What Went Wrong: Bullpen
Oh boy … we have all winter to contemplate the reasons the Mets are sitting at home this postseason and we’re doing all we can to avoid Baseball Tonight.
Several issues caused the Mets malaise in 2007 — and we’ll address them all right here over the next few days. First up, the bullpen.
Lack of Arms
When the Mets traded Heath Bell and Royce Ring to San Diego for Ben Johnson and Jon Adkins, it made sense. After all, though many of us knew that Bell would be a fine reliever when given the opportunity, we also knew that under Willie Randolph that was NEVER going to happen. We don’t know why — perhaps Heath was with Jeff Keppinger when he was hitting on Willie’s daughter (or whatever the reason for Randolph’s hating on Kepp). Ring also was not trusted by Willie, and didn’t look to be anything more than a LOOGY anyway. And we were fleeced into thinking that Adkins was something other than a BP pitcher, and that Johnson might compete with Lastings Milledge for right field.
In addition, the trading of Matt Lindstrom and Henry Owens to the Marlins made sense at the time for similar reasons. If Willie didn’t trust Bell, there was no way Lindstrom and Owens were ever getting a shot. So to get two lefties under 25 in return seemed like a good swap.
However, those two deals — somewhat sparked by Randolph’s mistrust of anyone other than “his guys” — turned out to be devastating to the team’s bullpen depth.
First, Duaner Sanchez never made it back — and the Mets were counting on him returning sometime in the first half. Secondly, Juan Padilla didn’t make it back either. The organization was looking at Padilla more as extra AAA depth, but his relapse became more glaring when it became apparent that Sanchez was out for the year. Still the Mets would have been fine without these two, had Ambiorix Burgos remained healthy or Adkins or Lino Urdaneta panned out.
Unfortunately, Burgos had elbow issues early in the season, was shut down, and eventually had TJ surgery. Adkins was abysmal in spring training, and no better in AAA. Urdaneta impressed with his velocity, but, predictably, was hardly used in his one week in the bigs (not to be trusted by you know who). Soon after, Lino was suspended 50 games for testing positive for a PED.
Losing Sanchez, Padilla, Burgos and Urdaneta, and Adkins being a bust, the Mets suddenly very sorely missed Bell, Owens, Lindstrom, and Ring — especially since all were doing just fine thank you at their new addresses.
Now you can say that the Mets still had assembled what should have been a fairly good relief corps ahead of Billy Wagner. Aaron Heilman, Pedro Feliciano, Scott Schoeneweis, and Joe Smith looked like they’d be able to hold the fort until Guillermo Mota returned from his 50-game suspension. But ah, now we’ll get into the next issue with the bullpen.
One of Willie Randolph’s quirks as a manager is his penchant for contradiction. For example, in April he’ll say that every game counts, then a week later proclaim that the “important” games will come in September. Or, he’ll manage a Wednesday night game like it’s the seventh game of the World Series, then put his entire “B” team in the lineup on Thursday afternoon.
Let’s focus on that second contradiction. Watching Willie from Opening Day, he manages his bullpen like there’s no tomorrow. He obviously absorbed something from his days under Joe “Burn Out Your Bullpen” Torre. Case in point: after discovering in 2006 that Aaron Heilman could not physically nor emotionally handle the rigors of pitching in nearly every other game, and was ineffective when pitching back to back days, what does Willie do? Sends Heilman to the mound 81 times in 2007. At the end of last season, Heilman needed minor elbow surgery due to overuse. Hopefully he won’t need major surgery on that elbow this winter.
But Heilman — who was put into three or four consecutive games at several points (including twice in one day) — wasn’t the only one grossly abused. Feliciano appeared in 78 games, after never appearing in more than 23 before 2006 (he appeared in 64 last year, though rarely ever for a full inning). Joe Smith — whose use was watched very closely last summer, after he pitched in 31 college games — pitched in 40 games before the All-Star Break. Burgos was used five times in seven days in April, then used for a two-inning stint two days later. Despite being ineffective throughout the year, Schoeneweis found his way into 70 games, pitching in three consecutive games several times (and not always as a LOOGY, but often for full innings at a time). Mota might have pitched in more games than Heilman had he not missed the first two months of the season — he appeared in 52 of the 112 for which he was eligible. And once Jorge Sosa was “officially” a reliever, Randolph rode him hard, often for two innings at a time.
