By Mike Steffanos
A couple of weeks ago, FoxSports.com's Dayn Perry weighed in on Francisco Rodriguez' "team to beat" quote. I myself didn't feel the need to weigh in on it at the time because I think this whole Mets-Phillies back and forth has become rather silly.
The obvious truth is that the team that won the division two straight years and captured a title last season is the team to beat. If Perry made that argument in his piece I wouldn't find fault with it, nor would any reasonable Mets fan.
However, Perry downgrades his argument from the sublime to the ridiculous when he tries to "prove" that the Mets bullpen hasn't really been improved with the addition of Rodriguez and Putz.
Let's not forget that they'll be without Billy Wagner, who'll miss all of 2009 after undergoing reconstructive elbow surgery; Scott Schoeneweis, who was traded to Arizona; and Joe Smith, who's now an Indian. Those are significant losses, and they're being overlooked in the rush to praise the additions of Rodriguez and Putz. Last season, Wagner, Schoeneweis and Smith combined for 167.0 innings and an ERA of 3.18.
Obviously, the Mets will miss those innings. Sure, they've parted with Aaron Heilman, who, as the Mets' primary setup man last season, posted a grisly ERA of 5.21, and replacing Heilman's innings with Putz's will mean good things for the Mets' bullpen. Still, though, don't forget about the losses of Wagner, Schoeneweis and Smith. Add up all the debits and credits and you've got a bullpen that's improved but not by that much. [my emphasis]
This is one of those articles you find these days, particularly on the web sites, where it's hard to tell if the author really believes what he's writing or is just writing something to piss people off in the hopes of getting lots of comments and reads. I hope it's the latter, because if he really believes this Perry's friends and family need to intervene and get him some treatment for the crack addiction.
For Perry's point to be true, we need to believe that Wagner, Schoeneweis and Smith are equivalent to Rodriguez and Putz. Since to my mind Rodriguez and Wagner are about even, I have to ask myself if I would have traded Joe Smith and Scott Schoeneweis for J.J. Putz. I have to say I would do that deal in a heartbeat.
Schoeneweis probably doesn't get the credit he deserves from Mets fans for his very credible 2008 campaign, but he is still nothing more than a LOOGY who needs to be carefully spotted into a game. NASA is still tracking some of the balls put into earth orbit by right-handed batters who hit against him. Righties absolutely pounded Schoeneweis for a robust .333/.423/.532 batting line.
Joe Smith wasn't much better at getting out lefties: .320/.443/.460. I like the kid, but his ceiling is a very good righty specialist.
So basically, Perry is trying to tell us that Smith and Schoeneweis are irreplaceable. Yet what last year proved was that the relievers like Putz who can retire both lefties and righties are the most important late in a game. Even with the expanded September rosters the Mets were unable to match up adequately to pull out enough wins for a playoff spot.
Between the players already acquired and those inevitable invitations to camp, the Mets have a better chance of finding a couple of specialists to replace Smith and Schoeneweis than coming up with a guy like Putz. Sure, there are questions about his health, but the minute Putz came over the Mets had a much better bullpen. Period.
They still have work to do. With Rodriguez and Putz they're in better shape in the eighth and ninth, but those guys can't pitch every day. They need one more guy who can get out both LH and RH hitters.
Duaner Sanchez has a chance to be that guy. He should be stronger this season over a year and a half removed from surgery. He actually did very well against LH batters last season (.200 /.292 /.330) thanks to his changeup, it was righties that hurt him more (.268/.333/.394). With a little more fastball that could change. Before he tired over the last two months, probably due to missing a full year, Sanchez was fairly solid. He just turned 29, so he's not over the hill yet.
Brian Stokes showed some real promise in his two months with the Mets. He faltered at the end, but being used practically every day for a while. Lefties hurt him, too, despite a very nice changeup that should be a weapon against them. He's got good stuff, he just makes too many mistakes. As a sixth or seventh inning option he is certainly worth a shot.
Pedro Feliciano is an interesting case. In 2006 and 2007 he had credible numbers against RH hitters, allowing Willie to leave him in for full innings at times. Last year, however, he had worst splits against righties than Schoeneweis (.357/.453/.561). You'd like to think that he could bounce back and be more of the versatile option he was in 2006-07, but if not he is still a very solid LOOGY.
In Rule 5 pickup Darren O'Day and Sean Green (acquired along with Putz) the Mets have a couple of RH sidearmers who will compete for Smith's old job. Rocky Cherry is another pitcher tabbed in the Rule 5 draft who has shown some promise, as has Connor Robertson, the 27-year-old acquired from Arizona for Schoeneweis. Eddie Kunz and Bobby Parnell are also possibilities.
If Putz is healthy and Sanchez is stronger, the Mets have the makings of a good bullpen. I'd like to see them get another leftie to complement Feliciano and find a dependable long man, which they've lacked since letting Darren Oliver go. When you don't have someone who you trust to keep you in a game for 3 or 4 innings you wind up using 2 or 3 short relievers instead, which only compounded the overuse problems the Mets had with their bullpen last year.
To sum up, while the Phillies are undoubtedly the team to beat until when and if the Mets prove they can do so, any thoughts that this bullpen has only been slightly improved is ridiculous. As with any bullpen it has to come together and stay healthy, and there is always an element of uncertainty. There is also certainly work to be done on the rotation and bench.
Still, as things stand the Mets are in my mind a better team than they were last year. Whether that translates into a playoff appearance, only time and real games will tell.