With Victor Zambrano out for the season after tearing the flexor tendon in his pitching elbow on Saturday, the Mets will scramble to find someone who they can slot into the fourth spot in their starting rotation. As much as some fans may dislike Zambrano, it’s not as if league-average innings-munchers grow on a tree somewhere. With an unreliable Steve Trachsel at #3 and, eventually, Brian Bannister at #5, the Mets need to find a suitable long-term replacement for Zambrano. Here are some of their options.
Fill from Within (Major Leagues)
The Mets have a couple of options already on the active roster, the first of which, Darren Oliver, pitched admirably in relief of Zambrano. Oliver has 228 career starts to his credit and a career ERA+ of 93, which is 7% below average. Willie Randolph has already said that he doesn’t expect to move “Ollie” into the rotation because he has been so effective out of the bullpen. Still, you’ll have a tough time convincing me that it’s more important to have an effective long man than it is to have a semi-reliable fourth starter. Moreover, since Pedro Feliciano was called up and has pitched effectively, the Mets need not rely on Oliver to be a LOOGY (Lefty One Out GuY), making it even easier to transition him from the bullpen to the rotation.
If not Oliver, then Aaron Heilman would seem a logical choice to replace Zambrano. As a starter, Heilman pitched extremely well in winter league play as well as in spring training, and it’s no secret that he fancies a return to the rotation. Again, Randolph has repeatedly stated that he has no intention of breaking up the big three (Billy Wagner, Duaner Sanchez, Heilman), and it’s certainly hard to argue that point considering how well the Mets’ bullpen has performed this season. However, with Jorge Julio pitching much better of late, maybe the Mets can afford to pull Heilman from the pen and call up MetsGeek favorite Heath Bell, who is dominating AAA (again).
Fill from Within (Minor Leagues)
If the Mets decide to leave their big league bullpen as-is, they have several arms to draw from via their farm system. John Maine should be back from the disabled list in a couple of weeks and represents a viable long-term solution. He has very good career minor league numbers, and he pitched reasonably well in his one big league start this season. His performance against the Nationals last week was especially admirable considering that he pitched with a broken blood vessel in the middle finger of his pitching hand, which impeded his control and forced him to avoid throwing his curveball altogether.
Lima Time! was unspectacular on Sunday, and has generally been unspectacular throughout his career. However, he does eat innings and he (usually) keeps the walks to a minimum. The Mets’ defense is very good at turning batted balls into outs, as evidenced by their team DER of .718, good for 5th in the National League. So, the alarming frequency with which Lima puts balls into play isn’t likely to be as costly with the Mets’ defense behind him as it would be, say, with the Phillies’ defense behind him (.655 team DER).
Another name that has popped up since Zambrano’s injury is that of Jeremi Gonzalez. Gonzalez has pitched effectively this season for AAA Norfolk, sporting a 3.03 ERA in 35.2 innings and a solid 30-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He has also done a good job keeping the ball in the park, surrendering just a single homerun so far this season. His 2006 performance notwithstanding, Gonzalez’s career is spotty, as he has posted a 4.84 ERA over five big league seasons with the Cubs, Devil Rays and, most recently, the Red Sox. His career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.44 is not especially newsworthy.
A little big further down the organizational ladder are two promising young pitchers: Mike Pelfrey and Alay Soler. Both righties were outstanding at High-A St. Lucie this season, but had varying degrees of success in their first exposure to AA. Pelfrey struggled a bit in his first start with Binghamton, but Soler was very impressive in his. There’s virtually no chance that we’ll see Pelfrey this season, but Soler is 26 years old and has some professional experience under his belt pitching in Cuba, so a callup at some point this season is definitely a possibility.
Fill from Outside the Organization
The ludicrous Milledge-for-Zito rumors aside, there are number of decent starting pitchers who will be free agents as season’s end who may become available any time between now and the July 31st trading deadline. Here are some of the names:
There is a sliding scale of availability for these guys, ranging from very (Padilla, Hernandez) to hardly (Pettitte, Lilly). Omar Minaya will no doubt have his beak in the trade market, and if there’s an arm out there that might be available you can be sure that he’ll have that team’s general manager on the horn to test the waters.
Given the tendencies of Willie Randolph, I would guess that the Mets will be inclined to bring up Jeremi Gonzalez to fill Zambrano’s spot for the time being while Lima Time! will continue to take Bannister’s spot until either Bannister or Maine is ready to come back. The Mets’ next fifteen games are against the Phillies, Brewers, Cardinals and Yankees, all teams with extremely potent offenses. The Mets’ pitching, which has anchored the team to 21 wins in its first 31 games, will be repeatedly tested in the coming weeks. We’ll see where we stand when the smoke clears.