By Mike Steffanos
For over a month, we've been previewing many of the pitchers whose contributions will have a big influence on how far the Mets go this season. We started with 8 candidates for the bottom 4 rotation spots in early January, and then profiled 15 pitchers who will be competing for the 6 or 7 spots in the bullpen in 2007.
Of the players in my bullpen previews, you would have to put Adam Bostick, Clint Nageotte, Aaron Sele and Jorge Sosa in the running for the fifth starter job, with Sele and Sosa both having a realistic chance. By the same token, all eight of the pitchers I profiled in the rotation previews have at least an outside chance of grabbing a bullpen spot in 2007.
Although El Duque seems a lock -- health permitting -- to begin the year as the fourth starter, you can make a scenario where if Hernandez' 40-year-old body doesn't hold up to the rigors of starting he may wind up in the bullpen. This is exactly what happened with the White Sox in 2005, and he proved to be a very valuable contributor out of the bullpen in the playoffs. At almost $6 million per year, though, the Mets are not paying him long reliever money, so that's clearly not what they expect to happen.
I know many of my readers are skeptical towards him, but I lean towards the optimistic side with El Duque. I base it on his terrific physical conditioning and what he did last year. He started all season and seemed to get stronger as the year went on, with his best pitching coming in August and September. So while, as I know only too well personally, 40-something bodies are always a risky proposition, I think El Duque pitches out of the rotation all year.
From all indications, Humber will compete for the fifth starter job in camp. If he doesn't win that job, I expect him to start the season in New Orleans as a starting pitcher. Still, if the Mets need someone in the 'pen during the year due to injury or ineffectiveness of others, I could see Phil Humber as a legitimate candidate to fill that role. He has a bulldog mentality and a polished arsenal of major-league caliber pitches, and could be used as a spot starter/long reliever. With that exceptional curve ball, it's also conceivable that he can be used later in games against right-handers. Although Humber's long-term future seems almost assuredly as a starter, many successful starting pitchers have received their first taste of the major leagues in the bullpen.
Willie Randolph won't acknowledge the fact, but the Mets are clearly looking for John Maine to be their third starter in 2007, and it really is important that he fills that role well for them. Still, with a delivery that makes his ball hard to pick up and his struggles at times with off-speed pitches, many believe Maine is better suited to be a setup reliever than a starter. While it seems very, very unlikely that Maine won't be a starter in 2007, I suppose if he struggles and other young guys really step up it's possible he could wind up in the bullpen.
You could lay out the same scenario with Mike Pelfrey that we did with Phil Humber. He will compete for the fifth starter job -- indeed, there are some who believe he has the inside track -- and will likely start the year in the New Orleans rotation if he doesn't win a major league job. Unlike Humber, Pelfrey is still searching for dependable secondary pitches to make him a viable big league starter. Although he showed some promise with a slider in the Arizona Fall League, his breaking pitch is still a work in progress. His changeup is further along, but he lacks the faith to throw it in important situations.
If he can develop one of those two pitches as simply an average pitch, he could be a very good reliever at the major league level. His fastball is already terrific, and a second pitch would be all he would need as a short man in the bullpen. While I doubt very much the Mets want to hinder Mike Pelfrey's development as a starter, if a strong need arose I'm sure they would consider using him out of the bullpen for a short-term solution. Long term, of course, he's a starter unless that breaking pitch proves too elusive to master.
Since his early days in the game there has been debate over whether Oliver Perez is better suited to starting or relieving. I think a job as fourth starter is his to lose this spring, but if he does lose it I believe the Mets might give him a look out of the bullpen. He seems to have to right mentality for the role, and certainly has the stuff.
I wonder if there is any single player on the team that sparks as much of a difference of opinion among followers of the Mets. Some of us -- this writer included -- really like his chances of maturing into an above average pitcher. Others are convinced he will implode. Mets.com's Marty Noble has been a consistent skeptic towards the young left-hander's chances. Whether he excels, implodes or comes up anywhere in between, I think his is one of the most intriguing story lines of 2007.
I actually think that Soler has a much better a chance of making the Mets in a bullpen role than as a starter, particularly with Dave Williams' neck surgery that takes the lefty out of the picture until June. Soler left a bad impression with a lot of fans when he seemed unwilling to challenge hitters in his last 3 appearances last season, but I think it would be more fair to give him another chance before making a final judgment. He had a lot of adjustments to make last year, and a calf injury might have played a large part in his struggles. Although his fastball was somewhat disappointing, his slider was terrific and his changeup was pretty good, too.
Vargas will compete for that fifth starter job, and will also be in the running for the Darren Oliver role from last season. 2006 was a lost year for Vargas, yet another pitcher rushed to the major leagues who has endured struggles after enjoying some initial success. He displayed sound mechanics and control up until last season, so it's not unreasonable to hope for a bounce back season from the young southpaw.
The 28-year-old lefty once seemed to be the front-runner for the Darren Oliver swingman role -- at least until the Mets signed Jorge Sosa and Scott Schoeneweis -- but neck surgery has him sidelined until late May or June. If he returns healthy, it will still probably require injuries or the ineffectiveness of others for Williams to have any shot for any role with the Mets.
Our next article will wrap up our coverage of the Mets bullpen competition heading into spring training, with only just over a week until pitchers and catchers report.
2007 Bullpen Previews:
Chan Ho Park
Other Candidates (This Article)
Four Other Names for You
2007 Pitching Previews: Summing It All Up