In other words, Willie burned out every arm he had until they were completely exhausted and exposed by August. But more alarming, he used essentially the same five guys — Heilman, Feliciano, Smith, Schoeneweis, and Mota — from game 1 through 162.
Take a look at the number of games for the Mets’ middle / setup relievers:
Sele doesn’t really count, because other than maybe five appearances in extra-inning games, he got nothing but garbage innings (we’ll get more in the Sele situation soon). Burgos was gone before the end of May. Now, take note that no other pitcher appeared in at least 10 games other than the above. In fact, no other reliever appeared in more than three games, other than Willie Collazo (he was put into six). This may not sound like a big deal, until you start looking around at what other teams have done with their bullpen workers. For example, look at how these clubs spread the innings around (note that the team’s closer is omitted from the lists):
Notice in all the above bullpens, what happens after the top seven relievers in as far as appearances. The Mets’ “others” made it into 36 games. The next-closest team to them was the Padres (another overworked pen) with 43. The Cubs “others” got into 53, D’backs 56, and the Phillies 120. What’s the point here? The fact that other teams gave multiple opportunities to several other pitchers after their “top 7”. As a result, by the end of the season — when the “games matter most”, according to Randolph — there were fresh arms available.
Granted, the Phillies, D’Backs, and Cubs kept using different faces because of injuries and/or ineffectiveness. But hey … didn’t the Mets suffer the same issues? While Willie kept sticking with his “guys”, other teams shuffled the deck over and over until they came up with some arms who could get the job done — even if only for a short period of time. Sure, the Phillies had a motley crew of hasbeens and never-wases going through the revolving door of their bullpen, but they managed to find a few who got some outs long enough to win a few games here and there. They took chances on re-treads, and for every Jose Mesa they had a J.C. Romero. For every Brian Sanches there was a Clay Condrey. And as much as you want to make fun of Charlie Manuel for his seeming incompetence, you may want to consider him the “Lt. Columbo” of the NL, because he seemed to understand the short-lived, volatile nature of middle relief — never fully counting on anyone to get the job done.
Simultaneously, Willie kept sending Scott Schoeneweis and Guillermo Mota to the mound — as Carlos Muniz, Phil Humber, Marcos Carvajal, and others toiled in the minors. And while Joel Pineiro, J.C. Romero, Mike Myers, Justin Miller and other veterans were picked from the scrap by other teams. Would it have been different if Bell, Ring, Lindstrom, or Owens were waiting in AAA? We’ll never know, but probably not, knowing Randolph’s lack of trust for non-veterans.
Ironically, it was rookie Joe Smith who Randolph trusted almost instantly, yet didn’t understand why he was effective, nor why he lost effectiveness by mid-season. If he did, he might have tried some of the other youngsters.
As we know, Randolph loves guys who can “show a different look” — a.k.a., submariners. His fascination with sidearmers might have manifested with his at-bats against Dan Quisenberry in the early 1980s, who knows. But the fact is, he can’t assemble a bullpen without one. So when Joe Smith came on with two men on and struck out Preston Wilson with a nasty slider in the first game of the season, Randolph misinterpreted Smith as being another Quiz — a submariner with great stuff and nerves of steel. In truth, Smith went 17 games without allowing an earned run more because he was unknown than anything else. But Randolph confused the unfamiliar with exceptional skill (Smith has good, but not exceptional stuff), and brought him in regularly. Smith did pitch well in those first two months, but was simultaneously overexposed and overworked. I remember thinking to myself, “no, Willie, don’t bring him into an already won game against the Phillies — save him for later, in a tight situation when he can surprise someone with that slider”.
