Thursday, May 18, 2006

Mets Pitching in Flux

by Scott Silversten

Ten minutes or 12 months, give or take an hour or a day.

While it surely was a remark that was never intended to become public, New York Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson’s declaration that he could “fix Victor Zambrano in 10 minutes” has been the type of statement a sports figure will never live down.

Now it’s anyone’s guess how long it will take to fix Zambrano.

As we meander towards the two-year anniversary of the trade that sent prized pitching prospect Scott Kazmir to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the Mets will be without Zambrano for what is most likely a 12-month period after the righthander underwent Tommy John surgery on his elbow earlier this week.

During the operation, Zambrano had bone spurs removed while doctors repaired a torn flexor tendon and torn ligament. His career is in jeopardy and the bizarre sight of Zambrano (1-2, 6.75 ERA) sprinting off the pitching mound following a second-inning strikeout on May 6 will at the very least be the last time he is seen on the playing field for quite some time.

While it is mostly unfair to cast blame when a player gets injured, this is also a circumstance in which several parties must share some of the fault for Zambrano’s situation. First is the pitcher himself, who has said in recent days that his arm had been bothering him, yet he failed to inform his coaches and manager.

Good friend Pedro Martinez knew that Zambrano’s elbow was “barking,” but also kept the news to himself. As did Darren Oliver, who said he went to the bullpen on that fateful Saturday afternoon already mentally prepared to enter the game early if Zambrano was forced to leave prematurely. Perhaps it was Oliver’s mental preparation that allowed him to enter one out into the second and out-pitch Atlanta starter Tim Hudson over four innings in a game the Mets eventually won.

Still, this may be a case of be careful what you wish for, because it just might come true.

Most supporters of the Mets wanted Zambrano removed from the rotation, soundly booing him whenever he was on the mound. Now the team is faced with a shortage of starters. And despite the early success, New York is not running away with the National League East any time soon.

Proving how long the baseball season truly is, not only does it appear the Mets will battle the Philadelphia Phillies for division supremacy throughout the summer, there are still 123 games to play before thoughts even turn to the postseason. 123!

The Mets bullpen has been terrific this season, with new closer Billy Wagner, set-up man Duaner Sanchez and converted starter Aaron Heilman helping propel the team to a 24-15 start and a first-place position in the NL East. However, it’s a long, LONG, hot summer, and there will eventually come a time when the Mets need starters to pitch deep into games to reduce the workload on the key bullpen cogs.

Martinez and Tom Glavine have been exceptional at the top of the rotation this season, but the former is 34 with a history of fragility, and the latter is 40 and has never been known for racking up high pitch counts.

After the big two, there are question marks. Steve Trachsel missed a majority of the 2005 campaign with back troubles and has an ERA just below 5.00 so far this season. Rookie Brian Bannister (2-0, 2.89 ERA) was erratic but effective before landing on the DL with a hamstring injury. Jose Lima, John Maine and Jeremi Gonzalez have also received starts, but it’s doubtful that General Manager Omar Minaya will stick with that trio for very long.

Barring a trade, the situation opens up two intriguing possibilities for Minaya. The first is the transfer of Heilman back to the rotation, a move Heilman has publicly campaigned for in recent months. He was a first-team All-American at Notre Dame who went 15-0 in 15 starts in his senior season and made 15 starts for the Mets before shifting to the bullpen.

However, a tried and true baseball axiom is that you never weaken one position to fix a problem elsewhere, and manager Willie Randolph has stated that he prefers to keep Heilman in the bullpen, where he can pitch more often (he had 46 relief appearances in 2005).

The other fascinating option is currently at Double-A Binghamton. A 6-7, 190-pound 22-year-old righthander, Michael Pelfrey was the ninth overall selection in the 2005 First-Year Player draft out of Wichita State. Pelfrey began the season at Single-A St. Lucie and was overpowering, striking out 26 and walking only two in 22 innings over four starts. Promoted to Binghamton on April 29, he has a 4.15 ERA with 24 strikeouts and nine walks in 21 2/3 innings against Eastern League competition.

Whether it’s Heilman or Pelfrey or a yet-to-be determined option, how the Mets decide to deal with the issues that are affecting the bottom 40% of their starting rotation will be a fascinating development to watch throughout the summer.

Summer? The first day of summer (June 21) is still a month away.

It truly is a long season.

Scott Silversten's column appears every Thursday

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"I've had a pretty good success facing Stan (Musial) by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third base."
- Carl Erskine