We’re heading into the home stretch. Today doubles not only as Labor Day, but the first of September. The first of September is the day where rosters expand from 25 to 40, and for one month, we are suddenly playing a different game than what we were playing the first five months of the year. Bullpens are deeper, rotation options are less scarce, benches go a mile long. It is the same game, but with different ammunition.
Last year at the September 1st call up date, the Mets were 75-60, good for first place by 3 games over the Philadelphia Phillies. This year, the Mets will be 76-61, and a 1 game lead over the Phillies. Despite essentially having the same record as last year, and despite being fewer games up on the Phillies, this is actually a better Mets team; this year’s club has scored 22 more runs than last year’s, despite major holes at the outfield corners, second base, and catcher for much of the season. This year’s club has allowed just five more runs, thanks to a bullpen that ranks among the worst in baseball.
The reason their lead is smaller this year is because the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies have been a little bit better than the 2007 version, thanks to the strongest bullpen in the major leagues. They have allowed a whopping 130 fewer runs this year than last, thanks in no small part because their bullpen ERA is 1.21 runs lower than last year, and their rotation ERA, which is 0.73 runs lower than last year. However, their offense has dropped off dramatically; they have scored 81 fewer runs this year than last.
One key difference is that the Mets have played better against the Phillies this year than last. In 2007, the Mets won 7 games in 18 meetings; this year, they have already won 10 in 15 meetings, with three more games at Shea Stadium, where the Mets have played particularly well this season. Besides that one meeting, the Mets’ and Phillies’ schedules are pretty similar; both will play Washington, Atlanta, Florida, and Milwaukee in September serieses, with both teams playing Washington and Atlanta twice. The only real difference is that the Phillies will play the Marlins twice, while the Mets will play the Marlins once and the Cubs once (although by the time the Mets play the Cubs, they may have clinched the NL Central and possibly even home field advantage). Neither team will be receiving a scheduling benefit this year; it’s all about who is better.
So who is better? It’s hard to figure out how this Mets team keeps winning. They platoon in both right and left field. Their second basemen options are lousy. Their best hitting catcher is on the DL. Their bullpen is a disaster, to the point where they are actually bringing up four relief pitchers today, all of whom will probably find their way into games regularly. Their current best relief pitcher is Jason Stokes, who wasn’t even on the team a month ago. There is no time table on the return of Billy Wagner, the only relief pitcher on the team who can be trusted at all, and oh yeah, he has seven blown saves this year.
This is a team being held together by the stars; David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, Johan Santana, and now added to the club Mike Pelfrey. There are other contributors as well, but those are the guys keeping this team afloat; how well they play will carry this team. To his credit, despite having absolute horseshit in the bullpen, Jerry Manuel has managed to piece together something of a plan, and the team has actually gone 18-9 without their best relief option.
Of course, the bullpen has blown their fair share of games during that time period as well, with seven blown saves in the month of August. Think about this; the Mets only lost nine games in the entire month. Seven of those nine losses were blown by the bullpen. As well as the Mets played in August, a 3.28 ERA by the rotation will be hard to maintain, especially with rookie Jonathan Niese expected to take a few of those starts this month. The Mets will need for the rotation to continue to be near perfect if they want to withstand the Phillies, and hope Wagner has a return to form in him.
The Mets’ call ups were not surprising. Joining the beleaguered bullpen cast will be Robert Parnell, Ricardo Rincon, Al Reyes, and Carlos Muniz. Mets fans know what they are getting with Muniz; he hasn’t pitched particularly well this year, and doesn’t expect to suddenly have major league caliber stuff. Robert Parnell has shown great stuff in the minors, but has strong walk tendencies too; it will at least be interesting to see if his overpowering fastball can fool hitters once around. Ricardo Rincon teams with Scott Schoeneweis and Pedro Feliciano to give the Mets an army of LOOGYs; next stop, world domination! Well, as long as they don’t run into any right handed folks along the way. Finally, Al Reyes is interesting; he is a high strikeout guy who has “experience in the ninth inning,” albeit for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He has something in common with every reliever currently in this bullpen; he gets his platoon half out with relative ease, but struggles when forced to face a lefty.
