The news has been bad and keeps getting worse for Mets closer Billy Wagner. A forearm strain has morphed into elbow pain, and Wagner faces a further diagnosis Tuesday at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. There is no timetable for his return, and even if he does come back, it is far from certain that he’ll be able to take on the regular work of a closer.
This potential loss brings a major flaw of New York’s this season into sharp focus—the team has lacked a single pitcher to hold down the eighth inning all season long. Relievers such as Scott Schoeneweis and Joe Smith are ideally lefty and righty specialists, while Aaron Heilman and Duaner Sanchez have been inconsistent all season.
A combination of strong starting pitching and Jerry Manuel’s effective use of matchups have enabled the Mets to overcome this problem sufficiently to lead the National League East. Since the All Star break, New York’s relievers have posted a 6.52 ERA—yet the team is 17-13, and has vaulted into first place. But now that problem has expanded, with the ninth inning equally unsettled. And none of the solutions are obvious ones.
Here is a handicapping of possible solutions, in order of preference:
1) Make Pedro Feliciano the closer
He is the unsung hero of New York’s bullpen again in 2008. All Pedro Feliciano has done since rejoining the Mets in 2006 after a stint in Japan is consistently get hitters out.
Former manager Willie Randolph used Feliciano as a left-handed specialist, a blatant misuse of resources—Feliciano does retire lefties particularly well, but also has held righties in check throughout his career—lefties hit .213 against him, righties hit .266 against him. In 2008, that number against righties has elevated to .322—but righties have a likely unsustainable batting average on balls in play against him of .353 this season, suggesting that the skill has not left him.
Overall, Feliciano has the best ERA+ of any non-Wagner reliever besides Schoeneweis, whose inability to get righties out throughout his career disqualifies him from closer duty. Feliciano’s strikeout rate is also solid (43 in 45 2/3 innings) and he is, unlike many of his bullpen brethren, pitching well lately — a 2.35 ERA in August. He wouldn’t be the best closer among the contending teams—but he’d be far from the worst. And with Schoeneweis in reserve, the Mets would still have a lefty specialist for earlier in games.
2) Make Aaron Heilman the closer
This is, essentially, what Jerry Manuel has been doing. Heilman has not been great, but he has been far better than his August ERA of 12.91 would suggest—he posted scoreless appearances in five of seven games since Wagner last pitched on August 2, with three saves and a win to go along with a single blown save.
Ironically, Heilman’s overall repertoire and corresponding strikeout rate has been better in 2008, when he has struggled mightily, than in 2005-2007, when he consistently posted above-average seasons out of the bullpen. The addition of a consistent, plus slider to his fastball-changeup pairing makes him a better candidate to join the rotation—his reduced command of those pitches has made him more homer-prone, and less ideally suited to the closer role.
A word of warning to Jerry Manuel—if using Heilman for the ninth, use him for the eighth as well. When used for more than one inning, Heilman has thrived, allowing runs in just 2 of 12 appearances of more than one frame (and one of the two came in his third inning of emergency work during a 14-inning affair against St. Louis). In his single-inning appearances, he’s allowed runs 19 of 53 games. This is another reason why Heilman is less suited to be Mets closer in 2008 than a Mets starter in 2009.
3) Promote Jonathan Niese to the rotation, move John Maine or Mike Pelfrey to the closer’s role
This scenario, raised by Jerry Manuel last week, presents more problems than it is probably worth. But given the other solutions, it’s a realistic possibility.
Both John Maine and Mike Pelfrey would be well suited to closing for the Mets, particularly Pelfrey, whose greatly-improved control (5 walks in 36 1/3 innings since the break) and groundball tendencies more than make up for his mediocre strikeout rate. Pelfrey also could use the reduced innings load—his career-high is 152 1/3 in 2007, meaning he will likely pass that threshold in his next start—and should the Mets reach the postseason, Pelfrey would likely be pushing 200 innings, a dangerous jump from 152 1/3.
Maine, meanwhile, is a higher-strikeout pitcher, with 118 in 134 1/3 innings. But his walks are also considerably higher than Pelfrey’s, and as he is still pitching through rotator cuff tendinitis, it is unclear if the move to closer will help or hurt him physically.
The promotion of Jonathan Niese would be the least risky part of the equation. Niese has posted similar AAA numbers to his strong AA season in 2008. In 150 1/3 innings, he’s walked 51, struck out 132, and pitched to a 3.05 ERA between the two levels. Niese would also likely benefit from a lack of familiarity with him around the league over his 7-8 regular-season starts. But Niese would also be reaching uncharted territory with his innings count.
Ultimately, Feliciano or Heilman are the safer choices, particularly in light of what shifting roles could do to Maine, working through an injury, or Pelfrey, who has emerged as one of the better pitchers in the National League over the past several months. Both pitchers have been part of a starting staff that has been New York’s primary advantage over Philadelphia and Florida all year.
Still, the Mets’ need in the ninth inning is drastic—and New York, merely a competent bullpen shy of running away with the division, may well decide that desperate times call for desperate measures.