By Mike Steffanos
Someone. Anyone. Please.
In today's game vs. the Marlins Nelson Figueroa wasn't sharp. He couldn't find the strike zone with many of his pitches, and when he did they were hit hard. Figueroa becomes yet another figure in the Mets search for a fifth starter who has taken a step back this week. (By the way, Joe Smith followed Figueroa and took a step backward in his quest for a bullpen job.)
Given the certainty that El Duque isn't ready to face major league hitters, Mike Pelfrey still seems to be the frontrunner to win the job out of camp. Jorge Sosa, who has been effective this spring, also is seen as a serious contender. Perhaps the Mets even take a flier on Claudio Vargas. Youngsters Jon Niese and Bobby Parnell -- who pitched 5 strong innings against Florida today -- are long shot candidates who are likely to begin the year in AA Binghamton.
Let's play "I'm the Pitching Coach."
If I were the "decider" in this matter, I admit that I'd be hard put to make a decision. Mike Pelfrey certainly has more promise than the other candidates. Last season Pelfrey was terrific in the spring, throwing strikes with that sinker and pitching ahead in the count. This year, Mike seems to have decided not to wait until the games counted to be caught in a dreary endless loop of 3-1 counts, with predictable results. If I wanted to go with Pelfrey, I'd have to ask myself if I was comfortable giving a job to someone who hadn't earned it. It's one thing when a pitcher has a positive track record to back him up, but the "deer in the headlights" look in Pelfrey's eyes is something that we saw all too often last year. I still like this kid, but to me he needs to figure it out in the minors before I can expect him to figure it out against major league hitters.
Verdict: The midnight train to New Orleans.
Despite today's setback, Nelson Figueroa is still a candidate for this job. He's a control pitcher who needs to get ahead of batters and mix four pitches effectively, which he has done most of this spring before today. To me he looks like one of those guys who does okay until the league gets a good look at him. If Sosa gets tabbed as the fifth starter Figueroa probably has a realistic shot at the long relief job, which seems to be a better fit for what he brings to the table, anyway.
Verdict: I think he'll be starting games to open the season, but it will be in New Orleans.
Based on track record, Jorge Sosa seems a good choice to pick up a start or two to open the year, provided the Mets really believe El Duque can put it together with the new delivery and win the job. I think Sosa's 2-pitch repertoire is exposed with too many starts. I like him as the long man who can also pitch in the short role, too -- something the Mets got from Darren Oliver 2 years ago but failed to get from Aaron Sele last season.
Verdict: I think Sosa is the best choice to pick up a start or two while keeping the mound warm for El Duque, and then return to the bullpen.
Jon Niese has been great all spring until his last inning in yesterday's game. At 21 and with exactly zero innings above Class A, the Mets would have to be awfully desperate. You can see them reaching down for an emergency start if he looks good in Double-A, but the best thing that could happen to the Mets top remaining prospect is time to develop.
Verdict: They say Binghamton is lovely in April.
Bobby Parnell wasn't in the discussion before today, since he had exactly one 2-inning start with the big boys this spring. Tack on today's effort, however, and you understand why the Mets drafted this right-hander despite ERAs of 4.76, 6.82 and 8.86 in three undistinguished campaigns at Charleston Southern University. His repertoire includes a heavy sinking fastball in the 90s and a nice slider, along with an underdeveloped changeup. The Mets like that he keeps his velocity deep into games.
The 23-year-old split the year between High-A St. Lucie and AA Binghamton last season. Although he doesn't get a lot of love from scouts, he has a chance. Still, he needs to find consistency before the majors are a real option.
Verdict: Joining Niese on those long Eastern League bus rides.
Only the Mets know how much they really believe Duque has left. If they really don't believe in him, they're probably going to need to reach out beyond their organization to find a longer-term option for the rotation. The just-released Claudio Vargas is an option, of course, but I don't think he's a very good one. Still on the right side of 30, Vargas is a guy who has shown seom promise but failed to deliver in stops in Montreal, Washington, Arizona and Milwaukee. In 666 career innings, Vargas has an ERA of just under 5 and a WHIP of just under 1.5. There's a reason teams keep giving up on him.
As stated above, if it was my call to make I'd go with Sosa in the short-term, hoping El Duque has a little magic left and Mike Pelfrey can figure it out in New Orleans. I suspect that the Mets will go with Pelfrey, however, unless he really stinks out the joint in his last spring appearance Friday.