June 3, 2008
Transaction of the Day
Optioned RHP Carlos Muniz to New Orleans (Triple-A); activated RHP Pedro Martinez from the 15-day DL. [6/2]
As a cure for what ails them, Pedro isn't exactly a solution, but it is a start, both literally (tonight) and operationally. He bumps Claudio Vargas to long relief, which is fine as a one-for-one swap-Vargas is really no better than a patch to get a team over an injury, or a fifth starter in a strong rotation, and in the Mets' case, it's very much the former, not the latter. That might sound harsh considering he gave them a 4.50 ERA in four starts, but keep in mind what that boils down to. Vargas gave the Mets quality starts against two lousy lineups (the Rockies and Nats) and got knocked around a bit by the Dodgers and Braves, or exactly what you might expect from someone who has drifted from one fifth man's gig to the next. That's somebody you might understandably prefer to Nelson Figueroa (human interest angle aside), but it's somebody you tolerate or replace, not part of what you build around, and not part of a rotation that's going to propel you back into a crowded race in the NL East when you're .500 two months in and need to make up ground.
Instead the issue with the Mets' rotation is much, much more systematic, which is why some might question whether or not Vargas was the guy who needs bumping. Oliver Perez's command problems have to be wearing thin-it's a lot more fun to talk about Tommy Byrne's ability to give Casey Stengel ulcers, and a lot less fun to experience that sort of thing firsthand. He's given a club that doesn't have a workhorse just three quality starts in his dozen. He's an interesting affectation, a potentially brilliant retreading project, and something less than a reliable commodity; for better or for worse, pitching coach Rick Peterson's Q factor is down, and turning Perez into an ace lefty would do wonders for Peterson's reputation, wherever the blame may lie for why Scott Kazmir's a Ray.
Beyond the potential upside that Perez represents on the basis of last season or 2004, there comes a point where a win-now team has to decide whether or not it can really rely on a guy for something more than the occasionally neato strikeout total; nobody loves a Three True Outcomes pitcher when he's heavy on the two categories you'd rather he wasn't. Consider the leaders among moundsmen in Three True Outcomes Percentage (TTO%), an admittedly freaky member of our statistical menagerie (minimum 200 batters faced):
Pitcher BF BB K HR TTO% Edinson Volquez 283 36 83 3 43.1 Chad Billingsley 285 34 71 3 37.9 Chris Young 237 30 51 8 37.6 Oliver Perez 277 43 50 11 37.5 Jonathan Sanchez 303 36 71 6 37.3 Josh Beckett 273 14 75 11 36.6 Jake Peavy 237 20 60 6 36.3 Tim Lincecum 320 32 78 3 35.3 Daisuke Matsuzaka 275 38 55 4 35.3 Erik Bedard 224 23 48 8 35.3
I suspect there's no pride to be taken in the fact that Perez is the king of the hill in two of the three categories. Even so, Perez's value is enough that it makes sense to see if he's going to be able to do anything like last year's performance. Given that Vargas' upside is as a functioning fifth starter, and Perez is an important part of any potential success the Mets may have short of chucking a good chunk of the roster in a frenzy of deals, it makes sense for them to see what Perez might do, as frustrating as it might be.
As for other prospective options for who Vargas might start instead of, and instead of moving to long relief, there's Mike Pelfrey. He's young and has potential, and someone who, like Perez, you could envision in a good rotation, just perhaps not higher than as a five in an otherwise strong rotation. The absence of a solid off-speed pitch is killing him against lefties, and his lack of command isn't doing him a lot of favors against right-handers. His four quality starts in ten is a nice start to the season, and the team's commitment to him is admirable, but in a rotation where you're carrying Perez and have to work around Pedro's limitations until he's fully up to speed, he becomes a bit of a challenge. There might obviously be satisfaction to take from Pelfrey's work if he makes progress on his handicaps and becomes a quality regular, especially if he does so this summer instead of next year. There might also be a problem if he doesn't become anything more than what he is now.
Perhaps what Perez and Pelfrey really do is give the team a sense that John Maine's somebody they can rely upon. That's not a bad thing, but Maine's not averaging six innings per start, with just six quality starts in 11-not bad, but if that's your best starter not named Johan Santana, that's a problem. What do you do when there isn't a perfect match between your ambitions and your means? As much as adding Johan Santana was supposed to be the masterstroke that won this thing for the Mets, the problem as it turns out isn't that Santana's the cherry on top, it's that he and Maine are the only stable staples in a diet of inconsistency.
It might seem strange to endorse what the Mets have done, since it's about replacing potentially reliable mediocrity while still hoping to come up aces on so many other members of their rotation, but that's what I'm doing here. Yes, Pedro probably can't go deep in games if it involves high pitch counts, not yet. Perez is combustible, Pelfrey unreliable, and Maine sinkable as often as not. As if the Mets didn't have enough active science projects, there's also the problem of whether or not Aaron Heilman can get ironed out, so the one pitcher in their pen you might see them extending a bit to help cover themselves in the middle innings has been part of the problem. As a result, Vargas as a long reliever and early-game innings sponge when one of the starters flakes is completely understandable. If the Mets are to contend, the problem really is their need for Heilman and Perez and Pedro and Pelfrey to pitch up to their best- or better-case scenarios.
What if they don't? Given how many dodgy propositions the Mets had picked to pitch coming into the season, if someone beyond the pitchers themselves is going to be judged over this unit's failings should the team fail, it's going to have to be Omar Minaya. It was he who put this unit together, and if he was in a position to look bright for investing in Perez or forward-looking to trust Pelfrey, he has to also bear the consequences for what happens if they don't deliver. There's certainly nothing in those pitchers' usage patterns that says anybody with on-field oversight should be held accountable for the failures of all of them.
Thanks to William Burke for his help with data research.