Season in preview: Starting pitchers

Opening Day is Thursday, and since 20 posts about how great baseball is between now and then would probably grow tiresome, I’ll take up my annual season preview tradition today and try to crank nine more out in the next few days. First come the starters, then around the diamond, then the bullpen.

The starting pitchers in April: Johan Santana, R.A. Dickey, Jon Niese, Mike Pelfrey and Dillon Gee.

Overview: Hey everyone! It’s Johan Santana and he’s pitching baseballs!

That part is awesome. Santana’s actual returns this year seem likely to be less awesome, since he was declining before he got hurt, he’s coming back from a surgery very few pitchers have ever returned from and his velocity is not where it once was. If all goes well for Santana he can still be effective, but it would be a near-miracle for him to again emerge as a true Major League ace.

That role — or something close to it — is more apt to be filled by R.A. Dickey or Jon Niese. The knuckleballer Dickey has fluttered unpredictably to the ranks of the better pitchers in the National League over the past two seasons, posting a 124 ERA+ since joining the Mets by commanding his signature pitch and yielding a lot of weak groundball contact. Since Dickey is 37 and relies on the defense behind him, it’s unlikely he’ll get much better in 2012. But another season like the ones he gave the Mets in 2010 and 2011 would be… well, awesome and bearded and knucklebally.

Niese represents the team’s best hope for improvement. The 25-year-old lefty strikes out a good number of batters, doesn’t walk many, and yields a lot of groundballs, but he has yet to post a performance that matches his peripherals. Maybe 2012 is the year he does, or maybe it’s the year we throw our hands up and decide he’s doomed to underperform his peripherals.

Behind Niese, the Mets have Mike Pelfrey. Many Mets fans hate Mike Pelfrey for his inconsistency, but Pelfrey is quietly becoming my favorite player a) because of his consistency and b) because I’m a massive troll. He can be maddening to watch (unless you love fastballs), but Pelfrey posts remarkably consistent walk and strikeout rates every year. His performances vary based on how many hits and how many home runs he yields. From here it seems just as likely Pelfrey repeats his 2010 success as he does his 2011 struggles. Most likely, he pitches somewhere between the two.

It’s harder to know what to expect from Dillon Gee, besides his ridiculous chin beard. Gee did yeoman’s work in the back of the Mets’ rotation last year and won 13 games despite few strikeouts and a high walk rate and ERA, but the glimmer of hope should come from how he whiffed more than a batter an inning in Triple-A in 2010. Gee doesn’t have overpowering stuff, but since he’s still reasonably young, it’s not outlandish to hope he can improve in 2012.

Top prospects Matt Harvey and Jeurys Familia both appear ticketed to start the season in Triple-A Buffalo. The Mets want their pitching prospects throwing about 130 innings in the high Minors before they reach the big leagues. Though I’m not sure that’s a hard-and-fast number, Familia needs just over 40 to get there and Harvey needs 70. It’s never smart to bank on pitching prospects, but there’s some chance one or both could be in the rotation by August. There are arbitration clocks to factor in, though, and the Mets will want to be careful with their young pitchers’ innings totals.

The starting pitchers in September: Dickey, Niese, Gee, Harvey and Chris Schwinden. Hunches all. I’m going to proceed with skepticism on Santana and hope like hell he proves me wrong. But this figures Pelfrey gets dealt near the deadline.

How they stack up: Again — and obviously — the Mets’ starting pitchers do not actually face off with the other starting pitchers around the division; they face the hitters. This is just a means of comparison.

The Mets’ starting rotation doesn’t look awful, but it doesn’t look great either, and it likely won’t get much help from the defense behind it. And the rest of the teams in the division have some pretty good rotations.

The Phillies’ rotation is the standard-bearer, followed by the Braves’ and Nationals’. The Marlins have the only starting staff the Mets can hope theirs will best, and then only if Josh Johnson struggles in his return from injury, Ricky Nolasco continues to underperform his peripherals and Mark Buerhle suddenly ages.

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