For many fans the St. Louis Cardinals’ victory in this year’s World
Series marked the end of the baseball season. But for the hardcore fan,
the season never ends. The games on the field might have stopped for
the moment, but the games off the field have just begun. Here at INSIDE
PITCH we continue our look into the future as the New York Mets’ hot
stove heats up! In our last post we wrote about GM Omar Minaya’s
main offseason priority, beefing up an aging and fragile starting
rotation. Today, we will focus on one of Minaya’s ancillary
priorities— fortifying the bullpen.
The pen was not only the anchor of the pitching staff in 2006, it
was the best bullpen in the NL and possibly the majors (Though I’m sure
Twins’ fans might take umbrage with that statement). The Mets’
relievers provided all the ingredients that go into a great
bullpen—consistency, strikeouts, innings, different looks, effective
lefties, and a dominant closer. They led the majors in wins (32) and
BAA (.239); led the NL in ERA (3.25) and fewest blown saves (15); were
2nd in the NL in saves (43); 2nd in the majors in K’s (485); And only
the putrid Royals’, Cubs’ and Nationals’ threw more relief innings
(542.2 IP). Most importantly, this gutsy group of specialists carried
the entire team to within one game of the World Series with their
stellar postseason performances.
So, it is understandable that when it comes to the 2007 bullpen, the Mets will basically adopt the "don’t fix what isn’t broken"
philosophy. However, that doesn’t mean they won’t tinker a bit. The one
major change that fans can expect next season is the probable trading
away of elite set-up man Aaron Heilman.
There are many flags pointing in Heilman’s direction as the odd-man
out. For one, Minaya will need to deal from the team’s strength if he
decides to land a legitimate starting pitcher through trade. Secondly,
Heilman sees himself in a starting role, the Mets do not. And thirdly,
with Duaner Sanchez (photo on right) returning from his taxi-inflicted dislocated shoulder the Mets’ need for Heilman has diminished.
In 2005 Rick Peterson helped reinvent 40-old Roberto Hernandez with glorious results. This past season Peterson took aim at lefty retread Darrin Oliver.
After a career of scraping by on relief scraps and as a bottom of the
barrel fifth starter, Oliver at age 35 and in his 12th big league
campaign, finally showed the promise that once inspired the Texas
Rangers to draft him in the third round (1988). For the first time
since his rookie season, Oliver had an ERA (3.44) under 4.00. His WHIP
was a career best 1.12 and hitters batted a paltry .231 against him.
Best of all, Oliver actually became an effective lefty specialist for
the first time in his career. In his first 11 seasons, Oliver could
never be trusted to get a good lefthanded hitter out- they batted a
robust .284 against him. In 2006, Oliver finally realized that as long
as he could get his curveball in the strikezone, there was no reason
to feed lefthanded hitters’ a steady diet of his not-so-fast fastball.
The more he relied on his curve, the better his control became. With
the new found confidence in his best pitch, Oliver posted the best K/BB
ratio (2.86) of his career. So, it was no coincidence that lefties hit
only .208 against him.
Unfortunately for Mets’ fans Oliver won’t be back with the Mets in
2007. But, fortunately the reason he won’t be back is because of a very
talented young lefty named Royce Ring (photo on left).
Ring was a 1st round draft pick of the Chicago White Sox in 2002. The
Mets obtained him as the centerpiece of their deal with the ChiSox when
they traded away Roberto Alomar in 2003. Besides being ten years
younger than Oliver and throwing 8-9 mph harder, Ring possesses an
hellacious curveball that he finally mastered after three years in the
Mets’ farm system. With Billy Wagner as a mentor, Ring has the
potential to be a solid closer one day, but for the time being he will
support Wagner and Pedro Feliciano as the Mets will continue to holster the most dominating lefthanded relief corps in the majors.
