Last in a series about how the Mets will reassemble a team for 2009
A lot can, and has been said about the Mets bullpen in 2008. If you are looking for the #1 main reason this team failed to make the postseason in 2009, look no further than the bullpen. Seven times did the Mets take leads into the 9th inning that the bullpen failed to hold – seven times! One way to look at it – only 91 times in baseball in 2008 did a team that led in the 9th fail to win the game. The Mets by themselves hold 7.7% of that number. Only one team lost as many as six games when leading after 8 (the Cardinals) and only four other teams lost 5 games. Three teams (the Giants, Yankees, and Phillies) didn’t lose a single game after leading after 8. If your team leads after 8 innings, they are supposed to win. The Mets bullpen found ways for this team to lose.
It almost doesn’t feel fair to simply blame the late inning relievers, though. The middle inning guys failed to get it done as well; the Mets had the 11th worst record when leading after 6, and the 3rd worst record when leading after 7. Please don’t listen to anybody who wants to give any reason for the Mets’ failures before they address the massive issues with this year’s bullpen. If they had done a better job holding leads, hell, if they had held even one more lead, this team would have made the playoffs. It’s depressing to think about, yet true. That’s why before you blame players that had good years for not being even better, you have to blame the bullpen. They have utterly failed in even the most basic aspect of their job; preventing the other team from scoring as many runs as the leads they have been handed in later innings.
So how do you fix this? That is the million dollar question going into the offseason. The good news is…if the team wanted to, they could bring EVERYBODY back for an encore in 2009! Wow! Doesn’t that fill your heart with glee? Every single member of the bullpen could be brought back for 2009 if the team were inclined. The reality is, that is not going to happen, or else there will be rioting in Queens the likes of which would likely take Citi Field before a single game could be played there. However, I get the feeling that Mets fans will at least be a little disappointed that the team might not go far enough in completely retooling this bullpen, simply because I’m not sure exactly how many of these guys the team will be able to cut loose and then find a replacement. Let’s go through the cast of characters one by one.
Billy Wagner – Injured, out for the year. The one guy from the Mets bullpen who most Mets fans would welcome back with open arms…won’t be returning at all.
Aaron Heilman – Most Mets fans won’t want him back, but I think he’s almost a lock to return. As I said on Tuesday, I’m not sure we’ll see him back in the bullpen, but we will see him back in blue and orange. If he was hurt, that could explain a lot of his issues. If he can find a way to get healthy, and keep the ball in the park, he will be worth keeping around – in particular, his strikeout numbers were strong this year. A lot of members of the Mets bullpen need to be sent packing, but I think they should try to spend one more year on Heilman before giving up hope.
Pedro Feliciano – He went from a lefty specialist to a guy who was deadly against righties and lefties, back to a lefty specialist. His days of being counted on to get right handers out are likely over, and thus his days as a legitimate set-up man. He still probably has value as a LOOGY, and since he’s not yet eligible for free agency, he probably will come relatively cheap for 2009. The problem is relying on too many Pedro Felicianos and not enough full inning guys, but one or two are probably not a bad idea.
Scott Schoeneweis – If you are only keeping one LOOGY, then Schoeneweis has to go. He’s been the lesser of the two LOOGYs, and the one who is even more of a strict LOOGY. Factor in the problems he had at the end of 2008, including his real world issues, and it would probably be best for all involved if Omar Minaya could find another place for Schoeneweis to ply his trade. It will likely require eating some salary, but when you figure that this team is going to eat a lot more of Luis Castillo’s salary to get rid of him, and it’s really only for one year, it’s probably the right thing to do.
Joe Smith – Your winner of the 2008 Mets’ Best Reliever award. Please, don’t get too excited. Smith pitched great early on, hit a wall around June and July, and came back to have a decent August and September. He gets ground balls and avoids the long ball, which is a plus out of this pen. The bad part is, he can’t pitch to lefties. The problem is, with his delivery, he might find it difficult to ever get lefties out consistently, much like Chad Bradford, making him a ROOGY. Still, there is a value to keeping him around and having him pitch to right handed hitters with runners on base, because his ground ball and strikeout tendencies make him a good bet to strand those runners.
Brian Stokes – Probably a guy worth keeping around as well. He’s a guy with a nice sinker, but it hasn’t necessarily translated into keeping the ball in the park as much as you’d like. He’s also one of the few hard tossers in this bullpen. He also had ROOGY tendencies, but because his delivery is not as unorthodox as Joe Smith’s, I feel more confident that he can develop a pitch to get lefties out more than Smith. I think Stokes could prove to be a good fit for the 2009 Mets bullpen. I am cautiously optimistic.
Duaner Sanchez – He never made it all the way back from his shoulder issues following his taxi accident two years ago. I’m worried that he’s going to get another year, with the team hoping it will take him another year to get healthy and turn back into the dominant player he was in the first half of 2006. I just don’t think that player is coming back, and it would be a waste of resources at this point. I am a little encouraged that he was singled out by Omar Minaya in his interview with MetsBlog as a guy who was particularly disappointing, but I suspect we’re going to get at least one more season of Duaner before the team cuts bait, maybe not even a full season.
Carlos Muniz – He is Heath Bell, without the stuff. There’s no reason for the team to cut him, so they probably won’t, but I don’t think he’s even going to get the limited opportunities he received in 2008 next season.
