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Mets Hot Stove Preview: The Bullpen

Mike SteffanosTuesday, October 25, 2005
By Mike Steffanos

In our previous posting, we took a look at the Mets' starting pitching, where a surplus of talent allows for the possibility of a trade to plug a hole. You don't have to look any further than the team's bullpen to find a hole that needs plugging.

A lot has been written about the free agents that are available, but before we look at them let's see what we already have.

Braden Looper: I guess I'm in the minority here, but I wouldn't mind seeing Looper come back as a setup man. Although he lacks the stuff to close games, he still has decent stuff and the mental toughness necessary to pitch in New York -- a not inconsiderable asset when you look back at how many relievers couldn't handle it. I know that many Met fans feel that it would be in the best interests of the team to cut ties completely and move on, and I understand where they're coming from. It's probably a moot point anyway -- I'm sure there are teams out there desperate enough for a closer than Looper will get a closer role -- and closer money -- somewhere else.

Roberto Hernandez: He had a very solid year as a set-up man in 2005, and definitely falls into the category of someone with the toughness to pitch in New York. The big question is at 41 years old can he repeat what he accomplished this year in 2006. I'd like to see him get the chance to prove he can, and hope the Mets can resign him, but with the shortage of relievers in baseball I'm sure they'll have some competition for Hernandez' services. I think he has another really productive year in his right arm.

Aaron Heilman: He's the interesting wild card in the 2006 bullpen equation. He finished the season so strongly that there are many fans that think he could be a closer for the Mets. Although I think that might be premature, given the enormous pressure and expectations for a Mets closer, I think he deserves a real shot at the eighth inning job, especially if we don't resign Hernandez. I know Omar has talked about trying to pick up a couple of guys in the pen, and who he winds up with will probably have a huge impact on Heilman's role.

The one thing that bothers me a little about Heilman is that, although he has tremendous control of his changeup, he doesn't have great control of his fastball. When he gets in trouble, it is inevitably because he's walking people or he misses with his fastball and gets hit. I know the Mets have him pitching some winter ball to tighten his control a little. Willie also mentioned something about trying to get him to mix in a slider or curve also -- this would seem to me as something that would be more important if you saw him as a starter next year. If he stays in the pen he should tighten up what he already has -- most relievers rely on 1 or 2 pitches anyway.

Juan Padilla: Most of what I read indicates to me that he is not highly regarded by the Mets, despite doing a good job for them down the stretch. He does have very ordinary stuff for a reliever, but he gets the job done when given the chance. Look what he did in September. He seems to be a guy that can help as a set-up man at the major league level. He needs to pitch, though, since he relies on control. In any bullpen there are usually only 3 guys that get enough regular work to stay sharp, the rest are used sporadically. Padilla's stuff isn't going to overwhelm anyone, if he's not sharp I don't think he'll be effective. He'll be an interesting call for next year, but I think he earned a real look at the very least.

Heath Bell: I don't know what he was going through personally at the end of the year, but it was a bizarre finish to a season that showed flashes of real promise. When he was good, he was the closest thing to a real true power arm coming out of the Mets pen in 2005, and maybe if he can get it all together he can give the team something in 2006. You need a guy that can come in and blow it by people. It's just hard to guess which Heath Bell will show up next year.

Royce Ring: I'm still not quite sure how he fell so quickly from a prospect that really contributed in June t0 a guy that didn't even merit a September call-up. His control left something to be desired, but he had good stuff and a good mental makeup. I keep looking around to see if anyone has anything on whether or not he's in the plans for next year.

Bartolome Fortunato, Tyler Yates Two potential power arms that didn't pitch an inning for the Mets this year due to injury. Fortunato looked promising in September 2004, but he's 31 years old, coming off back surgery and only has 25 career major league innings. Yates is younger at 28, but had rotator cuff surgery last year after having Tommy John surgery done in 2002. Both of these guys have to show something quickly or they will just disappear as fast as you can say "Orber Moreno".

Danny Graves, Shingo Takatsu, Tim Hamulack I know that the Mets have some sort of option on Graves for 2006, and the odds of them exercising it are about as good as my chances to date a supermodel. If they can get him into Spring Training on a minor league contract and want to roll the dice one more time on him getting his velocity back, maybe it's worth a try. I wouldn't bet a nickel on him helping us next year, though. If Willie still has that thing for Shingo's "funkiness" he might make an appearance in the spring, too, and I have even less hope for him than for Graves. Hamulack, although he didn't pitch very well with the Mets, might be worth one more look. He's a lefty coming back from arm problems, maybe one more year of getting strength back does that trick. Anyway, out of this trio I have a least some hope for him.

The Marketplace

We've heard Omar saying that he has hopes of picking up a couple of bullpen arms in the off-season. A closer upgrade is a must, and although there are some decent free agents out there the competition will be fierce.

The Top Dogs: Billy Wagner & B.J. Ryan
Either one of these guys would be a good pickup. Neither will come cheap, and the Mets will have significant competition for both. Although it was rumored for a while that Philadelphia wouldn't make a big push to resign Wagner, that's not the case. They are being extremely aggressive in negotiations, and that should surprise no one, really. There aren't many dominant closers out there; Wagner is a proven commodity in the upper tier in baseball. At 34 years old, and with a significant injury history, he is not without risk, but if you are looking for a top closer you'll have to take the risk. Still, if you sign him for 3 or 4 years you have to know that you will probably have a year or two of decline on the back end.

With a much smaller track record but some filthy stuff, Ryan would be a good gamble, too. Supposedly, though, the Yankees want him badly, and allegedly he wants them. The Mets might have to really overpay to have a chance at him.

Taking a Chance: Trevor Hoffman & Kyle Farnsworth
Hoffman has been one of the game's best, but he's closer to his AARP card than to his best days. He's a solid pro, but has not spent his career in the bright lights and media frenzy he will face here. For the kind of money he'll command he's be a real risk. As for Farnsworth, there's no questioning his stuff and that he made huge strides with his command this season. Still, he had trouble handling the pressure in Chicago; I don't think he'll find New York any easier. If you held a gun to my head and told me I had to take a chance on one of these, sign me up for Farnsworth. He's younger, has great stuff, and if you can't get Wagner or Ryan he's the best of the rest.

Not Worth It: Tom Gordon & Ugueth Urbina
If you sign one of these guys, you might as well have just brought back Looper as the closer. Neither one has done well under pressure in recent years; Gordon has really wilted under pressure for his whole career. Urbina had six blown saves for the Phillies down the stretch, walked way too many people and gave up too many home runs. He really doesn't seem to trust his stuff any more. Seriously, why make a move just for the sake of making a move? That's all picking up either one of these would be.

Plan B?

You know, there really aren't many viable free agent closers out there. If the Mets get shut out of Wagner and Ryan, if Hoffman stays in San Diego (where he has been more than 10 years), if Omar isn't sold on Farnsworth, I'm curious to see what he will do. I don't think there is a trade out there for a veteran closer, but maybe someone out there has a young arm or two that is worth a look, maybe in a trade for Trachsel or Zambrano. The bottom line is that it is getting tougher every year to build a contending team through free agency. There are so few quality guys out there, and so many teams looking for help.

One of my pet peeves with the Mets is that they've done a poor job developing their own quality bullpen arms, and because of that they must constantly overpay for guys that we don't even know if they can handle the pressure of pitching here. If the Mets hope to be a solid contending team in the coming years they must address this deficiency. If we learned anything this year, we've learned just how hard it is to contend with a shaky bullpen.

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