Monday, March 31, 2008

25-Man Roster Analysis, Part 1

Opening Day is less than eight hours away, so I have to squeeze in the first half of my 25-man roster analysis between meetings and paperwork. I would really rather do a different type of player analysis, with a focus on how they ended up on the Mets and what role they play on the current squad, but for now, let's take a look at the pitching staff for the team that will take the field in Florida today.

Johan Santana
Pedro Martinez
Oliver Perez
John Maine
Mike Pelfrey
Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez-DL

A potentially dominant rotation and the single biggest determining factor whether or not this team wins 85 games or 100 games.

Santana has to be considered a Cy Young Award front-runner after dominanting the American League for the past five seasons. Other than some concerns about pitch selection, there's nothing not to like about the guy. Pencil him for continued success and the starting nod at the All-Star game.

Martinez is one of the 10 greatest starting pitchers in baseball history, but not enough attention is being to the fact that the surgery he's coming back from is known as a career-killer. You can count the number of pitchers who returned to their old form after rotator cuff surgery on one hand. The days of sub-2.00 ERAs and 0.950 WHIPs are long gone, but I'll be happy with 175 IP, a 4.00 ERA and a 1.300 WHIP. If anyone can do it, it's Pedro.

He's pitching the fourth game of the season, but John Maine will be the nominal #2 starter before the end of the year. Stolen from Baltimore two years ago in exchange for a MILF, Maine has been lights-out this spring and appears ready to step into the elite class of National League starters. In retrospect, perhaps this shouldn't be entirely surprising - Maine dominated the lower levels of the minor leagues before being rushed to the big club at 24. It took him an extra year to get it, which was one year too long in a dysfunctional organization like Baltimore. Bold prediction: 17 wins, a sub-3.25 ERA and a 1.200 WHIP. He's going to look very good in my Strat-o-Matic rotation next season!

The Mets are one of the most interesting teams in baseball because their starters have the potential to throw a shutout every night of the week. No one exemplifies this more than Oliver Perez, whose raw stuff rivals that of Santana or pre-injury Pedro. Unfortunately for Ollie, he still hasn't learned to consistently harness that stuff, making him a terrific candidate for most disappointing starter in the National League. Having Perez on a one-year deal at $6.5 million is fine for a big-market club with enough money to fill Scrooge McDuck's vault. As a #4 starter without a long-term contract, he's an absolute dream. But signing Oliver Perez to a 5-year, $75 million free agent deal (as he's been rumored to be looking for) would be disastrous. You can bank on 5 great starts and 5 terrible starts in 2008 - the consistency he shows in the other 20 will go a long way toward determining his future worth to the franchise.

Mike Pelfrey should be a reliever. He's going to get tattooed with the big club, sent to AAA by May 15 and will rot there until Minaya trades him for pennies on the dollar.

El Duque is starting the season on the DL because apparently bunions are the most debilitating baseball injury known to man. The graceful leg kick of yester-year is gone, replaced by a more pedestrian wind-up that will rob El Duque of some of his trademark abaility to hide the ball until the last possible second. The man is a joy to watch when he's on and, like Perez, perfectly suited for the role he will play as a #5 starter. Omar made a big boo-boo by guaranteeing a pitcher in his mid-40s a two-year deal after the 2006 season, but at this point it's not like El Duque is blocking the next Mets pitching phenom.

Summing Up: The single biggest joy of being a Mets fan is this starting rotation. Once Pelfrey is back in the French Quarter, every single start has the makings of something special. They will need to catch some breaks though. Don't worry about Santana and Maine - they'll win at least 30 games between them. But the key to sustained success will be Pedro and El Duque, who will have to stay healthy enough to make 50 regular-season starts and still be ready for October assignments. If they do that and Perez simply maintains his 2007 form, the Mets can hit the century mark in wins. Extended DL stints for the veterans, combined with a severe regression from Perez to 2004-2006 levels, will mean an 85-77 record and the end of Willie Randolph's managing career. At this point, I honestly don't know what I'm rooting for more.

