As you’ve likely heard by now, Duaner Sanchez has a hairline fracture that will require immediate surgery. He’ll be out for, in all probability, the entire year. Best case scenario, he is able to start throwing by mid-August. Obviously, this is a tremendous blow to the Mets’ plan for winning.
With Sanchez gone, the Mets have an immediate need for a solid setup man to tandem with Aaron Heilman. Previously, it was assumed they’d be able to hold the fort with an array of arms while waiting for Dirty to return. Some mixture of Scott Schoeneweis, Chan Ho Park, Joe Smith, etc., would fill the gap until late April, when Duaner would come riding in on his white horse and solidify the bridge to Billy Wagner. Now, however, the Mets must think long-term for a replacement.
Interesting … at the opening of spring training, the starting rotation looked like a disaster and the bullpen a glowing strength. At the close of spring training, the situation is almost exactly opposite.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Jon Adkins was supposed to add valuable arm to the middle relief corps. Juan Padilla was supposed to come back from Tommy John surgery early. Ambiorix Burgos was supposed to challenge for a setup spot. Joe Smith was supposed to impress, but start the season in AAA. Pedro Feliciano was supposed to fight for the last spot on the staff. There was supposed to be so much depth in the bullpen that the Mets brass might consider putting Aaron Heilman back in the rotation, to shore up the weakest link on the team.
Instead, we’re about to hit the panic button, as gopher ball artist Chan Ho Park is asked to convert from starter to setup man in seven days. Scary.
What are the possibilities of life without Duaner? Here they are, in no particular order:
1. Park, Schoeneweis, etc., band together as a makeshift unit and do a mediocre to acceptable job until Guillermo Mota comes off his 50-game suspension. In this situation, Mota must come back and pitch the same way he did in September of last year, sans steroids. That may be too much to ask.
2. Park immediately takes to his new role as setup man, and forgets how to give up homerun balls at an alarming rate.
3. Schoeneweis establishes himself as more than just a LOOGY, and proves to be a viable option as setup man.
4. Joe Smith continues pushing forward, and not only makes people forget Chad Bradford, but Sanchez becomes a memory as well.
5. Aaron Heilman takes two cortisone shots a week for his balky elbow, and breaks Mike Marshall’s record of 104 appearances in a season.
6. Philip Humber shakes the nervousness that plagued him in March, and forces Mike Pelfrey to the bullpen. Pelfrey becomes a force similar to Heilman in the late innings, and no longer needs to worry about secondary pitches.
7. Juan Padilla is fully recovered by early May, and picks up right where he left off in 2005.
8. Ambiorix Burgos miraculously locates the strike zone, and becomes useful as both a setup man and occasional closer when Wagner needs rest.
9. Jorge Sosa calls Leo Mazzone and rediscovers the magic that made him 13-3 in 2005.
10. The Joe Hietpas Experiment produces results more quickly than anyone imagined, and he’s inserted into Dirty’s role in late April.
The above scenarios are most unlikely, though some are not too far from reality. In truth, the key candidates for the setup role are Park, Burgos, and Padilla. Schoeneweis might be a consideration, but only for the short term, as his real value is as a matchup guy. His less than mediocre success against righthanded batters will become glaring over an extended period in 8th inning situations. On the other hand, Joe Smith might have enough stuff to get out batters on both sides of the plate, but Willie Randolph will likely be more comfortable using him in 6th inning spots for at least the first half of the year — similar to the way he handled ChadBrad in 2006.
The recent turn of events could have been a boon for Jon Adkins or Jorge Sosa, but both have been so awful they can’t be considered. Adkins has been so hittable and unimpressive, the only thing keeping him in camp has been Sanchez’s absence and his lack of options. Sosa has finally been assigned to AAA. Good thing, as the Mets were losing too many baseballs over the far fences.
If Padilla can avoid any more setbacks, and pitch the way he did two years ago, then Sanchez will hardly be missed. Unfortunately, those are two huge ifs. Not out of the question, but difficult to count on. The “ifs” surrounding Guillermo Mota are just as questionable, and he won’t be available for the first third of the season. Clearly, it comes down to rolling the dice on Chan Ho Park or Burgos.
Park is an alarming option. Even as a successful starter in his years with the Dodgers, he was susceptible to the gopher ball — while pitching in the vast confines of Chavez Ravine. This spring his numbers were decent, but may have been horrendous had it not been for strong wind gusts that blew a few taters back into the playing field. However, as a one-inning guy he won’t need to throw all four pitches; maybe if he concentrates on using only his best two — like Heilman does with his sinker and changeup — he’ll be more effective and won’t give up as many long balls. Unfortunately, he only has a week to make the transformation.
Looking solely on ceiling, Ambiorix Burgos is the best candidate to fill Duaner’s shoes. However, he has so far been unable to harness his electric stuff, and also been bitten by the long ball — despite those gusty winds. He’s still standing on the kitchen table, jumping up and trying to reach that ceiling. And that kitchen might be in New Orleans in a few days.
The next few days will be telling, to say the least. Maybe Park will be able to take the bull by the horns and flourish in his new role. Darren Oliver made a remarkable transformation last year, though it was in a much less pressurized role. Or perhaps Park, Smith, and Schoeneweis can perform at an acceptable level until Mota arrives in late May / early June. Don’t rule out the possibility of Omar making a move — though it would seem nearly impossible to find a quality bullpen arm when everyone in baseball is looking for the exact same thing. Perhaps the Indians would be interested in Ben Johnson, and be willing to give up Roberto Hernandez … ha ha
Five days till Opening Day …