Monday, March 5, 2007

Pen-ciling Them In...

This is #4 of 5 Key Mets for 2007.

Last season, the Mets finished the season with a bullpen that logged the 3rd most innings out of any bullpen in the Major leagues. The Bullpen carried the team over most of the season, and was expected to do the same in the playoffs. Many of them succeeded. Some of them failed, in a most disturbing fashion. In 2007, many of the members of the Bullpen will return, but some of the names have changed. What has not changed is the role that the Bullpen is expected to have. With a starting staff loaded with names over 35 or under 25 years old, it will be the Bullpen that is expected to carry a huge load over the course of the season, and will likely make or break the team. Let's examine the turnover and the players:

Billy Wagner, the closer, remains the same, and since his role, for better or worse is secure, he does not bear mentioning in this column.

Starting from the top:
1) Aaron Heilman
Replacing: Aaron Heilman

There is still a contingent that seems to believe that Heilman is better suited to be in the Starting Rotation. And it's a valid point--Heilman is a starter by trade and we all know that is where he wants to be. A bit of noise was made, mostly by Heilman himself, about being in the starting rotation, and perhaps his poor performance over the middle of the season was indicative of his pouting a bit.

Doesn't matter. Heilman's role is in the pen for now, where he is most valuable to the team.

Yes, it was Heilman who gave up that Home Run to Molina last year in Game 7. But one pitch does not a season make, and Heilman's efforts over the season went a long way towards getting the Mets to that point. Following his Midseason slump, and following the injury to Duaner Sanchez, Heilman was stellar out of the pen working as the primary setup man for Wagner. Having had success retooling and redeveloping his delivery (working from a sidearm motion as opposed to a 3/4 or over the top motion), Heilman was able to spot his fastball better, mixing it with a changeup and slider that proved tough to pick up from his delivery.

It remains to be seen whether or not he'll have the same bad reaction to being in the pen again. I'd feel inclined to believe not, since it's not up for any degree of debate. Heilman will be in the bullpen, working as the key setup man for Wagner. He hasn't shouldered the blame for the Home Run, and he didn't deserve to. We expect, and will hopefully receive, another fine season from Heilman.

2) Duaner Sanchez
Replacing: Duaner Sanchez/Roberto Hernandez

Hold that thought...Sanchez is still recovering from the separated shoulder he suffered in his ill-fated late night search for Caribbean food in Miami last July. He has yet to throw off a mound and now I'm not so sure if he'll be ready for opening day. But we know he will be back this season, at some point.

It's a shame, especially when you consider how good Sanchez was, especially early in the season. He worked as the Anti-Heilman, throwing hard and fast, making a name for himself getting out of jams, and not giving up an earned run until early May.

You have to wonder if the Mets fortunes in the postseason would have been different if Sanchez were available to them.

Can't look back now. You can only look forward. And hope that Sanchez is healed and ready to answer the bell come April 1st. And ready to pick up where he left off, serving as a complement to Heilman, the two top right handed arms out of the bullpen.

3) Pedro Feliciano
Replacing: Royce Ring/Pedro Feliciano

It's easy to overlook someone like Feliciano. Used mostly as a lefty specialist, Feliciano would often come in to pitch to a batter or two, and then was out of the game. Still, he was huge for the Mets, especially late in the season and in the postseason. Usually it was Feliciano coming into the game with a man on, one out and a tough lefty coming up, and usually Feliciano responded by getting the batter to strike out or hit into a double play.

Yes, I lumped Feliciano in with the even more indistiguishable Royce Ring, mainly because the two of them more or less split time in the Majors last season (with Feliciano getting the lion's share of time with the club--not surprising considering Ring's slop-throwing tendencies) as the lefty specialist, but also because, coming into last season, neither of them was thought to amount to much. Ring didn't, and now he's gone. Feliciano did. Now he's got to keep it up.

4) Scott Schoeneweis
Replacing: Darren Oliver

In 2006, the Mets brought in Darren Oliver to be a sort of swing man, maybe making a start, usually coming in as a long reliever, mopping up when a starter (usually Jose Lima or Steve Trachsel) were pasted. And Oliver was dominant in that role all season. In fact, he never made a start (although his name was bandied about to start Game 7 of the NLCS). And his stellar season was rewarded by a large contract from the Anaheim Angels.

Considering that pitchers of that ilk tend not to have great seasons like that for 2 years in a row, you can forgive letting Oliver go.

Now, we have Scott Schoeneweis, signed away from Cincinnati, stepping in to fill the long reliever role from the left handed side.

I'll be honest, I don't know much about Schoeneweis, other than he's bounced around most of his career, and when he was on the Angels, I used to confuse him with Jarrod Washburn. And he's Jewish.

