By Mike Steffanos
As we wait around for tonight's second chance at clinching the NL east, I'm looking for things to occupy my mind. Although I pulled for the Phillies to hold on and win last night so that the Mets would have a second chance to clinch on the field, I've decided not to follow the Phillies game this afternoon. After rooting for the Braves on Thursday to beat the Phillies and get the magic number down to one, then rooting for the Phillies last night, I decided it was time to break this unnatural string of cheering on archrivals. I'll leave them to their own devices and turn my attention elsewhere. We'll just let whatever happens happen.
Watching Pedro Martinez Friday night brought home to all Mets fans just how much of our playoff hopes are riding on the fragile physique of the 34-year-old right-hander. There's really no getting away from it -- Tom Glavine, even in a best-case scenario, simply lacks the type of stuff that can make him pitch like an ace. There are major geological formations that are younger than El Duque's real age, whatever that might be. Steve Trachsel and John Maine, along with Oliver Perez or any of the longer longshots, are just rolls of the dice. Maybe you roll a seven, or maybe it comes up snake eyes.
I'm not saying all of this to depress anyone. There are plenty in the media who seem to make a large part of their career out of trying to spook Mets fans. I'm just realistic. As cool as it would be to see Pedro come back and pitch as well as he did for the first few months of 2005 -- and I refuse to discount the possibility that it might happen -- I understand that the deflated warrior we saw in the dugout after his bad 3 innings last night might very well be the one who shows up for a playoff start. Even if that's not the case, I absolutely guarantee that between now and the playoffs you will be bombarded from all sides with that possibility.
Look, when you get to the playoffs, things have to go right for you. The Mets are no exception to that rule. Pedro has to get it together, Glavine and Orlando Hernandez need to be on top of their games, and whoever else might pitch needs to pitch well. Breaks have to go your way and you hope that your team rises to the challenge. That's how it's always been, and how it will be this year. Keep in mind that the only sure method of avoiding a playoff disappointment is the one the Mets have utilized for the last 5 seasons -- not being good enough to get there.
Whatever happens this October, Omar and company need to turn over this pitching staff and get some younger arms with better stuff in there. Maybe Barry Zito will be part of the answer, although I can only hope that the Mets will not get sucked into one of those ridiculous Scott Boras contracts with too many years and too many dollars -- especially for a pitcher who has not felt the harsh glare of the spotlight on him for his career. The fact that Zito has terrible lifetime numbers against the Yankees worries me some.
Jason Schmidt is another pitcher who has been mentioned as a potential off-season signing. The Mets had interest in him at the deadline, and the rumor is that a deal was close to being made. This is despite the fact that there are strong rumors Schmidt prefers to finish his career on the west coast, with Seattle being a favorite if the Giants don't re-sign him. Frankly, the 33-year-old pitcher scares the hell out of me. He struggled mightily last season, battling injury problems for most of the way. He's bounced back this year, but seems to wearing down over the past couple of months. After pitching to a 1.17 ERA in May and a 2.80 in June, Schmidt was 1-4 with a 4.97 ERA in July, 3-1 4.10 in August and 1-0 4.50 in 2 September starts. Not awful, but he's looking for a multi-year contract for fairly big dollars. I'd like to see the Mets pass on another fragile older pitcher.
Whoever is signed or otherwise acquired this off-season -- and you can bet Omar will get someone -- the Mets have a group of interesting young arms to step up and fill out their rotation next year. If he is physically able, Pedro will anchor the rotation, and there are indications that Tom Glavine will return to the Mets. I would expect them to part ways with the fading Steve Trachsel, and should they elect to bring Orlando Hernandez back, it certainly won't be to throw 200 innings as a starter. That leaves 3 slots open, with the likelihood that one will be through free agency or off-season trade. For the other two slots, the most intriguing arms belong to John Maine and Oliver Perez.
While I freely admit to lacking the expertise of a professional pitching coach, I like the chance of both of these players contributing next year. Maine has already given us glimpses of his potential. With a dependable off-speed pitch and a consistent delivery, I think he has solid mid-rotation potential. Perez' ceiling is probably higher, depending on how much consistency he can develop with his delivery. Putting aside what he did in 2004, which certainly qualified him as a potential top-of-the-rotation arm, I could see him build on what he has accomplished so far to become a true power lefty for the next several years. He throws the ball hard enough, and has a great slider when he is in synch.
Perez himself believes some of his troubles might be related to trying to live up to what he accomplished in 2004, when he put up very high strikeout and very low hits per innings totals -- numbers he hasn't approached before or since. Some of his struggles are related to the Pirates trying to get him to cut down on his velocity to achieve more consistency. The problem was that he was simply throwing the ball slower, but the uniformity in his delivery was still lacking. He became a hybrid of a power pitcher without power and a control pitcher without control. There is no surprise that he has sucked wind for 2 seasons. Now he's back to airing it out, with Peterson working to help him develop a consistent, repeatable motion, and Pedro Martinez has become his mentor.
I don't consider it outside the realm of possibility that Perez could be a dominant, ace-type pitcher, but feel it is much more likely for him to be the "Sid Fernandez" of next year's staff -- a little inconsistent, but with stuff that is a nice counterpoint to the junk of Glavine and the trickery of Pedro. Get Maine to make similar strides, and you won't have all of the worry about aging pitchers you have this year. The Mets will be a better balanced team for it.
Back to this year, though, don't bet against guys like Pedro, Tom Glavine, Orlando Hernandez and maybe even one of the others stepping up and excepting the challenge. Don't by into all of the "anything less than a world series win is failure" garbage they're trying to get you to swallow to sell their papers. Enjoy the ride. Carpe diem, fellow Mets fans.