By Mike Steffanos
We've spent the better part of a week looking at the eight most likely candidates to join Tom Glavine in the 2007 New York Mets starting rotation. I did some research in an effort to get to know all of them better, and then shared it with you so that you could make up your own mind on the individual candidates. As I make some conclusions based on my research and some gut feelings, my goal here isn't to convince you that I'm right but rather to provide you a framework from which to draw your own conclusions.
One interesting aspect of doing the research for this series is that I find that my thinking has evolved from where it was when I began this. I'm more optimistic on Jason Vargas, and I give Mike Pelfrey a greater chance to win the fifth starter job out of spring training. That's the fun of all of this. Anyway, let's take a quick look at all of next year's potential starting pitchers, and then we'll go from there.
Much has been made about the Mets going into battle with a 41-year-old "ace" in 2007. The obvious truth is that Tom Glavine is not a number one pitcher, and the Mets aren't asking him to be that. What they could use from his in 2007 is consistency. Last year Glavine pitched like an ace from the beginning of the season through June 3, with a 2.59 ERA, averaging 6-2/3 innings in those 12 starts. Then over his nest 11 starts, covering the months of June and July, Glavine struggled to the tune of a 5.79 ERA, and only averaged 5-1/2 innings per start. Finally, over his last 9 starts, Glavine pitched to a solid 3.45 ERA, and averaged over 6-1/3 innings per outing. While it would be wonderful if Glavine could pitch like he did in those first two months of 2006 over a stretch of the upcoming season, it seems to me it would be more valuable if he could avoid a real prolonged slump and contribute a consistent solid season.
We've heard that Pedro's rehab from rotator cuff surgery is going really well, and that he is targeting a post-All Star Break return. If he could return to start 10-15 games down the stretch he could be a difference maker, and we'll all certainly be following his progress closely. Shoulder surgery is a tricky thing for pitchers, though, particularly 35-year-olds. Also, as much of a shot in the arm that it could be if Pedro returns and pitches fairly well, it's a momentum killer if he tries to force a comeback with inadequate stuff, a la last September. Despite the hopeful reports on his recovery, the wise approach is simply not counting on anything from Pedro this season.
El Duque managed 29 starts and 162 innings combined for the Mets and Diamondbacks in 2006. He hadn't made that many starts since 2000, his last great year with the Yankees. Considering he is over 40 and has missed quite a lot of time over the last few seasons, I've received many questions and a not inconsiderable amount of ridicule over my optimistic outlook for Hernandez in 2007. While I concede that I could be wrong, I liked the fact that El Duque actually pitched his best in September last year. While it is likely that the Mets will have to give Hernandez a break or two during the year, and he will have some games when he is not commanding his breaking pitches where he gets knocked out very early, he has also shown the ability to go deep into games better than anyone else on the current staff. Of the 20 starts he made for the Mets last season 10 were for 7 innings or more, 3 more lasted 6 innings, and only four of them were for less than 5 innings. Not bad for an old guy.
2006 was a real breakout year for Maine, as he went from being regarded by the media as a throw-in in the Kris Benson deal to a starting pitcher in three playoff games. Look for Maine to develop more consistency and solidly establish himself in the Mets rotation.
You never knew quite what to expect out of Perez, but I always found myself looking forward to his starts. Then he stepped up and gave the Mets all they could hope for in those two League Championship Series games against the Cardinals. I can't deny the possibility that Perez could flop completely in 2007, I'm optimistic that the improvements to his mechanics combined with his undeniable ability will combine to produce a solid starter for the Mets this season. He may undergo some ups and downs, but he'll be fun to watch.
Putting aside Pedro for the moment, 40-somethings Tom Glavine and Orlando Hernandez are both virtual locks for the rotation, barring injury. Despite Willie Randolph's assertion that there is a wide-open competition for the other slots, I honestly believe that, based on experience and playoff performances, the next two slots are Maine and Perez' to lose -- again, barring injury or a late trade. That leaves the fifth starter to come out of the group of Alay Soler, Jason Vargas, Dave Williams, Mike Pelfrey and Phil Humber. Let's take a quick look at them:
Pros: Age, international experience, exceptional slider.
Cons: Had problems with physical conditioning and aggressiveness last season.
Pros: Major league experience, left-hander, good stuff.
Cons: Last year was a lost season with bad performance and a loss of confidence.
Pros: A lot of major league experience, was very aggressive while with Mets last season.
Cons: Gives up too many gopher balls, mediocre stuff, somewhat injury prone.
Pros: Terrific fastball, decent changeup, throws strikes.
Cons: Needs a consistent breaking pitch.
Pros: Has all the pitches, bulldog personality.
Cons: Only pitched 80 innings last year after coming back from Tommy John surgery.
I think the Mets would love to get Pelfrey, Humber and possibly even Vargas some more development time in the minors. Probably an ideal scenario would be for Williams, Soler or Vargas to grab the job out of spring training and then one or both of the young guns to come up later on in the season.
Scott Schoeneweis, Jason Standridge, Clint Nageotte and Jorge Sosa are also dark horse candidates for a starting job. We'll talk about them when we profile the bullpen starting Monday.
Glass half empty or half full?
Beyond doubt there is plenty that can go wrong with the Mets starting pitching staff heading into the upcoming season. There are so many uncertainties among all of the candidates for the starting rotation -- whether it's age, inexperience, inconsistency or the lack of a true front-line starter -- a plausible argument can be made that if things go very wrong the Mets may not have a single starter reach double figures in wins. There just doesn't seem to be much certainty heading into a season where every division foe except Washington would seem to have a more formidable starting rotation. It's understandable that many Mets fans feel pessimistic about the team's chances.
Yet, while this rotation lacks the feel of being a sure thing, there is some quality here, and also a quantity of reasonable candidates that didn't exist last season. Moreover, there is a can-do attitude that permeates this team now that is quite a change from Mets teams in the past that seemed to falter when things didn't go there way. It's both the quality of the available pitchers and the new-found ability as an organization to overcome obstacles and make things work that leads me to believe that we'll be okay. I think our starting pitching is going to be fine. While I don't expect any big winners or Cy Young hopefuls this season, I fully expect the Mets to have four starters crack double figures in win totals.
Much has been made about the fact that this staff consists of all 5-6 inning pitchers. Conventionally this spells disaster for a bullpen, but usually bullpens consist of a closer, a couple of dependable setup guys, and a bunch of mediocrity that a manager desperately hopes he doesn't need to call on in a close game. Indeed, a starting staff like the one the Mets have combined with a bullpen like that is a calamity waiting to happen. But that's not the case here. The Mets have a bullpen deep enough to take on a lot of innings without killing their top guys. They don't need to get 7-8 innings out of their starters. They need the young guys to improve and make it a little deeper into games as the season goes on. Simple things like John Maine being able to give them 6 solid innings rather than 5 with some consistency will make all the difference.
So, barring a last-minute blockbuster trade, the Mets will lack the feeling of a sure thing with their starters. Much has been made of this. Rather than dwell on that, I can see the possibilities here, and the framework of a decent rotation. Many in the press dwell on what the Mets lack, but there is good reason to believe that this team is good enough to contend and win if they can maximize what they do have.
2007 Starting Rotation Previews:
Rotation Preview Conclusions (This Article)
2007 Pitching Previews: Summing It All Up