While staying healthy would be near the top of many people's lists, in my opinion it all hinges on starting pitching.
Outside of Johan Santana, just how much do you trust the two-through-five combination of Mike Pelfrey, Oliver Perez, Jonathan Maine, and Jonathon Niese?
The rotation is so desperately weak when compared with those of their closest NL East rivals, who they will play more than any other teams this year.
The Florida Marlins have Ricky Nolasco—a man who could be the ace on a lot of staffs—as their No. 2, while the Phillies have depth in J.A Happ and Jamie Moyer as their No. 4 and No. 5 arms.
The Mets rotation looks even worse when you compare it with that of the Braves.
To put Atlanta's strength into perspective, Kawakami—Bobby Cox's fifth starter—could be challenging for the No. 2 spot if he pitched for the Mets. By contrast, New York’s third best pitcher would be limited to a long man role at best in the Braves bullpen.
So what's the answer? I have a novel idea...start Johan every fifth day. Not every fifth game, but every fifth day. Without fail.
He is your ace, your horse, your stud. He has led the team in quality starts since he came over from the Twins, and by going every fifth day, he will take the pressure off every other member of your pitching staff—starters and relievers.
Right now, assuming Santana stays healthy and pitches every fifth game, he is on track to make 33 starts.
He will pitch five games in each of April, June, July, and September, six in each of May and August, and one in October.
Between 2004, when he became a full-time starting pitcher, and 2009, Santana pitched in either 33 or 34 games each season. With that in mind, 33 seems right on track.
I had looked into the possibility of the Mets using a five-man rotation every other week, with a four-man rotation in between. In theory, it would work for two-thirds of the year, but the drawback is that Santana would have to pitch on three days’ rest nine times.
That is clearly unacceptable, and any benefits you get from four extra starts would be mitigated by a tired pitcher logging up the innings too quickly.
So how about if you pitched Santana on four days’ rest throughout the season?
He would pitch 37 games, but none of them would be on three days’ rest, and three of them would be on five days’ rest.
That's four more starts than what he is predicted to get now or, as I like to look at it, four more times you get to replace Niese or Maine with Santana. What an upgrade that is, right?
Over the last five years, Santana is 56-25 (.691) on four days’ rest, showing he is more than capable of pitching every fifth day. His career winning percentage is .672, and it’s only .676 since the start of the 2004 campaign.
Statistically speaking, Santana is better on four days' rest.
Under this new plan, assuming you reset the rotation after the All-Star break, Santana would actually pitch six games in each month of the year, plus one in October, giving him a total of 37 starts for the season.
The other benefit, aside from obviously giving the ball to your ace four more times, is that you get him on the mound for more important games.
In April alone, Santana will pitch five games, but he will likely miss the three-game set in Philly on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday because of a start in Cincy on Monday.
Under the every-fifth-day plan, he would make six starts in April. That extra game would be against the Phillies, which would be a huge bonus for the team.
Here’s how the first few weeks would look under the plan:
Apr. 5 vs. Florida: Johan Santana
Apr. 7 vs. Florida: John Maine
Apr. 8 vs. Florida: Jonathon Niese
Apr. 9 vs. Washington: Mike Pelfrey
Apr. 10 vs. Washington: Johan Santana
Apr. 11 vs. Washington: Oliver Perez (This is Johan's regular spot)
Apr. 13 at Colorado: John Maine
Apr. 14 at Colorado: Mike Pelfrey
Apr. 15 at Colorado: Johan Santana
Apr. 16 at St. Louis: Oliver Perez
Apr. 17 at St. Louis: Jonathon Niese (This is Johan's regular spot)
The only reason it looks a little funny is because Manuel has flip-flopped Pelfrey/Perez with Maine/Niese for the first series of the year.
Elsewhere in the schedule, Santana would pitch against the Rockies next week, for example.
As it stands right now, he'll miss that game because he'll be resting up after a start against the Nationals.
Why waste Johan on a team your grandma could shut out when you could have him fresh against a team who will be challenging for a playoff spot in the Rockies?
Looking further down the summer, Santana would face teams like the Yankees, Twins, and D'backs, when he would ordinarily be unavailable. This is all by the time we hit the All-star break in mid-July.
The other benefit is that by getting a little more mileage from Santana, you can give your other starters a little more rest. When you think about how injury prone the other Mets pitchers are, this could help keep them fresh, especially down the stretch.
When you have a star pitcher who can go every fifth day—and a hit-and-miss rotation you don't trust—it makes sense to go to your stud more often.
I'm not saying you have to throw him every other day, or even that the Mets should go to a four-man rotation, because that's counter-productive. What I am saying is that you should use him to his full potential.
An extra 20 innings over the course of six months really isn't as bad as it seems. Santana has won the ERA crown in each of the three years when he's thrown 228 innings or more.
Santana is a rare breed that's built to win. I'm not advocating using him carelessly to the point where he breaks down, but if the Mets were a little braver, they could drastically improve their chances at a division crown.
You always hear people talk about pitchers getting the ball every fifth day. Maybe it's time to start taking that comment literally by putting your 108 stitches of fate in the hands of a winner.
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