By Mike Steffanos
When the Mets traded for Orlando Hernandez last year I wasn't thrilled. I wondered why, after Rick Peterson had finally turned Jorge Julio into a useful reliever, the team traded him straight up for a 40-year-old starter with a checkered 5 year injury history. His first couple of starts for the Mets did nothing to change my mind. However, slowly and steadily, he actually became the Mets most dependable pitcher for the second half of last season. If El Duque didn't do what he did in his 20 starts after coming over from the Diamondbacks, the Mets might have had the collapse that the baseball media so relentlessly predicted for them last season.
Much was made of it when El Duque injured his calf while jogging in the outfield the day before he was scheduled to make the start for game 1 of the NLDS. I think many in the media who were constantly forecasting gloom and doom all season long felt vindicated by that calf injury. But that injury didn't bury the Mets, but rather gave John Maine and Oliver Perez a chance to step up and give the club everything it could ask for.
Turn the calendar to the off-season, and all the dire forecasts that we were bombarded with most of last year have returned with a vengeance. It seems that by not outbidding the Giants for Barry Zito or signing a mediocre veteran pitcher to a 4- or 5-year contract the Mets have sealed their fate for this season. Once again, the theme of most of the stories written about the Mets are negative. Orlando Hernandez has been the subject of many of these.
You know, I get the fact that El Duque is 41 and hasn't approached 200 innings since 2000. I don't expect him to get within spitting distance of 200 innings this year, either. What kind of shocks me, however, is that the guy doesn't get the benefit of any doubt at all. Every setback is magnified -- the arthritis in his neck, the leg cramp yesterday -- while all the positives are glossed over. While I'm not saying that we should all expect the veteran Cuban right-hander to be a Cy Young candidate, it's awfully premature to write the guy off completely.
There actually are reasons for optimism. After missing all of the 2003 season due to injury, Hernandez returned to pitch 85 innings in the second half of 2004. He got off to a great start with the White Sox in 2005 and was a huge reason why they got off to a huge lead in the AL Central that year. Then he wore down in the second half and was eventually moved to the bullpen for the playoffs. He still wound up giving the Sox 22 starts and 128 innings pitched. Last year he started 29 games for the Mets and Diamondbacks and pitched 162 innings. The Mets skipped a couple of starts in August and it resulted in a very strong September for El Duque.
What won me over to feeling optimistic for Orlando Hernandez is the trend that he has been getting stronger over the last 3 seasons. I don't understand why he isn't at least given a chance to approach what he did last year. It's seemingly accepted that he will just break down and dodder his way through an ineffective and injury-plagued season.
A couple of items in Newsday caught my eye today. This one by Bob Herzog led off with this gem:
You wouldn't exactly call Orlando Hernandez the Carl Pavano of the Mets. And yet ...
I'm sorry, but how is it fair to find any resemblance between El Duque and Pavano? Pavano, a decade younger than the Cuban, didn't throw a pitch in a real game for the Yankees last year. Hernandez, as previously stated, made 29 starts last year. What exactly is the point of comparison here? The Yankees would kill to get 29 starts from Pavano at this point. I honestly don't get it.
In another article, Mark Herrmann went further. Despite noting all of the concerns the Cardinals have about their own pitching, he makes this statement:
But the Cardinals' arms seem stronger than the Mets'. They are so unfazed by their rotation situation that they didn't think one of their starters had to start yesterday. Isringhausen pitched the first inning to allow him a comfortable schedule.
Hmmm. Because St. Louis elected to have their closer pitch the first inning and then bring in their starter, this proves their pitching is better than the Mets. We only wish that we were looking at Braden Looper for one of the spots in our starting rotation. Or how about Kip Welles, who made 20 fewer starts than Hernandez in 2006? I try very hard not to make fun of writers anymore. Fortunately, in this case I don't think I have to. Herrmann's words speak volumes on their own.
Every team has their problems this year, and the Mets are no exception. I don't blame anyone if they are skeptical of El Duque's age or John Maine's youth or Oliver Perez' struggles over the last two seasons. I understand if they are not ready to buy into Mike Pelfrey until he proves he can translate his spring success into regular season achievement. But how about some benefit of the doubt? You would think all that the Mets overcame last season might at least warrant that.