By Mike Steffanos
They haven't even played intersquad games yet, but while we're waiting for things to get underway here are a few keys I see early on, along with some from the gut picks on who I think might be on the opening day roster. Today we'll do the pitchers, tomorrow the position players and bench.
Barring catastrophic injuries this bullpen will be much better than last year. The last time you felt pretty good about the eighth and ninth innings as a Mets fan was 2006, and that worked out pretty well. Francisco Rodriguez and J. J. Putz will primarily hold down those two innings, and are obviously virtual locks to be in the bullpen. Pedro Felciano and Sean Green are also just about assured jobs, and I would think Duaner Sanchez would have to really struggle this spring not to have a major league job.
Since the Mets are likely to carry 7 relievers again, the last two positions are where it gets a little interesting.
Brian Stokes showed signs of being a solid middle innings guy last season, but then seemed to tire out from making 24 appearances from August 9 through the end of the year. Is he really the guy who looked so great after his call-up, or is he the guy who pitched to an ERA over 7 the year before and got hit around down the stretch?
Carlos Muniz has pretty mundane stuff, but isn't afraid to throw it for strikes. He also seems comfortable going longer than an inning, which makes him versatile for a back of the bullpen role.
Bobby Parnell has a nice live fastball, but control is a question. The Mets would probably like to give him some time at Triple-A, but he could force his way into the major league bullpen with a strong spring.
Rule 5 pickup Darren O'Day is a sidearmer like Sean Green. It's hard to believe the Mets would keep two of them on the roster, so I think it's likely he goes back to the Angels.
There are a few lefties among the non-roster invites competing for a possible second LOOGY role. None stand out in my mind, but any one of them could have a strong camp and win a job. Casey Fossum is a guy who has both started and relieved over his career, and could possibly fill both long relief and LOOGY roles.
Speaking of long relief, as I've previously mentioned I'd like to see the Mets find a guy who could give them what Darren Oliver did in 2006 -- a long reliever that can pitch 2 or 3 innings when a starter comes out of the game early and keep you in the game. Aaron Sele filled the role in 2007, but Willie Randolph avoided using him in close games as he wasn't very effective. No one really pitched in that role last season.
A decent long man can save a bullpen when your starter gets knocked out of the game in the third or fourth inning. Without a pitcher like Oliver was, the Mets were often forced to use a couple of guys to keep the game close. This has a cumulative effect as the season goes on.
One scenario for long man would be for Freddie Garcia to win a rotation job with a strong camp and have Tim Redding slot over to long relief. As mentioned, Fossum is another possibility.
Livan Hernandez would be an interesting candidate for the job. He's really slipped over the last three seasons to below-average starter, but he's still a guy who knows how to pitch. If you remember, Darren Oliver's career had hit a roadblock as a starting pitcher, and he was actually out of the game before winning the long man job out of camp.
Another thing Livan has in common with Oliver is that he's always been a very good hitting pitcher with 9 career home runs and a .233 average. Willie often was able to get an extra inning or so out of Oliver because he wasn't afraid to let him hit. If Hernandez could pitch effectively in 2-3 inning outings, he could hit for himself in those situations, too.
Don't get me wrong, Hernandez would be a real long shot to make this team. Then again, so was Oliver in 2006.
My best guess for the seven bullpen jobs out of spring training are: Rodriguez, Putz, Green, Feliciano, Stokes, Redding and one of the non-roster lefties.
Note: Oops. As pointed out in the comments, I left out Duaner Sanchez. Given that, I put Sanchez ahead of Stokes. Change the line to read: Rodriguez, Putz, Green, Feliciano, Sanchez, Redding and either Stokes or one of the non-roster lefties. Edge to Stokes, who can also pitch multiple innings as needed and is a possibility for the long relief job, too.
Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey, Oliver Perez and John Maine will be the first four starters.
I think Santana will have a solid year, and hopefully be rewarded with more wins.
I think Pelfrey turned a corner last year and will be fairly solid. I think it's a lot to expect that he will pitch like a number one as he did for July and August, but I expect him to be more consistent and continue to refine his off-speed stuff. I think the real question is what aftereffects he experiences from pitching 200 innings last season.
I think this is a key season for both Maine and Perez. I wouldn't be shocked if Perez took a step forward as a pitcher and cut the walks down. In fairness, I probably wouldn't be shocked if he didn't, either. My gut tells me he's going to be more consistent, more like 2 years ago than his extreme ups and downs last season. I don't think he'll ever be an ace, but I still think he has a chance to be a solid 2 or 3 like Sid Fernandez once was for this team.
As for Maine, I still think he has the potential to be a really good starting pitcher if he can cut down on those fall balls that get his pitch count up. I could see Maine winning 20 games someday if he could figure that out and stay healthy. I could also see myself ten years down the road saying, "If only that guy could stay healthy and keep his pitch count down..."
The leading candidate for the fifth starter's job is Tim Redding. He could be good at times, but he's the quintessential five inning starter. I'd love to see Freddie Garcia recover some of his old durability and steal that spot, but shoulder injuries are much tougher to bounce back from than elbows.
It's possible that Garcia could win the job with a strong spring and then wear down as the season goes on. That wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, though, as other options for the rotation and bullpen could split the season in New York. I do have a feeling that Garcia will pitch well enough this spring to break camp as the fifth starter and push Redding into the bullpen. That would give the team the most flexibility early on.
Of course, all bets are off if Garcia doesn't pitch effectively or suffers lingering effects on the shoulder. I would think that now a full year removed from the surgery Garcia is as recovered as he'll ever be. He's a big guy, has a ton of innings on that right arm, and will turn 34 in June, so it's legitimate to question how much career he has left. Still, my guess is Santana, Pelfrey, Perez, Maine and Garcia break camp as the rotation.
I'm in the process of conducting an interview with Toby Hyde who produces the absolutely indispensible Mets Minor League Blog. Toby mentioned that he teaches skiing in the winter at Heavenly Mountain Resort in South Lake Tahoe, CA. If you're a Mets fan who is looking to improve your skiing skills, ski at a beautiful resort and talk Mets prospects with the guy who knows as much about the team's farm system as anyone, it occurs to me that you're looking at the perfect vacation synergy here. Contact Toby at email@example.com if you're interested.
Wish my knees were still up for a vacation like that...