Because Willie didn’t “get” the concept of Smith’s success due to unfamiliarity, he didn’t think to bring up, say Willie Collazo. Who knows, maybe Collazo’s side-slinging could have surprised a few lefties for a two- or three-week period — much the same way Pedro Feliciano came on the scene in 2006. Maybe Humber’s knee-bending curveball would have gotten some tough outs in September — rather than being wasted in blowouts. The point is, Willie’s “confidence” in the veterans, and unwillingness to trust non-veterans, was ultimately his downfall.
Relief Planning in the Post-Steroid Era
In the post-steroid era, relief pitchers cannot be expected to pitch in 70-80+ games per year, every year, and be consistently effective. I think that’s part of the problem — I truly believe there were many, many middle relievers (and closers) on some kind of PEDs prior to 2006. That made managers believe that having a guy throw 93-95 MPH, with command, 3-4 times a week was humanly possible. Without a PED, I think only a very rare individual can keep up that pace, and be effective. So as long as teams are going to pull the plug on starters at pitch #100, they’re going to have to plan for a 10-15-man bullpen over the course of a year. Yes, you’ll have your closer, and your “main” 2-3 setup guys, but you’ll need to be very open to filling out the rest of the bullpen, and have depth. The Mets started out with a good idea — using Burgos and Smith early — but didn’t stick to it. By the time they shifted Jorge Sosa to the bullpen as a fresh arm, it was too little, too late. They needed at least THREE Sosas over the course of the year, to eat up innings. And that’s where we come to the next point in Willie’s mismanagement.
Through the inconsistence and incompetence of The Show and Mota (or, Mogas), the elbow issues of Burgos and Smith, and Feliciano’s sudden lack of effectiveness (from overwork), there is one glaring question — what in the world was Aaron Sele doing hogging a roster spot?
Back in Willie’s day, the last guy in the bullpen was the “mopup man”, a guy who came into blowouts and 15-inning games, and maybe had a spot start on the back-end of a Sunday doubleheader. That guy was usually an old veteran, someone kept around as a favor or to impart some wisdom to the youngsters or simply because he was well-liked. Sometimes it was a youngster who you hoped would pick up something from the veterans and eventually turn into a starter. When Willie played, that guy was Ken Holtzman, or Ken Clay, or Bob Shirley.
However, in this day and age of incomplete games and the 100-pitch count, a bullpen cannot afford the luxury of an Aaron Sele — a guy who rarely enters a close game (and then only because of desperation). Originally, it was thought that Sele would fill the role vacated by Darren Oliver — provide solid innings when the fifth starter gets knocked out early, and help out with some sixth-inning and tenth-inning spots here and there (even that type of role is too limited in 2007). Instead, Sele was all but forgotten, often going a week or more in between appearances. Of course, we wouldn’t have wanted to see Sele in, say, the seventh inning of a one-run game, but that’s exactly the point: his spot on the roster should have been filled by someone who could be counted on in that situation.
Most likely, Willie’s defense would be that he didn’t know when he’d need Sele for a three- or four-inning appearance. But Sele pitched more than two innings in only four of his 34 appearances, so his “long relief role” is a misconception. That “Darren Oliver” role made sense in 2006 because of the clowns sent to the mound to start ballgames for the Mets (Alay Soler, Jose Lima, Jeremi Gonzalez, et al). In 2007, the Mets had four solid starters and Mike Pelfrey, who usually got through five innings. If there was a game that required 5,6,or 7 innings of relief, the bullpen would have figured it out for that day, and the Mets could have called up an arm the next day to give everyone a breather — it’s not like blowouts were a common occurrence.
Instead, Aaron Sele hung around in the bullpen and did nothing to help the team for 128 games. Of the 34 in which he did take the mound, the Mets won 10. In 16 of his appearances, either the Mets or their opponent hit double-digits in runs scored. In 22 of his games, one of the teams scored 9 or more runs. His 3-2 record tells us he was involved in 5 decisions — 3 came in extra-inning affairs where he was the last Mets pitcher of record. Despite taking a roster spot through all 162 games, he made a difference in less than 10. That’s not enough for a relief pitcher in this day and age.
