By Mike Steffanos
Last year, due to injury and the inefficiency of the early replacements, the Mets had more guys passing through their starting rotation than Paris Hilton has passing through her bedroom. Ordinarily, this would kill a team's post-season chances, but one of the best bullpens in the league saved them. All the starters had to do was get the game into the fifth inning with the lead and, almost without fail, the bullpen would bring home the win. Of course, often Billy Wagner would make Mets fans sweat it out a little.
In 2007, All Star stumbles aside, Wagner has been lights-out. The starters have been dramatically better. The rest of the bullpen, particularly in the past couple of month, not so much. Here's a look at their overall numbers so far:
|Mets Relievers -- 87 Games|
Not exactly terrible, but not the type of work that spoiled Mets fans last season. Still, the bullpen as a whole is 18 of 23 in save opportunities, and that's certainly not terrible. What's been really bad this year is the multiple times relievers have come into a game where the Mets were already down, got pounded, and put the game completely out of reach. Let's take a look at individual numbers through 87 games:
It wasn't that Billy Wagner was terrible last season, but he often looked shaky in games that he ultimately saved. By the time the playoffs rolled around he was obviously running on fumes. What a difference a year makes, as Wagner is enjoying on of the more dominant seasons of his career. His numbers are almost silly: his k/9 rate of 12 is more than double his hits/9 rate of 5.9. Unlike last season, he's not walking anyone, either. As close to a sure thing in the ninth inning as the Mets have ever had.
The difference? Last year it seemed that Billy would have an effective slider at times and a great fastball at others, but this year he has been consistent with both pitches. I speculated last season that Wagner might need to develop some sort of off-speed pitch to get hitters off his fastball, and he even toyed with a forkball this spring. He figured out pretty quickly once the games started that he didn't need it.
Aaron Heilman got off to a nice start as the main setup man for Wagner, but balls started sailing out of the park with alarming regularity and Heilman became the target of Shea boo-birds. His fastball just doesn't seem to have the same life this year, and anything he leaves up in the zone is being hit hard. Hitters seem to sitting on the changeup more, too. Unlike last season when he struggled with his arm slot for much of the first half, Heilman is not walking many batters. His BB/9 rate of 1.9 is tops on the team. Love him or not, he's the second best setup reliever on the team behind the invaluable Pedro Feliciano. Unless Guillermo Mota can pull it together or Omar can pull off a deal, the Mets need Aaron Heilman to pitch like he did in the second half of last season.
After spending the 2005 season in Japan, what are the odds that the journeyman lefty Pedro Feliciano would return to the Mets and become one of the best relievers in baseball? This guy is a stealth MVP with stats almost as ridiculous as Wagner's. The one bad number is the BB/9, but that reflects mostly a slow start with 10 of his 17 walks on the season coming in April. He has allowed runs in only 6 out of his 40 appearances, and has allowed only 5 of 33 inherited runners to score.
Joe Smith has proven to be human after getting off to a hot start. Inherited runners have been a problem as 16 of 35 have scored. He dominates right-handers to the tune of .211/.318/.316, but lefties have figured him out (.297/.417/.378). Walks have been a problem with 10 free passes issued in his last 12.1 innings of work. He needs to get back to pitching aggressively as he did early on. Keeping in mind he was pitching for Wright State last spring, he has shown remarkable poise and resiliency. I expect him to get past the control problems and provide effective relief against righties in the second half.
Scott Schoeneweis has sucked somewhat less lately than he did early on, but it's all relative. The fans have taken a dislike to him and he's done little to change their minds. He's been somewhat effective against lefties, but allowing him to pitch to right-handers has yielded ugly results. He also walks way too many batters. He needs to turn things around soon or he's likely to inherit the full Zambrano treatment.
Guillermo Mota has returned from his steroid suspension with the same mid-90s fastball he displayed last year to complement that devastating changeup. The big difference in my eyes is lack of command. He's throwing too many fat pitches and paying the price for it. He has looked better lately, outside of one terrible stint in Colorado. To me, it's imperative that either Heilman or Mota steps up in the second half.
Aaron Sele has not pitched well enough to earn innings outside of early departures from starting pitchers, so he has only appeared in 20 of the Mets' 87 games. He's been a little better lately, but his place on this club looks precarious at best, particularly if Pedro returns and a starter such as Sosa goes to the 'pen. He really seems to be a good guy and generous to the young pitchers, so it's hard to root against him, but his stuff is really mediocre.
After sitting out for a while with some elbow soreness, Ambiorix Burgos is reportedly close to a return. He was very effective against righties while with the Mets, and it's possible he might have a role at some point in the second half.
He showed some promise in the spring, but now Lino Urdaneta is sitting out a suspension for steroid use. I'd be surprised to see him again in a Mets uniform.
Second Half Outlook
As previously said, it seems imperative that Heilman or Mota steps up and provides a reliable bridge to Wagner in the second half. If the Mets are to right the ship and make a playoff run, they'll need more consistent relief than they have been getting lately. Minaya may have to make a move for a middle reliever before the deadline. Other than getting something out of Burgos, the only other possibilities in the system would seem to be using a Pelfrey or Humber out of the 'pen. Both have struggled to throw strikes consistently this season, however, and that's not exactly a recipe for bullpen success.