Darrin Oliver’s departure will also open up another need for the
Mets— a solid long relief man. My best guess is that control atrist Brian Bannister (photo on right) will
be given first shot at this role. Bannister showed promise as an early
season starter before being derailed by an injured hamstring. His
greatest asset is his cool headed composure on the mound. Even though
he his only 25-years old, Bannister pitches with the guile of a
veteran, and relies on the solid command of a wide array of pitches. He
throws a two-seam (for groundballs) and four-seam fastball, mixes in a
changeup and a curve, and will even throw the occasional slider. Since
he is young and doesn’t rely on searing velocity, his recovery time in
between appearances should be minimal. This is an added benefit for any
long reliever. His ability to spot a starter in case of an ailment is
another caveat that makes him a very suitable replacement for Oliver.
Minaya has done a solid job of locking up his key players with longterm
contracts and recent contract extensions, but there are still a few
Mets’ free-agents that he must make sure don’t slip away. One of those
free-agents was crucial to the Mets’ bullpen success. After spending an
injury plagued 2005 in Beantown USA, Chad Bradford (photo on left)
was reunited with Peterson (his pitching coach form his Oakland days)
when he signed a one-year contract for $1.4 million at the beginning of
2006. Bradford, because of his submarine style, provided Willie Randolph
with a great change of pace option out of the pen. While Bradford has
always been death on righthanded hitters, he learned how to control
lefties this season by commanding the outside corner. Entering 2005
lefthanders had a .309 career Avg against him. In 2006 they hit only
.256, allowing Bradford to be more than a one or two batter pitcher.
Bradford also added to his resume as a clutch performer. In the 2006
postseason Bradford was the Mets most effective reliever going 5.2 IP
without allowing a run. In 17 career postseason games Bradford has
never allowed a run. For Minaya to lock Bradford up, he will most
likely have to offer him a two-year deal in the neighborhood of $4 or
$5 million dollars.
In August, after the Sanchez injury, Minaya had seemingly found gold when he saved Guiilermo Mota
from the Cleveland Indians’ dog house. Unfortunately, it now appears
that Mota was nothing more than fools gold. Mets’ fans wanted to
believe that Rick Peterson had pulled off another miracle by helping
Mota rediscover the missing 5 mph that his fastball had lacked for most
of the season. As it turns out, steroids had more to do with Mota’s
turn around than any of Peterson’s tutorials. Because of Mota’s
deceptive violation of MLB’s new performance enhancing policy, he will
be suspended for the first 50 games of the 2007 season. While Mota
could possibly be back for the second half of the season, there will
most likely be an open spot in the pen come spring if the Mets decide
to carry seven relievers as they did most of 2006. While it’s possible
the Mets will bring in a free agent to compete, flame thrower Henry Owens (photo on right)
seems primed to have first crack at the open slot. Owens blew away
Double-A hitters while pitching for the Binghamton Mets most of the
season. Thanks to a fastball that ranges from 95-98 mph, Owens went 2-2
with 20 Saves, a 1.58 ERA, a 0.73 WHIP, and 74 K’s in 40 IP as the
B-Mets’ closer. In his brief stint with the big club in 2006, Owens
showed that if he can gain control of his slider he could be a force
for major league hitters to reckon with.
Hard to believe that Billy Wagner (photo on left)
was the Mets’ least effective reliever in the postseason, but hopefully
he will have the chance to avenge his ill-pitching in the 2007
postseason. Despite his hiccup in the playoffs, the fact remains that
Wags is still the most dominant lefthanded closer in the NL. And along
with B.J. Ryan, is one of the two most dominating lefthanded
closers in the majors. In 2006, Wagner reached the 40 Save mark for
only the second time in his career. He ended the season with a
spectacular 2.24 ERA, a 1.11 WHIP, 94 K’s in 72.1 IP and held hitters
to a .219 Avg (lefties batting only .161 against him).
Mets’ Potential 2007 Bullpen:
Closer- Billy Wagner (L)
Setup- Duaner Sanchez (R)
Setup- Aaron Heilman (R)
Middle- Chad Bradford (R)
Middle- Pedro Feliciano (L)
Middle- Royce Ring (L)
Long- Brian Bannister (R)
* Guillermo Mota possibly in second half of season
Middle- Henry Owens (R)