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Evaluating the Mets’ Rotation Options, Mejia/Perez in Mix to Replace Santana
The date was Friday, September 10, 2010. The New York Mets had just dropped an afternoon game against the division rival Philadelphia Phillies by an 8-4 score. Philadelphia’s ace Roy Halladay had outpitched rookie Jenrry Mejia to pick up his 18th win of the season. Ryan Howard and Chase Utley each homered. As did Carlos Beltran. The loss dropped the Mets to 69-72, three games under .500 and 12.5 games back in the National League East. Yet, the biggest loss of the day was the announcement by the Mets organization that ace Johan Santana would require season ending surgery to to repair a tear of the anterior capsule of his left shoulder. No formal timetable for Santana’s return was given.
It was a day very symbolic of the Mets’ 2010 season – loss, injury, disappointment, and little optimism.
Santana had left his previous start early with some discomfort in his shoulder. The team described the injury as a strained pectoral muscle although something indicated to pitching coach Dan Warthen that the problem was in the shoulder, not the chest. The team was cautious about how to proceed with their star pitcher and had him throw a bullpen session a few days later to see if the pain had subsided. The team would announce shortly after that session that he would be missing his next start. Just a few days later came the announcement that he would need surgery.
An MRI performed that same week revealed the torn capsule, a relatively rare, yet serious injury for pitchers. A similar tear caused former Yankees pitcher Chien Ming Wang to miss the latter half of the 2009 season and all of 2010 while recovering. It also derailed the comeback attempt of Mark Prior during the 2006 season. While each case is unique, there is reason why no formal timetable could have been estimated for Santana’s return.
The following Tuesday Santana underwent what the team described as “successful surgery”. The club expressed both optimism and uncertainty that he would be able to be ready for Opening Day 2011. Santana himself stated his return would be sometime between April and October. Medical experts stated that a return before June or July would be optimistic.
Fast forward to yesterday, December 13th, 2010. New Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson appeared on WFAN that afternoon (details courtesy of Matthew Cerrone of Metsblog.com) and the topic of Santana’s return naturally came up. Alderson said that he will not be back in time for Opening Day but it is “reasonable to expect his return by the All Star Break”. While a specific return date is still uncertain, he remains optimistic the team will have its ace for the season’s second half.
Alderson has remained steadfast in his comments throughout this offseason that the team was looking to acquire another starting pitcher to help compensate for the absence of Santana during the season’s first half. However, with limited financial flexibility the team is in no position to spend big on an available free agent and the likelihood of taking on salary via trade is slim. Alderson has been focused on bringing in someone with upside or coming off an injury which would permit the team to bring them aboard at a reduced annual salary. Most notably the team has been linked to former Padre Chris Young and former Rockie Jeff Francis. Both reportedly are looking for salaries in the area of $4 Million which may prove to be too much for the Mets to handle.
As such, the Mets still do not have a resolution to their need for pitching. Since the 2010 season came to a close the team has parted ways with Hisanori Takahashi, Pedro Feliciano, John Maine, Kelvim Escobar, Elmer Dessens, and Sean Green. On the free agent market they have signed D.J. Carrasco. They have also signed Boof Bonser and Michael O’Connor to minor league contracts and the team did select pitcher Pedro Beato in last week’s Rule V Draft. It seems likely there will be at least one more signing to help bolster a bullpen that has lost a few pieces but it remains to be seen what the organization will be able to do with regards to the starting rotation. However, there may not be as much of a dire need as some perceive.
If the 2011 season were to begin today the Mets would start with a rotation led by Jon Niese, Mike Pelfrey, R.A. Dickey, and Dillon Gee. Niese is coming off of his first full healthy season in the Majors, making 30 starts totaling 173.1 innings to finish with a 9-10 record, 4.20 ERA, and 7.7 K/9. Pelfrey appeared in 34 games, totaling 204.0 innings to finish a career best 15-9 with a 3.66 ERA and 5.0 K/9. Dickey, who had signed a minor league contract prior to the 2010 season, made 27 appearances totaling a career high 174.1 innings and finished 11-9 with a 2.84 ERA and 5.4 K/9. Gee made his ML debut with five September starts, going 2-2 with a 2.18 ERA and 4.6 K/9 over 33.0 innings.
All in all it is a respectable, but not spectacular, foursome. But it still is a foursome that is inexperienced and unproven as a whole. Add Santana into the mix and it would be a decent rotation going into the season but one that would still necessitate some depth, especially given Gee’s lack of experience at the Major League level. However, there are some internal options that cannot, or should not, be ignored. These options could in fact be viable options for the fifth spot in the rotation when the season begins in April.
Mejia is actually the most logical choice of the three, and presumably the favorite amongst the team’s internal candidates to win that last spot in the rotation. He entered the 2010 season as one of the team’s top pitching prospects and surprised nearly everyone when he broke camp in the team’s bullpen at the onset of the season. He would pitch sporadically out of the bullpen, totaling just 27.2 innings over 30 appearances. Over that span he would allow opponents to bat .266/.370/.358 with a 3.25 ERA, 35 walks allowed, and 39 strikeouts. In late June the team sent him back to the minor leagues to get him stretched out for a move back to the rotation. He would make three starts once being called up in September, going 0-2 in 11.1 innings of work with a 7.94 ERA, 4 walks, and 5 strikeouts. His minor league numbers (across four levels) were much more impressive: 2-0 in 9 starts totaling 42.1 innings, 1.28 ERA, 3.4 BB/9, and 9.6 K/9. Mejia certainly has shown the potential to hold down a spot in the team’s rotation but like Gee remains highly unproven and inexperienced.
