On the whole, K-Rod’s contract looks bad enough even without the option vesting. Not Ollie Perez bad, but Luis Castillo bad. Certainly by production relative to amount paid, the deal has not been worth it for the Mets. Fangraphs estimates K-Rod has been worth a paltry $6.8m over the last two seasons, a far cry from the $24m he’s been paid. To be fair, they estimate he’s been worth more than $9.4m once in his career, so by this measure relievers are clearly way overvalued in free agency by everyone, not just Omar Minaya.
But, and I’m about to do something against my very nature and say that I think Minaya actually made the right call in lavishing the excessive deal on K-Rod. Look, if you made a rule never to offer more than say, 2 years and $18m to a closer not named Mariano Rivera, it would probably work out well for you. But there are exceptions to any rule. Take Cliff Lee. You should probably have a rule against lavishing 6 years and $120m on 32 year old pitchers too. But despite the fact that Lee is highly unlikely to produce enough value in terms of wins, WAR, ERA, FIP or whatever else to justify the money the Phillies guaranteed him, doing so was not a bad move for Philadelphia. Having Lee for the next few years could make the difference between Philly winning a World Series or two, and, ya know, not doing that.
You need to take a similar thought process into account when evaluating K-Rod’s contract. It’s possible that Minaya thought K-Rod’s contract would have been a smart deal even for the Royals or Pirates, but I can’t get into Omar’s brain, so I’ll take it on (probably misguided) faith that Omar knew the contract was excessive, but thought it could push the Mets over the top.
Now the question is, despite the combined 151 wins of the last two seasons, was it reasonable to think signing K-Rod could push the Mets over the top? Take yourself back to the winter of ‘08-‘09. The Mets have just seen Billy Wagner’s injury submarine a promising season. They have a slew of elite players (Wright, Reyes, Beltran and Johan) in their primes, two young guys who showed considerable promise the previous season (Dan Murphy and Mike Pelfrey) as well as a contingent of seemingly dependable veteran contributors who vary from pretty good to useful, (Carlos Delgado, Ryan Church, John Maine, Luis Castillo, Brian Schneider, Ramon Castro, Oliver Perez, Pedro Feliciano, and newly signed Tim Redding).
If you had been projecting the 2009 Mets by WAR, before K-Rod, you would probably get something like the following:
Wright: 6.5 WAR (7.6 WAR in 2008)
Beltran: 6.5 (7.1)
Reyes: 5.5 (6)
Delgado: 2.5 (3)
Church: 2.5 (1.7) (Church had 6.8 WAR over 1119 PA during the prior three seasons. That works out to 3 WAR over 500 PA and 3.7 over 600. It seems crazy in retropsect, but projecting 2.5 WAR wasn’t insane at the time.)
Murphy: 2.5 (1) (It also wasn’t insane to think young Daniel Murphy, who hadn’t had his LF meltdown yet, could be a slightly better than average player in ‘09. After all, he’d been a 1-win player in 150 PA in ‘08.)
Throw in about .5 for Pedro Feliciano, and you have 46 WAR, which would make for about a 90+win team. Sports Illustrated picked the Mets to win the World Series, as did a lot of other people. For that team, K-Rod could make all the difference in the world. He could keep them competitive, keep what happened to the ‘08 Mets from repeating itself. So I don’t think it was nuts for Omar to think K-Rod could turn a 87 or 88-win team into a 90-win team, or a 91-win team into a 95 win team. In other words, he could definitely mean the difference between making the playoffs and not.
Consider the alternatives, which would’ve come down to Luis Ayala or some other below average pitcher, Brian Fuentes (who got 2 years/$17.5m), or a trade. Unlike K-Rod, Fuentes had no significant record of success beyond 2008, in which he struck out 3 more batters per 9 IP than he did in 2007, and allowed half as many homers per 9. That was just as dangerous a contract as K-Rod, it was just smaller, but with a much smaller upside. And no, K-Rod hasn’t been great, but neither has Fuentes. Could Omar have predicted K-Rod was going to give up once the Mets were out of it in ‘09? Or that he was going to hurt himself punching an old family member? Probably not.
