronx; Pavano will have to win back-to-back Cy Youngs to justify his contract to the NY fans and media. It was next to impossible for Park to start over while still in Texas, but his contract was too overbearing and his health too fragile until the fourth year of the deal, when he was finally unloaded to San Diego.

Interestingly, he began to rebound while still in Texas, going 8-5 in 20 games before finishing 12-8 on the season between there and San Diego. His ERA though, was too high — 5.66 in Texas and 5.91 with the Padres. Last year, he started 21 games, went 7-7, and posted an okay 4.81 ERA. One encouraging note: he did pitch one complete-game, 2-hit shutout (though he didn’t get a decision; the game was won in the 11th), and went into or past the seventh in five other starts. His biggest issue — even during his successful years as a Dodger — has been control, and last year he struck out twice as many as he walked for only the fourth time in 13 years. Is it too much of a stretch to call this encouraging?

Let’s face it — we as Mets fans are going to squeeze every little nugget of a positive stat as much as we can when it comes to our anemic starting rotation candidates. We’re remembering Oliver Perez’s gutty performances in the postseason and his magical 5-hit shutout vs. the Braves, and forgetting the 3-13 record and 6.55 ERA of last year. While it’s true that Perez has youth on his side, his situation is not unlike Chan Ho Park’s — or Jorge Sosa or Aaron Sele’s, for that matter. All four pitchers at one time, just a few years ago, were at the top of their game — even if it were only for a season or two. Standing back, and away from your emotional role as a Mets fan — which means forgetting Oliver’s 11 2/3 innings in the postseason — you must admit that Park, Sosa, and Sele have just as much a chance to recapture their former greatness as Perez. You may argue that Sele and Park are in their mid-30s, but that’s not a strong enough reason to dismiss them. For every Jose Lima and Scott Erickson, there’s a Jamie Moyer, Tommy John, Luis Tiant, or Roger Clemens who was able to find or recapture the magic in his 30s.

Anything can happen, so who’s to say Chan Ho Park won’t be the one to rise from the dregs and capture a regular spot in the rotation?

Five more agonizing days till pitchers and catcher report to Port St. Lucie …


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.


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.