Look again at the lists of relievers on other teams above. Do you see a “mop up man” that parallels to Aaron Sele? You won’t find one because when teams know they have to give the bullpen 3-4 innings per game, they can’t afford to waste a spot on an Aaron Sele. That “last man” in the pen may need to throw garbage innings, but he also must be trusted occasionally when the game “means something”. Game after game, Willie Randolph refused to put Sele into a ballgame because “he manages every game to win” and refused to acknowledge a game was outside the Mets’ grasp. There’s another contradiction. Willie rarely “threw in the towel” in a game — we’ll give him that — but then why keep a guy around AS the towel? Wouldn’t it make more sense to shift roles among your relief corps, depending on who’s hot and who’s struggling? Say, think of Schoeneweis as your “long man” for a week or two, and use Sele (or someone else, i.e., Muniz, Collazo, Schmoll) in sixth-inning situations? Rather than continually throwing Guillermo Mota into the fire — and watching him fail — couldn’t you have put him in the long man role for a month, ease his confidence back, and turn to someone else for a while? Look at what Charlie Manuel did with Tom Gordon, or how Bud Black turned Heath Bell into a setup man, or how the Yankees finally got something out of Kyle Farnsworth.
We can’t blame Aaron Sele for the Mets’ second-place finish in 2007. But had his spot been filled by someone else, or several someone elses, perhaps the “important” members of the bullpen do not fall flat on their faces in September. Instead of 34 mostly useless appearances, maybe two or three other pitchers combine for 50-60 games — half or more of which have importance. And maybe, just maybe, by using that spot on the roster as a revolving door, the Mets come up with a J.C. Romero, or a Doug Slaten, or another person who comes out of nowhere or off the scrap heap to become a key man out of the bullpen. Another “someone” coming into 45-60 games, instead of Heilman or Feliciano or Schoeneweis or Mota, might have made the difference come September.
How It Should Be Handled in 2008
As we all know, middle relief is too volatile to expect guys to remain successful year in and year out — even week to week. The concept of establishing bullpen roles is extinct as of 2005. Rather, a manager has to look at the 6th through 8th innings as a constant work-in-progress, with weekly auditions. Just because a guy is successful twice in one week doesn’t mean he can be counted on the next, and you’ll need four or five guys behind him.
For 2008, Omar Minaya must get more arms for the bullpen — both for the 25-man roster and for stocking in AAA. Dropping Carvajal to keep Brian Lawrence around was not the way to start off on the right foot. Minaya must expect nothing from Duaner Sanchez, Juan Padilla, and Ambiorix Burgos, and operate as if they were not in the organization. The winter must be spent stockpiling arms of every size, age, race, and handedness.
Further, someone must sit down with Willie and explain how bullpens work now. We’ll give him a pass on 2007, because the Mets thought they had it all figured out with their bullpen roles in 2006 — not realizing it was sheer luck to have a handful of guys to shut the door throughout the season. But if Willie is to manage a winning team in 2008, he has to learn from his mistakes, and be willing to give other, younger arms a chance. The idea of “you can’t throw babies into the middle of the pennant race” must be forgotten. Thinking that a veteran who has failed seven out of the last ten times is suddenly going to succeed because you have confidence in him, must also be trashed. Bullpen management of the present and future is a wild game of mix and match, of tossing several cans of paint at the wall until something sticks — and rolling that sticky color on the wall only until it starts dripping. It’s going to be hard, because Willie likes to have set roles and he likes to trust his veterans, but it’s a whole new ballgame. His only recourse is to go the Ozzie Guillen route, and start pushing the starters beyond 110-120 pitches per game. It’s your call, Willie.
Finally, it has to be understood that Heilman and Feliciano are not 80-game-per-season pitchers. Neither can handle the workload — physically nor mentally. If you get more usefulness out of that last spot in the bullpen (where Sele filled), then you can limit Heilman and Pedro Lite to 50-55 games — and see more effectiveness from both. Heilman — or whomever the “8th inning guy” turns out to be — should be treated like Billy Wagner, and used ONLY when the Mets have a lead. Forget this nonsense of trotting out your top bridge men when you’re three runs down, because you think the Mets can rally in the ninth. Better to keep that guy fresh for tomorrow, when a one-run lead must be held.
Tomorrow we’ll cover the underachievers of the 2007 New York Mets.