The other option was J.J. Putz, whom the Mets traded for in addition to acquiring K-Rod. People loved the acquisition of Putz. Just loved it! I specifically remember Keith Law writing how it was a much better move than getting K-Rod, which was ludicrous since Putz had been hurt and mediocre the year before, and the Mets had to give up a bunch of young players to get him. My guess is that you shouldn’t have been expecting much from Putz — who got hurt anyway.
So yea, it may be counterintuitive, but signing K-Rod may have been a smart move for Minaya. Not smart like signing Carlos Beltran, but smart like signing Pedro Martinez — maybe it didn’t work out so great, but the thought process wasn’t wrong. Yep, I just made the case that one of Omar Minaya’s worst moves was actually not a bad one. It’s bizarro day.
Yes, there’s some UPSIDE here. UPSIDE is, as you may have heard, good. Ideally, you want to have a pitching staff like the Phillies — four pitchers who are known quantities and fall somewhere between really good and great, plus one fat innings eater for comedy and for eating stuff. Alternately, a pitching staff like the Rays’ — comprised mostly of talented young guys who haven’t hit their peaks — is also not a bad thing to have. The Mets staff falls into neither of these easy categorizations, but it certainly has some UPSIDE. A pitching staff consisting of a bunch of Kevin Millwood’s or another consistently mediocre veteran would stand a good chance of being better than the Mets staff this year, but it would lack the UPSIDE to be good enough to get the Mets into the playoffs if things went right, and also the UPSIDE to improve enough in the coming seasons to make the Mets a contender.
Of course, with UPSIDE comes downside. And there’s a ton of downside. Other than Mike Pelfrey, the Mets don’t have a single starting pitcher who you can rely on to any significant extent, and Pelf isn’t exactly Felix Hernandez. Would you be surprised if Jon Niese’s ERA was 3.5 this season? What about if it was 5.5? Me neither. The same goes for R.A. Dickey. Would it shock you if I came back from the future, Terminator style, and told you Chris Young, Chris Capuano and Dillon Gee combined to pitch about 125 innings with a 6 ERA. It shouldn’t. But it also shouldn’t shock you if I told you those guys combined for 300 IP and a 4.5 ERA. And if time-traveling me told you Johan Santana made 15 starts with an ERA around 3.5, that shouldn’t surprise you. But nor should it surprise you to learn he made only 5 starts on the year.
Remove the names for a moment and the Mets staff consists of one solid veteran, a guy going into this second season, a 35-year-old who just had his first major league success, a guy with 33 career major league innings, a guy who hasn’t even hit 200 combined innings in the last three seasons, a guy coming off Tommy John surgery who last had success as a major league starter came in 2006, and a former Cy Young having his third straight off-season surgery. Even The Riddler didn’t have this many question marks.
Realistically, you have to hope Pelf, Niese and Dickey can make about 95 starts in which Dickey repeats last season, while Pelf and Niese each improve a little; that Santana comes back, makes 10-15 starts around the level he pitched last season; and that a combination of Young, Capuano and Gee (and probably Jennry Mejia, Pat Misch, and others) can combine for 50 passable starts. I’d bet on Capuano as the guy most likely to be good at the back of the rotation. Chris Young seems the more popular choice, but Capuano is coming off a one-time injury that seems very fixable these days. Young is always hurt with this or that. So now transfer that scenario to WAR and you probably end up with something like the following:
Pelfrey: 3.5 WAR Niese: 3.5 Dickey: 3 Johan Santana: 1.5 Capuano/Young/Gee/Others: 2
In this scenario, 13.5 WAR would probably give the Mets just good enough pitching to stay on the fringes of contention, provided their positional players are relatively healthy. As a point of comparison, The Yankees, Rays and Reds (all playoffs teams) had 10.7, 11 and 11.9 WARs for their starting pitchers last season. The downside scenario probably gets you more like six or seven WAR from Pelf, Niese and Dickey and zero (or even a negative WAR) from everyone else. And that’s the downside before considering injuries. What if Pelf gets hurt? (which as I read over at Amazin Avanue via Fangraphs, is a pretty likely occurrence). What if there are no major injuries, but Pelf just misses 3 starts, R.A. Dickey can’t recapture last year’s magic, Niese experiences a sophomore slump, the Mets can’t find a decent pitcher among the Young/Capuano/Gee trifecta and Johan just can’t make it back? We could have an epically bad pitching staff on our hands. You never know. Even Oliver Perez could end up prominently involved.
