Thursday, May 25, 2006

El Duque to the Mets
By Ben Valentine

It’s been a good couple of days for the Mets. They took two out of three from their cross town rivals and opened up their series with the second place Phillies with two dramatic one run wins; including one come from behind sixteen inning marathon. The ride has been so good it’s almost tempting to forget the Mets have a gaping black hole in the back of their rotation.

So tonight the big news isn’t the performance of Cuban defector Alay Soler, but the acquisition of another one. Orlando Hernandez is returning to New York in exchange for the much maligned Jorge Julio.

On the surface this trade seems to be a no brainer for the Mets. A reliever they have no faith in for a supposedly reliable backend starter. But is it that cut and dried?

This season, El Duque is 2-4 with a 6.11 ERA and 1.58 WHIP. His K/9 is exceptional at 10.25 in his 46.2 innings of work and the K/BB of 2.60 isn’t bad either. The problem for Hernandez this season has been two fold. First, opponents are hitting .292 against him. Judging by his K/9 that seems a bit like bad luck. But what isn’t is his 1.54/9 home runs allowed rate.

The problem for the Mets is that while a move to Shea will no doubt help El Duque’s Hr rate and probably his Opp BA, it is highly doubtful he is going to keep striking people out at the rate he has been. That and the fact even if Hernandez rounds into form, what form is that exactly?

The issue lies with perception. Legend says El Duque is a proven winner, who used to be a guy who could anchor a staff. Reality is that he was a third starter at best who had good postseasons while pitching for the Yankees. Look at the numbers. While his first year, 1998, indicated he would be quite the find, he never was able to replicate the success he enjoyed that season. Hernandez went 12-4 in 141 innings with a 3.13 ERA in 98’. His K/9 was excellent at 8.36 and his K/BB was solid at 2.52. In 1999 he won 17 games but had a 4.12 ERA, a 6.59 K/9 and a 1.81 K/BB. 2002 saw him come the closest to duplicating his first year, with a 3.64 ERA, a 6.97 K/9 and a very good 3.14 K/BB ratio. However that was just in 146 innings. In 2003 he threw just 85.2. Finally last year, he tossed 128.1 innings but had a 5.12 ERA, a respectable 6.38 K/9 but a poor 1.82 K/BB ratio.

So what have the Mets traded for here? A guy who was very similar to Steve Trachsel; someone who was once a solid major league starter but is now hanging on by a thread. Is he an upgrade from Jeremi Gonzalez. He sure is, but only because Gonzalez isn’t a major league pitcher. I’m sure there will be some in the New York media who will argue that Hernandez will raise his game in the Big Apple and that he will be money come the postseason. But those are the same people who claim Derek Jeter is a better “clutch” player than A-Rod. Looks can be deceiving. Memories can lie. Orlando Hernandez has never been a big time major league pitcher; he just had a big time name.

The Mets didn’t surrender a lot; Julio is an okay at best and a mediocre starter is always better than a mediocre reliever. However, are the Mets stronger with Hernandez in the rotation and Aaron Heilman in the pen, or with Heilman in the rotation and Julio in the pen? My gut says the latter. I get the feeling Hernandez will post an ERA around 5.00 in about 130 innings for the Mets this year. Couldn’t Heilman do that? If he did wouldn’t we all label him a disappointment?

Orlando Hernandez isn’t the answer for the Mets. The bad news for them isn’t that they gave up anything special. Rather, it’s that they’re going to have to learn first hand that El Duque’s time is long done.

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