The long, cold winter appears as if it has no end in sight, but inexplicably the calendar tells us that spring training is upon us. As pitchers and catchers report, several pitchers reporting will be arriving with a little strut in their step. The fight for fifth starter will likely be the story of the spring, with Mike Pelfrey and Phil Humber the odds-on favorites to be the final two in the ring slugging it out. However, one only has to look back to last spring to remember that what is expected is not always what winds up happening.
Aaron Heilman was supposed to be the Mets fifth starter this past season until a guy by the name of Bannister showed up and knocked the socks off everyone down in Florida. Granted, Heilman also had more value to the Mets by bolstering their bullpen, but Bannister was not the odds-on favorite when spring began last season. Let that at least be a lesson to prognosticators that while on paper Pelfrey and Humber may look like the goods, they might be better off honing their skills a bit more in the minors. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that someone with a bit more experience like Alay Soler or Jason Vargas could outpitch them in spring and surprise everyone.
The loss of Dave Williams for three months with a herniated disc helped everyone else in the field by eliminating one more contender. That is, until last week, when Chan Ho Park was added to the mix. Park’s agent seems to already be anointing him the Mets third starter. It’s not yet known what the Mets intend to do with Park, but I think it’s safe to assume he’s more likely to be in the mix for fifth starter than leaping ahead of John Maine. There is one question the Mets will need to ask themselves: is it safer to rely on the experienced arms of mediocre pitchers like Aaron Sele, Jorge Sosa, and Chan Ho Park or roll the dice on youth loaded with potential?
Surprises aside, let’s take a closer look at the top contenders.
2006 Stats (A+/AA/AAA): 2.43 ERA, 81H/96.1IP, 109 K, 33 BB
Pelfrey, showing some tongue and a great fastball, made an appearance at Shea late last season, demonstrating that, at the very least, he could be some sort of rainmaker for the offense—Mets’ hitters averaged 8.5 runs per game when he pitched. The problem with Pelfrey is that while his fastball is exceptional with good control and movement, he lacks a solid secondary repertoire. It was noted that he began working on a more traditional slider while attending the Arizona Fall League, but it’s yet to be seen if he’s honed it enough to be effective.
His curve and change are above average but he needs to be able to locate them with more precision. John Sickels of MinorLeagueBall.com believes the problem with his breaking pitch is overblown, as he had displayed a decent one in college and just needs to have more confidence in it. If he regains that confidence this spring, he will be the prohibitive favorite to win this job.
2006 Stats (A+/AA): 2.83 ERA,76.1 IP, 56H, 79 K, 20 BB
Humber recovered quickly from the Tommy John surgery which he underwent midway through his 2005 season. Unlike Pelfery, Humber has significantly better secondary offerings, boasting a strong curve ball, change up, and splitter. Oddly enough, the Tommy John Surgery actually allowed him time to improve his out-pitches, which complement his low-90’s fastball. His curveball is especially impressive: Matt Meyers of Baseball America noted it as one of the best in the minors.
Humber’s ability to throw a variety of pitches will cause some scouts to place him ahead of Pelfrey. Humber’s durability, however, is still a question mark. He left the Arizona Fall League early because of a sore shoulder, and only began to pitch a full season since his surgery this past year, throwing a little under 80 innings. While Humber shows great promise, it may be wise to allow him time and not overdo it.
The pragmatic side of me believes Humber is best equipped for the job, but I fear of throwing him to the wolves before he shows he can endure the wear and tear of a major league assignment. This spring we should get a better idea of where these two talented pitchers are in their development and which one of them is ready for to make the leap. It’s a nice dilemma to have, choosing between two pitchers who have a bright future ahead of them and will hopefully be pitching together in the same rotation for many years to come.
Chan Ho Park
2006 Stats (San Diego): 4.81 ERA, 136.2 IP, 146H, 96 K, 44 BB
A once promising prospect in the Dodgers organization, Park’s career seemed to unravel after joining the Rangers with a five year $65 million dollar deal. Before that he had four very good, sub-4.00 ERA seasons, where he averaged eight or more strikeouts a game, pitching in 30 or more games during each of those seasons. Once he left Los Angeles, things began to take a turn for the worse. Aside from his first season in Texas where he started 25 games, he only appeared in 23 games combined over the next two seasons. He found himself on the DL five times during those years in Texas and wound up being shipped to San Diego, where he finished the season with close to 30 appearances for both teams. In 2006, Park began showing some improvement in May and June when he pitched eleven games, with an ERA of between 3.76 and 4.00, but Park’s season was again interrupted in August due to a rare ailment that led to intestinal bleeding. Before landing on the DL, however, opponents caught up to him, batting .330 against him in four games in July.
It’s difficult to say what to expect from Park at this point; perhaps under the tutelage of Rick Peterson, Park might be able to tap into the pitcher he once was, but it would be an improvement just to see him step onto the field enough to make that happen. It will be interesting to see how many chances the Mets give him in spring with so many arms fighting it out for a chance to join the rotation. Clearly they had to see something that would cause them to add another contender to the mix. Opportunities to impress may become more limited for others considering the late acquisition of an experienced pitcher like Park.