Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A Foolish Arrangement

This is #4 of 5 Key Mets Players for the 2008 Season.

Last season, I named the entirety of the Mets Bullpen as one of the Five Key Mets players for the 2007 season. This unit was one of the strengths of the Mets in 2006. Changes were made before 2007, although many of the major pieces remained. But there were questionable moves made, notably the departure of Chad Bradford, the injury to Duaner Sanchez and the inclusion of Scott Schoeneweis, Ambiorix Burgos and Guillermo Mota.

As we saw, the Bullpen didn't even sniff the success of 2006. In fact, the bullpen as a whole pretty much became a giant liability as the season wore on. Sanchez missed the entire season with a shoulder injury. Heilman was grossly inconsistent. Guys like Schoeneweis, Burgos, Mota and Aaron Sele were either injured, or frighteningly horrible. Even Billy Wagner wasn't immune from shaky performances as the season wore on. And finally, come September, the Bullpen was exposed, beaten down and thoroughly embarrassed with regularity.

It's safe to say that even taking the offensive struggles of Reyes and Delgado into account, the Bullpen was by far and away the leading culprit in the September collapse.

So, moves were made. Not many, but some. Gone were Sele and Mota, given away for songs. Schoeneweis was only retained because of a massive, idiotic contract. Spare parts such as Steven Register, Ruddy Lugo, Matt Wise and Brian Stokes were brought in, if only to give Willie some more faces to look at in the spring. This bullpen will eventually be cobbled together, but it's a gigantic question mark as to how effective they'll be over the course of the season.

Of course, it's a far cry from 2005, when the Mets started the season with Manny Aybar and Felix Heredia, two pitchers whose inclusion on the Opening Day Roster made my blood pressure jump 20 beats. But nonetheless, it's going to be an adventure.

Going down the line, we're going to see:

1) Aaron Heilman

I'll give Heilman credit for not caving in completely after the Molina disaster in '06. I was afraid, briefly, that he might go Brad Lidge on us. But aside from being a little too prone to the longball, Heilman was, for the most part, fairly reliable as the 8th inning guy. But without a reliable compliment to spell him every so often, Heilman eventually hit a wall and wasn't so effective down the stretch. One such game against San Diego in August saw Heilman nibble and nibble against Adrian Gonzalez in the 10th inning, but, unable to put him away, finally grooved a pitch that Gonzalez hit out of the ballpark. Another Sunday in Florida saw Heilman receive a 3-run lead and promptly hand it back to the Marlins. We know what we'll get out of Heilman at this point. But unless there's another righty who can be trusted in a key spot late in games, it'll be up to Heilman to run out there game after game...consequences be damned.

2) Pedro Feliciano

Feliciano has basically re-invented himself over the past two seasons, and has become the most reliable lefty arm in the bullpen, if not the most reliable guy, period. But for some bizarre reason, Willie kept using him as if he were merely a lefty specialist, not allowing Feliciano to finish innings or games at times, when it was clear that he was by far the better option than whoever was replacing him. Feliciano has been effective enough over the past two seasons that I'd feel comfortable letting him face a right handed hitter in a key spot. He's one of the few pitchers the Mets have in the bullpen who actually exhibits a keen head for pitching, and not someone who will just run out there and try to throw the ball through a brick wall. He'd be a good compliment to Heilman if Willie would use him that way. He just needs a chance, that's all.

3) Duaner Sanchez

The Most Key Met of the Season, as far as I'm concerned. We don't know what the hell we have here. After his great 2006 season was curtailed because of the now-infamous taxi accident, Sanchez showed up in 2007 overweight and undermotivated, got sent home for oversleeping one too many times, and eventually broke down and missed the entire 2007 season, which was a key blow because if Sanchez had been in the ballpark of his 2006 numbers, it probably would have been the difference between the Mets and Philly come the end of the season. He was, in '06, and should have been in '07, the perfect righty compliment to ease the burden on Heilman in the 7th and 8th innings. One of Sanchez's overlooked strengths was the best rubber arm the Mets could trot out there since Turk Wendell. This year appears to be a different story with Sanchez. This year, he showed up thinner and with a renewed resolve to prove his past behavior an aberration. He says he feels as good as he has in years, and so far, the early results have been encouraging.
But what will it translate to? Can he re-capture his previous success? Does he have anything left? Can his arm hold up over a full season? There's enough questions regarding Sanchez to warrant its own blog entirely. If Pedro Martinez is going to be the key to the starting rotation, and whether or not he can pitch deep enough into games to preserve the bullpen, then Sanchez is the key to the bullpen, whether or not he can answer the bell and be effective after missing a season and a half, and take some of the pressure off the other guys in the bullpen by finishing up what Pedro (and the remainder of the staff) starts.

