Friday, July 07, 2006

Turning Point
By Ben Valentine

If you happen to be around a TV set in the New York metropolitan area or anywhere near Flushing Saturday, you might want to pop in and check out what’s going on in one of the games of the Mets/Marlins doubleheader. It may not seem like much of anything being an early July pre-All star Break series, but in fact one of those games is crucial. Why?

When Mets’ prospect Mike Pelfrey debuts Saturday, the Mets’ season will be on the line.

It sounds crazy to suggest that a start in July, by a pitcher who hasn’t thrown a ball above AA is the biggest one of the season. And I’m not one to jump into the realm of hyperbole often. A 22 year old, being the key to a team that’s 12 games up and owning the best record in the National League? Crazy talk.

Normally yes, but not in this situation. Pelfrey went 4-2 for AA Binghamton in 66.1 innings pitched, posting a K/9 of 10.45, and a K/BB 2.96. He’s certainly got peripherals which lead you to believe he could be something good. With the Mets rotation only two and a half men deep, he’s going to have to be. Sure the Mets might be able to get out of a weak NL with that rotation, but they stand little chance against the American League power houses.

It isn’t because there aren’t pitchers better than Pelfrey. There just are not any available.

Running down the trade market before the season, two names kept coming up; Oakland’s Barry Zito and Florida’s Dontrelle Willis. However, neither figures to be available come July 31st. Zito’s A’s sit in first place in the AL West and while rotation depth was supposed to the team’s strength, it has not lived up the hype. With Joe Blanton’s ERA finally matching his peripherals and Rich Harden turning into Kerry Wood, the only A’s starter who’s consistently performed this season outside of Zito has been Danny Haren. Zito maybe overrated, but no one on the A’s could replace him and it’s doubtful any prospect acquired for him would either.

The Marlins might have been inclined to deal Willis if they had been as bad as people had predicted. But at 36-46, they have been very respectable. They may not be contenders now but might only be a season away from being one. With Willis under contract, the Marlins would be better served keeping him to anchor their young team. If they did deal him, it would cost an arm and a leg. In the Mets case, that would probably mean both Pelfrey and Lastings Milledge, which would be far too much.

After those two, the market is grim. The problem? Poor divisional play has left many teams under .500 still in the race. The Anaheim Angels have been dreadful this season at four games under .500, but amazingly stand just four back of the A’s because of the division’s lousy performance. So you can forget Bartolo Colon or John Lackey. In the NL West, the Giants and Jason Schmidt are just a game over at 43- 42. But guess what? They’re just two back. The Diamondbacks, in last place, are just five back. But then they wouldn’t deal Brandon Webb anyway and I doubt the Mets would roll the dice with a guy like Claudio Vargas.

The other teams that are toast are so because they have little to nothing to offer in the pitching department. The Pirates’ best players are positional and the Cubs only have busted arms to trade. Unless you want to roll the dice with Mark Prior, which would probably cost you one top prospect, you can forget it. Oh, Kerry Wood I would guess has value too, if you can somehow transplant someone else’s right arm onto his body.

In the NL East, the Braves only have one worthwhile arm, John Smoltz, and I’d be shocked if he were traded. Anyone in the Nats’ rotation could be had, with the likely exception of John Patterson, who is 28 and under contract cheaply for the next few years. Unfortunately, Patterson is the only pitcher on that staff worth getting; Livan Hernandez has been downright atrocious this year.

The AL Central has the Royals. Enough’s been written here about them and their lack of useful… anything. The Indians will be sellers, and Cliff Lee would be a great fit for the Mets. Pitching in the National League at a park which depresses right handed power would be a great fit for the fly ball inducing lefty. But it’s unlikely the Indians would deal the 27 year old, though the Mets should certainly make inquiries. Most likely their available pitchers will be someone like Paul Byrd, who isn’t really worth the time of day. Do the Mets need to learn this first hand like the Red Sox have with Jason Johnson? We shall see. It’s also possible Jake Westbrook gets shopped. He’s a decent pitcher, but in this market will cost an arm and a leg. If it costs Pelfrey or Milledge, the Mets would be wise to stay away.

The AL East is a similar mess to the NL East; the Blue Jays, like the Phillies and perhaps even the Braves, are contending and looking for help, not dealing it. The Orioles, like the Marlins, have intriguing arms. But since they’re young, talented and under contract, they’re also off limits. That leaves the Devil Rays. They have one great pitcher, who shall go nameless because every time he is mentioned, somewhere, a Mets fan dies of anguish and despair. However, the D-Rays might actually have the best option for the Mets, in the form of another old friend.

Jae Seo.

Before anyone starts laughing, Seo has had a miserable season. But look at these lines:

Seo: 74.0 IP, 5.60 ERA, 1.51 WHIP, 6.20 K/9, 1.76 K/BB, .98 GB/FB

Trachsel: 96.1 IP, 4.67 ERA, 4.30 K/BB, 1.05 K/BB, .96 GB/FB

Soler: 45.0 IP, 6.00 ERA, 1.58 WHIP, 4.60 K/9, 1.10 K/BB, 1.01 GB/FB

And just for kicks:

Livan Hernandez: 113.0 IP, 5.42 ERA, 1.63 WHIP, 5.26 K/9, 1.40 K/BB, .88 GB/FB

As you can see, Seo’s actually outperformed the Mets’ other choices. He isn’t a good option, but he is better than what they’ve got now. He’s also the one pitcher who’s available that won’t cost you the farm.

But of course even if the Mets did go out and get Seo, he wouldn’t be the answer. That’s the problem; there is no answer out there on the trade market. The Mark Redmans and Kip Wells of the world aren’t winning championships; heck they’re not even worthy of being in a rotation period.

The answer, the only one, for the Mets and other teams in need of pitching, is to fill the hole from within.

Mike Pelfrey, the ball is in your hands. And maybe the season too. To quote the Simpsons:

Frank Grimes: “That man is in charge of our safety? It boggles the mind!”

Carl: “It’s best not to think about it.”

My sentiments exactly.

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