Browsing Archive March, 2007

Milledge, Burgos Make the Team

Huh … my hunch was right.

The Mets will start the season with Ambiorix Burgos in the ‘pen, Lastings Milledge on the bench, and both Jon Adkins and Chan Ho Park in New Orleans.

Remarkably, Park has accepted the demotion. Not so remarkably, Adkins has cleared waivers. One must wonder whether Park will be in the New Orleans Zephyrs’ rotation — kept around as insurance for when El Duque goes down — or if they will begin using him in a setup role. My feeling is the former, as he didn’t seem to keen on the relief thing. Further, he’ll have more trade value as a minor league starter with MLB experience than as a setup reliever who may or may not be able to to handle such a role.

More than anything, it’s apparent that Rick Peterson will have at least another two weeks to develop Burgos into the lights-out reliever we all know he can be. And, we’ll have another two weeks of every fan, blogger, and pundit on the planet screaming for Milledge to play in front of Shawn Green.

Let the games begin !

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The 25th Man

According to John Delcos, the Mets will be deciding on the final roster at some point today.

With a slew of cuts yesterday — a group that included Ben Johnson and Lino Urdaneta — combined by the Aaron Sele and Joe Smith both being told they’ve made the team, there isn’t much fat left to cut. The heads on the block are Ambiorix Burgos, Chan Ho Park, Jon Adkins, and Lastings Milledge.

Why Milledge is part of the conversation is mind boggling. Yes, he had a fine spring training, but it’s clear that the decision has been made to keep Shawn Green in right field — at least to start the season. All along, Omar Minaya has insisted that Milledge will play every day — if not in the bigs, then in AAA. So putting him on the Opening Day roster goes against that, as he’ll be sitting in the Mets dugout watching Moises Alou and Shawn Green flank Carlos Beltran in the outfield. With veterans Damion Easley and Julio Franco entrenched on the bench, Milledge is the third righthanded bat available as a pinch hitter. And as far as outfield reserves go, it’s hard to imagine Milledge being put into a game for defensive purposes — particularly with the much more capable Endy Chavez and David Newhan available. What would be his purpose in the first two weeks of the season? To pinch run in the unlikely event Julio Franco strokes a pinch base hit?

The most burning question of the last week remains unanswered: who will pick up the slack in the bullpen with Duaner Sanchez out for the season. Burgos, Park, and Adkins are the candidates, and none of the three has risen to the occasion and definitively earned a roster spot. In fact, after Smith, the only reliever who really took the bull by the horns was Urdaneta — but he was sent down yesterday. These three enigmas remain on the roster not because they did so well, but because they haven’t met expectations — and the Mets are giving each every opportunity to reach them.

After throwing 100-MPH bullets in the first week of camp, Burgos has kept everyone waiting. Willie Randolph, Omar Minaya, Mets fans, sportswriters, bloggers — all of us are waiting for Burgos to start blowing away hitters and step right into the setup role left by Sanchez. However, his electric stuff must be unplugged when he gets into game situations, as his battery-powered fastballs have been launched over Florida fences at an alarming rate.

On the other hand, Jon Adkins came into came as a nondescript piece of the deal that brought Ben Johnson and summoned Royce Ring and Heath Bell to San Diego. Adkins was an integral part of a very strong Padre bullpen last year, appearing in 55 games and performing admirably — 3.98 ERA and 1.38 WHIP. Not overwhelming numbers, for sure, but serviceable. At the time of the trade, it looked like a smart deal for the Mets, as he appeared to be a quality Major League arm who could step in and provide depth. Unfortunately, this spring he instead proved to be a quality Major League batting practice pitcher. Every Mets fan who criticized Heath Bell for having a fastball that was too straight, might reconsider their assessment after witnessing Adkins for five weeks of spring training games.

Chan Ho Park arrived in spring training expecting to earn the fifth starter’s spot. He didn’t count on having to actually perform, and as a result, Mike Pelfrey stole the job. To make matters worse, when told his best chance to make the team would be in relief, Park responded selfishly at first — a big no-no on Willie Randolph’s squad. Granted, he quickly did an about-face, but the damage was done. He made it clear he was not happy, and the Mets already have one reliever who wants to be a starter (Aaron Heilman), and don’t need the nuisance of another one — especially one who at this stage in his career is only of borderline ability and should be kissing the ground Omar Minaya walks on for giving him what could be his last legitimate opportunity to latch on to a Major League club.

