By Mike Steffanos
We spent a lot of time last spring looking at the pitching. Pedro wasn't due back until after the All Star Break and Johan Santana was a Minnesota Twin. Tom Glavine was the default "ace" of the staff, with El Duque the nominal number two. John Maine and Oliver Perez were question marks for various reasons, and Mike Pelfrey was earning the fifth starter slot with an aggressive approach that sadly was to disappear once the season started.
For all of the hand-wringing and gloom and doom stuff from both the media and some of the faithful, the Mets are much better armed heading into this season. Johan Santana and Pedro give the Mets as solid of a 1-2 punch as they've had in 20 years. Maine and Perez are both coming off 15 win seasons that should at least give them credibility as starters -- although sadly, that's not the case. El Duque and Pelfrey are battling for the fifth starter slot. Here's some quick observation on the new-look rotation:
If I had a nickel for every time I've read about Santana's loss of velocity at the end of last season I could probably afford to buy the Mets. First the Mets didn't have enough prospects to land him, and then when they did he was damaged goods.
Look, the guy is 29 and has over 1,300 major league innings on the arm. He probably isn't going to be able to dial it up to 95 consistently any more. Being primarily a fastball/changeup pitcher, it's more important he stays healthy and maintains the deception. We've seen Pedro and El Duque rack up strikeouts with a fastball that didn't crack 90. If Santana is throwing his fastball in the low 90s, that's plenty.
What concerns me more is the "first year in New York" syndrome. Pedro was the only big acquisition in years not to experience it, and that's because he came from Boston. Santana has a nice makeup, but this ain't Minnesota. Every time he has a bad outing, particularly against the Braves or Phillies, we're going to hear about how he didn't earn the big money. When he goes into a slump it will be analyzed ad nauseam. That's part of the deal. In the immortal words of Super Chicken, "you knew the job was dangerous when you took it." I'm interested to see how well Santana handles this when it comes.
In 2005 Pedro made 31 starts and pitched 217 innings. Now that he's healthy again, why is it so unrealistic to hope for 25-28 starts and 160-170 innings? He doesn't need to be the horse anymore. If he can stay healthy and deliver something like that I think the Mets would be in good shape.
I'm not worried that Pedro has started camp slowly, because he knows what he has to do to get ready. I think by mid-May we'll have a real honest read on where he is. Until then, it's all speculation. I'd love to see him relatively pain-free and having fun out there on the mound again. When Pedro pitches it's always an event, and if he could hold his own it probably takes a little of the pressure off Santana.
If you're a regular reader of this blog you already know how I feel about John Maine. I think what's more important, though, is how John Maine feels about John Maine. From what I've been reading, it's clear that Maine is mentally ready to take the next step and establish himself as a legit top pitcher. If he stays healthy, I have no doubts.
20 wins is not out of the question for Maine if things go right. Then even the John Kruks of the world might be forced to wake up.
Few doubt that Perez has the stuff to be great, but that's where the agreement always ends. I love the way Perez steps up in big games, but get frustrated with him at times -- particularly when he allows himself to get flustered. No pitcher on the Mets inspires so much argument.
Perez is playing out his option this season. A repeat of last year would ensure a big payday. A step forward would make Ollie a very rich man. I think he'll do well, because he seems to rise to challenges. Although that would likely ensure that he won't be coming back, it would bode well for the Mets in 2008. A strong Maine and Perez backing up Santana and Pedro would give the Mets a rotation reminiscent of 1986.
I may well be in the minority on this, but I'd love to see El Duque figure out the delivery and be the fifth starter out of the gate. Remember, he doesn't have to be ready to pitch until sometime in mid-April. No, I don't expect him to stay healthy all season, but I'd love for Mike Pelfrey to spend some time out of the spotlight in New Orleans before taking over that role.
It wouldn't even shock me if Hernandez was able to pitch effectively in what is most likely his last go-round as a big league starter. It's amazing how fast people forget how good he was when he made it to the mound last season. Someone like Pelfrey just needs to be ready to pick up the slack when he goes down. Maybe it's just because I like El Duque so much, but I think he'll play a positive role this season.
It's amazing how some pundits and fans have totally written off a 24-year-old with a fastball you can't teach. I still think the winning formula for Pelfrey is to follow the John Maine path -- learn to pound the strike zone with the fastball and then add the secondary stuff. Maine was fairly effective in 2006 throwing the fastball 85% of the time. The key is to locate it and not always be pitching from behind in the count.
Apparently Pelfrey has been tipping his pitches, and they're working on rectifying it. I still love his chances of becoming a better than average major league starter, provided he's willing to go out there and pitch aggressively with that great sinking fastball.