By Mike Steffanos
Part 1, the Bullpen
Everyone seems to have a theory on what happened to the Mets in 2007. Frankly, I stopped reading those post-mortems after a while. Part of my personality has always been to focus on fixes rather than wallow in what went wrong. This has come in handy for me, as I've screwed up a lot in my life. I wouldn't have time to do much of anything else if I dwelled on my disappointments. Still, in the case of a historic collapse, it seems de rigueur to throw in my two cents on last season before looking ahead to next. Feel free to agree or disagree with these thoughts as you wish.
Many of the fingers pointed at the season were focused on the pitching staff, particularly the bullpen. The relievers certainly didn't cover themselves with glory over the final weeks of the season. Billy Wagner's back picked a very bad time to act up, and there was a stretch of games where both the starters and the 'pen would bleed back runs as fast as the team could score them. No lead was safe, and the offense seemed to get demoralized at one point.
Perhaps the most ironic part of the September bullpen struggles was that two of the year's biggest flops -- Guillermo Mota and Scott Schoeneweis -- were actually fairly effective those last few weeks, particularly compared to what they had done earlier in the season. Also, the oft-maligned Aaron Heilman was called on 17 times the final month and allowed earned runs only twice, and the Mets actually won both of those games. Still, it was the bullpen failures as much as anything that cost the Mets the opportunity to play October baseball.
The root of these failures go to the off-season, when the Mets elected to allow a couple of veteran relievers walk away, and dealt away some young ones. Chad Bradford and Darren Oliver were key contributors to the 2006 Mets, with Bradford pitching in many high-pressure situations and Oliver as the long man Randolph wasn't afraid to use in some short spots. In fairness, at the time I didn't have any problem with not re-signing either pitcher. Bradford's 3-year deal from the O's seemed excessive, while Oliver's role as long man is probably the most replaceable spot in any bullpen.
Both Omar Minaya and yours truly were wrong on this one, however. Joe Smith wasn't quite ready to supply the right-handed funk for a full major league season, and no one was as adept as Bradford had been at stranding inherited runners when the game was on the line. As for Oliver, his spot was filled by Aaron Sele, who never seemed to earn Willie Randolph's trust all season. I think many of us hoped all season that the Mets might take a chance on someone else, perhaps a young pitcher in that spot, but they never did. Where Darren Oliver gave the club 81 solid innings the year before, Sele was used in 11 fewer games for only 53.2 innings. Not only was the quality diminished, but Randolph was forced to use his other relievers more to make up the difference. This had a cumulative effect as the season wore on, as did the loss of Bradford's contribution.
When the starters struggled in the second half, the bullpen was needed to pitch more innings. With only Wagner, Heilman, Sosa and Feliciano the only relatively dependable options, this led to overuse of these relievers and forced less desirable options to be used in important situations. Sosa had been surprisingly effective for a while, but faltered down the stretch. Feliciano and Heilman were inconsistent, and Wagner -- whether it was due to the back or something else -- just wasn't very effective even when he was able to pitch down the stretch.
Along with the infamous struggles of Schoeneweis and Mota, the depth that Minaya tried to put together in the off-season was unsuccessful. It's hard to argue that Heath Bell would have ever succeeded here, but even the inconsistent Bell we knew would have been a better choice than most of the other options. Jon Adkins, the mediocre reliever that came back in the Bell deal, went from being a groundball pitcher to a home run waiting to happen. He wasn't even effective in Triple-A. Ambiorix Burgos, who showed flashes, eventually required Tommy John surgery. Lino Urdaneta tested positive for 'roids. Joe Smith burned bright for a while but then flamed out.
Some of what contributed to the late season bullpen woes was bad luck, some of it was bad decisions, but what was most disappointing was the failure of Randolph and the organization as a whole to try something less than conventional to remedy the situation. When the options at the major league level kept coming up snake eyes, you kept hoping they might role the dice on someone in the system. The same guys kept failing in the same spots all year long. I'm not a big one for change for the sake of change, but sometimes you have to be creative in how you attack a persistent problem. By the time the Mets looked at some other options, the season was already on a crash dive to oblivion.
Tomorrow the starting pitching.