The Pedro Problem

pedro 1 The Pedro ProblemWhen Pedro Martinez exited his July 12 start against the Rockies after four innings, the Mets were quick to downplay his injury, which Martinez said was tightness in his shoulder as a result of compensating for a groin injury. Manager Jerry Manuel said there was “no doubt” Martinez would make his next scheduled start, which would have been this past Sunday.

But Martinez did not make that Sunday start, nor is he starting Tuesday against the Phillies, which had been the announced fallback position. The Mets have been increasingly quiet on the Martinez front, though he did receive a cortisone shot—not in his shoulder, nor in his groin, but in his hip.

No news is bad news on the Martinez front. The pitcher finally seemed to be regaining his command prior to the July 12 start. And should Martinez fall apart physically, the team’s backup plans are uninspiring at best.

Martinez’s season line is one that would be easy to replace—he has an ERA of 6.25 in 44 2/3 innings, 18 walks, 34 strikeouts, and 8 home runs allowed. But the promise of a healthy Martinez gave New York a potential boost in the starting rotation at or greater than virtually any other trading deadline addition, save C.C. Sabathia—and cost the Mets nothing in prospects.

And in his last two starts, the Martinez of old began to peek through. It was unsurprising that Martinez would be rusty—he had not pitched in two months prior to making his return on June 3, and had just a single rehab start. Martinez is usually a slow starter in spring training—in essence, his first few starts back can be viewed as his second spring.

Despite showing better velocity than he had since joining the Mets, Martinez’s lack of command was his undoing. His 1.61 home runs per nine innings was more than double his career rate of 0.73 per nine, and his 3.63 walks per nine innings was also well above his career mark of 2.40 per nine.

But after five starts, or roughly the end of spring training, Martinez appeared to find his way following a shaky first inning in St. Louis on July 2. Martinez pitched another four innings, allowed just one walk and one home run, and threw a large percentage of strikes. He followed that five days later with 5 1/3 solid innings against the Phillies, striking out six, and allowing both home runs he gave up after the Mets had built an 8-0 lead.

His shortened outing July 12 was disturbing not only because he left it early, but during the outing, his fastball velocity dropped precipitously. He had been around 90-92 MPH in 2008—in his most recent outing, he dropped to 80-82 by his fourth and final frame.

Should Martinez miss any extended time, the Mets’ alternatives are few. Orlando Hernandez had seemingly made it back from his continuing physical problems, throwing a pair of rehab starts for Port St. Lucie. But last Thursday, in his final tune-up start in Binghamton, he aggravated his foot covering first base. The Mets have no announced timetable for Hernandez, but considering that he hasn’t pitched more than three innings in a major league game since August 25, 2007, he can’t be considered a viable option.

Meanwhile, Tony Armas, who filled in adequately for the Mets on one start earlier this year, is on the disabled list with a strained abdominal muscle, just days after Manuel said he would not hesitate to use Armas in back-to-back days out of the bullpen, since he had “a rubber arm.” Even if Armas is healthy, it is unlikely that he can approximate what an intact Martinez can give the Mets. Armas’s ERAs over the past four seasons have been steadily rising: 4.88, 4.97, 5.03 and 6.03. This is not the resume of a reliable starter.

New York also has Claudio Vargas stowed away at AAA New Orleans. But Vargas has been underwhelming, posting a 4.91 ERA in the minor leagues. For the Mets, his 4.62 ERA provides an ERA+ of 89, right in line with his 2007 performance. But while his home runs were artificially low, his strikeouts, which normally make up for his home run rate, were down significantly as well. More of the same result from Vargas would pale in comparison to Martinez—and the same performance would likely yield an even higher ERA over the remainder of the season.

Among free agents, the most talked-about option is Freddy Garcia, late of the Philadelphia Phillies. But while Garcia’s agent has hinted at a late-July return from a torn labrum to interested teams, Garcia’s former manager, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, has a different view.

"I doubt it. I hope he is. He’s my friend," Guillen told MLB.com last week about an August return for Garcia. "But when I see him and where he’s at right now, I don’t see that happening. I don’t think by August, maybe September. Freddy hasn’t even thrown off the mound yet.”

So the Mets need a healthy Pedro Martinez to solidify the rotation, even if needs what amounts to a third spring training to find his command.

It’s not a great scenario, but a Pedro-in-progress may still be the best option the Mets have.