As Thanksgiving approaches, the Mets are still two reliable starters short, with only Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey and John Maine assured of spots in next season’s rotation. Oliver Perez remains unsigned, and if the season opened today, Jonathon Niese (total career starts: 3) would likely be the number four man.
Meanwhile, embattled reliever Aaron Heilman has reiterated his desire to start for the Mets or be traded to a team that will use him as a starter. Despite the fact that Heilman suffered through the worst season of his career in 2008, New York General Manager Omar Minaya has reiterated that the team sees him as a reliever, and most observers believe Heilman will be traded at a time when his value is at a low ebb.
This would be a huge mistake, assuming the return for Heilman is meager. There are ample indications that Heilman would provide a low-cost, solid option in New York’s 2009 rotation.
The major arguments against Heilman in the rotation, often repeated by both former manager Willie Randolph and former pitching coach Rick Peterson, were that by virtue of having just two pitches, a fastball and a changeup, hitters would figure him out the second and third time through a lineup. But since this school of thought became accepted gospel, Heilman has developed a slider that also produces swings and misses.
His strikeout rate is certainly starter-quality. Last season, despite his struggles, Heilman’s K-rate jumped from 6.59 to 9.47 per nine innings—a massive increase likely precipitated by his more frequent use of a third pitch.
And an interesting note to add to this point is that even back in 2005, the last time New York employed Heilman as a starter, he didn’t struggle in the middle innings. Batters hit a combined .206 against Heilman in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings in 2005.
This certainly wouldn’t be the first time Randolph and Peterson were wrong and continued to hold to flawed strategies in the face of overwhelming reality. Comments from both new pitching coach Dan Warthen and manager Jerry Manuel indicate that both men would like to see Heilman start.
It isn’t as if the routine would be foreign to Heilman, either. He started in college, was drafted to start, and 73 of his 76 minor league appearances were as a starter. The Mets even gave him a chance to win the fifth starter spot in 2006, but despite Heilman’s strong spring, let an otherworldly spring by Brian Bannister relegate Heilman to the bullpen.
Additionally, the free agent market for relief pitchers appears to be collapsing, while the market for starters has entered the realm of the silly. To get even a decent chance of a starting performance significantly better than Heilman would likely provide, the Mets would have to spend upwards of $15 million a season, with long-term commitments, for the likes of A.J. Burnett or Derek Lowe. Otherwise, the second-tier options on the market like Brad Penny will still cost more while offering little additional benefit, and will cost the Mets a draft pick or two for the privilege.
The wild card with Heilman is also a knee injury that occurred during spring training last year, and is the likeliest reason for his problems with command in 2008. But even this is not a reason to avoid starting him. If he is healthy, 2008 is largely irrelevant to his potential upside for 2009, with the exception of his slider (it isn’t as if he can only throw the slider while his knee hurts). If he isn’t healthy, not only is he unlikely to help in the bullpen, but a simple physical will invalidate any trade the Mets make involving him.
But all of those options are almost too clever by half, considering that the Mets have under their control a pitcher who will be 30 next year, won’t cost much, has three plus pitches, wants to start, and could address a rotation need with no additional salary added. If he struggles, all that happens is the Mets promote Niese, who will have gotten more seasoning at AAA in the meantime.
It’s almost always a good idea to put an athlete in his best mental position to succeed. In Heilman’s case, that’s what would be best for the Mets, too.