New York Mets Spring Training Preview: Starting Pitchers

Adam Fier@haveNOfierCorrespondent IFebruary 6, 2009

When it comes to the starting rotation of the New York Mets, the theme may very well be the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The first four spots in the rotation remain unchanged from 2008, and it all starts at the
top with Johan Santana.

Santana, still widely regarded as one of the best pitchers in the game, had a brilliant
first season in Flushing, finishing 16-7 with an earned run average of 2.53.  Had it not
been for a disastrous bullpen, Santana easily would have won 20 games and been a
stronger contender for the Cy Young award.

Entering 2009, Santana will anchor the staff coming off surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, an injury he confirmed to have pitched with during his final start of the 2008 regular season.  Despite the knee issue, Santana pitched a complete game, three-hit shutout on just three days rest, keeping the Mets' postseason hopes alive at the time.

Any concerns that his velocity had dropped were put to rest after watching him perform in the second half of the season.  After the calendar flipped over to July, Santana didn't lose, at all.  During his final 17 starts, Santana went 9-0.

Assuming he recovers fully from his surgery, which is expected to be the case, Mets fans have every reason to believe Santana will deliver an encore performance of his 2008 campaign, perhaps even better considering the improvements at the back end of the Mets bullpen.

After beginning the season losing six of his first eight decisions, Mike Pelfrey finally showed fans why the team drafted him in the first round back in 2005.  Between June and August, Pelfrey went a combined 11-2 and saw his ERA drop from 5.35 to 3.66.

Although he cooled off in September (along with the rest of his team), Pelfrey, pitching
in only his first full season (he made 32 starts in 2008 compared to only 19 starts in '06 and '07 combined) and racked up over 200 innings for the first time in his young

At 6-foot-7, "Big Pelf" showed off the power sinker that fans began to question the existence of, and became one of the more reliable arms in the rotation after May. Pelfrey was finally pitching with confidence, and it showed as he was a big part of the Mets' mid-season turnaround which thrust them back in playoff contention before ultimately falling short.

Questions have been raised about the sharp increase in innings pitched, and as a young, hard-throwing starter those questions will only intensify as the season begins.  However, should he remain healthy, Pelfrey will fit in nicely behind Santana atop the 2009 Mets rotation.

The next two spots in the rotation will once again be held by John Maine and Oliver
, both of whom were 15-game winners back in 2007.

Unfortunately, 2008 wasn't as kind to either pitcher, as Maine's season was plagued with injuries while Perez was once again haunted by his own inconsistency.

In 2008, Maine started 25 games, finishing with only 10 wins and having his season cut
short by shoulder problems.  He had been pitching with a sprained shoulder and
eventually had surgery to remove a bone spur after the season ended.  Maine is expected to recover fully in time for the opening of camp in less than two weeks.

Perez also won 10 games, finishing 10-7 with an ERA of 4.22 (in 2007 he went 15-10 with a 3.56 ERA), and while he looked unhittable at times, he imploded in a number of starts as he allowed five earned runs or more on eight separate occasions.  In contrast, he allowed two earned runs or less in 17 starts.

Despite the inconsistencies which have been present throughout his career, Perez earned himself a new three-year contract with the Mets, keeping him in Queens through at least 2011.

The bigger question mark between the two hurlers is Maine, who really wore down and
lacked the fastball which allowed him to experience such unexpected success in 2007. 
Maine must prove he can stay healthy (sensing another theme here with this pitching
staff?) and if he can, would provide nice depth to the rotation.

Perez, for all his Jekyll and Hyde performances, has proved to be durable (knock on
wood) and usually manages to deliver his best when the games matter most.  Perez needs to prove his new worth ($12 million a year) and figure out a way to go out and consistently pitch the way everybody knows he is capable of.

The top four will likely go Santana, Pelfrey, Perez and Maine, simply to alternate the
left-handed starters and right-handed starters.

For all the unknowns and question marks that exist in the top four spots, the fifth spot
of the Mets rotation is up for grabs.

Tim Redding was signed and has the edge heading into camp. However, veteran Freddy Garcia and youngster Jonathon Niese will be competing for a chance to make the roster, and both will likely see time with big club at some point during the season.

Redding's career numbers are unimpressive, as he's compiled a career record of 34-51 with stops in Houston, The Bronx, San Diego and most recently Washington. However, he eats innings and pitched well last season against the division rival Phillies, going 3-1
against them in 2008. As a fifth starter, Redding will give the Mets a reliable starter who did manage to win 10 games with the Nationals last season.

Garcia and Niese will likely start the season in Buffalo (the Mets' new AAA affiliate),
however Garcia was signed to a contract that can earn him up to $6 million with
incentives, so expect him to see time with the big club sooner than later.  Garcia hasn't pitched a full season of games since 2006, when he made 33 starts for the White Sox, and has dealt with injuries since.

At 34, Garcia has won 118 games in his big-league career, and is familiar with the
division having pitched with the Phillies back in 2007. Niese made three starts with the big club at the end of last season, going 1-1 with an ERA over 7.00.  He pitched eight shutout innings against Atlanta Sept. 13, however he was beaten up pretty good in the starts which preceded and followed his only victory.

Given some more time to develop along with some exposure to major league hitters in
Spring Training, Niese figures to play a role with the Mets at some point during the
season, while a spot in the 2010 rotation is far more likely than landing one in 2009,
barring injuries.

Any hopes of bringing back fan favorite Pedro Martinez were likely lost when Perez was resigned. Although there has been mutual interest between both Pedro and the team he spent the last four seasons with, a return is highly unlikely.

As far as the New York Mets starting rotation is concerned, health and consistency will determine how successful the group can be. The three starters who follow Santana are all high-potential guys with big question marks.  Pelfrey must prove he can continue his development into a front end of the rotation pitcher.  Maine must prove he can stay healthy and regain his 2007 form.  Perez must find a consistent approach to stay focused every time he takes the mound, regardless of how good the opponent is.

The rotation has all the makings to be among the best in the National League, and with the additions of Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz to the back end of the bullpen, the starting pitching should be that much better.

Time will tell, however, assuming all goes to plan, the Mets starting pitching will be more than good enough to keep them in contention throughout the season.


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