4) Scott Schoeneweis
I have to talk myself down just to write about him. Schoeneweis was given an absurdly large contract, and then came in and proved himself the second coming of Rich Rodriguez for pretty much the entire first half of the season. Especially at home, Schoeneweis was routinely hammered by both lefties and righties, which was interesting because Willie continued to use Schoeneweis in the role that Feliciano should have been used in. By the end of the season, Schoeneweis had righted himself, somewhat, this after the revelation that he had been pitching with a torn tendon in his leg, and actually came up with a pair of saves in September, which shocked the hell out of me, but they came in instances where he was, quite literally, the last remaining serviceable arm in the Bullpen. The hot word is that the Mets are willing to deal Schoeneweis and the remaining $7+ million he's owed, but I can't imagine any GM is stupid enough to make a deal for him. Then again, someone took Guillermo Mota. Then again, he's left-handed, he's breathing, and we know he can put the ball over the plate...

...It might save my sanity in the process.

5) Jorge Sosa
Sosa pretty much came out of nowhere and pitched better through the months of May and June as an emergency starter than anyone probably thought he would. In fact, after one particular outing in Detroit, Sosa was probably the best starter the Mets had going. Then, he came back to earth. He had some success in the bullpen last year, but again fell into that Heilman-like trap of being the only reliable guy out there for a time, which meant that Willie was going to run him into the ground. And, he did. Basically, I'm not sure how long we can count on Sosa to be effective in any given role. He's likely going to slide into that Aaron Sele long-reliever role for a time, which is fine, but this means that he's likely only going to work in blowout situations. If Sanchez is effective and Heilman is Heilman, then Sosa will certainly be counted on to carry less of a load. That may not be a bad thing.

6) Matt Wise
A lot of people I know seemed to really like the Wise pickup. Although Wise has never posted eye-popping numbers, and he had a pretty bad second half with Milwaukee last year, he's been, for the most part, a guy who has good stuff and gets outs. That's all I really know about him. If the first five guys I mentioned are going to make the team bar none, then Wise is really the only guy here who could conceivably be fighting for a job, despite his experience. That, or he's more likely just here for insurance in case Sanchez can't go or Heilman's arm falls off in May. Or, my theory, he's just here because Omar wanted to have at least one new face in the bullpen to make us think he's done something productive.

7) Joe Smith
I'd like to think Joe Smith has a better chance at making the team this year. He started off like a house afire after surprising the hell out of everyone in Spring Training last year, but the league caught up to him after a while and he ended up back in the Minors, and didn't seem to get much use when he was recalled. He was pretty up and down after May. I'd like to think that was due mainly to hitting the proverbial wall because he hadn't pitched so many innings before, and he might be better conditioned for more use this year. I have a feeling he's going to play a bigger role in the Mets bullpen this year than people are willing to give him credit for right now. Keep an eye on him.

8) Ambiorix Burgos
A co-worker of mine kept asking me if we were going to have some Burgos on the days after Burgos pitched last year. I thought he was making some sort of idiotic reference to Burgers, until I found out that Burgos is apparently a type of Polish Hunter's stew, a horrendous mishmash of ingredients thrown into a pot and boiled until it resembles the structure of Burgos' arm by the end of last season, after he had accomplished little more than reminding us of Kane Davis. Sigh.

The Rest: (Register, Lugo, Stokes)
I would have thought that Register might have a better shot at making the team since he's a Rule V draft pick. He still might make the team, although it may only be holding the baseballs for Billy Wagner out in the Bullpen. Lugo I know nothing about except that he's just another slop-throwing reliever who can put the ball over and might get an out here and there. Stokes managed to get himself booted out of Tampa Bay which really gets me excited about his prospects here. I'd expect to see the three of them at Shea at some point, but they might as well have the staying power of Jon Adkins. There's also Willie Collazo (not Colazzo) and Carlos Muniz, although Willie seemed to think that he would be summoning the furies of hell if he actually let them pitch last season, so that probably means neither of them is ready yet.

Man, there's a lot of crap at the back end of this bullpen.

I don't know. Yes, spring training is supposed to be a time for Optimism, but for some reason, this Bullpen continues to give me a very queasy feeling.

I hope it's just gas.

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