The news hit yesterday that Duaner Sanchez will likely miss most of this season due to a fracture of his coracoid, a small bone in his pitching shoulder. At the least, Sanchez won’t be back until July, which will handicap the Mets’ bullpen significantly by removing the man thought to be their primary setup option.
The news isn’t all bad. Sanchez is not as irreplaceable as it sounds. He only threw 55 innings last season due to a pinched nerve at the end of June and the ill-fated cab ride right before the trade deadline. So they didn’t get a full season out of him last year, and they were able to competently fill his shoes afterward with Guillermo Mota.
Second, while Sanchez posted a 2.60 ERA, he wasn’t the most consistent of pitchers. Here are his month-by-month statistics:
Month IP ERA SO BB HR
April 16.0 0.00 13 6 0
May 18.1 3.93 11 6 2
June 9.1 4.82 8 8 1
July 11.2 2.31 12 4 0
Sanchez burst onto the scene in April, looking like an unstoppable middle relief machine and instantly capturing the hearts of Mets fans. Unfortunately, it really didn’t last into May. He pitched competently, but it really was a drastic drop-off that continued into June before he went down with the nerve injury. When he returned he was dominant once again. But in the end, he was highly effective for two months last year, just another pitcher for one-and-a-half, and gone for the other two-and-a-half months. Furthermore, he was incredible at Shea, poor on the road, posting 0.85 and 4.94 ERA, respectively.
Finally, for a primary setup pitcher, Sanchez just wasn’t all that effective against lefties. Generally, you’d like to throw a pitcher out there capable of getting guys out from both sides of the plate; Sanchez just wasn’t lights out against those on the sinister side. They hit .276/.362/.425, which isn’t terrible, but it’s far from his .167/.261/.447 mark against right-handed batters.
This isn’t to say Sanchez was a poor pitcher last season; he did a fine job, but when you look beyond his final line, you see a guy with a lot of variance in his actual performance, which means that it’s rather unlikely that he’d pitch as well as he did again. Part of this is just due to the volatile nature of relief pitching, which is all the more reason not to bank on a repeat performance from last year’s incredible bullpen. Still, losing a capable bullpen arm like Duaner hurts.
So how are they going to replace his innings? There are three things to do to lessen the loss:
1. Shift the roles in the bullpen.
Obviously, Aaron Heilman takes over as the primary setup option, much as he did last season following Sanchez’s yellow-checkered ride to shoulder dislocation. At the moment these are the guys likely to make the Mets’ bullpen at the start of the season:
Chan Ho Park
Some guys have very clearly defined roles. Wagner’s set in stone. Sele is slotted for long relief. Feliciano and Schoeneweis—which I’m finally getting used to spelling, by the way—are LOOGY’s, and rookie Smith is taking over Chad Bradford’s vacated ROOGY role. Much as Bradford and Feliciano did last season, Smith and one or both of the two lefties could emerge as a reliable seventh inning tandem.
The wild card in all this is Park. Park shot himself in the foot this spring by failing to get his visa in order on time and compounding his error by not pitching well, but it’s not much of a stretch to imagine him pitching better than he recently has in a more limited role. It did work for Darren Oliver last season. His conversion to relief will be something to keep an eye on.
2. Keep returning pitchers in mind.
There are two or three guys who could be integral parts of the bullpen this season who aren’t going to make the team for a variety of reasons. Those men are Mota, Juan Padilla, and Ambiorix Burgos. Mota’s missing fifty games due to his steroid suspension while Padilla continues to recover from Tommy John surgery. I doubt Padilla—who’s success in 2005 resulted from luck and good defense—will contribute too much, but Mota could be a key contributor in the second half, as he was last season.
Burgos is eligible to start the season in the majors, but won’t due to a lackluster spring. If his command improves at New Orleans, he could get a promotion if someone on the big league roster fails.
3. Keep an eye on the other teams’ pitchers.
The interesting thing about spring training is that teams have to make important roster decisions concerning pitchers who may be out of options. This means that teams will be looking to get some return on players who would be otherwise lost to them. Those that aren’t traded will wind up on the waiver wire, waiting to be picked up by a smart team.
Honestly, it’s too difficult to tell right now who that will certainly be, but Omar Minaya should be paying attention. If a more interesting option than Chan Ho Park comes along, Minaya should seize the chance to acquire a cheap pitcher, the type of deal which can often result in some of the better transactions a general manager can make.