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February 10, 2009
Prospectus Hit and Run
With last week's signing of Oliver Perez, the Mets' 2009 pitching staff is largely in place. After losing out on playoff spots on the final day of each of the past two seasons, the question is whether general manager Omar Minaya's winter work will be enough to avert a similarly agonizing fate this year.
Certainly, Minaya tackled the club's primary shortcoming head on. The 2008 Mets' bullpen finished 14th in the league in Reliever Expected Wins Added (WXRL), and would have ranked among the 10 worst of any playoff-bound team since 1988 had they made the postseason. To correct this, Minaya signed free agent Francisco Rodriguez, fresh off a record 62-save season with the Angels, and traded for Mariners closer J.J. Putz to set him up, and to back him up in case of injury-hardly an overreaction given last year's collapse once Billy Wagner went down. That trade included addition by subtraction via the departure of ineffective set-up man Aaron Heilman, while free agency and further dealings rid them of high-profile arsonists Luis Ayala and Scott Schoeneweis.
As important as those moves may be, focusing solely on the bullpen puts the cart before the horse. To take full advantage of Rodriguez and Putz, the Mets need leads to protect. Our PECOTA projections suggest they'll have plenty. Though we lack a crystal ball to foretell the arc of the 2009 season, the Mets currently project as the NL East frontrunners according to our PECOTA-baseddepth charts, which are based on players' weighted mean forecasts and adjustments for their share of playing time. Our initial projection, which will be revised to account for information regarding job competitions and injuries (as well as the perhaps inevitabletechnical glitches), pegs the Mets at 93 wins, five more than either the Phillies or Braves.
Despite failing to upgrade at the outfield corners, the Mets project to score 833 runs, third in the NL, and to allow 713 runs, the league's lowest total. That latter figure isn't actually all that low; at 4.4 per game, it's a ringer for the 715 runs the club allowed last year, sixth in the league. The seemingly unimpressive per-game rate includes a heavy amount of regression to the mean and incorporates multiple years of data. The scoring levels foreseen by PECOTA are seven percent higher than last year's NL, closer to 2006-2007 levels (about 4.8 runs per game). Still, their relative standing counts as good news for Mets fans.
Minaya entered the offseason with just three starters under contract: Johan Santana, John Maine, and Mike Pelfrey. Santana went 16-7 with a 2.53 ERA and 206 strikeouts last year, numbers that propelled the two-time AL Cy Young award winner to a third-place finish in his first NL vote. Maine pitched reasonably well (10-8, 4.18 ERA and 122 strikeouts), but a bone spur in his shoulder limited him to just six second-half starts and required off-season surgery. Pelfrey established himself as a viable starter by going 13-11 with a 3.72 ERA after getting the stuffing knocked out of him in 2007.
With the re-signing of Perez (10-7 with a 4.22 ERA and 180 strikeouts), the front four is thus unchanged, and a stronger unit than the one they left the gate with last year, given that Pelfrey is replacing Pedro Martinez, whose injuries limited him to just 20 starts and an ugly 5.61 ERA. Indeed, Martinez's departure should liberate an organization that spent the past three years overestimating his capabilities and his durability; he averaged 16 starts and a 4.73 ERA in that span. Lacking in depth, the 2008 club called upon globetrotting journeymen like Nelson Figueroa and Brandon Knight to patch their rotation when Martinez or Maine were sidelined.
Minaya has improved that depth with fifth-starter options that include journeymen Tim Redding and Freddy Garcia, and homegrown prospect Jon Niese. Redding took the ball every fifth day for the Nationals last year, putting up a 4.95 ERA in 33 starts, while Garcia showed promise in a three-start audition with Detroit after more than a year lost recovering from surgery to repair a torn labrum and frayed rotator cuff. Niese made three starts last September for the Mets, but with less than 40 innings of Triple-A experience, the 2005 seventh-round pick could use more minor league seasoning. Though a few starts remain unaccounted for, here is the rotation's initial prognosis:
Pitcher GS IP ERA VORP Santana 30 210 3.14 50.6 Maine 26 145 4.16 20.8 Perez 29 180 4.26 21.0 Pelfrey 26 145 4.39 13.6 Garcia 15 75 4.62 8.3 Redding 23 120 4.83 7.2 Niese 7 35 5.09 0.6 Total 156 910 4.14 122.1
Accounting for scoring inflation, that's the equivalent of a 3.92 ERA last year, which would have ranked fourth among starters, and which is essentially on par with their warts-and-all showing of 3.98. Note the effect of regression upon Santana, who has bettered a 3.14 ERA five times in six years as a starter, and that neither Maine nor Pelfrey are projected for a full complement of innings. PECOTA's initial forecast cautiously called for just 107 frames from the former because of last year's dip in playing time, and was wary of Pelfrey's 200-inning workload as a 24-year-old-48 more than he threw in 2007, including those in the minors. The Verducci Effect suggests that he'll have trouble repeating that success, as do his peripherals, but the more innings either throws, the more this unit will improve relative to that projection. As for the bullpen:
Pitcher IP ERA VORP Francisco Rodriguez 65 2.74 20.7 J.J. Putz 60 2.63 19.6 Sean Green 60 3.75 10.5 Pedro Feliciano 50 3.63 9.6 Nelson Figueroa 70 5.10 1.8 Brian Stokes 45 5.09 0.8 Duaner Sanchez 45 4.02 6.7 Bobby Parnell 45 5.76 - 2.6 Carlos Muniz 30 4.49 3.3 Total 470 4.05 70.4
Again accounting for inflation, that 4.05 ERA is the equivalent of a 3.84 ERA in 2008 terms, which would have ranked fourth-a dramatic improvement over the actual unit's 4.27, which ranked 11th. The change is most visible at the top, where the marquee newcomers are forecast to combine for 40.3 VORP; last year's top duo (Wagner and Schoeneweis) combined for just 24.3. Figueroa's innings estimate looks high, and Sanchez's low, but even reversing the two pitchers' totals only amounts to a few runs. The bottom line is a much better unit than the one that limped home last year.
Things may still change as the spring unfolds, both with regards to the staff and our PECOTA tweaks, but this initial reckoning suggests that the Mets are in good shape. Added rotation depth and a significantly improved back of the bullpen should help avoid the late-game and late-season agony of recent years.