Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Victor Not Victorious
By Ben Valentine

Some statistics for you:

Last year coming out of the pen mostly, Aaron Heilman pitched to a 3.17 ERA, striking out a phenomenal 8.83 batters per nine and posting a solid 2.87 strike out to walk ratio.

Also last season, starting in the rotation and eventually getting bumped to the pen because of ineffectiveness, Victor Zambrano pitched to 4.17 ERA, striking out 6.06 per nine and posting a poor 1.46 strike out to walk ratio. Oh yes, and his WHIP was a very poor 1.48. There is a reason the guy ended up losing his spot in the rotation.

Now we come to the start of the 2006 season. For some reason, Zambrano has been guaranteed a rotation spot. So despite pitching to a 1.29 ERA in 14 innings, striking out 11 and not walking a soul, Heilman has been sent to the bullpen in favor of rookie Brian Bannister. The Mets appear to want to give Bannister, who had a solid season last year at both AA and AAA, a shot. With Zambrano entrenched, that meant the guy who gets the short end of the stick is Heilman.

My problem isn’t with Bannister. He deserves a chance to show what he can do. It isn’t out of the realm of possibility he could be an adequate fourth starter this season. The problem is that Heilman got sent to the pen instead of the worst pitcher on the Mets staff, the aforementioned Zambrano.

There is no legitimate reason Zambrano has been guaranteed a spot in the Mets’ rotation. At this point why should any one believe that the 31 year old righty is suddenly going to find the strike zone? Rick Peterson has had one and half seasons to turn him around. Could it suddenly happen this year? Possibly. But is it likely? Not when Zambrano has never managed to post a strike out to walk ratio of 1.50! (1.46 was by far the highest of his career and that’s miserable).

Heilman, meanwhile, is 28 years old and looked to have a breakthrough season last year. He developed better control over his pitches which, combined with his already high strikeout numbers, allowed him to become a very solid reliever. Naturally a starter, it appeared he would be given a legitimate shot to earn a spot in the rotation after the trades of Jae Seo and Kris Benson. Heilman did well enough, but it’s now clear he was never given a fair shake. The Mets were looking for anyone to take his spot. And for the life of me I don’t understand why.

Omar Minaya has already overvalued the importance of the bullpen by trading Seo, who was the Mets’ second best starter last season, for Duaner Sanchez. How many relievers does one actually need to be competitive? A starter is far more important than a 7th inning guy; that’s why they make the big bucks after all. Considering the Mets rotation currently stands as Pedro Martinez, who can be dominant but is an injury risk, Tom Glavine, whose numbers indicate he’s about to fall off a cliff statistically, Steve Trachsel, an aging injury risk, and Zambrano, the wild man incarnate, the Mets needed to give Heilman a chance as a starter. It is entirely possible he could have been their most effective starter outside of Pedro.

Instead, the Mets seem tied to Zambrano, who has done nothing to earn his spot on the team other than getting traded for Scott Kazmir. It is as if the Mets don’t want to admit the trade was an awful one and thus will continue trotting Zambrano out there, over and over again, hoping he suddenly figures it all out. The trade itself was bad enough, but the fact Zambrano is allowed to go out there every fifth day and kill the team as he walks the ballpark, everyone in the parking lot, on the subways, and in the borough of Queens itself, just adds insult to injury.

The good news for Heilman, who is probably very annoyed at this point, is the Mets rotation is quite brittle. So he may well get another chance soon when one of those starters misses time. And if the Mets want to win the division, then they better hope injury bails out their ineptitude. Because if the rotation after Pedro remains Glavine, Trachsel, Zambrano and Bannister, the Mets won’t be winning much of anything this season.

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