I just just vomited a little.
And there’s no hope in the minors. Jennry Mejia — who’s looked excellent both times I’ve seen him this spring — is unlikely to be ready. The team’s only other premiere pitching prospect, Matt Harvey, is just starting his first pro season and the rest of the Mets minor league pitchers are more “guys you should remember their names, just in case” than guys with a good chance to contribute anything. So remember the names Steven Matz, Jeurys Familia, Juan Urbina, Brad Holt, Greg Peavey and Robert Carson. Just don’t expect to see them in Queens any time remotely soon, and maybe ever.
Now, I’ve illuminated every scenario from epically bad, to just bad, to good for the Mets pitching and it sounds bad. But going forward, I like this staff enough. There’s UPSIDE! Pelf and Niese should be good, cheap pitchers for the next 5 years. Dillon Gee appears to be a useful fill-in/AAAA/long-reliever, Johan Santana should contribute more in 2012 than in 2011, R.A. Dickey should be a league-average innings eater for the next two seasons and Mejia has all kinds of UPSIDE! The 2011 Mets are unlikely to have good pitching, but the 2012 Mets could find themselves with two good young pitchers, a good veteran pitcher, a solid veteran innings eater and a electric young UPSIDE! arm in the rotation. That wouldn’t be so bad. And who knows, maybe Mejia, Harvey, Pelf and Niese will someday form a good young rotation that is the envy of baseball, Generation K arrived 15 years late. If you want to dream big, just think — Baseball America projects the Mets starters in 2013 to be 1. Santana, 2. Mejia, 3. Harvey, 4. Pelfrey, 5. Niese. If Johan, Mejia and Harvey are all better than Mike Pelfrey in 2013, the Mets will probably have an excellent pitching staff. Pelf as your 4th best pitcher? Niese as your 5th? How’s that for UPSIDE?
Is it just me, or is Fernando Martinez screwing with us Mets fans each and every year during Spring Training. This year, he’s healthy and, so far, 6-10 with a home run. I know he still doesn’t have the requisite patience at the plate, but in the two games I’ve seen, F-Mart just looks like a real, quality baseball player, and does not seem like any of his body parts are in imminent danger of breaking.
I can’t find any stats to prove this, but doesn’t he do this every year? In 2009 (and given how long F-Mart has been around, it could have been 2008), I distinctly remember the then Teenage Hitting Machine playing awesome baseball for someone his age in Spring Training games, making some nice catches, hitting the ball hard, and just looking like a monster waiting to happen. I don’t remember anything about him last year, so he was probably injured.
But I’ll be damned if I’m going to fall for this again Fernando. You’re not sucking me in this time. I will absolutely not pencil you in as the Mets starting RF in 2012.
Oh, and I’d like to announce that the 2012 Mets Starting RF will be Fernando Martinez. And he’ll be making the All-Star team.
The questions in the headline may seem inconsequential, but they get to the heart of the issues with evaluating relief pitching and building a bullpen: How the hell do you make a good bullpen? And, does it really matter?
As to how to make a bullpen, you could do what the Yankees did and add a good closer (Rafael Soriano) and one of the game’s premiere LOOGYs (Pedro Feliciano) to a bullpen that already has the G.O.A.T. closer (Mariano Rivera) plus a few other useful relievers: Damaso Marte, Dave Robertson and maybe even Fat Joba. But the Yankees will also pay whopping $35m for the privilege of employing those guys, an amount that is a little more than how much the new contracts of Carl Crawford, Carl Pavano and Orlando Hudson will pay them combined this season. So that’s probably not a good model, even for other high-payroll teams like the Mets.
You could also build a bullpen from with within. I should specify: It would be very smart to develop a bullpen from within by drafting a ton of really good arms as starters, and when some are inevitably not very good, shift them to the bullpen. This how the Mets came upon Bobby Parnell. It’s how they came upon Aaron Heilman (he was good at one point, remember?). It’s how the Rangers got Neftali Feliz (who should be a starter, but whatever), and how the Yankees got the G.O.A.T., Mo Rivera. What you absolutely should not do is what Omar Minaya did, and routinely spend high draft picks on relievers. During his brief reign of terror, Minaya for some reason thought it sound strategy to spend a 2006 3rd round pick on a reliever (Joe Smith), and a 2007 1st round pick on a reliever (Eddie Kunz). That’s nonsense.
