Sunday, March 30, 2008

The 2008 Mets: Pitchers

The Mets' pitching was in the middle of the National League pack in 2007. They allowed 750 runs, 4.63 per game, good for seventh best in the league and a completely average ERA+ of 100. They got off to a much better start than that, posting a team ERA of 2.96 in April, but that number rose every single month, all they way to 5.14 in September. Things were even worse in the final seventeen games as opposing teams hit .281/.356/.446 against Met pitching, adding up to a a 5.80 team ERA over that stretch. Interestingly, August and September were by far the Mets' two best months for strikeouts, but they were also the worst months for walks, hits and extra base hits allowed.

The 2008 edition will feature some new faces that will help keep a few runs off the board. First of all there's Ryan Church and Brian Schneider. The 2007 Mets were one of the best teams in the league at turning balls in play into outs, doing so 70.7% of the time, good for fourth in the majors. This year the Mets have replaced two of their weaker fielders, Shawn Green and Paul Lo Duca, with a couple of guys who, if not spectacular, are at least good defenders. Church in particular should help out a starting rotation made up of mostly fly ball pitchers.

Of course, more importantly, the Mets have a couple of pretty good starting pitchers who weren't on last year's Opening Day roster. Taking the hill in the season opener will be two-time Cy Young Award-winner, three-time AL strikeout leader, perennial 200-inning pitcher and 2007 Gold Glover Johan Santana. Last year his ERA jumped all the way to 3.33, good for seventh best in the league, largely due to his allowing a few more home runs than usual. Other than that, it was the same old Santana: lots of innings, lots of strikeouts, not a lot of hits or walks. He has as good a chance as anyone to be the best pitcher in the National League this year.

A more intriguing story is the return of Pedro Martinez. Last year he returned from rotator cuff surgery in September and looked tremendous in five starts, posting a 2.57 ERA, 32 strikeouts and 7 walks in 28 innings. The question about Pedro is not whether he can still get major league hitters out. He clearly can. While his fastball is not what it once was, his array of pitches and intelligent approach are more than a match for any lineup he might face. All that remains in doubt is whether he can stay healthy, which we can't know for sure until he does or doesn't. But with the way he made it through those five starts last year and Spring Training this year, I am quite optimistic. He won't give the Mets 200 innings, but I am hopeful that he can make it through the season without his arm falling off. And if the Mets make it to September with Johan Santana and Pedro Martinez still standing atop their rotation, I think they can make it pretty far into October.

Those two might be the ones who'll strike fear into the hearts of October opponents, but numbers three and four won't exactly let those opponents stop and catch their breath. Oliver Perez had the second best season of his young career in 2007 with a 3.56 ERA, 174 strikeouts and 79 walks in 177 innings, making it through a full season for the first time since his dominant 2004. There was still some of the inconsistency that's plagued him since his breakout year, but 2007 was a big step forward from his awful 2005 and 2006 campaigns. He's been so all over the place the last four year that it's hard to know what to expect next. Was last year him settling in as an above average, but not elite, starter? Or was it a step toward regaining his 2004 form? A lot of dollars are riding on the answers to those question as Perez will be eligible for free agency at the end of this year. I would love to see him return either way, but the Mets will have several spots to fill after this season and only money with which to fill them. If Perez winds up too expensive for the Mets to retain, hopefully it's because his time with the team ended in a blaze of glory.

One pitcher who isn't going anywhere is John Maine, who won't be eligible for free agency until 2011. 2007 was the first time Maine spent a full season in the majors and it was largely a successful year. He put up a 3.91 ERA with 180 strikeouts and 75 walks in 191 innings. Only Tom Glavine pitched more innings for the 2007 Mets and his ERA was half a run higher than Maine's. But Maine was as culpable as anyone for the team's late season woes as he seemed to run out of gas late in the year. His ERA in the months of August and September was 6.14 in 11 starts. Eight shutout innings in his last start saved it from being over 7.00. He actually struck out more batters in either of those months than he had in any previous month, but his rates of hits and home runs allowed also went up and a greater percentage of his base runners came around to score. Perhaps the experience of pitching nearly 200 innings last year will lead to Maine having more in the tank as this season wears on. If he can pitch for a full season like he did for the first four months of 2007, the Mets could have a third (or fourth) stud on their hands.

It's at this point that things get a little dicey. As of right now the Mets haven't announced whether Orlando Hernandez or Mike Pelfrey will begin the season as their fifth starter, but it's a safe bet that both will get some starts this year. El Duque was very good when healthy last year, with a 3.72 ERA, 128 strikeouts and 64 walks in 147.2 innings. Pelfrey was bad, but got a little better as the season went on. Hernandez can't be expected to stay healthy for the whole season and the recent tinkering with his windup makes him even more of a question mark than usual, but he could be very effective when healthy. Pelfrey's had an awful Spring and is yet to have sustained success at the major league level, but he did improve his strikeout rate in the second half last year. If El Duque is really healthy, he's probably the better option right now. A little more time at AAA couldn't hurt Pelfrey. But whichever way the Mets go, at least they've got two starters standing between Omar Minaya and the Chan Ho Parks and Jason Vargases of the world.

A few Met relievers had very good years in 2007, namely Billy Wagner, Aaron Heilman and Pedro Feliciano. Unfortunately, the guys who ranked fourth and fifth in relief innings pitched were Guillermo Mota, who was uniformly awful, and Scott Schoeneweis, who turned every right-handed hitter into David Wright. Seriously, righties hitting against Schoeneweis had an OPS of .963, one point better than Wright's season mark. Joe Smith got off to a great start but then got smacked around pretty good. Jorge Sosa pitched well enough to be a decent fifth or sixth option out of the pen.

This year Wagner, Heilman, Feliciano, Schoeneweis and Sosa will be joined by the returning Duaner Sanchez, newcomer Matt Wise and probably one of Smith, Nelson Figueroa, Brian Stokes and Ricardo Rincon. The Mets should be able to cobble together a pretty good bullpen from that lot. As much as you can predict reliability from any reliever, Wagner, Heilman and Sosa will be what they have been. Feliciano should continue to be excellent, but if Willie Randolph ever fighures out that he can get both righties and lefties out while Schoeneweis should only ever pitch to lefties, they will both be more valuable for it. Wise should be a solid, if unspectacular, middle reliever. The biggest question is Sanchez. If he somehow regains his 2006 form, he will be a huge addition. But even if he does slightly less than that, he should be a valuable piece of the seventh and eighth inning puzzle. Overall, it looks like a solid collection of relievers, and the addition of Santana should lighten their workload a bit. But all we know for sure is that Willie Randolph will continue to use them in ways that beggar belief.

Of course not everything will go right for this pitching staff. Pedro, Perez and Maine won't all pitch two hundred innings while fulfilling every bit of their potential. But the Mets' starting rotation is such a talented group that they don't have to exceed expectations much to be one of the best staffs in the league. And if one or two guys does get a bit lucky or stay especially healthy, we could be watching something very special.

Overall, I think this is a very good team with a chance to be great. The offense is in the top third of the league and the pitching staff is even better. Johan Santana, David Wright and Carlos Beltran may the best in the league at their respective positions. Jose Reyes, Oliver Perez and John Maine may not have reached the upper limits of their abilities yet. This team could look quite different next year with Perez, Carlos Delgado, Pedro Martinez, Moises Alou and Orlando Hernandez all headed toward free agency. But the 2008 version of the Mets has as good a chance as any National League team of playing in the the World Series.

Official prediction: 95 wins.

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