The question is, which of two of these three arms should go north on Sunday? And you have to bring two, because the audition is not complete. The Mets need to see more meaningful innings from the candidates, and if those innings have to happen in the first two weeks of the regular season then so be it. The only reason Adkins has made it this far is because he is out of options, and would have to pass through waivers before being sent down. It also would hurt Mets’ brass a bit to see Heath Bell make the Padre roster, while both Johnson and Adkins are in AAA. Similarly, Park would have to be released, and there is belief among Mets officials that he has value — both as a spot starter when someone goes down, and as trade bait. Finally, there is the excitement around Burgos’ arm, and the dreaming of his fastballs going by Major League hitters right next to a dancing sugar plum fairy.

If the Mets believe that Rick Peterson can develop Ambiorix Burgos at the big league level as quickly as he built up Jorge Julio last year, then there’s no question about one of the spots. Then the question is Park or Adkins? With Adkins performing so miserably this spring, my guess is that he’d pass through waivers fairly easily and the Mets would be able to retain him in New Orleans. He’s 29 years old, and other than last year, had never shown to be much more than ordinary at the big league level. If Jim Duquette wants to pick him, so be it. That means Park stays with the club to continue his tryout for the next two weeks, at least. The only problem with that scenario is Park’s contract, which stipulates that he make $600,000 if he makes the Opening Day roster. That’s a pretty expensive audition, especially if he continues to allow the long ball when the season starts, and the Mets end up releasing him outright when Pelfrey comes up.

Tough call, from all angles. My gut tells me that Burgos and Milledge will be added to the roster, Adkins will be waived, and Park released. And two months from now, when Guillermo Mota, Juan Padilla and Dave Williams are about to return, Burgos is throwing bullets, and both Lino Urdaneta and Marcos Carvajal are knocking on the door, the attention paid to this decision will seem silly.

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Again the Story is Heilman in the Pen

Aaron Heilman pitching for the MetsWith Duaner Sanchez out for the year, the spotlight is on Aaron Heilman to be the setup man.

Interestingly, this time last year, the story was about the same: Sanchez had not yet proven himself, and the focus was on Heilman to fill the setup role at the beginning of the season. The only difference, of course, was that Heilman had been competing for (and had seemingly won) a spot in the starting rotation.

But don’t trust my memory … instead, check out a cool new feature in the sidebar to the right, titled “This time last year” (it’s right below the Archives). Every day, that section will link to the blog post from the same day a year ago.

Of course, you can always sift through the Archives manually, but this new little link provides instant access to the hot topic this time last year. Hope you find it interesting.

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Last-Minute Pickups

With just three days before Opening Day, all teams are making tough decisions in regard to their rosters and starting lineups. The Mets, obviously, are trolling the waiver wire for an arm to put into the bullpen, but there are other players to consider as well. Here are three players that are currently on the “bubble” and could be helpful to the Mets.

1. Joel Pineiro, Boston Red Sox
Pineiro was brought in to convert from starter to closer, and allow Jonathan Papelbon to enter the rotation. However, Pineiro didn’t quite work out in that role, and Papelbon has officially returned to his job as closer. With Brendan Donnelly, JC Romero in the setup role, the possibility of Julian Taveras returning to the ‘pen when Jon Lester or Matt Clement is ready, and the eventual returns of Mike Timlin, Manny Delcarmen, and Craig Hansen, it would seem that Pineiro is a man without a significant role. While he didn’t impress as a potential AL East closer, he’d likely be a better option for NL setup than Chan Ho Park. In fact, I’d rather have Pineiro over Park — or Aaron Sele — as a spot starter. He’s only 28 and has electric stuff; you can say he’s a righthanded Oliver Perez. The Red Sox might be willing to take in return a righthanded hitting outfielder who can provide insurance at AAA (Ben Johnson?).

