It seems like every year at least one guy seemingly comes out of nowhere to win a job out of Spring Training. These are usually guys who either aren’t on the 40-man roster or are buried below other guys and are thought to be a year or so from contributing to a major league team. Actually, it doesn’t just seem like it; it pretty much happens every year like clockwork. Whether these guys stick around for a whole year and become solid contributors is another matter, however.
In 2006, Darren Oliver resurrected himself from the dead to earn a spot in the bullpen, tossing twelve spring innings with a 1.46 ERA and eleven strikeouts. Oliver, who hadn’t had an ERA below the league average since 1999, threw 81 innings with an ERA 25% better than average.
In 2005, two guys made the bullpen who I would have given little-to-no shot prior to the start of camp: Roberto Hernandez and Manny Aybar. Hernandez, at the age of 40 and two years removed from his last truly successful campaign, became the Mets’ most effective reliever. Aybar did not.
In 2004, Tyler Yates shocked the hell out of me when he won the job as the Mets’ fifth starter out of Spring Training. His competition wasn’t terribly strong—Aaron Heilman, Scott Erickson, James Baldwin, and Matt Ginter were the other competitors, but another spot opened up when Jae Seo fell into disfavor with Mets management. Erickson was named the team’s fourth starter, and Yates earned the fifth slot. Yates was a kid recovering from Tommy John surgery with a live arm and shaky control, and I had him pegged for the bullpen. Instead, he pitched competently in Spring Training and won the job by default, only to lose it soon after. Eric Valent also qualifies here, as I was barely aware he was in camp, and he wound up the team’s top option off the bench.
Like 2004, the 2003 Mets’ had two spots open in the rotation. The principal candidates were Jason Middlebrook, Aaron Heilman, David Cone, Donovan Osborne, and Mike Bacsik, but Seo had a very successful spring, and forced his way into the fourth spot with Cone taking the fifth. The sentimental choice, Cone didn’t surprise me very much, but I thought Seo was Norfolk-bound. He wound up with a better ERA than any starter on the staff save Trachsel.
Each of the past four years has featured some kind of guy who slipped by beneath the radars to win a job no one really expected him to win. The obvious trend that emerged is that all of these guys, except for Valent, have been pitchers filling in the last spot in the bullpen or the last spot in the rotation. Sometimes they’re veterans who are settling for a minor league deal after a couple of off seasons (Oliver, Hernandez, Aybar) but occasionally they’re young guys who get selected by demonstrating what they’ve always done well in the minors (Yates, Seo).
So, what about this year? Who’s going to be our little surprise in 2007?
The way I see it, there are really only three question marks on the roster prior to the start of the season: the last spot on the bench, which will go to either Ben Johnson or David Newhan, the last spot in the rotation, and the last spot in the bullpen. There are a number of candidates for that last spot in the rotation, and I’m not sure there’s a true dark horse among them. Jason Vargas and Alay Soler are probably the closest things to one out there—Newsday listed their odds of success at 30:1 and 50:1, respectively—so I guess they qualify.
The bullpen has two guys who I think could surprise the club right off the bat in Spring Training and earn the last spot in the bullpen, which likely belongs to Ambriorix Burgos at the moment. The first guy is Joe Smith, the sidearming righty who could take Chad Bradford’s place as the team’s right-handed specialist. Smith, who has a phenomenal slider, seems picture-perfect for the role, and despite his limited minor league experience, he always figured to move through the system quickly.
The last guy is Marcos Carvajal, who was just acquired off waivers from the Devil Rays a couple of days ago. Carvajal is a smoke-throwing righty who already has some major league experience despite being just 22, thanks to the Rule 5 draft a couple of years ago. He has a fastball that can get into the high 90’s, and a solid changeup. However, his slider is still a work in progress by all reports, and he only pitched in Double-A last year, where his control was still shaky. Still, his strikeout rates were solid, and he kept the ball in the park reasonably well. If anything, he looks rather similar to Burgos, who is only slightly older and has an additional year of experience. However, if Burgos struggles this spring, and Carvajal impresses, they might find their positions switched.
Of course now that I’ve said it, can it be a surprise if either wins a job?