By Mike Steffanos
Given the recent losses of Chad Bradford and Darren Oliver, there is certainly some concern among Mets fans that what was the strength of the team in 2006 may well be weaker heading into 2007. Here's a look at the candidates for the bullpen so far. For the purposes of this discussion I have ranked them, but it should obviously be understood that my rankings are not necessarily the way the Mets see things.
1. Billy Wagner (L) - Closer
I doubt there will be much debate over this. Wagner's job is to close games. After getting off to a brutal start that featured a memorable meltdown against the Yankees, Wagner settled down and did a good job -- saving 40 games, including 18 in a row and converting 26 of his last 27. That's the bottom line; there are no style points in closing games.
Having said that, Wagner always seemed to allow runners on base, and often took Mets fans to the edge of despair before saving the game. After saving a pair of games against the Dodgers in the Division series, Wagner was unimpressive against the Cardinals in the League Championship series, getting lit up in a game 2 loss and allowing the Cards a pair in the ninth that made a nail biter out of what should have been an easy game 6 win. Given his adventures in closing many games, his injury history and his age (he'll turn 36 at the end of July), I think the Mets will do well to be grooming a potential replacement closer despite the 3 years left on Wagner's deal.
2. Aaron Heilman (R) - 8th Inning
Even though he very well may be elsewhere by the time the season starts, Heilman needs to be seen as the best option for the eighth until Duaner Sanchez proves he's all the way back. Heilman has good enough stuff to close games, although it would be difficult to make a closer out of a pitcher who's still convinced he's a starter.
After being supplanted by Duaner Sanchez last year, Heilman seemed to struggle in a 7th inning role, but then stepped back up when Sanchez went down. This proves that although it's clear he wants to start, he still does well when challenged. The problem I foresee is if Sanchez again unseats Heilman as the bridge to Wagner. Unless the Mets intend to try Heilman as a starter -- and it seems clear that they don't -- I don't think that sliding Aaron down to that seventh inning role will work any better this time around.
Ultimately what I think should happen is that the Mets should hold onto Heilman until Sanchez proves he's 100 percent. You can deal Aaron during the season as easily as you could in the offseason, since he is not a high-priced veteran.
3. Duaner Sanchez (R) - 8th Inning
I could see Sanchez splitting the eighth inning role with Heilman early in the year as he builds his arm strength back up. I think as long as he has no lingering after effects, he eventually moves back into the top set up role. I like Sanchez' confidence and fearlessness, and see him as the guy on the team most likely to slide into that closer role if something happens to Wagner.
Still, coming off major shoulder surgery, I would go slow with Sanchez if he struggles a little early on. A major question mark is regaining that low- to mid-90s velocity and being able to bring it on back to back days. By all accounts he should be able to recover fully, but pitcher's shoulders are funny things.
4. Pedro Feliciano (L) - 6th and 7th Inning
I would expect Feliciano to continue his role as the top lefty in the bullpen. He also did reasonably well against righties, which makes him a cut above the normal lefty specialist. He's capable of giving you a solid inning + when you need him.
5. Guillermo Mota (R) - 6th and 7th Inning
We'll see what Mota looks like when he returns from that suspension for the first 50 games. He won't be able to pitch even in the minors until that's over, so he'll have to try to stay sharp in those extended spring training games. He may not come back as that eighth inning option he was at the end of last year, but he should be able to adequately handle some of the innings Bradford took on in 2006, although he won't be as good against right-handers as Bradford was.
6. Ambiorix Burgos (R) - 5th and 6th Inning
Burgos has one of those electric arms, and if he learns what to do with it, he can easily move up in the bullpen rotation and ultimately make Heilman expendable. However, he is a young guy who was rushed to the majors, and has yet to prove that he can consistently retire major league hitters. His potential ranges anywhere from closer of the future to one of those "whatever happened to..." stories.
7. Dave Williams (L) - Long Relief
Williams seems like a good bet to step into that Darren Oliver role as long reliever, spot starter and extra lefty in the bullpen. Of course, he has a chance to win an actual rotation job.
8. Jon Adkins (R) - 5th and 6th Inning
Adkins has established himself as a reliable middle reliever, and should be able to fill that role here. He needs to cut down on the walks he gives up or he could wind up being unseated by others who possess more upside.
9. Juan Padilla (R) - 5th and 6th Inning
It's hard to predict what Padilla may do for the Mets in 2007. He's 30 years old and coming of Tommy John surgery. It often requires 16 months to fully bounce back from this procedure, which would take him into the middle of the season. There is also question as to whether his strong showing for 36 innings at the end of 2005 was somewhat of a fluke. His only other major league experience was in 2004 with the Reds and Yankees, and was much less successful.
He has a good changeup and seems fearless, but the rest of his stuff is the very definition of ordinary. Still, he's a guy you root for.
10. Jason Standridge (R) - 5th and 6th Inning
More likely to be providing bullpen insurance in New Orleans. He has a good arm but doesn't have a clue where it is going. Perhaps Rick Peterson can rescue his career.
Bullpen Wildcards (In No Particular Order)
- The Padres seem to have felt that Oliver Perez (L), who started in their organization, is more suited to the bullpen than as a starter. The Mets will give him a shot at a rotation slot in 2007, but it's not inconceivable he gets a look in the bullpen if he can't get straightened out as a starter.
- Steve Schmoll (R) is a submarine pitcher in the mold of Chad Bradford. He throws harder than Bradford, but has not found consistency in the minors. The Mets seem to like something about him, as they've kept him on the 40-man roster.
- 2006 Third Round Pick Joe Smith (R) is another right-handed submarine pitcher who throws hard, and can force himself into the team's thinking in the second half if he does well early in the year.
- If Orlando Hernandez (R) is replaced in the rotation eventually, he has enjoyed success in a relief role in the White Sox' championship run.
- Alay Soler (R) will likely compete for a job as either a starter or reliever this spring. Some think he's better suited for the 'pen.
- Newcomer Jason Vargas (L) will also be looked at for a starting job or bullpen role.
Also, both Phil Humber and Mike Pelfrey can get a look for a bullpen role, although it's likely both will start the year in New Orleans as starters.
Despite the tough loss of Chad Bradford, this team certainly has the potential to field as good a bullpen in 2007 as they did in 2006. In fact, if everything were to go perfectly, it's easy to make a scenario where they are actually better. Sadly, perfect seldom occurs in team building, but at the very least we'd all do well to give this bullpen a fair chance to establish itself. Omar has taken a lot of heat for letting Bradford and Oliver go, and I'm not convinced this isn't very premature.