As recently as 2004, Washburn was a starter. He started 19 games for the White Sox that year. He's worked primarily out of the bullpen since then, and his numbers were pretty good with the Reds last year, and absolutely awful with the Blue Jays. He got a pretty sizable contract, especially for a middle reliever, but given the asinine contracts being thrown around this offseason, maybe it wasn't so surprising. But we'll see if it was worth it. I'm skeptical...

5) Ambiorix Burgos
Replacing: Chad Bradford

Burgos is the wildest of all the wildcards. Literally. Here is a 22 year old righty, who throws pure, unadulterated gas. He steps out of the Armando Benitez mold as far as pure heat. And, like most young flamethrowers, he is wild and erratic. He closed games last season for the miserable Royals and created as many fires as he put out. He struck out nearly a batter an inning, and also blew 12 saves in 30 opportunities. He won't be counted on to close games for the Mets, which is a relief. Perhaps spotting him in low-pressure situations will help him find his niche.

But consider that he is stepping into a role vacated by Chad Bradford, and that doesn't settle any Met fan's nerves. The Knuckle-scraping Bradford was rock solid for the Mets all season last year, getting as many key outs as Feliciano, especially in the playoffs, mixing in a middling fastball with a bewildering 63 MPH curveball.

Ambiorix Burgos, you're no Chad Bradford.

In fact, who can even pronounce his name?

The mere comparison to Benitez is enough to scare the bejeesus out of me.

6) Guillermo Mota
Replacing: Jorge Julio/Guillermo Mota
Now, we won't know what we have until June, because Mota is under suspension for steroid use. Most Mets fans wish this suspension went into effect during the 6th inning of Game 2 of the NLCS. Mota came over to the Mets from Cleveland in August, where he had been having a miserable season, and was great for the Mets. But in the playoffs, he seemed to be somewhat misused or overused. However you want to look at it, Mota turned into a 2-batter pitcher. He would get 2 quick outs and look unhittable, and then start walking batters, and nibbling, and getting into trouble he couldn't get out of. He figured heavily in 2 blown leads in the playoffs, one in Game 1 of the NLDS, which the Mets rebounded to win, and in Game 2 of the NLCS, which the Mets went on to lose. And then he got suspended for juicing, all the while being a Free Agent. The Mets resigned him, knowing they wouldn't have him until June at least. Given the upside he has displayed over the years, it seemed like a worthwhile gamble. But he could also come back and simply be the 2-batter pitcher he was in the postseason, and that doesn't make him worth much at all, especially if he's going to be another key righty in the Sanchez/Heilman mold. A recycled comment: I'm skeptical...

7) Dave Williams
Replacing: Dave Williams

Dave Williams had a few successful outings for the Mets, working mostly as a starter. But he only pitched in 6 games for them. Doesn't it seem like he pitched a lot more for them? Still, given the look over his career and he amounts to little more than another slop throwing lefty who can spot start from time to time, and not kill you, except that he might kill you. He could be a long reliever in the Oliver mold but I don't think he's good enough to fill that role either. I'm not even sure he has a spot on the Major League roster. We shall see...

I was told after the fact that Williams had surgery on a herniated disk in his neck and is likely out for the season. So I guess you can take that previous paragraph and either toss it out the window, or sit on it until 2008. Your choice.

8) Juan Padilla
Replacing: Heath Bell
Everyone forgot about Padilla. That's what happens when you lose an entire season to Tommy John surgery. In case you forgot about him completely, he's #28 in that photo. Padilla pitched in 24 games for the Mets in 2005 and was nothing short of brilliant. He wore those silly yellow goggles like Sanchez, and came out of nowhere to post several solid outings. He is someone who, unlike others in this group, seems to really have a good head for pitching. And if he hadn't gotten hurt last season, he likely would have been a key member of the pen last year. I expect Padilla to once again come out of nowhere and surprise a few people, and he should be a much welcome and much needed addition to this year's bullpen.

And considering he is being counted on to fill the role of Heath Bell, there's not a huge amount of pressure on him to succeed.

Others worth mentioning:
Alay Soler: Soler is in camp looking like a shell of his former self. Seriously, he's much thinner and determined to do well. Another one who can easily be overlooked but could surprise.

Jason Vargas: Another who could surprise, and seems much more suited for the swing man role from long relief to spot starter. The Mets think highly of him but I don't know much about him.

Jon Adkins: Looks like he needs a visit to Dr. Atkins. Heath Bell Part 2? No Thank You.

Jorge Sosa: A likely candidate...FOR ME TO POOP ON!

I remember in 2005 when the Mets broke camp with a Bullpen that boasted names like Felix Heredia, Mike Matthews and Manny Aybar. I knew that spelled instant disaster, and I was right, for the most part. None of those 3 lasted until the All-Star Break. Fortunately, more emphasis has been placed on developing a Bullpen. Because, as we have all found out over time, the Bullpen is far too important to be overlooked. Especially on this team.

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