2. Jorge Cantu, Tampa Bay Devil Rays
The Rays are bulldozing B.J. Upton into the starting lineup, and have soured so much on Cantu that they’re considering sending him down to AAA to start the season. Granted, he had a weak spring training, was disappointing last year, and is not the greatest of glove men, but the guy is only 25 and can rake. He’s very similar to Jeff Kent at the same age — and we all remember the Mets giving up on Kent perhaps a year too soon. Though Jose Valentin has had a great spring, and it appears Damion Easley will be his backup, the Mets would have to jump on an opportunity to grab a 25-year-old second baseman with Cantu’s talent. The problem, of course, is that the Rays won’t make a deal unless it is obscenely in their favor — so they’d probably demand a package including Philip Humber and Lastings Milledge.

3. Scott Strickland, San Diego Padres
Strickland has been released by the Padres, so it would cost the Mets nothing to obtain him. It seemed so long ago that the Mets’ closer role was between him and Armando Benitez, until injuries sidetracked his career. He hasn’t pitched in MLB since 2005, when he appeared in only five games. His last full season, in fact, was 2002 with the Mets.

While he hasn’t pitched much in the bigs in a long time, and has had several injuries, Strickland had a strong spring and is a fierce competitor — the ideal bulldog personality you like to see in a closer or setup guy. I’d personally rather take a flyer on him — a guy who wants the ball out of the pen — than have to beg Chan Ho Park.

Strickland would appear to be the most likely of the group to acquire, as the cost would be nothing. The Mets have an opening on their 40-man roster, so could slide him in very easily. Additionally, more spots could open up when Pedro Martinez and Duaner Sanchez are placed on the 60-day disabled list (though Joe Smith would likely eat one of those spots).

As we get closer to Opening Day, more possibilities will turn up. I’m betting that Omar makes some kind of move by Sunday.

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Ambiorix Burgos – To the Rescue?

Rick Peterson lends a helping hand to Ambiorix Burgos Certainly the Mets cannot be really counting on Chan Ho Park to be an 8th-inning bridge alongside Aaron Heilman. A guy who gives up gopher balls is the last person you want trying to put out fires and holding slim leads.

Rather, they’re retrofitting Park into the setup role because he lost the fifth starter spot to Mike Pelfrey, and it makes more sense to hold on to a possibly coveted, veteran arm, than release him outright.

As much as Mets fans would like to see Lastings Milledge start two or three games in the first two weeks of the season, it would seem that the Mets will need the 25th roster spot to continue auditions for the bullpen. Pelfrey will remain in Florida for extended spring training until mid-April, and my bet is that the Mets keep Ambiorix Burgos and/or Jon Adkins on the roster to continue competing for a bullpen spot. Chances are, Adkins will stay because he’s out of options, and showed some competence with San Diego last year. However, the Mets may instead keep Burgos around, seeing him as the man most likely to duplicate the 2006 performance of Duaner Sanchez.

Last year at this time, the Mets made the decision to keep Jorge Julio around for no other reason than the fact that he made Billy Wagner’s fastball look slow. On the mound, Julio was an emotional disaster waiting to happen, often talking to himself and visibily shaking with fright. Under the watchful eye of Rick Peterson, and the coddling of Guy Conti, the Mets slowly nursed Julio into a big league pitcher. At first, he appeared in non-pressure blowouts to build his confidence. Though his first four appearances were downright frightening for everyone involved, he eventually built up his confidence, spoke more quietly to his alter personalities while on the mound, and threw a boatload of filthy strikes. By mid May Julio had progressed to the point where he was used in extra-inning games and occasionally to finish — he picked up a win and a save in back-to-back games against the Braves just a few weeks before being shipped to Arizona for Orlando Hernandez. By the end of the season, Julio established himself as the Diamondbacks’ closer, finishing 32 games for them and saving 15. After witnessing how far Julio came from spring training through early May, it’s reasonable to consider the possibility of Ambiorix Burgos taking the same course — under the tutelage of The Jacket and Conti.