Luis Ayala – Peace out. For all the talk about how great Ayala was after the trade from the Nats, he wound up having roughly the same ERA and WHIP as a Met that he had as a National. How this man was ever the closer, even temporarily, of a team that was in contention in September is mind-boggling to me.
Nelson Figueroa, Brandon Knight – Guys who might pitch in Buffalo next year to fill the AAA roster, but otherwise, nobody who this team will count on.
Eddie Kunz, Bobby Parnell – Guys who should compete for bullpen spots in spring training. I don’t know that either guy is ready to be part of a major league pen, but they should be allowed to at least compete for a job. Parnell is a hard thrower who seemed a bit overwhelmed throwing in a pennant race, but seems to be the type of guy who might excel in the pen. Kunz’s velocity is down a little, but he’s another guy who keeps the ball down and avoids the longball.
Where does this leave the Mets? Smith, Stokes, and probably Feliciano are worth being brought back in the bullpen (again, the caveat on Feliciano being that he rarely pitch to a right handed batter). Heilman is worth being brought back, but might be an option in the rotation. Kunz and Parnell should compete for a bullpen spot, maybe two. Don’t want to see Duaner or Ayala back under any circumstances, but I have a bad feeling one will be back. That leaves at least one closer spot, probably a set-up spot (do you feel comfortable with Brian Stokes in the 8th inning, at least initially?), and maybe a few other spots.
Spending money on bullpen help is always a risky proposition – just look at what happened with the Mets and Billy Wagner. It was the right move to make, but he’s going to wind up missing time for injury on about a third of that contract. Francisco Rodriguez’s name has been floated around a lot for the Mets, but it feels like they are cold on K-Rod, and rightfully so – he is looking for 5 years, $75 million, and that is a lot of money to give to a guy who won’t pitch more than 70 innings a year. Even a guy like Brian Fuentes is going to command $11 million a year, which for three years, might be a bargain (he is a good strikeout guy and a groundball pitcher – he was always a significantly better pitcher away from Coors, but could pitch in a high climate). The trade market could bring in a Joakim Soria or a Huston Street, but they will probably also cost the Mets prospects.
The team is in a hard position here – they clearly need some sort of relief ace going into 2009, a guy who can hold down the 9th inning. Seven ninth inning losses drive this point home. At the same time, they are paying the freight on Wagner next year, they have to get at least one, maybe two starting pitchers, and perhaps even a second baseman and a left fielder as well. That’s a lot of money right there. At the same time…the team can get by with another year of Luis Castillo (no matter how hated he might be) or mediocre to below average starters in the 4 and 5 holes (they did, after all, get by with mediocre to below average starters in the 3, 4, and 5 holes from August on) if they can just have a bullpen that can hold a friggin’ lead. Is that so hard?
So while this team might not be happy paying for a premium closer, while paying for one more year of Billy Wagner, they cannot put themselves in a position where they are trotting out a bullpen that lacks a true relief ace. This team right now does not have a guy who in 2008 proved himself to be a trustworthy reliever. Whether it be by trade or by throwing a briefcase full of gold bricks at a guy, they need at least one guy who they know can shut the door in the ninth. Dropping that seven losses in the ninth inning total down to about 3 or 4 would have won the division in 2008. They are going to have to bite the bullet and spend big bucks or trade a couple of second tier prospects to bring in a real closer. It would be unacceptable to assume that they have somebody here already who can grow into the role.
Now, as far as a set-up man goes…this is an area where it would be imprudent to spend big money. You can get by with spending good money on a high leverage reliever because the difference between a good reliever in a high leverage situation and a bad reliever in the same situation is worth the dollars. To spend money on a middle reliever, though…that rarely works out. The team needs to scour the waiver wire, look for guys who are looking for a shot at redemption, guys who have flaws, but are salvageable. Cast a wide net, avoid long-term contracts, minor league free agents, spring training invites…seriously, it would not be the worst idea to come into camp with about fifteen pitchers competing for six spots. Operate under the assumption that the more relievers you have in camp, the more likely you are to luck into a guy who will give you 60-70 innings of quality relief.
Look at a guy like Chad Durbin, who had been terrible for his whole career, who came to the Phillies and was suddenly lights out. That doesn’t mean sign Chad Durbin; that means sign a guy like Chad Durbin, who has had stuff but no results. He was ill-suited to start, and a move to the bullpen resurrected his career. The waiver wire is full of failed starters; which of these guys can help the Mets’ bullpen? The minor leagues are full of failed starters, guys who had teams who tried for years and years to turn into decent starters, but whether it was injury or make up, it never worked out. Eventually, teams cut these guys loose. Bring in one of these guys, see if he can hack it in the pen.
These are just ideas for this year, but the organization needs to start to target more hard throwing high school arms and Latin American pitchers for the future. College starters like Brad Holt are low risk, low ceiling guys who are capable of being decent starters, but won’t necessarily become stars. The high ceiling guys have a higher risk of failure, but if they throw hard and avoid injury, they might turn into a decent reliever. It feels like the Mets’ system is devoid of hard throwers right now, which can partially be blamed on the Johan trade, or because of losing draft picks due to free agent signings, but it can also be blamed on the Mets following the slotting system, which does not benefit the team. They need to get a little greedy here and start to think about the future, and how they can avoid having bullpen messes like the 2008 bullpen. One way would be to have a systemic devotion to going after hard throwers, and whatever guys don’t turn into starters can be converted into relievers.