Season in preview: Starting pitchers

With Opening Day now a week away and with little else to write about, I’m going to attempt to preview the 2010 Mets, position by position, over the next seven days. Or maybe do a few posts like this one and then run out of steam. We’ll see.

I’ll start with starting pitchers, because starting pitchers have “starting” right there in their description, and because pitchers are “1” in the lineup card. I’ll end with relief pitchers, even though they’re also technically No. 1 in the lineup card, because we’ll have a better sense of who they are by then.

The format will be whatever the format is on this post. I’m going to figure it out as I go. That’s jazz, baby.

The starting pitchers in April: Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey, Oliver Perez, John Maine, Jon Niese.

Overview: Yesterday, during WFAN’s coverage of the Mets’ Grapefruit League game, Wayne Hagin lamented the team’s need for a pitcher like Chris Carpenter, who could do to the N.L. East what Carpenter did to the Central last season.

“HELLO!?” – Herm Edwards.

Now, look: Carpenter went 10-0 against the Central last year, and that’s pretty nuts. But few pitchers in the Major Leagues are as qualified to dominate opposing hitters as the one fronting the Mets’ rotation. Johan Santana, assuming health, is not the problem.

Behind him lay question marks that have dotted just about every Mets season preview before this one: Pelfrey, Perez and Maine.

Color me slightly more bullish than most about the prospects of those three. Pelfrey, as noted earlier this offseason, was more a victim of the defense behind him than the demons inside him in 2009. He has been hit hard this Spring, but he has been throwing more breaking balls — something that should help him stop relying on Luis Castillo’s (complete lack of) range for groundball outs.

I’m mildly concerned that a more varied arsenal could make Big Pelf more vulnerable to injury, but assuming Jose Reyes regains most of the range he had before his hamstring injury, Pelfrey should bounce back from his rough 2009 as more of those groundballs bounce into the gloves of able defenders.

Perez enters the season to about the lowest expectations of anyone ever making seven figures not named Gary Matthews Jr. (or Andruw Jones, or maybe Barry Zito. OK, there are a few, but you get the point). It’s becoming increasingly clear that he’s not Sandy Koufax, no matter what Scott Boras says, but thanks to either a return to health or his conditioning program or new-found focus upon his first wedding anniversary, his velocity appears to be back to its 2008 levels.

If the results follow, the Mets will have a wild and frustrating but ultimately league-average middle-of-the-rotation starter in Perez. It’s annoying, but the Good Ollies and the Bad Ollies balance out and make for Just OK Ollie.

As for Maine? Well, I’m a little concerned about Maine. Not about his couple of shaky Spring Training outings or his talent — he’s got that, I think — so much as his ability to stay healthy. Maine has pitched progressively fewer innings in each season since throwing 191 in 2007, and the vagaries of his “shoulder weakness” last year are at least a bit concerning. I’ve speculated before that Maine might have flourished under Rick Peterson, noted for his expertise in biomechanics, but what do I know?

I know this: Maine’s strikeout rates have plummeted nearly as quickly as his innings totals, which is concerning. That could be a whim of the reasonably small sample of innings he pitched last season, but it could mean whatever Maine was using to fool hitters so effectively in 2007 isn’t doing the trick anymore. The velocity on his fastball has remained static and he has thrown a very similar mix of pitches, only less effectively. It could be the injuries, but it’s troublesome regardless. I’m rooting for the guy, but there are red flags all over the place.

The fifth guy, Jon Niese, I like. This I’ve covered.

The starting pitchers in September: Santana, Pelfrey, Perez, Niese and Nelson Figueroa.

Why’d I put Figueroa there? Just a guess. Trying to pick what will happen in September in March is a fool’s errand, and there’s a reasonable chance Figueroa is not even on the team next week, no less six months from now. Consider his name on that list as a stand-in for whatever fifth starter/long-man/fill-in guy they settle on when one of their starters gets injured or proves ineffective, assuming Jenrry Mejia has either hit his innings limit or been made a reliever.

I’m guessing Maine will be the starter that doesn’t last the year based on the red flags listed above. Pelfrey has been a horse for the last two seasons, Perez will have to suck really hard for the Mets to give up on his contract, and Niese’s only major injury has been the freak one he suffered last year.

There’s also a solid chance the Mets go out and trade for a starter if they’re in contention near the trade deadline and one or more members of their rotation is hurt or performing poorly. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

How they stack up: I always think it’s a bit silly when, before every postseason series, newspapers run down the teams position-by-position to determine which team has the advantage where, because it doesn’t work like that. Derek Jeter isn’t facing Jimmy Rollins in the World Series, he’s facing the Phillies.

But I’m doing that here because it’s easy and I’m already 900 words deep into this post and I need to find a quick way to wrap it up. Jazz, like I said.

The way I see it, the Mets’ starting rotation is probably the third best in the division, behind the Braves and Phillies and ahead of the Marlins and Nationals. (Ooh, bold stance Ted!) I came to this conclusion via an incredibly complex scientific process which is far too complicated to detail here.

Next up: Catchers, which won’t take nearly so many words.

6 thoughts on “Season in preview: Starting pitchers

  1. The way I see it, the Mets’ starting rotation is probably the tfourth best in the division, behind the Braves, Phillies and Marlins ahead of only the Nationals.

    Johnson – Nolasco – Sanchez – Volstad have the Mets beat big time ….

    • Meh, it’s close. Johnson’s a stud and Nolasco should be good, but Volstad got hit so hard last year and Sanchez can’t seem to stay healthy. I think their collective upside probably beats the Mets, especially with the depth in Vanden Hurk and West, but I don’t think they’ll outperform the Mets pitchers this year with Cantu playing third and Uggla playing second.

  2. My husband used to pitch for the Washington Senators AAA team in the late 1950s, so he knows what he’s talking about! He says — or used to say, since he’s no longer with us — that good pitching stops good hitting and vice versa. I just love that. I don’t know too much about the Mets, except that Perez kid got all that money and can’t pitch to save his life. My late husband used to say that if you don’t earn it, give it back!

    I love your blog, Ned.

    Mrs. Vern Goslinberger Jr.

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