By contrast, the 2011 Mets bullpen will start with one guy they drafted, as a starter (Parnell), and cost them something like $15m this season, and $12m of that will go to K-Rod.
So the Mets managed to build a bullpen for 2011 without employing either of the above strategies, but is that good? That’s where Misch and Parnell come in. The Mets had the option of bringing back Hisanori Takahashi and Feliciano this offseason, paying each $8m or more over the next two seasons to serve respectively as long-relief man and LOOGY. Will the Mets suffer from having Tim Byrdack and Pat Misch in those roles? I’ll admit that’s a valid question, particularly because the Mets starting pitching figures to be crummy, and they may find themselves trailing 6-1 after 3 innings with a starter who has already thrown 90 pitches on a regular basis. If that becomes a trend, everyone will gripe about how the Mets need another Darren Oliver, who pitched brilliantly in long relief for the ‘06 team. So if Misch (and whomever replaces him) sucks, will the Mets be in trouble?
The honest answer is that I have no idea, but my gut says probably not. For starters, the difference between someone like Oliver and someone like Misch is not as great as you probably think, even though Misch certainly sucks. Oliver is not Roy Halladay, otherwise he wouldn’t be put on mop-up duty. And putting Pat Misch in the game is not like putting me in the game, Pat Misch is a professional pitcher. The difference between even someone like Mike Pelfrey and Oliver is probably a lot greater than the difference between Oliver and Misch. In ‘06 Oliver pitched 81 innings and allowed 31 earned runs. Pat Misch has pitched 99 innings over the last two seasons and allowed 43 earned runs. Let’s say Misch was lucky, and that over the course of 81 long-relief innings a pitcher equivalent to Oliver would allow 12 less runs than Misch would. The Mets team with the Oliver-type would probably win a whopping 1 more game than the team with Misch. Don’t get me wrong, you want to win 1 more game rather than 1 less game, but theoretically upgrading the team by one win by paying to get a guy who isn’t good to begin with, and who will pitch most of his innings in games that are already out of hand (making the 1-win seem dubious), seems like it should be, at best, an extremely low priority.
Now take the second question: Is Bobby Parnell a future closer? My answer is yes, he looks like a person who could successfully close at the major league level. But my evidence is limited. Parnell has pitched 92 innings as a reliever. I’m basing my conclusion on the fact he was solid for a bit in 2009, excellent in 2010, throws really hard, and is relatively young. There are presumably a ton of guys in the major leagues right now who fit that description, and none of them are being anointed the Mets closer-in-waiting.
So back to the initial argument…how do you make a good bullpen, barring having the Yankees finances, or already having a slew of young arms in your farm system ready to go? Well, you don’t use Jennry Mejia as a reliever, I’ll tell you that, and you probably do exactly what the Mets are doing. Start with solid closer and another good reliever, pay about $2m total for a couple guys like Taylor Buchholz and D.J. Carrasco, and then bring in a bunch of guys like Pedro Beato, Tim Brydack and Misch and see what sticks.
So the Mets ‘pen will probably be good enough. But relievers are not very good to begin with, and victim to the dreaded small sample size. During one 45 inning stretch last year, Tim Lincecum had a 6.3 ERA. It’s unlikely anyone who pitches in the Mets bullpen from here to eternity will be as good as Tim Lincecum (I was going to include the Mets past too, but Nolan Ryan ruined that).
So now for the third question I asked in the headline. Does it matter? Eh, probably not. In San Diego’s 2010 league-best bullpen, the five most prolific pitchers were Heath Bell, Luke Gregerson, Edward Mujica, Ryan Webb and Mike Adams. Who? Exactly. Bell is the only NAME there, and he was once traded for Ben Johnson. Gregerson was a 28th round draft pick sent to the Padres as a player to be named later in a trade for Khalil Greene, Mike Adams is a 31-year-old once traded to the Mets for Geremi Gonzalez, Mujica and Webb were also both throw-in in trades and this off-season were dealt by the Padres for Cameron Maybin. Could you really predict those guys would form the best bullpen in baseball?
