By Mike Steffanos
It's not exactly a secret that the Mets bullpen was their downfall last September, so it's no surprise that most of us are wishing, hoping and praying that this year's edition performs as well as it looks on paper. In less than two weeks we will begin to find out.
Although only 27 years old, Francisco Rodriguez has been in the league since his remarkable playoff run with the Angels in 2002. While both his velocity and strikeout rate have declined the last couple of years, he still averages more than a strikeout per inning and a low hit rate. The addition of a plus changeup to his still 90+ fastball and sharp breaking pitches should allow him to remain an elite reliever through the length of his contract.
The concern with K-Rod has always been walks. He has averaged just under 4 per 9 innings of his career, and his rate has climbed to 4.5 over his last two seasons. I've never enjoyed watching a pitcher who created his own drama since Doug Sisk gave me agita more than 2 decades ago. The walks are something I'll be watching for, because to me an "elite" closer throws strikes.
Some writers have speculated on how much K-Rod's exuberance will fire up the Phillies, but I could care less as long as he gets them out.
The eighth inning will belong to J. J. Putz, who also is coming into the cauldron of NY baseball from the more laid back and forgiving west coast. The 32-year-old features a fastball, a dynamic splitter and the occasional slider. Although he is coming off a down year with some nagging injuries, he has shown signs this spring of full recovery.
Provided that's the case, I believe Putz to be a better pitcher than K-Rod, and he could dominate eighth innings in a way we only dreamed of last year. He'll strike out as many batters while walking far fewer. In his two best seasons as a closer, 2006 and 2007, Putz averaged just over 1.5BB/9IP. That's the kind of aggressive, no-nonsense approach I could appreciate.
Beyond Rodriguez and Putz the picture is less clear at this point. The options for the sixth and seventh inning right now look like some combination of newcomer Sean Green, rookie Bobby Parnell, and holdovers Brian Stokes and Pedro Feliciano. Rule 5 sidewinder Darren O'Day, veteran mediocre lefty Ron Villone and Carlos Muniz, who had 18 appearances with the Mets last season, are also in the running.
You had the sense coming into camp that Sean Green was the guy they were looking to be their primary seventh inning choice. His lifetime numbers are good, but not great, but there seems to be a feeling that he came into his own as a reliever last year, although he faded from overwork in the late going. One number that impresses about Green is that he has only allowed 7 HR in 179 major league innings. He gets a lot of groundballs, which is also nice. His lifetime major league walk rate of 4.2/9 is not so great.
I've been fairly impressed with Green the couple of times I was able to see him pitch, but I'll need to see more to form an intelligent opinion. His spring numbers have been good -- 6 IP, 1 ER, 2 H, 7K, 2BB -- so I have to believe he hasn't hurt his chances.
Pedro Feliciano may very well end up as the only lefty in the bullpen. After solid years in 2006 and 2007 he fell a bit last year. He seemed tentative on the mound quite often, falling behind batters and then either walking them or coming in with something fat. His hit rate jumped from 6.6/9 in 2007 to 9.6 last year, and the 7 HR he gave up were as many as the previous 2 years combined.
Feliciano has a deceptive fastball and an effective slider, and if he can go back to getting ahead of hitters consistently I look for a better year from the veteran southpaw.
Ron Villone is the only other lefty still standing, but he increasingly looks like a long shot as he battles it out with righties with way more upside. I've never been a fan of Villone, who averages just under 5BB/9IP. Even Cardinals pitching coach and miracle worker Dave Duncan couldn't make anything out of him last year.
Brian Stokes pitched pretty well for the Mets last year, has no minor league options left and has been effective this spring. It adds up to Stokes being very likely to be in the mix with Green and Feliciano for the sixth and seventh. Stokes has a live fastball and a really sharp slider, but he needs an off-speed pitch to help him get lefties out. I heard he was one of the pitchers working on a splitter, but I don't know if that went anywhere. Stokes can pitch multiple innings, so he's an option for both short and long relief.
Rookie Bobby Parnell seems to be winning a job with a very impressive camp. One thing we saw from him last year was that he didn't seem to rattle, which would stand him in good stead. He has a heavy fastball that sits in the 90s and a good slider. He's working on a splitter, which should complement his other pitches.
Parnell has always walked a few too many hitters in his short career, 3.9/9 in the minors. He'll need to throw strikes to stick with the Mets. As with Stokes, Parnell would be capable of being either a short reliever or a long man. I wouldn't be surprised at all if they didn't put him in the long role to start the season. The Dodgers have eased a lot of kids into the majors like that.
Although not certain, I am going to assume that Parnell and Stokes will be on the club with K-Rod, Putz, Green and Feliciano. Although the Mets could play it in different ways, I still think they'll primarily go with 7 relievers.
Rule 5 pickup Darren O'Day likely has a leg up on the last spot, simply because he'll have to be offered back to the Angels if he doesn't stay on the 25-man roster this season. He's a sidearm pitcher in the mold of the departed Joe Smith and has pitched well this spring.
Carlos Muniz has also added a splitter to his repertoire, which might be enough to take him from Quad-A status to solid major league middle reliever. They like him because he's not afraid to throw strikes. He got off to a slow start this spring, but has picked it up of late. Having minor league options left might work against him making the team out of the gate, but we're likely to see him at some point.
Waiver pickup Fernando Nieve is a former top prospect with the Astros who has suffered from injuries and inconsistencies. He has a lively fastball and a nice slider, but also control issues. If they can get him back through waivers he will provide bullpen depth in Buffalo. Every once in a great while a guy like that can resurrect a career, particularly since he still has an above average fastball. You could never have too much depth in a system.
One final thing to watch with the bullpen is how Jerry Manuel uses them. Jerry didn't have much to work with last season, but I also thought he could be part of the problem at times last year. If he kills these guys with overwork in the early going he could be setting the stage for another late season disappointment. That would be hazardous to our mental health and Jerry's long-term employment picture.
I'm going to hold off a little on the position players. We'll probably hit them with a week to go.