By Dave Mills
With more than 40% of the Mets 2007 Spring Training schedule in the dust, there are a few cautious observations to be made and perhaps a few cogent prognostications to be attempted. The more fascinating pitching scenarios are first up, with the everyday and bench personnel making an appearance here later in the week.
Most surprisingly, there is nothing really surprising going on with the starting staff. Glavine and John Maine look reasonably sharp on schedule for opening day. Mike Pelfrey has shown more poise and confidence along with great ease of motion and natural talent. Oliver Perez has been a little shaky, while contemporaneously displaying his extraordinary abilities. Same can be said for Jason Vargas. Phillip Humber has shown he needs some innings on his arm to hone his genuinely attractive three-pitch repertoire. Chan Ho Park is really just getting started after visa problems, which puts him a bit behind. Ditto El Duque, whose nagging ailments indicate he is on the high side of 40 rather than his listed age of 37 (who's kidding who?). Jorge Sosa is still serving up gopher balls and looking like more risk than reward. Aaron Sele has put in a couple of quality appearances after a couple of beatings and Alay Soler has accomplished exactly the opposite.
What's with this fascination and reliance on El Duque? At best, he may be a reasonably effective 5th starter, who can pitch out of rotation and perhaps four times a month to save him from nagging injury, tired arm syndrome or complete breakdown. Jorge Sosa to the pen seems to be the consensus of the Mets media. Holy gopher balls Batman! Talk about the worst move possible? Can't believe Minaya/Randolph/Peterson would let that happen. Sosa would then become the pitcher of choice only in blowouts or early hooks. Do you think Willie would go to him in a critical situation? Last year, Roberto Hernandez got rocked a couple of times and became the forgotten man down the stretch and postseason. Ostensibly, he was the guy for whom they traded Xavier Nady.
No one can make much more of the starting staff at this point than the day before pitchers and catchers reported. Certainly, there are still a lot of arms in the mix. Since Pelfrey and Humber need to apply professional innings to their arms, there is really no need to rush them to Shea. The same can probably be said for Vargas, although he and Pelfrey are certainly in play. Soler may still be in play as well. Those four combined with Adam Bostick could comprise a very impressive AAA staff with huge upside potential. Glavine, Maine, Perez appear to be a lock for the first three spots with Sele or Park looking like a 4th starter. However, we are in the 4th Inning with five to play and anything can happen.
The Minnesota Twins are an interesting team to compare with the Mets. They field a roster of everyday and bench players that are quite impressive and perhaps slightly more youthful than the Amazins, yet beyond their best-in-the-business ace (for my money), Johan Santana, their starting staff is just putrid. If Ron Gardenhire makes the postseason with those arms he is the class manager in baseball, which he may well be already. For Mets fans--Would you rather have Santana and the rest of that starting staff or all the pitchers in the Mets current mix? Which takes me to the next logical question--Would you trade Milledge, Humber, Vargas and Sosa for Santana? Could the Twins get more? Probably not after July 31 as Santana is a free agent after the 2008 season. Is that too much for the Mets to give up? Perhaps, but Santana IS the real deal.
The 2007 bullpen is showing signs of promise and hemorrhage at the same time. Wagner, Heilman and Feliciano are all locks and in moving right along without a hitch. Feliciano has been particularly impressive with no runs and nary a handful of men on base. Scott Schoeneweis also looks like a terrific and versatile pickup by Minaya and company. One other specialist, who has literally blown batters away, is Joe Smith, whose B-flat name belies his exotic sidearm delivery and electric stuff. Another plus performer has been Ambiorix Burgos. His 100 mph fastball and physical attributes have opened everyone's eyes. A non-roster invitee, by the name of Lino Urdaneta, another one of those Minaya 'flush-em-out-of-another-system' kind of guys, also demands an even closer look and serious consideration, which he may receive due to circumstances beyond the Mets control.
On the minus side are a host of issues. Guillermo Mota is out until June (suspension) and Juan Padilla must rebuild arm strength following Tommy John surgery before last season. Mets brass and fans were counting on a complete recovery and return to form by Duaner Sanchez. No Met reliever had ever been so effective and dominant for the first four months of a season. One look at Sanchez's paunch was enough to see something was afoul. Repeated tardiness made matters worse with Randolph and teammates, who were quick to comment and express disappointment. No question, Sanchez may be out as long as Mota and to rush Padilla would be a shame. Jon Adkins, one of the two players picked up from the Padres for Royce Ring and Heath Bell (both should help the Pads) has looked 'yard' hittable thus far. Adkins will have to be set free if he doesn't make the Mets 25-man roster, as he is out of options.
The Mets might be wise to go with six bullpen arms for the 10 days of the season as they have three days off. This will allow them to carry an extra right-handed bat on the bench. Three excellent lefties are more than any other club in The Show. Heilman should continue to move farther away from the starting role he so desires. Right now, Smith, Burgos and Urdaneta could be vying for the other two or three spots. And since Mota, Padilla and Sanchez could all be ready before the end June 1, what would the Mets have to lose by letting those three youngsters take the ball to gain some major league experience? The Zephyr's will have a host of bullpen options that can begin with Burgos or Urdaneta as the closer set up by Sanchez and Padilla until Mota gets there to tune-up for his season. Other AAA names are likely to include righties Carvajal, Schmoll and lefties Camacho and Collazo.
No team has improved their bullpen as much as those pesky Braves. With closer Bob Wickman now set up by two quality southpaws (Mike Gonzales and McKay McBride) and three effective righties (Raphael Soriano, Oscar Villarreal and Tyler Yates), Mets batters better get by Smoltz and beat up on the other Brave starters fast and furious. Moreover, Bobby Cox has weapons that have been lacking for some time. From the left side, the Mets match up better than the Braves, but with Sanchez, Mota and Padilla missing for a while, Heilman with Smith, Burgos or Urdaneta have potential, but are certainly NOT a sure thing. Give Atlanta a slight edge for the first couple of months. As usual, however, due to Omar's stacking of arms, the Mets have so much depth that it is tough to find a similar scenario on any other roster.
Still much too early to say much more than we have here, but the next couple of weeks should be fascinating. Lots of decisions and the inevitable conundrum of how to get all these arms work as they stretch to six innings or more. But like anything in life, isn't having many options a true blessing?