Basically, what these call ups allow Jerry Manuel to do is play match ups constantly; he can keep righties against righties and lefties against lefties as much as possible, because he has the arms to play the match up game, and because numbers suggest that this is the way his bullpen would be best utilized. The Mets bullpen has now become a war of attrition, and Manuel has some troops. It will make for some long, ugly Mets games, with pitching changes galore, and if you’re a Mets fan, you best prepare for some 3-3 1/2 hour games this September, but if it keeps the bullpen in order and gets the Mets in the postseason, I think you can deal with it.
I was a little less enamored with the Mets’ bench moves; they added Gustavo Molina as a third catcher, Argenis Reyes is in to spell Damion Easley and Luis Castillo in the late innings of Mets leads, Ramon Martinez gives the Mets flexibility off the bench, and Marlon Anderson was activated from the DL so he can continue to waste precious pinch hitting at-bats. You will notice a stunning lack of power or general hitting ability from any of these players; maybe if Marlon plays like he has a contract on the line, he will snap out of his season-long slump. Truthfully, with the team having hit so well this season, I suppose it wasn’t a huge priority to add players to the bench when they likely will only receive pinch hitting opportunities.
There is one player whom I have been championed for here that was not promoted, and that was Val Pascucci. Now, watching today’s Mets game, something struck me as Daniel Murphy batted in the seventh inning against Scott Olsen. When the Mets face a left handed pitcher, they lack a real right handed bat off the bench. Tatis will probably start most games in right against lefties going forward, at least until Ryan Church shows he’s back to form. Nick Evans starts in left, since he can literally only hit left handed pitching. Damion Easley will probably start against lefties, since Castillo actually displays even less power from the right than he does from the left (and yes, it is apparently possible for Castillo to show even LESS power). What happens if the Mets need a right handed bat to face a left handed starter late in a game?
The Mets’ current options are now Argenis Reyes, Ramon Martinez, or one of the two backup catchers. None of these four options are good hitters. I know the book on Pascucci is that he is a “4-A” hitter. However, he TORE up AAA pitching this year; .290/.410/.553/.963 in a tough hitting environment. I’m not saying he should start, but shouldn’t he at least be rewarded for such a torrid season with a pinch hitting job in September against lefties? He gives the Mets power and plate discipline off the bench, two things this team currently lacks. He would only be asked to face tired starters or relievers, two classes of pitchers who aren’t likely to challenge him with much more than fastballs. Doesn’t he at least deserve the opportunity after playing so well this year? It is going to annoy me when he winds up on another team next year and plays well when that team gives him a shot, and people say “Where did this guy come from?” He came from our minor league system, and we wouldn’t even give him a shot.
I digress. What this team is left with is an eleven-man bullpen, most of whom are roller coaster rides when asked to do anything other than get their like-handed hitter out. A tough rotation, with a superstar staff ace, a rising up and coming star, a loopy lefty playing better of late heading into a contract push, an aging veteran who has shown serious signs of age this season, a decent mid-rotation guy battling arm troubles, and now they welcome a 21 year old rookie who has never started a major league game. We know what to expect two out of every five turns, and hope for the best the other three times.
We have a lineup with four stars and four platoons (assuming Castro returns soon). Our bench is nothing special, though features some good defense and platoon possibilities in the later innings, with the potential to be even better here if they promoted Pascucci. What is the end result of all of this? Much like 2007, nothing is going to come easy this month. They need to take care of business against the lousy teams, they need to take at least two out of three when the Phillies come to Shea this weekend, and they need to hope that their best is just a little bit better than the Phillies’ best. Is it? Some nights, I honestly don’t think it is, but something this team has managed to do, despite the turnmoil since the Willie Randolph era ended, is win. If they can somehow achieve a sum greater than their parts, particularly in the bullpen, this team will play October baseball. If they cannot, Shea Stadium closes for good September 28th.
Edited to add: Brandon Knight and Nelson Figueroa were also added to the active roster, bringing the bullpen to 13 deep. Figueroa is another guy who had a pronounced platoon split during his time with the Mets; .163/.294/.209/503 against righties, .379/.455/.530/.985 against lefties. There will probably be a temptation to use him for full innings since he has been a starter, but he really struggles against lefties; he is just another ROOGY in this bullpen. That said, they probably should start him against the Brewers tomorrow instead of Niese and save Niese for another day, since they have so many right handed bats in the lineup. Brandon Knight pitched OK in his one appearance for the Mets, and probably will also be expected to work full innings, but may not be much better than a ROOGY either.