By Mike Steffanos
Two weeks from today the Mets will be in Cincinnati playing a baseball game that will count in the standings. Sometime between now and then the 25-man roster will be finalized. As of today it looks like most of the decisions are at least close to being made, with a final bench spot and the last two slots in the bullpen perhaps the most up for grabs. Here's what we know so far, starting with the rotation:
Johan Santana seems to have shaken off the elbow discomfort from early on and settled into being Johan Santana. This is, of course, a good thing. Behind Santana, however, there is much more uncertainty -- even as far as who slots where.
Mike Pelfrey, Oliver Perez and John Maine slot in behind the ace and, as of now, it looks like roughly in that order. (Note that I am talking about position in the rotation, not who will actually start which game.) All have potential, and all have questions.
Mike Pelfrey seems to be continuing what worked for him in the second half of 2008 -- throwing strikes with the 4-seam fastball, getting grounders with the 2-seamer, and utilizing enough off-speed pitches to at least give the hitters some doubt as to what is coming. The keys to Pelfrey seem obvious at this point -- pound the strike zone and work hard to improve the off-speed stuff. Pelfrey can probably be a solid major league starter with what he has now, but improved off-speed stuff combined with the front-door sinker he's trying to incorporate can help him gets lefties out more dependably. Mike has a chance to be a number one pitcher down the road, but what the Mets need from him this year is to become a solid and consistent one from April - October.
Oliver Perez came back from the WBC looking lost. With a couple of spring starts it's reasonable that Dan Warthen can at least get him back to throwing more strikes before the games start counting. By all accounts Warthen has benefited Perez -- as has Johan Santana's active interest in his fellow leftie. It would be great if Ollie would learn how to fix his own delivery when he gets a little out of whack, and even better if Santana was able to impart the ability to throw an effective changeup to supplement Perez' fastball and slider. It's possible the Perez really can take a step up and be a more consistent pitcher, but at the least they need him to maintain what he was able to do last season after Warthen took over.
Many of us have the sense that John Maine is sitting at the crossroads of his career. Questions about health, pitch count and perhaps the tendency to over think things at times follow the still young right-hander. On the other hand, turning 28 in May, Maine is at what should be the peak of his career, and not we're not quite sure who he is. On one hand, he could be a 2 or 3 starter if he can stay healthy and learn to finish batters quicker. On the other, some see him as more suited for a bullpen role. I suspect we'll have a much better idea about John by this time next year. If Pelfrey and Perez can come through with solid seasons that would take most of the pressure off Maine, but even in that case they need him to give them 180-200 decent quality innings and get them to the seventh with more frequency.
Looks like Livan Hernandez is going to win the fifth starter's job. I know that doesn't fill us with joy, but I do think he has some chance to put a season together. He looks like he's throwing the ball well, and he knows how to pitch. The Mets really haven't had a dependable fifth starter the last two years, nor did they in 2006 come to think of it. Hernandez probably has as much chance as anyone of solidifying the spot, and if he doesn't we'll keep our fingers crossed for Tim Redding to get healthy quick.
I was one of many who thought Freddy Garcia would win the fifth starter's job outright, but the velocity hasn't been there. It's been returning slowly, though, and the curve is also showing signs of life. Perhaps someone out there is desperate enough for a starter that they would offer the veteran righty a major league job, anyway. If that's the case, I would think he'll be gone. If not, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if he was willing to pitch in the minors for a month or two and provide a backup if Livan falls flat.
Jon Niese couldn't throw enough strikes to keep his drive for five alive, but he remains the top starting pitcher in the organization that is close to major league ready. He has a terrific curveball and potential to be a solid mid-rotation pitcher, but he'll need to get ahead of hitters consistently to win at the major league level. Niese would certainly be a candidate for a call-up if needed, and I'd be surprised if he didn't make it to Queens sometime this summer.
Tim Redding has better stuff than either Hernandez or Garcia at this stage of their careers. Unfortunately, he has come back slowly after requiring surgery on his foot after last season. Understandable, perhaps, but I didn't like the fact that Redding reported to camp carrying a big spare tire around his waist. Sure, he couldn't run for a good bit of the winter, but a guy like Redding should be able to figure out how to be in shape when he reports to camp.
In the words of Dean Vernon Wormer, "Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son." No, that's not fair. There's no evidence that he was drunk in the off-season. However, the fifth starter's job was his to lose and he never even looked like a candidate in camp. Moreover, he is still not throwing off a mound with the season only 2 weeks off.
Other candidates: Bobby Parnell looks like he'll be pitching in the major league bullpen this season, but he's also in the mix if no one can solidify that fifth spot. Brian Stokes, also a likely bullpen arm, also has starting experience. Youngsters like Brad Holt, Michael Antonini and Dillon Gee are further away than Niese, but a real hot stretch could change that. Nelson Figueroa, Casey Fossum and Tony "Where's My Visa?" Armas are veterans who likely will start the season in the minors as rotation and bullpen inventory.
Next, the bullpen.