By Mike Steffanos
Before I get into the meat of this piece I'd like to offer a quick apology for the sporadic posting. The "part-time job" that I started working early this month has developed into a 6 day a week more than full time job. I'm supposed to start full time early in April, so it's probably not going to get any easier for a while.
I'm going to have to figure out how to post more given the realities of my life right now, and I will. I'm really enjoying blogging again when I can fit it in, so it's not a lack of desire on my part. I still expect to be posting almost daily when things settle down and I master my new routines.
Back to the Mets: even though we're a week away from opening day, the last week of spring training seldom holds many surprises. Even the jobs that are supposedly still up for grabs are all but settled at this point, although management doesn't admit it.
I'm fine with that, as I have become more and more convinced as the years go by that jobs won or lost in spring training. I shake my head when people who should know better in the media and among the fans treat spring training numbers as if they prove something.
I don't live and die every time Mike Pelfrey, Johan Santana, John Maine or Ollie Perez have a rough outing. What they do in March is practice for the season, not predictive of it. While I have my concerns about all of them, and Jon Niese as well, I'll start judging them next week. The intensity level of real games is very different from spring training, and that can't be simulated.
With that said, let's take a look at the starting pitching.
Johan Santana: Santana hasn't had the greatest of springs, but I'd be surprised if he wasn't very good once the games start counting. A lot has been made that he will never be quite the pitcher he was in his prime with Minnesota, and that's probably true. I still think he'll be very, very good as long as he can stay healthy. I look for performance just below that of Cy Young award caliber.
As long as Johan's fastball is sitting in the low 90s, he's a legit top starter. Out of all the Mets' starting pitchers I think you can most literally toss out what he does in spring training games despite the media's insatiable need to hype it. I expect Santana to win 15+ games with an ERA right around 3. He's as close to a sure thing as you can find in this rotation.
Mike Pelfrey: Pelfrey has been giving up homeruns this spring at an alarming rate. His sinker hasn't been sinking and he's been leaving pitches up. On the plus side, he has shown some improvement with his secondary pitches this spring, which he will need to continue improving if he is ever to fulfill his potential as a true number two in the rotation. (Right now it would probably be more accurate to say that he, Maine, Perez and Niese are all trying to prove that they belong in the rotation of a big league contender.)
I've been watching this game for long enough to know that when a sinkerball pitcher is leaving his pitches up it's often due to a mechanical flaw in his delivery. Hopefully that will prove to be the case with Pelfrey. If it does, I really like his chances of being a solid major league starter and winning around 15 games this season.
I like that split-fingered change he has been throwing much more than his old changeup, and the bonus is that he can actually throw the new one for strikes. If he can get some breaking pitches over he has a chance to be more of a pitcher than he has been up to now.
All bets are off if the sinker doesn't come back to full strength, however. Without it, he simply doesn't have a real weapon to get out major league hitters.
Oliver Perez: No one seems to provoke the fan reaction quite as much as Ollie. He came into training camp in excellent shape and has displayed a delivery that is much more under control.
On the other hand, the results have been fairly dismal. Many fans and pundits are seeing Perez as the weakest link in the rotation. For some reason, I think Perez worries me less than any Mets starter not named Johan. Perez is an adrenalin-fueled type who is never going to wow you in exhibition games, so I am not at all dismayed by his spring numbers.
The days of dreaming that Perez might be the prototypical late-blooming lefty who becomes a top of the rotation guy are past, but I like his chances of being the reasonably effective pitcher he was in '07 and '08. That will be fine for this year and next, and then the Mets should probably let Perez go elsewhere for his next contract.
For this season I am looking for 12-15 wins with some great starts mixed in with stinkers.
John Maine: If there was some way to guarantee that Maine's shoulder was 100% and would stay that way I would be absolutely confident of a solid season in line with his 2007 campaign. Frankly, though, I wonder if I'll ever again see the John Maine we saw that year.
It's clear that Maine is going into the season needing to develop more arm strength. That certainly is doable, provided the shoulder issues don't return. If he can get that mid-90s fastball back his secondary stuff is decent enough to make Maine a solid mid rotation starter. If he has to continue to try to live in the low 90s where he's been this spring then there is a problem.
It's impossible to predict what they might get out of Maine this season without knowing what to expect from that right shoulder. I suspect we'll have a pretty good idea by May. A solid season from Maine could reestablish him as a promising young starting pitcher. A return engagement from the injury bug will most likely result in Maine being in a different uniform next season. This should be one of the more intriguing early season storylines.
Jonathon Niese: I've been reading a lot of positive things about the young lefty who is the frontrunner for the last rotation slot. A terrific overhand curve is his signature pitch, but the addition of a cutter will certainly help him get right-handers out.
In his brief stints in New York so far Niese has at times looked hesitant to challenge hitters, and he needs to figure out how to be successful on days when he doesn't have the big curve working.
I like his poise and his stuff, but like any young pitcher Niese needs to prove that he can get it done every fifth day. If he can, I think he has middle of the rotation potential. What I'll be looking for from him early in the season is throwing strikes and whether he can keep his team in games when his curveball isn't working.
It's hard to see this rotation being a true strength of this team. My hope is that their 2-5 starters can keep them in most games and not tax the bullpen too much with early exits.
You can make a best-case scenario where Johan is Johan and Pelfrey, Maine and Perez are all around 15 wins and 200 innings. I can also envision a worst-case scenario where none of those three pitch well and the Mets really struggle. I'd settle for 2 of 3 from the Pelfrey, Perez and Maine trio bouncing back and having solid seasons and Niese establishing himself as a major league starter.
I sincerely wish that the Mets would send Jenrry Mejia down to Binghamton to continue to hone his craft as a starting pitcher. I'd love to see him vying for a job as a starter next spring. Looking at what the Mets are trying to win with in the rotation nowadays makes me look back longingly on the 80s when the Mets were sending out a very good starter every night.
Next: the bullpen.