Today marks less than two weeks until the day pitchers and catchers report to St. Lucie. Not that we’re counting or anything.
Last year I did a similar ten questions preview of Spring Training (gotta love the comments). My predictions were like Terrence Roberts — dead-on when it counts.
Four non-roster pitchers made the bullpen, Joe McEwing was traded before the season began, Ramon Castro made the team, Scott Strickland ended up pitching in the majors for the Astros, Heath Bell and Jason Phillips were not on the Opening Day roster and Matt Ginter was traded.
Okay, so Andres Galarraga did not make the team like I projected he would and Victor Diaz did not suffer the same fate that Jae Seo did in 2004. But I’ll give myself credit where it’s due.
Enough of my self-praise, here are the ten things to pay extra attention to this spring:
1. Will Aaron Heilman’s success in winter ball translate against a major league lineup?
Heilman is, without a doubt, the most important player at Port St. Lucie this spring. The Mets are putting a lot of faith in Heilman to be the third starter in a suspect rotation. Heilman is getting his wish; he asked to start. The Mets effectively traded Jae Seo and Kris Benson to free up a spot for Heilman. That’s plenty of pressure right there.
It is vital that Heilman establish himself early in 2006. The Mets generally know what sort of performances they will get from the rest of the rotation. Heilman is the wild card. Spring Training will be a good indicator of what we might see in 2006.
2. Which pitcher will replace Heilman’s setup slot in the bullpen?
Pick your poison here. Jorge Julio, Duaner Sanchez and Chad Bradford, all offseason acquisitions, will each get an opportunity to become Billy Wagner’s primary setup man. All three have flaws. Julio has notoriously bad control whereas Sanchez and Bradford cannot get lefties out.
These three pitchers may represent pitching coach Rick Peterson’s foremost project in 2006. If he can turn one of these three into an effective setup man, then it is a substantial accomplishment.
3. Who in the bullpen is going to get lefties out in 2006?
This is shaping up to be the finest positional battle this spring. Before Heilman was moved to the rotation, he was heralded as the one who would retire lefties. Plan B doesn’t look so peachy.
The Mets have all of three left-handed pitchers on the 40 man roster: Glavine, Wagner and Royce Ring. Non-roster lefties include former Met Pedro Feliciano, Big Unit killer Dae-Sung Koo, crusty veteran Darren Oliver, career underachiever Matt Perisho and Mike Venafro, who has not pitched in the majors since 2004.
As I’ve said before, my vote goes to Venafro, but that is not based on much. The winner of the spot will be judged solely on their Spring Training performance, obviously a small sample size. The Mets would be wise to keep a few of the pitchers who lose out on Opening Day in the organization as insurance.
4. Who in the bullpen is going to get screwed over this spring?
Listed in alphabetical order: Brian Bannister, Heath Bell, John Maine, Juan Padilla, Steve Schmoll. All five will pitch well enough to make the Opening Day bullpen, but the depth that Omar has assembled squeezes these pitchers out to Norfolk.
Maine and Bannister are two pitchers to definitely watch this spring. Both are sure to be called upon during the regular season when one of the aging starters goes down to injury.
5. Does Brett Boone have any semblance of talent remaining?
Probably not. Still, I applaud the Mets for only bringing him in as a non-roster invite. That way he’s a no risk proposition. If anything, he will stimulate the competition at second-base and perhaps light a fire under Kazuo Matsui’s ass.
If Boone has a decent spring, look for the Mets to definitely add him to the roster. He would likely take a spot away from Chris Woodward.
6. Will either of Jeff Keppinger or Anderson Hernandez head north with the major league team?
Highly unlikely, especially given the addition of Jose Valentin and the re-signing of Woodward. The only way Hernandez makes the Mets is if he starts at second base, which barring injury, he will not. Keppinger is buried within this organization. He needs a spectacular spring to even be considered. If both start the season in Norfolk, which is highly possible, I would not be surprised to see Keppinger play shortstop. At this point in his career, if he is going to survive, he needs to add some versatility.
7. How much time is Mike Pelfrey going to get against major leaguers?
Yusmeiro Petit pitched six innings and Phil Humber threw two in 2005 Spring Training, but I would expect Pelfrey to get a better look this spring. He is coming off of quite the layoff and if I’m Mets management I want to see what he has. He will see solid time early in the exhibition season. In addition, the World Baseball Classic might give Pelfrey more innings for the Mets when a number of Met pitchers leave the team.
With the lack of pitching prospects the Mets system has to offer, Pelfrey is on the fast track, make no doubt about it.
8. Who is this year’s Japanese reclamation project?
His name is Yusaku Iriki and he is a career .500 pitcher after eight seasons in Japan. He is 33 years old. Iriki started 20 games last year for Bob Costas’ favorite Japanese Pac League team, the Nippon Ham Fighters. Predictably, Iriki’s best year was in 2001, as a 28-year-old. He played for the Japanese Yankees, the Yomiuri Giants.
He does throw the shuto, which is apparently the Japanese version of the screwball. Check this out for more info.
Iriki was a strikeout pitcher in Japan, which means he will make this team as the long reliever and struggle horribly with his control.
9. Is Mitch Wylie our new Lenny DiNardo?
Not a chance. Wylie has never posted a minor league WHIP under 1.22, mostly due to the number of hits he surrenders. Wylie is intriguing because of his strikeout rate, which has improved as he climbs the ladder. However, he just turned 29 and it would be absolutely shocking if Wylie makes this team because of the bullpen depth the Mets have.
10. Okay Matt, you have told me about everyone who is not going to make the team. Can you give me some kind of surprise move?
Sure. Alay Soler will make this team.
Last year I wondered aloud if he would ever make it to the states in time for Spring Training. He couldn’t even make it for the regular season. The one-year setback does not help Soler’s chances, but if everything we have heard about the Cuban hurler is true, he has just as good of a shot, if not better, than many of the fringe bullpen pitchers. Soler’s future may even lie as a starter.
Book it — at least four of these will come true.