Billy Wagner (closer)
Aaron Heilman
Pedro Feliciano
Matt Wise
Scott Schoenweis
Jorge Sosa
Joe Smith

Before I begin, let me state for the record that a seven-man bullpen is a ridiculous use of roster space and is completely unnecessary, even in today's ultra-specialized game. I'll write a separate entry about this topic down the road, but the seven reserve arms in the Mets' pen are keeping them from carrying even six infielders this season. I will respectfully suggest that every team in baseball can get more use out of a sixth infielder than they can out of a seventh reliever.

Billy Wagner is the closer - one of the few relievers in baseball who I firmly believe should be utilized ONLY with a lead of three runs or less in the ninth inning of a game. Wags is one of those guys who "needs to have a role" - remember that ninth-inning meltdown against the Yankees two years ago? Both his ERA and WHIP have increased from the 2005 season (the year before he signed with the Mets), always a cocnern for a reliever in his mid-30s. Wagner is also my least favorite Met on the team, mainly for this type of garbage. He didn't even have the balls to admit it was him at the time; it was only after Milledge was traded that he admitted to doing the deed. Here's hoping Lasto goes deep on you three times this season, Billy - and that he slaps hands with the hometown fans after each and every dinger.

Aaron Heilman is a victim of his success. He desperately wants another chance to be a starter but at this point, he's one of the more underrated set-up men in the game. A few unfortunately timed home runs tend to overshadow the fact that Heilman has pitched 229 highly effective innings out of the bullpen over the last three seasons - with a ERA of 3.14 and a 1.161 WHIP. You'd be hard=pressed to find another middle reliever in baseball with those kind of numbers over a three-year span. Sorry Aaron, you're just too good at your current job to let you go back to starting.

I've been a big fan of Pedro Feliciano ever since the Mets re-acquired him two years ago, but I have to admit I soured on him a bit in 2007. For a second straight year, the overall numbers were good, but Feliciano was less effective after the All-Star Break. He's another guy that Willie tends to misuse - typecast as a situational lefty despite holding right-handers to a .241 batting average over the last two seasons. Still, Heilman is clearly the top set-up guy and while Feliciano is more than equipped to handle the entire eighth inning, it would be better to use him in innings where he was assured at least one left-handed batter.

Matt Wise was a terrific under the radar signing by Minaya last off-season. This guy was shutting down everyone until accidentally fracturing the cheekbone of Pedro Lopez with an errant pitch on July 25. The league hit a mind-boggling .466 off Wise after that incident, most decidedly taking the shine off Wise's early numbers. Wise features an excellent changeup and a season of sharing a locker room with Johan Santana will hopefully make it even more devastating. As long as he's gotten over the emotional trauma of the beaning, I really like him as the fourth reliever in the pen and I think he's primed for a great campaign.

Memo to Omar Minaya - don't sign middle relievers to three-year deals. Memo to Willie Randolph - don't use lefty specialists against right-handers. It ain't rocket science, people.

Jorge Sosa should be in AAA or in the #5 starter role. Instead, he's the seventh reliever on a team that only needs six. There's no reason Schoenweis couldn't function as a lefty specialist AND the long man - you don't have to worry about striking out a tough left-handed batter in seventh inning if your team's already down by six runs in the second. But when it comes to roster construction, the lack of creativity shown by Willie and Omar never ceases to amaze. And so we have Sosa, one more mediocre arm at the back of the bullpen waiting for the call that may never come - all at the expense of the pinch-runner, the platoon partner or the defensive specialist far more likely to have a significant impact on the outcome of the game.

Joe Smith is the man benefitting the most from Randolph and Minaya's short-sightedness. He barely beat out Brian Stokes for the last spot in the bullpen and will have to replicate his early-season success in 2007 if he wants to stick with the big club this time around. The sidearmer has already been typecast as a righty specialist, but learning to shut down left-handers will be the key to long-term success.

Summing up: A good bullpen, on balance, even if it is too big. When Wagner isn't lecturing us all about playing the game right, he's still a Top 10 closer. Heilman is the best set-up man in baseball and Feliciano is a competent fill-in, with Wise lurking if Pedro needs to be re-calibrated into a lefty specialist. Schoenweis is here, for better or worse, but can be useful if used solely against tough-lefthanders and in mop-up duty. Joe Smith belongs in AAA, where he can work on getting out lefties - Sosa can do the long-man thing AND get out a tough righty in the sixth inning.

No comments: