While manager Jerry Manuel went north to watch Jon Niese face the Astros Sunday, Figueroa started against a college team at a half-empty Tradition Field. The biggest applause for Figueroa came when he struck out Anthony Toth to end the third inning, and it wasn’t entirely for him.
As part of an in-game promotion, one section in the stands won free tacos as a result of the strikeout. Figueroa laughed and pointed to the crowd.
“No disrespect to the batter,” he said, “but tacos are good.”
You’re damned right they are.
Figueroa appears to be on something of a press tour of late, with lengthy features on him popping up in just about every local paper. It seems the going story — or at least the story he’s putting out — is that if he doesn’t make the Major League Mets, he’ll refuse his assignment to Buffalo and sign a lucrative deal with a Japanese team.
It makes sense for a player of Figueroa’s age — especially one with a family — to want to shore himself up financially before his career ends, and so good for Figueroa for being honest about it.
Still, I’ve got to figure at least some of the sentiment comes from feeling just a bit jilted by the club he grew up rooting for, since the Mets don’t appear to be giving him the time of day after a stellar year in Buffalo and a solid performance down the stretch in 2009.
And it is perplexing how the Mets could seem so willing to let Figueroa, almost certainly their best in-house insurance option for the starting rotation, leave the organization.
If Jon Niese cracks the rotation out of Spring Training, the Mets will enter the season with four starting pitchers coming off injury-plagued 2009 seasons. The fifth, Mike Pelfrey, plans to throw more breaking balls than ever before.
And yet Figueroa, a rubber-armed craftsman capable of eating innings in the back of the rotation, could very well be pitching thousands of miles away when the Mets inevitably need a fill-in starter.
Francisco Rodriguez, Pedro Feliciano, Ryota Igarashi and Kiko Calero are likely locks to start the season in the Mets’ bullpen, and probably should be.
The Mets appear to want to keep Fernando Nieve in the Major League relief corps as well. He’s out of options, and though he has yet to show he can get batters out as effectively as Figueroa, the club likes his upside and praises his versatility.
So that’s five. That leaves some combination of Jenrry Mejia, Hisanori Takahashi, Bobby Parnell, Sean Green and Figueroa for the two remaining bullpen spots, assuming the Mets carry seven relievers.
Takahashi has been dominant in Grapefruit League play — even better than Mejia, really: 8 1/3 innings, 4 hits, 0 ER, 10 Ks, 1 walk. I’m skeptical, of course, like I am of all Spring Training stats, especially since Takahashi is a deceptive pitcher most hitters stateside have never seen before.
Both Parnell and Green have options and could be sent to Triple-A Buffalo. Adam Rubin reported yesterday that the Mets would be less likely to demote Green because he’s owed nearly a million dollars — a hilarious failure to understand sunk cost that set me into a tizzy in a post I’ve since deleted because the moves haven’t actually happened yet.
Assuming, for the sake of this argument, Takahashi has earned a role in the bullpen, the Mets can keep Figueroa around by sending both Green and Parnell down and sending Mejia to Binghamton to start games.
It wouldn’t make sense if it was clear that doing so would create a significantly worse Major League bullpen at the season’s outset, but it won’t.
The bullpen — and indeed, the entire pitching staff — is a fluid thing, especially early in the year. The Mets, with so many injury risks, should take caution to hang onto all their chips.