So frankly, I don’t care that Pat Misch is no Takahashi or Oliver, or that maybe Parnell doesn’t have what it takes to be a closer (though I think he does), or that I’d never heard of Tim Byrdack until a week ago, or that someone had to remind me that Pedro Beato was once a Mets prospect, or that K-Rod doesn’t throw as hard as he used. The Mets bullpen is good enough. The only real worry is how to keep K-Rod’s outlandish 2012 option from vesting. Other than that, it really doesn’t matter that much. This bullpen could be as bad as the team’s 2008 bullpen, it could be as good as last year’s San Diego bullpen, and it will likely fall somewhere in between. Talk to me in 12 months when I forget all this and get irrationally excited about Bobby Parnell, Mets closer…well, unless that K-Rod option vests.
Rotation Mike Pelfrey Jon Niese R.A. Dickey Chris Young Chris Capuano
Bullpen Francisco Rodriguez Bobby Parnell D.J. Carrasco Taylor Buchholz Tim Byrdak Pedro Beato Pat Misch
Lineup Jose Reyes, ss Angel Pagan, cf David Wright, 3b Carlos Beltran, rf Jason Bay, lf Ike Davis, 1b Brad Emaus, 2b Josh Thole, c
Bench Mike Nickeas (while Ronny Paulino serves remaining eight games on suspension) Daniel Murphy Chin-lung Hu Scott Hairston Willie Harris
With the exception of the three bottom spots in the bullpen (which I wouldn’t have even bothered guessing at) this is exactly the team I, and most people, were expecting. So it seems that Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo are going to mercifully go the way of Jeff Franceour, Alex Cora, Gary Matthews and Mike Jacobs (anywhere but here). That means we, as Mets fans, have an enormous decision ahead of up: Picking new targets to project our anger upon when the team inevitably descends into mediocrity!
Now I personally don’t condone booing my team and haven’t done so with the exception of a few games I attended near the end of 2007, when I was expecting the team to contend for the World Series, and was driven crazy by the collapse. And even that, I’m not proud of. But other fans clearly don’t feel the same way, so consider this an exploration of who other’s will take their anger out on — not me personally.
K-Rod is a good target. He’s clearly a jerk, a lot of fans will be worried about his outlandish option vesting, and like all closers, when he screws up, his team usually loses. So he could be booed every time he blows a save, but chances are that’ll happen pretty rarely, and besides, he might only take the field 30-35 times at home, and be successful 95% of the time.
Niese, Thole, Dickey, Ike and Murphy all probably get another year to have the benefit of the doubt on their side, before we turn on them. Nickeas/Paulino, Hu, Hairston, Harris and most of the middle relievers hopefully won’t be playing enough to draw the fan’s ire, and I’d like to think that if those guys are bad enough that they are drawing the fan’s ire, Sandy Alderson and company are smart enough to realize how replaceable bad bench players and middle relievers are and just get someone else. I’d imagine the same goes for Emaus, Young and Capuano. Hopefully, if Capuano sucks every time he pitches, the Mets are smart enough to just try Dillon Gee or Pat Misch or whomever, rather than letting him suck again and again.
As for the team’s good players, Mets fans would certainly turn on Wright, Reyes, Pelfrey or Pagan in an instant if they play poorly enough, but those are the very guys unlikely to play really poorly. Though if the team is truly bad, I could see fans giving Wright the business anyway, because he’s the team’s leader and it would be his fault that Chris Capuano sucks, and Carlos Beltran and Jason Bay are old, and Johan Santana is injured, or something. Wright’s been booed before, and if Derek Jeter can be booed, anything’s possible. Hell, Wright or Reyes could be having an MVP-type season and that won’t stop them being booed with each K, because the team sucks, and fans like to vent their frustration on the biggest target.
Working against Bay is the ludicrous contract furnished by Omar Minaya and non-broke Jeff Wilpon, but by virtue of being a white Canadian dude with no discernible personality, he doesn’t seem to greatly offend people the same way Beltran does. Yea, I don’t know what I was thinking, Beltran will definitely be the one taking the heat, but Bay, Wright and Reyes all better be on watch!