Bullpen Options

Posted on March 25, 2010 by

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Jon Niese seemingly has won the fifth starter’s job, which helps clear things up in the bullpen, too. Fernando Nieve and Hasanori Takahashi, both nominally in the mix for the rotation, now figure to be relievers. Two big questions remain for the pen – Will Jenrry Mejia make the club as a set-up man and How many relievers will be on the Opening Day roster?

What we know for sure is the Francisco Rodriguez and Pedro Feliciano will go north with the big club. It would be a surprise if both of the Japanese imports – Takahashi and Ryota Igarashi – did not do likewise. But after that there is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding who else will start the season in the majors. Let’s take a look at the candidates.

Bobby Parnell did a fine job early in the year. In his first 29 games, covering 23 IP, he had a 1.96 ERA with 20 Ks. But even then Parnell was walking a bit of a tightrope, having allowed 37 baserunners for a 1.85 WHIP. Before the switch to a starter in early August, Parnell had a 5.56 ERA thanks to 38 baserunners in 22.2 IP. The starter experiment failed like everyone expected and Parnell ended the season back in the pen, where he pitched well. Parnell should have a spot as a reliever, but stranger things have happened.

Nieve posted a nice ERA last year with the Mets but his peripherals were far worse than his 2.95 ERA would suggest. His FIP was 4.90 while his xFIP was 5.41, meaning that Nieve was the recipient of some good fortune while on the mound last year. He stranded runners at an 85.3 percent clip last year and gave up home runs on just 7.7 percent of fly balls, numbers unsustainable over a full season. In the minors, Nieve showed much better strikeout and walk numbers than he did in the majors, so there is some reason for optimism. But the Mets need to decide if his future lies as a starter or a reliever. He throws four pitches, so he has a starter’s repertoire, but his fastball might benefit from fewer innings.

Sean Green was supposed to be a suitable replacement for the good Aaron Heilman. But in his first 16 games he had fans longing for 2008-era Heilman, instead. Green allowed 15 ER in his first 15.1 IP. But over his final 63 games, Green posted a 3.15 ERA and gave up just 2 HR in 54.1 IP. Green is having a rough Spring, with 6.75 ERA in his seven outings. Once again, he is being hurt by walks. Green has allowed 8 BB in 6.2 IP in Grapefruit League action. Last year, Green had a 4.65 BB/9, the highest mark of his career. His M.O. is to pitch around LHB. Last year Green issued 23 BB in 130 PA to lefties, compared to 13 BB in 186 PA to righties. Will the Mets be content to carry a pitcher that can essentially only get RHB out in key moments?

Elmer Dessens fared much better against lefties last year than Green, although he did have some trouble with the gopher ball against them, allowing 3 HR in 57 ABs versus LHB. But overall, Dessens was effective out of the bullpen for the Mets last year, with a 3.31 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP. But like Nieve, Dessens peripherals painted a different picture. Both his FIP and xFIP were in the 5.3 range, as Dessens stranded 82.8 percent of his baserunners. Still, the Mets were impressed enough with his performance that they re-signed him, albeit to a minor league deal. Dessens is having a strong Spring, as he is 2-0 with a 1.59 ERA in seven games.

But the big unknown is what the club will do with Mejia. Clearly, manager Jerry Manuel wants him to make the team so it will be Omar Minaya’s call if Mejia ends up in the minors to continue honing his craft as a starter. Because everyone can see his talent, it is easy to envision Mejia being a successful reliever in the majors this year. But is it best for his future to be classified as a reliever now? Many will point out that Johan Santana started his career as a reliever. But Santana pitched multiple innings in 23 of his 30 appearances his first season in the majors (five starts). Does anyone think the Mets will use Mejia that way?

I am sure there are cases in history where a rookie was put in the bullpen, used as a short man, and then returned as a starter. I just can’t think of any. Remember, the Red Sox were going to use Jonathan Papelbon as a reliever his first year and then move him back to the rotation. At least that was the plan; we know they did not follow through with it.

If Mejia breaks camp as a short reliever, and he has success, the Mets are likely ending his career as a starter. Without much in the way of impact pitching prospects, it seems a waste to limit Mejia’s chances of making it as a starter. It would be penny wise and pound foolish.

If I was constructing the bullpen, I would take Rodriguez, Feliciano, Takahashi, Igarashi, Parnell, Reed and Dessens. Mejia would be in Double-A, trying to get his first win above A-ball and Nieve would be in Triple-A, awaiting the team’s first injury.

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Posted in: Perspectives