I apologize for taking so long between installments. I've been fairly busy over the past week and a half studying for midterms and preparing for job interviews, and I originally planned to take a look at the entire pitching staff in this post, an ill-advised idea when the sight of Guillermo Mota's ERA still makes me want to run away from my computer screaming in horror even though there are no more close games for him to destroy. With that unpleasant thought out of the way, let's get to the starters.
A Look Back
There are two different ways of looking at the Mets starting pitchers. The negative view is that their poor performance late in the year was a key factor in the team blowing a 7-game division lead. The positive view is that their stellar performance early in the year put the Mets in position to have a lead to squander. Both of these views have a good deal of truth to them. Let's take a closer look at the 8 different pitchers who made at least 5 starts for the Mets in 2007, in order of the number of starts made.
Tom Glavine: Glavine led the Mets with 34 starts and 200 1/3 innings during the year in which he picked up his 300th career win. Of course, it's that 34th start that sticks in the mind. I'm sure you've all had enough of that particular set of gory details by now, but there were other starts of his that were every bit as damaging. In fact, Game 162 was the 7th time in 2007 that Glavine gave up at least as many runs as innings pitched (the Mets actually won one of those games by virtue of Derek Lowe giving up 9 runs in the first 3 innings). While Glavine did have his flashes of brilliance and stretches of adequacy, the shellackings were a bit too frequent given that he was supposed to be the stabilizing force in the rotation. His strikeout rate dropped to 4 per 9 innings this year, a major decrease from the 5.95 he put up last year and his lowest strikeout rate since his first full season in the majors back in 1988. While Glavine has never been a hard thrower and generally "pitches to contact," this is still troubling. Perhaps he lost some velocity and the difference between his fastball and changeup is no longer enough to keep hitters off-balance. Perhaps hitters adjusted to his change in approach and he wasn't able to make counter-adjustments. He's a Hall of Famer, but he's not delivering that caliber of performance at this point in his career.
John Maine: At the beginning of July, Maine looked like a huge All-Star snub. By the middle of August, he looked like he had hit a wall, getting pounded and taking too many pitches to get through too few innings while every so often pitching like the guy who dazzled in the first half. On September 29, he found himself where he had already been once in his brief career - on the mound at Shea Stadium as the Mets clung to life by the slimmest of margins. As he had already done once, he delivered a stay of execution in the most uplifting fashion (actually, that's a bit of an understatement - even outdueling Chris Carpenter in the playoffs pales in comparison to striking out 14 and giving up nothing but a couple of walks and a weak roller down the 3rd-base line with 2 outs in the 8th). That the team was not able to capitalize on the new lease on life either time does not cheapen what Maine accomplished in situations where many pitchers with more experience or recognition have crumbled. Hopefully, there's another pitcher just like him somewhere in the farm system of whatever team might be foolish enough to hire Jim Duquette.
Oliver Perez: When he's on, there are few that can match his dominance. When he's not, disaster seems to lurk behind every pitch. There are certain aspects of his performance this year that demand a more in-depth look, but for now a good summary of what Oliver Perez brings to the mound is as follows: Perez struck out at least 8 batters in 9 of his 29 starts this year. He walked at least 4 batters in 8 starts. In one start, he did both of those things.
Orlando Hernandez: As El Duque showed us in his first 22 starts of the year (when he allowed 2 runs or less in 15 of those starts), he's capable of being awesome when healthy even at the age of 41. Unfortunately, as he showed us from August 30 onward (2 awful starts, a couple of weeks lost to injuries, and a trio of relief appearances in the final week of the season), "when healthy" is the key word in the previous sentence. He doesn't seem to be able to physically handle a full season of starting at this stage of his career.
Jorge Sosa: In many ways, Sosa is the 2007 Mets pitching staff in a nutshell. Early in the year, he was a starter who pitched well beyond expectations. Later on, he was a reliever who was overworked and/or mishandled and who more often than not stunk down the stretch. I still think he was rushed back from the hamstring injury he suffered running the bases in Philadelphia on June 30, and his early-season performance was not supported by his peripherals, but he did a pretty decent job for a free-agent signing I absolutely hated over the winter.
Mike Pelfrey: He walked too many batters and didn't strike out enough. He was often unable to throw anything other than his fastball for strikes. Yet he was not as bad as his record - the Mets scored 3 runs or less in 7 of the 12 games he started - and that start against Atlanta served as a reminder of what he has the potential to be if he can put it all together.
Brian Lawrence: Right-handed pitchers who throw 83 mph "fastballs" can't afford to walk people. I often wonder how things might have turned out had Philip Humber started that game in RFK instead of him (keep in mind that this would have also meant that Humber wouldn't have been pitching on a zillion days' rest when he faced the Nationals at Shea).
Pedro Martinez: Talk about saving the best for last. Even without the blazing fastball he once had, Pedro is a special, special pitcher and one that we're fortunate to have the opportunity to watch. His 5 starts included a pair against elite offenses and one in the launching pad that is Great American Ballpark, and he still struck out 32 batters in 28 innings while walking just 7 and not giving up any home runs. Those are just sick numbers for any pitcher, let alone one coming off major surgery. If that's a sneak preview of what he's going to do next year...
A Look Forward
It's clear to me that the Mets already have 3 of the 5 spots in their rotation set for next year. A top 3 of Pedro Martinez, John Maine, and Oliver Perez is nothing to sneeze at, especially if you believe that the opportunity to learn from a master over the course of a full season will lead to improvement by the younger starters. Glavine has already declined his option for next year, and if the Mets go after him, it should only be to drive up the price Atlanta would have to pay for a pitcher who is going to command #2 starter money for #4 starter performance. As for El Duque, it's worth considering the idea of moving him to the bullpen, as a good (translation: not Aaron Sele) reliever who can pitch multiple innings 2 or 3 times a week might be more valuable than a good starter who can't handle a 30-start workload. Pelfrey and Humber should battle for the 5th starter role during spring training.
Of course, that leaves one slot in the rotation to be filled. While many have advocated a trade for Johan Santana, I don't think that's the way to go. Don't get me wrong, I'd love the idea of Santana as a Met - in 2009. I just don't think that giving up half the farm system for one year of him is a smart plan, as I highly doubt he would sign a long-term deal with a team that traded for him without testing the market as a free agent. There's always the idea of letting Aaron Heilman start, but that seems highly unlikely, as even moving El Duque to the 'pen might not be enough to offset the removal of Heilman. Having both Pelfrey and Humber start the year in the rotation is possible, but it may not be something the Mets are comfortable with. If the Mets acquire a starter, either via a trade or as a free agent, they should look for someone who had a bit of a down year but has the ability to do better than that as a Met. That sounds as though it's easier said than done, but it's actually rather simple - a fly-ball pitcher who spent 2007 on a team that plays in a bandbox and/or has defensively challenged outfielders would most likely pitch better for a team that plays half its games in Shea Stadium and has solid outfield defense. It's exactly what Omar Minaya has already done once before in acquiring El Duque from the Diamondbacks during the 2006 season. If he can do it again, the Mets may have a "surprising" success story in their 2008 rotation.