The last on-field part of this series will look at what might be the most difficult area to fix this offseason on the cheap, the rotation. I’ve listed ways to fix first base, catcher, and the outfield without spending a ton of money, but because other teams overvalue the cost of starting pitching, it artificially raises the cost of obtaining a good pitcher. That’s why it’s so important that the team work on developing pitching from within, with the hopes of churning out cheap starters year after year, and converting failed starting prospects into relievers to avoid offering closers $17.5 million vesting options. Alas, I digress.
The rotation won’t be easy or cheap to fix, but the good news is, it shouldn’t be impossible. The key is to avoid offering Oliver Perez-level contracts to Oliver Perez-level talents, easier said than done given this regime. There is a little uncertainty at several rotation spots, with four of next year’s projected starters coming off of injuries suffered this year, so the team should emphasize actual depth over perceived depth, realizing that bringing in the likes of Tim Redding, Freddy Garcia, and Livan Hernandez to serve as organizational depth won’t cut it this year. Let’s take a look at what’s out there and what the Mets might be able to do.
Players under team control: Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey, John Maine, Oliver Perez, Jonathon Niese, Tim Redding, Nelson Figueroa, Fernando Nieve
Expiring contracts: None (unfortunately, we have three years to go on Ollie)
Possible free agents: Brandon Backe, Miguel Batista, Erik Bedard, Kris Benson, Daniel Cabrera, Chris Capuano, Alrodis Chapman, Bartolo Colon, Jose Contreras, Doug Davis, Justin Duchscherer, Adam Eaton, Shawn Estes, Josh Fogg, Jon Garland*, Tom Glavine, Mike Hampton, Rich Harden, Mark Hendrickson, Livan Hernandez, Tim Hudson*, Jason Jennings, Jason Johnson, Randy Johnson, John Lackey, Cliff Lee*, Bradon Looper*, Rodrigo Lopez, Jason Marquis, Brian Moehler*, Brett Myers, Vincent Padilla, Chan Ho Park, John Parrish, Carl Pavano, Brad Penny, Odalis Perez, Andy Pettitte, Joel Pineiro, Sidney Ponson, Mark Prior, Horacio Ramirez, Jason Schmidt, Ben Sheets, John Smoltz, Brett Tomko, Tim Wakefield*, Jarrod Washburn, Brandon Webb*, Todd Wellemeyer, Kip Wells, Randy Wolf
* – team or mutual option for 2010
Trade candidates: Roy Halladay
While the Mets have quite a few pitchers under contract who started games for them in 2009, many of them have question marks, whether it is in regards to injury, talent, or in the case of Oliver Perez, both. Figuring Santana, Pelfrey, Maine, Perez, and Niese as the team’s 1-5 on the depth chart, four of those guys are coming off of injury-plagued seasons, and the dropoff after Niese is considerable. Niese, Redding, and less so Nieve may be fine options for bullpen work and spot starts, but none should be considered prime candidates to start more than a handful of games in 2010 if this team is to be a playoff contender.
With that in mind, the team will have to target two starting pitchers. They should go after one higher-profile dependable guy and a buy-low candidate that has good stuff but got bad results for whatever reason, be it defense or bad luck. John Lackey, as the best starting pitcher on the market, is going to be the pitcher who attracts the most interest in the offseason, and figures to be the first pitcher to sign. He has been excellent for much of the past six seasons, although he has missed time due to injuries the last two years. I’m guessing he will command Derek Lowe/AJ Burnett money, perhaps even a bit more than that, and that will put him out of the Mets’ price range. He’s worth trading figures on, but unless the team is looking to spend a minimum of 5 years/$80 million, they probably aren’t getting John Lackey.
What else is out there? This free agency period looks ripe with ground ball pitchers, with Marquis, Pineiro, and perhaps Webb all available. The problem with ground ball pitchers this year is the questions regarding Jose Reyes. Nobody knows what kind of range he’s going to have coming off of his hamstring injury. With Castillo and his awful range likely to be retained, the infield defense up the middle would be a sinkerballer’s nightmare. Mike Pelfrey, for one, is probably praying that Jose Reyes comes back to form in 2010, or else he’s in for another 5 ERA season. Plus, Webb is a huge risk if he’s available because he’s coming off of surgery. The team needs something of a sure thing.
That likely rules out another guy I like, Rich Harden. Harden has great peripherals for pitching at Citi Field. He’s a flyball pitcher, playing in a big outfield which helps keep homers in the ballpark. He’s a good strikeout pitcher, which is fortunate because this defense isn’t very good (just ask Johan Santana, when he stopped getting strikeouts this summer, his numbers dropped like a brick). Unfortunately, he’s only good for 140 innings a season. Adding him to a rotation with four injury risks and little depth is asking for 2009 – The Sequel. Same with Ben Sheets. Both would be pretty good candidates as a 5/6 type starter, if they can be had for a one year, incentive-laden deal, but neither should be considered full-time additions to the rotation. The team will need somebody with a better health track record.
So it goes back to Lackey. I’ve avoided making recommendations for high priced players at catcher, first base, and left field. If the team is going to go after one high-priced player in the offseason, it should be Lackey. He would slot strong into the #2 slot behind Johan, and would give the team a dominant right handed starter. In the NL East, that will be crucial, since the Phillies will have Hamels/Lee, the Marlins will have Johnson/Nolasco, and the Braves will have Vazquez/Hudson. They can fix the offense on the cheap with a little creativity. Pitching is going to cost them money. If you’re going to spend the money, get the best available starter. Settling for the fourth best starter last year led them to spend too much for Oliver Perez, they can’t make that mistake again. The team should go hard after Lackey.
My suggestion: Sign John Lackey. Hopefully 4 years/$60 million will get it done, but they might have to guarantee a 5th year and more money. Sit and wait on Harden, who might see his cost go down because of injury concerns. If he sits for too long, he might be willing to take a one year, incentive-based contract with the hopes of staying healthy and going back on the market in 2010, when it might be more flush. If not, look at Ben Sheets, another guy who has been successful in the past but because of injury questions, could sign a one-year deal. Avoid Jason Marquis and Joel Pineiro, their ground ball tendencies won’t help them here. Let Niese start 2010 in Buffalo to make sure he’s fully recovered from his injury, and let Maine and Ollie battle until the death in spring training for the last rotation spot, with the loser going into the bullpen.
Up next: Putting everything together