The question the Mets must answer is this: will Burgos have a better chance to be a key 2007 contributor by pitching in AAA or by the “Jorge Julio Method” ?

Interestingly, Burgos compares not only to Julio but also to another former Baltimore Oriole who came to the Mets: Armando Benitez. Burgos, in fact, is at a similar point now that Armando Benitez was as a 23-year-old: raw, electric, and completely inconsistent. Compare the numbers:

Benitez – age 22 (1995): 48 IP | 56 K | 37 BB | 37 H | 8 HR | 5.66 ERA | 1.55 WHIP

Burgos – age 22 (2006): 73 IP | 72 K | 37 BB | 83 H | 16 HR | 5.52 ERA | 1.63 WHIP

Scary, isn’t it, how similarly the two match up? The biggest difference is that Burgos was more hittable, but Benitez put nearly as many people on base via walk.

It would be nice if we could look at the 23rd year of Benitez’s life to give us an idea of where Burgos might be this year. Unfortunately, Armando had injury issues in 1996 and missed the majority of the season, pitching only 14 innings in MLB. He did make it back in time for postseason meltdowns against the Yankees, highlighted by the theft of a fly ball from Tony Tarasco’s glove.

If we’re really lucky, Burgos can blossom at 23 the same way Benitez did at 24 — not entirely out of the realm of possibility, considering that Burgos has more MLB experience already than Benitez did at that age.

Benitez – age 24 (1998): 73 IP | 106 K | 43 BB | 49 H | 7 HR | 2.45 ERA | 1.25 WHIP

Wouldn’t those be fabulous numbers to get from Burgos this year?

Of course, we can’t expect Burgos to cut his ERA by more than one half in one year. But his exploding fastball and sometimes filthy forkball do suggest great potential. He does have the following on his side:

1. A winning environment – the 2007 Mets organization is a stark contrast from the chaos of the Kansas City Royals.

2. Two excellent pitching coaches in Peterson and Conti.

3. A role with less pressure than being the closer.

4. National League batters, rather than the monsters and DHs of the AL.

If Burgos makes no improvement over last year whatsoever, the four points above alone will bring improvement on his 2006 numbers. His biggest issue last year was the long ball — and hitability in general. Part of that issue could be relieved by not having to face the Cleveland Indians anymore — they mashed him for 18 hits and 4 homeruns in just 11 innings. The Cleveland hitters clearly had his number, and it was the team he faced most often in 2006. Comparably, he faced the Minnesota Twins 9 times and had a 2.16 ERA and sparkling .96 WHIP against them … though those numbers do include two taters.

If you remove the Indians from the equation, Burgos’ 2006 season looks like this:
62 IP | 61 K | 31 BB | 65 H | 12 HR | 5.15 ERA | 1.55 WHIP

Still not great, but a little more encouraging. The hits per inning drops considerably, the homeruns drop by a third, and his ERA reduced by a half run.

Since I didn’t see many Kansas City Royals games last year, it’s hard to say why Burgos gave up so many hits and homers. However, from the few KC games I did see, it appeared that their pitching — both starting and relief — was godawful. Their games against the Yankees were downright painful, similar to watching a bad college baseball mismatch — the kind where you wonder if an inning is ever going to end, or if some kind of mercy rule can take effect. That said, how much of Burgos’ bad numbers were due to staying in a game too long — because there was no one else to save him from misery? Clearly, he was forced into the closer role before he was ready, and handed the ball in situations that we was not mature enough to handle. With the Mets this year, he won’t be counted on to be a closer, and can probably be slowly eased from a middle relief guy into a setup role, much in the way Jorge Julio was developed last year. And if he does make that kind of progress, he still wouldn’t have to be “the man” — instead, he’d be sharing duties with Aaron Heilman and, eventually, Guillermo Mota.

Granted, setting forth with a slow development plan for Ambiorix Burgos does not help the Mets’ immediate concern. However, nursing Burgos along at the MLB level for the first two months of the season may very well result in adding a signficant weapon to the bullpen before the All-Star Break — and insurance against a roidless Guillermo Mota. Based on their success with the mess that was Jorge Julio, the odds are in the Mets’ favor with Burgos.

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