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Hope for the Bottom of the Rotation

Mike SteffanosThursday, May 25, 2006
By Mike Steffanos

While no one is looking at the Mets starting staff as "cured", the events of the past 24 hours certainly have opened up at least the possibility of some much-needed stabilization. After doing his best to scare the hell out of Mets fans by throwing 15 of his first 21 pitches out of the strike zone, Alay Soler settled down and gave the Mets 6 strong innings and the chance to win an important game, which was more than veteran Steve Trachsel gave the team the night before. What made Soler's performance more impressive was that both he and Philadelphia starter John Lieber were mercilessly squeezed by home plate umpire Jerry Meals. Lieber was so upset he actually criticized Meals to the press after the game.

Despite having to deal with an uncooperative umpire, and obviously fighting his emotions at times, Soler looks like someone who has enough stuff, maturity and acumen to give the Mets a chance to win his starts. That's more than Jose Lima was able to provide. Now, with the acquisition of Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, he has a countryman and perhaps a mentor accompanying him in the rotation.

Jeremi Gonzalez probably has to show something worthwhile in his start this afternoon or might be joining Lima soon. After pitching decently in his Mets debut in Milawukee -- though he did give up a pair of homers and 3 ERs in 5 innings -- Gonzalez could not keep the Mets in the game with the Yankees Friday night and had to be pulled after allowing Jeter's leadoff double in the fourth. It's been reported that he was ill that evening, so we'll give him the benefit of the doubt, but the lack of a solid performance this afternoon can surely lead to a one-way ticket back to Norfolk to rejoin Lima.

As for the newly arrived El Duque, his numbers are actually quite ugly on the season with the Diamondbacks. He feels he wasn't used properly in Arizona, and that he only needs to be handed the ball every fifth day to regain his rhythm. The 40- (not 36) year-old pitcher has a history of playoff success, but arm and back problems have consistently plagued the Cuban right-hander since he managed 195 innings for the 2000 Yankees. Since then, he's amassed 94.2, 146, 84.2 and 128 in the ensuing 4 years. He was off to a terrific start with the White Sox in 2005, but, once again, the injury bug bit him. Anyone that can predict exactly how much El Duque can give the 2006 Mets is a better prognosticator than I am.

Omar has stated the he considers El Duque and John Maine a more-than-adequate return for Anna's husband. We'll certainly need to see more of Maine to make that determination, but something in this latest deal smacks of dumping Jorge Julio in the same manner the original deal seemed to be all about dumping Kris Benson. There's no doubt that Orlando Hernandez at least offers the possibility of stability for the staff, but there are no guarantees, either.

Still, when all is said and done, it was a move that had to be made. There's not all that much starting pitching available, and having some decent options means there is less pressure to rush first-round pick Mike Pelfrey to the big leagues, and that is a positive at this point in the kid's career. Omar Minaya alluded as much to Newsday's David Lennon:

We've been hit hard in our starting rotation. When all is said and done, it does help that we don't have to rush some guys.

That means Pelfrey can conquer the Eastern League before the Mets consider any promotion, and John Maine and Brian Bannister can rehab their injuries without pressure to rush back.

Stability in the back end of the rotation can mean less "throw away" games when Pedro and Glavine don't pitch, which obviously helps the team, but also takes some pressure off of those two. More innings from the bottom 3 (including the erratic Trachsel) can give this bullpen a chance to survive and thrive into the fall. And frankly, if Trachsel can't pick up his game and give the team some consistent starts, at least there are some other options available to replace him.

Their seems to be a strong feeling both in the press and among the fan base that Omar will be able to land a starter of more obvious quality closer to the deadline. That remains to be seen if this task can be accomplished without Lastings Milledge's departure. (Forget about Pelfrey, despite what some are writing, he can not be traded until 1 year after signing his first contract. Since that was just this January, he's going nowhere.) What this latest move has done has at least bought Minaya time -- both to work on a "bigger" deal, and for Pelfrey to continue to develop and possibly step up in lieu of the Mets making a big trade.

Newsday: El Duque
Tara Sullivan quotes Omar Minaya on the newly acquired Orlando Hernandez:

He knows New York, he's a competitor, he's a winner. This is a place he knows and knows him. He basically said 'Thank you for bringing me back.'

... We've seen his postseasons. The later the season gets, the more of an impact he has on your team. He's a big-game pitcher. I hope we get to the playoffs -- let's get there first. ... I like to get players who make a difference and he does.

... Today if you tell me John Maine and El Duque for Benson, I'm comfortable with that. I think it solidifies us.

I know there were many that didn't care for Benson that much, but if John Maine fails to develop into some sort of reliable pitcher that trade is going to look really bad...

NY Sports Day: Opinion on the Deal
Joe McDonald pretty much somes up the latest deal:

Depending on what report you believe, El Duque could be anywhere from 36 to 40 years-old, but even on the high end, the Mets now have a reliable back of the rotation starter, who has pitched in New York successfully before. And even though the record may be showing some age [2-4, 6.11 ERA], the veteran right-hander only allowed one run in seven innings in his last start on Monday.

If the Mets see that Hernandez, who thrives in big games, then the trade is a steal.

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Comments (2)

Mike I sort of agree with your article but this deal was done for no other reason than the fact that Maine and Bannister are nowhere near ready to come back. Lima is done and Gonzalez continues to show he has some stuff but really needs some time in the AAA side to work his tools out.

I would like to see Omar head out to the upcoming fire sale in Cubsland and sign Maddux to a 2 year extention to his current contract. Next season he will be 41 but he proves he is still a stud with batting behind him. He would make a great #4 pitcher if we can pick up Zito (the only real ace out there this offseason) or a reasonable #3 if we can't. Trax is D.O.N.E. and needs to be replaced sooner rather than later.

BTW I hate the Yankeenim 'El Duque', time to find a Mets-anim for him. How about Disney since his first name is Orlando?

Scott, I did say it was a deal that had to be done. I'm not sure I'd be willing to give up much for Maddox. This team needs to avoid the Yankee model of old, high-priced players that are prone to declining and getting hurt. To give Maddux a 2-year extension is to show a lot of faith into a guy's mid-40s. I wouldn't take that gamble, the Mets need some youth to balance things out in the rotation, if not so much for this year than for 2007 and beyond.

Hernandez was El Duque in Cuba before his days as a Yankee. The Yankees take credit for too many things already, I'm not sweating that one.

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