By Mike Steffanos
I had some interesting e-mails this weekend from readers reacting to the rough start to spring training by Orlando Hernandez. As was the case last spring, the 40-something Cuban right-hander has experienced a variety of physical ailments right out of the box. With word out of camp that Mike Pelfrey has looked good in the early going, some Mets fans wonder whether Pelfrey might wind up as the fifth starter and Hernandez might end up in the 'pen. One e-mailer even told me that the Mets should "cut their losses" and release El Duque.
I would think that releasing the veteran pitcher would represent a minority viewpoint, but quite a few fans seem to like the idea of Hernandez coming out of the 'pen. I guess the idea is that it would cut down on the wear and tear, and the certainty that one of your starters is going to wind up missing some starts over the course of the season.
I've always been very pro El Duque on this site, but even I don't believe he will start more than 20-25 games. The difference between this year and last year, however, is that Hernandez is being counted on much less out of the gate. Last year he was arguably the Mets best starter for long stretches of games. This year we have Pedro back and Johan Santana is, of course, the ace of the staff. With better pitching at the top of the rotation a couple of trips to the DL by El Duque are less of an issue.
On the other hand, I'm also on record as believing in Mike Pelfrey's chances to still develop into a better than average starter. I certainly wouldn't be dismayed if Pelfrey had a real strong camp and seized the job for himself. Still, to be honest with you I see the best scenario as one where Mike begins the season in New Orleans and comes up at some point after the season starts. It would be less pressure for him, and would also give him a little time out of the glare to work on some things.
It could be that El Duque isn't ready to go when camp breaks and Pelfrey gets that job. If that's the case, everything else is moot. Hernandez does have a way of looking decrepit in the first weeks of camp and then putting it together at the end, so I wouldn't be quick to count him out.
So, all things being equal and both pitchers being available when camp breaks, my preference would be to err towards giving the young pitcher a little extra development time -- especially when there is an argument to be made that a lack of development time has hindered that young pitcher.
Although I like a lot of what I've seen from the Mets development staff in recent years, I'm starting to agree with the criticism that they are rushing some of their young players. Sure, the Mets call it challenging them, but I haven't really seen a clear example of this strategy paying off for anyone. Pelfrey has seem overmatched and lacking in confidence over the past couple of years, and other fast-tracked youngsters like Lastings Milledge, Carlos Gomez, Francisco Pena and Fernando Martinez have endured struggles that diminished their value as prospects with no apparent benefit. Even Joe Smith, the success story of the first month or so, would arguably been much better off starting in the minors and coming up later on. I can't honestly think of one player the Mets have really pushed with quantifiable success.
There is a system of developing players that is the tried and true method, and that is slotting a player into a realistic level and allow him to build on his successes as well as failure. For a while now I have been reading the opinions of those in the game who question the Mets methods with this aggressive pushing of their best young players, and I think the questions are legitimate. I admit that I am not a player development expert, but respectfully I believe the club should reexamine this approach.
It's inevitable given everything that we've seen in recent years that the Mets will have to go deeper than the 5 men who win jobs out of camp. If Mike Pelfrey is ready to take another step forward and be an effective starting pitcher he will have ample opportunity to prove it. As for Duque -- I have a feeling there is something still left in the tank for what he indicates could well be his final season in the major leagues.