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That was sure a lot of hype for a guy who gave up three runs in five innings and never once broke 90 on the gun.

I’m kidding, of course. Pedro Martinez‘s return to the mound Monday afternoon in Cincinnati was a terrific baseball moment. No matter who your team is, you have to enjoy watching one of the all-time greats on the mound. At his peak, Martinez wasn’t just a fantastic pitcher, he was an entertaining one. He dominated games with power and precision-no member of the 3,000-strikeout club has fewer career walks allowed and just one a better K/BB. He was a showman as well, firing up crowds by wearing his heart on his sleeve, by being openly competitive, and by showing as much love for the game as the people in the seats. Watching Pedro Martinez pitch is a treat in a different way than watching his peers in greatness, Roger Clemens or Greg Maddux, is.

Martinez was a different pitcher yesterday than before his shoulder began to hurt. Starting in the low 80s, and working most of the outing in the upper 80s, he’s not a power pitcher or anything like it. That hurler is gone, and he isn’t coming back. However, what was special about Martinez during his heyday was that he wasn’t just a thrower, someone blessed with a great arm who could miss bats all day. Martinez was a pitcher, someone who changed speeds and had four good pitches that he could locate and could think his way through an at-bat, an inning, and a game as well as anyone this side of Maddux. You can’t take seven MPH away from most pitchers, put them on the mound, and do anything but cringe. Pedro Martinez is better than that, and if he’s not likely to set the world on fire, he’s certainly capable of being an asset for the Mets down the stretch.

What is going to be interesting is seeing how the Mets use him, not so much in September-you can always go to a six-man rotation-but in October. As big a concern as the Mets’ rotation was at the start of the season, it has been an absolute strength in 2007, arguably the reason this team has the best record in the NL, a five-game lead in the NL East and a 98 percent shot at making the playoffs, which is just two percent shy of the random strike zone’s chance of appearing in October.

If Pedro Martinez starts for the Mets in the playoffs, at least one of these guys doesn’t:

Pitcher              ERA      IP    SNLVAR    VORP    WARP
John Maine          3.57   163.2       5.0    32.4     4.7
Tom Glavine         4.06   175.1       5.2    30.7     3.9
Oliver Perez        3.39   148.2       3.7    24.6     3.6
Orlando Hernandez   3.32   141.0       4.7    35.3     4.2

I’m not sure how you tell any of these pitchers to go to the bullpen, and on merit, I’m not convinced that Pedro Martinez deserves to start ahead of any of them. Perez is a better pitcher than Martinez is at the moment, and I’m reasonably sure that John Maine is as well. The chance that Tom Glavine will be asked to pitch out of the bullpen is comfortably under zero. Hernandez has a reputation as a big-game, clutch, postseason pitcher, and he leads the team in ERA. Do you send him to the pen?

Now, Mets fans who can remember all the way back to October 2006 won’t see this as a problem, but as depth. After all, the Mets went from a decent playoff rotation to John Maine starting Game One of the Division Series, and Oliver Perez making critical LCS starts, all as a matter of a couple of late-season injuries. (Before you write in to address the apparent contradiction in these two paragraphs, consider what we know now of those two, versus what we knew 11 months ago.) If the Plan C is now “75 percent of the greatest pitcher ever on a per-inning basis” rather than “John Who?,” that’s a pretty nice safety valve. So is the new postseason setup, featuring more off days and more opportunities to get by with just three starting pitchers if need be.

The pitcher who got hurt a year ago to set up last October’s rotation scramble may solve this problem again with his frailty. El Duque is going to miss another start with a sore right foot, and his availability is likely to be touch-and-go for as long as the Mets continue to play games. If he can’t start, Martinez slides into his slot. If he can pitch, remember that despite that team lead in ERA and postseason rep, Hernandez has experience pitching out of the bullpen, especially in October-his escape from a bases-loaded, no-out jam in 2005 was a signature moment in the White Sox sweep of the Red Sox in the Division Series. He’s a poor fit from a skills standpoint-the Mets are lousy with right-handed relievers who don’t get lefties out-but of the four starters, he seems to be the one most likely to go to the pen.

Could Martinez relieve? As mentioned, he’s not a power pitcher any longer, and his first-inning velocity yesterday was awful, indicating that he may need a lot of time just to get stretched out. Given how valuable and vulnerable his right arm is, this may not be the time to experiment with him as a reliever. Using him to throw 90 pitches once a series, twice if it goes long, is going to be the optimal plan. You run too much risk by trying to get 30 pitches from him three times in eight days, given that he’s rehabbed with the idea of being a starting pitcher.

Having to find a way to integrate a future Hall of Famer into your rotation isn’t the worst problem to have. Willie Randolph is happy to have Martinez back and throwing reasonably well, but to ensure that the right-hander’s return pushes the Mets towards a championship, he’ll have to make tough calls about which of his established starters gets nudged aside for Martinez.

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