Misch has spent the past two seasons sharing time between the team’s rotation and bullpen with mixed results. Over that span he has made 34 appearances, including 13 starts, totaling 96.2 innings with a 4.00 ERA, 2.8 BB/9, and 4.3 K/9. The ERA, BB/9, and K/9 numbers are just below his career averages. In 2010 opponents hit .283/.302/.401 against him, once again just below his career averages. Misch could be an option for the Mets’ rotation in 2011 but seems destined to spend the year as team’s long reliever. He will be an option if/when the team needs a spot starter.
Then we have Parnell. To most he likely is not someone who would be considered for the rotation right off the bat. He was primarily a starter throughout his minor league career but has principally worked out of the team’s bullpen since arriving in New York during the 2008 season. Since his debut he has appeared in 115 games, of which only 8 were starts, all late during the 2009 season (he went 1-5 in the 8 starts) with limited success. The 2010 season was a big year for Parnell, however, as he finally started to show some of the promise that made him a highly touted prospect in the first place. He appeared in 41 games after starting the season in the minor leagues and finished with a 2.83 ERA, 2.1 BB/9, and 8.5 K/9 – all career highs. In addition, all 41 of his appearances came in the 7th inning or later as the team started to trust him with high leverage situations at the back end of their bullpen. Ultimately Parnell’s future is working in a setup role so in all likelihood he will not be seriously considered for the open rotation spot. He could be an option in an emergency situation but with Takahashi and Feliciano both gone the team is going to rely heavily on him in that setup role so a start from Parnell seems unlikely.
Finally, there is a fourth option currently on the team’s 40-man roster and it’s not one that many (or any) Mets fans are fond of – Oliver Perez. The enigmatic left hander is entering the final year of a 3 year, $36 Million contract that former GM Omar Minaya gave him before the 2009 season. Perez has been a favorite punching bag by most fans over the past two season due to a combination of ineffectiveness and poor attitude. Since signing the extension, Perez has gone 3-9 over 31 appearances (21 starts) with a 6.81 ERA, 8.0 BB/9, and 7.9 K/9. During the 2010 season the team approached the veteran about his willingness to go to the minor leagues to “sort some things out” but he refused any such efforts and reportedly developed an attitude problem within the clubhouse. The team managed to get him off of the active roster for about a month with a phantom injury but that time didn’t seem to make much of a difference. Upon his return to the team he was banished to the bullpen where he would be sporadically used over the remainder of the season.
Since that time there has been a great deal of discussion – both by fans and members of the media – about the team’s desire to trade Perez away. That task, however, was expected to be a difficult one. Over the life of his current contract Perez has been one of the least effective pitchers in all of baseball and he has $12 Million remaining on his contract. Even if the team were willing to eat most of the remaining dollars they still would find it hard to find a taker for the lefty and likely would not receive much in return. Many fans have called for the team to simply release him but in such a scenario the team would still be on the hook for his entire remaining salary and would receive nothing in return aside from a little peace of mind. Unfortunately for the Mets and their fans, Perez is likely to at least begin the 2011 season with the team.
While not an ideal situation, the Mets should go into Spring Training with an open mind on what role Perez will fill with the team in 2011. His contract was given to him by a different General Manager and his attitude problems stem from run-ins with a different Manager and coaching staff. It is possible that Perez will arrive this Spring with the recognition that things have changed within the organization which could lead to an improved attitude from the soon to be 30 year old. It is also possible that Perez may arrive this Spring knowing that this is the final year on his current contract and if he is going to find work after the 2011 season he is going to need to contribute on the field and behave in the clubhouse. We know the Mets will not look to bring him back once this contract runs its course but if there is not a big turnaround he will find it very hard to continue his career. As such, Perez could end up being one of the team’s top options to fill the final spot in the rotation at the onset of next season.
On the minor league front the team likely has limited options. Bonser has made 60 starts in his career but none have come since 2008. After missing most of the 2009 season due to injury he split 2010 between the Boston and Oakland organizations. He remained a starter while in the minor leagues but worked solely out of the bullpen in 15 Major League appearances. O’Connor spent 2010 with the Mets AAA Buffalo team, working solely out of the bullpen. However, his career prior to last season was primarily as a starter, including making 20 starts in 2006 with Washington. Considering they only signed minor league contracts it seems likely that they will both begin the season in Buffalo barring a dominant Spring. However, in the long run they could each be depth options if the team needs a starter in a pinch sometime during the season.
The team’s top pitching prospect, Brad Holt, has yet to appear in a game above AA and is not yet on the team’s 40-man roster. It seems highly doubtful that the team would consider him seriously for a spot in the rotation just yet as there is no need to rush his arrival. Holt reached AA for the first time midway through last season and struggled upon moving up to the level. In 9 starts totaling 30.0 innings he went 1-5 with a 10.20 ERA, 6.9 BB/9, and 7.5 K/9. He did follow that performance with a stint in the Arizona Fall League where he showed some of the promise that placed him on Baseball America’s list of the team’s top prospects - in 4 starts he went 2-1 with a 2.92 ERA. Even after the AFL performance it seems possible the team may have Holt begin 2011 at AA for additional seasoning. He presumably could be an option late in the 2011 season but the safe bet is that he won’t have an impact before then.
The Mets are ultimately going to miss having Santana at the front of their rotation for the first half of the 2011 season so their desire to bring in a starter with a proven track record can certainly be understood. However, given the team’s limited financial wiggle room and internal options the need to add another starter may not be as significant as once thought. Mejia seems like a logical choice to get the first chance at the role, barring any new additions between now and Opening Day. Surprisingly, the team’s best option, Perez, might be the one being least considered for the job.