Season in preview: Starting pitchers

With Opening Day now a week away and very little else Mets-related to write about besides the very fringes of the roster, I figure it’s about time I roll out this now-annual season-preview tradition. Like last year, I’ll start with starting pitchers, work my way around the diamond, then close with the bullpen.

The starting pitchers in April: Mike Pelfrey, Jon Niese, R.A. Dickey, Chris Young and Chris Capuano.

Overview: This group lacks a pitcher that fits the traditional, brand-name “ace” mold, and it likely will until if and when Johan Santana returns (more on that to follow). But there’s nothing in the MLB rulebook that says a team can’t compete with five solid starters and no One True No.1.

Do the Mets have five solid starters?

Mike Pelfrey we know. He has been pretty consistent since taking on a full-time job in the Mets’ rotation in 2008: He’s good for about 200 innings with a lot of ground balls and not many strikeouts or walks. Guys like Pelfrey that pitch to weak contact are subject to bigger fluctuations in results — see Pelfrey’s rough 2009 — but with good infield defense behind him, Big Pelf can be expected to post numbers similar to the ones he put up last year. And that’s not bad; reliable, durable starters hardly grow on trees.

Jon Niese enters his second full season off a solid rookie performance in 2010. He faltered down the stretch, posting a 7.57 ERA over his last seven starts, but his early-season success, his history of staying mostly healthy (aside from the awful hamstring tear in 2009) and his strikeout-to-walk ratio bode well for his future. Not a lot of pitchers perform as well at age 23 as Niese did, and though pitchers don’t seem to enjoy as smooth a learning curve as hitters often do, the peak age for pitchers is still right around 27. Niese should be getting better.

R.A. Dickey’s future is more difficult to predict. I’ve pointed out in the past that Tim Wakefield enjoyed the best seasons of his career in 1992 and 1995, implying that Dickey could regress from his stellar 138 ERA+. But for a variety of reasons, Dickey is unique even among knuckleballers. Plus, as Mike Salfino pointed out, knuckleballers often enjoy success into their 40s.

Still, I’d be pleasantly surprised if Dickey can repeat his outrageous success in 2011. If he can do it for a full season, the Mets will have the ace we all want. If he can’t, he’ll still likely be a good, durable starter for the middle of the rotation. And that will still be awesome, since he’ll be a bearded, literary knuckleballer making hilarious faces.

Behind the three holdovers from last season, the Mets have newcomers Chris Young and Chris Capuano. Though there is rightfully a good deal of concern about both pitchers coming off several injury-plagued season, it’s worth noting that they both finished 2010 in their teams’ rotations and pitched well. Both were good when last healthy, and neither is terribly old.

Young hasn’t pitched a full season since 2007 and Capuano hasn’t since 2006, so it’s silly to expect both will hold up and hold down the back end of the Mets’ rotation for all of 2011. But if they can combine for even 200 innings, they’ll be 200 better innings than the Mets were likely to get from Oliver Perez.

When a pitcher succumbs to injury — as pitchers do — Dillon Gee should step in. Gee was hit hard in Triple-A in 2010, allowing 23 homers in 161 1/3 innings, but he strikes out a lot of batters and doesn’t walk many, meaning he should be able to avoid total meltdowns and keep the Mets in games when he pitches. And though I wouldn’t pencil him into the Mets rotation for at least another year, Jenrry Mejia could establish his secondary stuff and dominate hitters in Buffalo, leapfrogging Gee and/or kicking down the door to Citi Field.

As for Santana: I hate to be doom-and-gloom, but that July target date seems, well, quite optimistic. There just aren’t a lot of pitchers Santana’s age who have successfully come back from the surgery he endured. I asked injury expert Will Carroll about it on Twitter, and he mentioned Ted Lilly and Dustin McGowan, though McGowan is not all the way back yet and hasn’t pitched in the Majors since the surgery ended his 2008. At the press conference announcing that Santana would need surgery, someone mentioned — as if this was a positive thing, believe it or not — Chien-Ming Wang and Kelvim Escobar.

Santana is his own unique snowflake, and a snowflake that happens to be outrageously fit and competitive, so it’s hardly time to start singing his death knell. But shoulder injuries being what they are and pitching being what it is, we have to amount for the realistic possibility that we don’t see Santana pitch at all in 2011. And if and when he does comes back, Santana cannot be expected to revert to being Johan Santana.

Matthew Artus noted that Orel Hershiser returned from the same surgery, and indeed, Hershiser started 271 games after the procedure ended his 1990 campaign. But before the surgery, Hershiser had a career 131 ERA+. After the surgery, it fell to 101. Granted, aging has a lot to do with that mark, and Hershiser enjoyed good seasons with the Indians in 1995 and 1996, but it’s impossible to say he was ever again the same pitcher he was before the operation. And Santana is aging too.

The starting pitchers in September: Pelfrey, Niese, Dickey, Gee and one of Capuano and Young.

Just playing hunches there and assuming one of Capuano and Young is injured by September. Also assuming Santana is not back. I will be thrilled if I am wrong about that.

How they stack up: A reminder, the Mets’ pitchers do not technically face off with the opposing teams’ pitchers. As I said last year, I always think it’s silly when series previews compare teams position-by-position to determine which has the advantage at which spot, since it doesn’t work like that. Jose Reyes does not face Hanley Ramirez.

But that said, the Mets’ starting pitchers will not be as good as the Phillies’. They will likely not be as good as the Braves’ or Marlins’ starting staffs either. They look to be better than the Nationals’ Livan Hernandez-helmed group.

Next up: Catchers, now with 100% more Ronny Paulino.

 

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