By Mike Steffanos
With the Mets committing to using all five starters right from the get-go, I'm starting to flash back to 2006. For a while that summer, every fifth day featured guys like Jose Lima, Geremi Gonzalez and Alay Soler give a clinic in pitching futility. That the Mets managed to win 97 games with various stiffs taking the hill in both the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation says something about the toughness and determination of that team, and makes last season even a little sadder in retrospect.
I keep my fingers crossed very tightly and pray that Johan Santana, Pedro Martinez, John Maine and Oliver Perez stay very healthy in 2008. If the Baseball Gods smile down on us and they all make 30-33 starts, every fifth game will still feature the 2008 Mets' version of Russian roulette.
Willie and Rick get to pick their poison from a group that includes Orlando Hernandez' retooled motion and 75 mph fastball or Mike Pelfrey and his eternal inability to get ahead in the count. Next in line behind those two is likely Nelson Figueroa, who will turn 34 in May and hasn't pitched in the majors since 2004 with the Pirates, or Jorge Sosa, whose 2-pitch repertoire seems to get exposed when he makes too many starts. Behind them could well be 21-year-old southpaw Jon Niese, who has yet to pitch at the Double-A level.
After that it's even murkier. Maybe Adam Bostick learns to throw strikes consistently and puts himself on the map. Maybe Jason Vargas comes back from hip surgery sometime around June and looks like the prospect he was 3 years ago rather than the soft-tossing stiff we saw last season.
As we stand on the precipice of the 2008 season, the yin and yang of it all is that the Mets have an almost appalling lack of starting pitching depth in a year that sees them as strong 1-4 as they've been since the late 80s. The dividing line between success and failure is as slim and fragile as the tendons and ligaments that keep these talented arms working. Still, if we learned anything at all two years ago it's that you can survive some spotty pitching at the bottom of the rotation if the bullpen is solid and the team itself is game.
I like this pitching staff a lot right now, even with the uncertainty over the fifth starter job. Regarding that, to my mind all Mike Pelfrey has earned is a bus ticket to New Orleans with the admonition to come back when you've learned to throw strikes. As for El Duque, I keep in mind that Sunday was his first start of the spring. While it's clear that he's not ready to come north with the club next week, he deserves a few more starts before we completely bury him. If it was me making the decision, I'd go with Figueroa right now. He's earned the chance, and he has 33 major league starts under his belt.
I'd be lying if I tried to tell you that the lack of starting pitching depth didn't worry me at all, but I think I'm more sanguine about it than some. I think this bullpen has a chance to be a lot better than last season, when both Aaron Sele and Guillermo Mota were major weak links. Four out of every five games I think the Mets have an excellent chance of winning, and there aren't many teams you can say that about right now.