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The Fifth Starter

Mike SteffanosThursday, February 15, 2007
By Mike Steffanos

As tomorrow's official reporting date for pitchers and catchers approaches, some of the candidates for the rotation have already shown up. Needless to say, they're all getting attention from the press, as the rotation battle shapes up to be one of the more intriguing story lines of spring training 2007. Even Aaron Heilman merited a piece by Adam Rubin in the Daily News today, although Heilman indicates to Rubin that he clearly understands the unlikelihood of him getting another chance at starting with the Mets:

Unfortunately, I can't have a lot of say in what my role is. I can just try to control the things I can - which is my performance when I'm out there. I'll just go out there and have another good year and help the team win.

The two profiles I enjoyed the most today were Ben Shpigel's piece on Jason Vargas in the New York Times and Kevin Kernan's look at Phil Humber in the New York Post.

Most of the talk about the fifth starter job centers around the veterans Chan Ho Park, Aaron Sele and Jorge Sosa or the youngsters Mike Pelfrey and Phil Humber. Jason Vargas comes into training camp with almost no expectations. This is a 24-year-old southpaw who was a Top-10 prospect for the Marlins and received some votes for rookie of the year in 2005. While he certainly isn't an elite pitching prospect, Vargas doesn't lack a resume or belief in himself. Unlike Park or Sele, Vargas' best days are still in front of him.

Moreover, as quoted by Shpigel, Vargas understands why his game slipped off track last season and looks forward to a fresh start with the Mets:

Looking back, Vargas said, the trade was a blessing. He can reunite with his favorite catcher, Paul Lo Duca, whom Vargas called "the best at knowing how to handle hitters at this level," and Carlos Delgado, who was the first teammate to shake his hand and welcome him on July 14, 2005, his first day in the majors.

But more so, Vargas is looking forward to proving that 2005 was not a fluke. He ascended through two levels of Class A ball and pitched three games in Class AA before joining the Marlins. In his first six weeks, Vargas went 5-1, throwing a complete game, and last season he emerged from a pack of young starters to win a rotation spot out of spring training. He struggled with his slider, with his control, with everything, and was demoted to Class AAA Albuquerque in May.

"It was the first time I'd ever been sent down at any level," Vargas said. "I didn't really know what was going on with me as a pitcher. It was difficult to make adjustments because even when I was confident and thought I was coming around, I struggled."

I guess Vargas didn't get the memo from John Thomson on Lo Duca...

I think the Mets are in a no-lose position with Vargas this spring. I think he has enough experience if his mechanical problems are straightened out to steal a job away from one of the veteran candidates. If that doesn't happen, he goes to New Orleans and benefits from some development time that he didn't get with the Marlins. Yesterday I picked Vargas as one of the "Youngsters Who Could Step Up". He could make me look smart (no easy task) if he comes out of camp as the fifth starter.

Meanwhile, Phil Humber is one of the truly bright prospects in the Mets system, and Kernan's piece a chance to know him a little better. As quoted by Kernan, Humber feels that he has put his injury problems behind him:

This is the best I've ever been throwing. I haven't felt this good since my days at Rice, when I was getting six days between starts. It's so nice to compete and not be worrying about, "Does my arm feel right today? Is it going to hurt?" I don't have any of those doubts now.

About Mike: I was the original writer on this web site, actually its only writer for the first 15 months of existence. Although I am grateful for the excellent contributions of my fellow writers here, I have no plans of stepping back into strictly an editorial role. I started this thing in the first place because I love to write and I love the Mets, and blogging here keeps me somewhat sane. If you haven't had enough already, more bio info can be found here.

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Comments (8)

Notworthy: Park gets 150K if he does not make the team. Sosa? So Pelfrey, Vargas and Humber COULD make the team.

It's possible. I'm guessing they want Park, Sosa or Sele to win the job out of camp to give Pelfrey and Humber a little more time in AAA. it will be an interesting spring.

Forgive me but I will repeat myself in saying that I have hopes for Vargas this season. Obviously we all want to see what he has in the bag; but at least one can suspect that it might be something good.

And call me a pessimist, but I can foster no similar hopes for Jorge Sosa. I think his 2005 numbers are flukes, or maybe flounders; some species of flatfish in any event. Devil Rays! Well, that was too easy.

I only hope he quickly proves me wrong, or that the Mets don't spend a lot of innings in proving me right.

I thought those pieces on Humber and Vargas were great too! Humber looked SO good in those 2 innings he pitched for us last year. I can't wait to see this kid pitching for us at Shea!

If Pelfrey, Humber and Vargas aren't the guy chosen for the 5th spot and they get sent down to AAA, what has to happen for them to be given another shot, I wonder... What worries me is the possibility that one of the vets wins the fifth spot in the rotation out of spring training and is just good enough to stick around. If that happened, I suppose it would be good for the team, but I really want to see one of those 3 kids pitching for us this year.

dd - Any hopes I have about Jorge Sosa are wrapped up in the fact that he hasn't been a pitcher for all that long, and perhaps could benefit from the right coaching. Then again, Dave Duncan is a pretty good pitching coach.
Chris - I think the ideal thing would be for a vet to win the job out of camp and then a youngster to take over part way through. You're right though, there is always the chance that the vet pitches just good enough to keep the job all year. Even so, as long as Pelfrey and Humber show they're ready, I can't see us having to wait longer than next year.

DD/Mike: I too suffer from the same dilemna. Reading about Vargas only added to my hope that he can nail that #5 spot. I have stated that I like Park but I like humber and Pelfrey too.

And I was blown away by those 2 innings Humber pitched too that, as Mike knows, I began writing that Pel and Humber should be considered for relief roles as Heilman was.

Just when you think your done they pull you right back in... Another pitcher, Marcus Carvajal. I read he had a decent AA last year and he has a higher ceiling than Schmoll. I am ready to take notes, if you haven't given up yet.

Ed - Right now it doesn't look like there are any real opportunities in the bullpen.
Al - I'll throw something together on Caravjal this weekend.

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