I watched last night's game against the Orioles and came away impressed by several things I saw.
Although Oliver Perez still wasn't throwing his best fastball, he certainly looked much better than he did his first couple of outings back from the WBC.
The first thing that I noticed was that Perez was throwing a lot of strikes and getting quite a few ground balls. I watched Perez in the WBC a couple of times and it seemed that keeping the ball down was a priority for him this spring—not that it worked that well for him in that tournament.
For the game, Perez had nine fly outs and eight ground outs, along with three strikeouts. No one is ever going to confuse him with Brandon Webb, but if he can keep the ball down more consistently it can only help him. Mistakes down in the zone tend to stay in the park more than those up in the zone.
Perez did give up one long ball to Adam Jones that NASA mistakenly tracked as a satellite for a few seconds until it eventually made landfall, but it wouldn't be Oliver without one of those.
Besides the usual fastball and slider, Perez threw some pitches to right-handers that I couldn't identify. I know he's been working on throwing more changeups, but it wasn't that.
The mystery was solved today upon reading on Ed Coleman's WFAN.com blog that Perez has been working on a cutter to right-handed batters.
Perez already dominates lefties (.158/.250/.271 last year). Anything he does to make himself more effective against righties can only help him be a better pitcher. If he can keep his pitches down a little more consistently, Perez might be a pleasant surprise this season.
I think sometimes the local media concentrates so much on his volatility they forget that his numbers the past two years have been decent, particularly since his game is still evolving. While there are no guarantees with Oliver Perez there is some potential upside that is often ignored or quickly glossed over.
Another player who impressed last night was Daniel Murphy, who hit one home run and just missed a second off the top of the wall. Murphy has been looking good in spring training, but hadn't hit any out before yesterday.
Even for people like me who really like Murphy, the question is whether he can hit with enough power to justify a corner outfield position. I think he can, particularly since the game is evolving back a little to the pre-steroid norms. There is still enough focus on power and lack of pitching depth in baseball to keep home run levels higher than they were in the 1980s, but it remains to be seen how much higher.
My thinking is that if Murphy can hit 12-15 homers and maintain a high on-base percentage, that would be enough. Still, to do that he will have to be able to rip the occasional mistake over the plate. That's what he did on both the homer and the almost-homer last night.
Fernando Tatis also reminded me last night why I liked him so much last year. In his lone at-bat of the game, he came up in the eighth, lined a ball hard the other way into the gap, and legged it into a triple. A bad throw allowed him to trot home with the eventual winning run.
Tatis plays the game with hustle and fire. He gives this team something they really need, and is also comfortable being a leader. He certainly needs to hit enough to justify his spot on the team, but I sure hope he does—not just because he's a great story, but because he makes this team a little tougher and more fiery.
My final observation on last night was on Bobby Parnell, the kid who has won a job in the bullpen this spring.
Parnell was brought in to "save" the game in the ninth inning and, even though it was an exhibition, looked nervous to me. He was throwing the ball really hard—mid- to high-90s, some serious heat. He was leaving everything up, though, and was helped out by a couple of opposing batters chasing eye-high pitches. He walked one batter, and if he was facing more patient hitters would probably have walked more.
I sense this will be a theme early in the year as Parnell adjusts to what is required of him, learning to control his emotions and working on his slider and splitter to complement the dynamic fastball. There will be times when he will look awesome and others when he struggles.
The Mets have a history of playing the safe bet with veterans who are lower risk but low reward. Even though they offer no more than mediocrity, you know what you're going to get with them. In the case of the bullpen, the Mets have no recent history of developing their own relievers with the one exception of Aaron Heilman, who was a lot better than he is generally given credit for here.
Still, Heilman was more of a lucky accident than a plan, and of course his story didn't end well.
The bottom line was that the Mets were forced to invest in Billy Wagner despite a history of elbow problems that eventually caught up to him because there was no in-house candidate even close. When Wagner went down there was still none, which is why there was no playoff ball in New York.
The Mets spent a lot on Frankie Rodriguez and J.J. Putz this offseason because there still weren't any viable candidates already here. Hopefully that will change as the Mets show a willingness to bank on their kids and fill some of their own needs.
I know Parnell will have his ups and downs as any young reliever would, but I'll find it easier to live with because I believe that it's crucial for the Mets going forward to groom a kid like him into a polished major leaguer.
You watch Parnell pitch and you see the potential of that lively fastball. The Mets are doing the right thing by giving him a shot.
[Mike Steffanos blogs daily on the New York Mets at www.MikesMets.com.]