Shelled Game: Mets Scramble to Assemble a Playoff Bullpen

Total Chaos for Mets Postseason Pitching Generally, the roster questions facing a first-place team are few. The Mets, who lost 7-4 to the Atlanta Braves Sunday, lead the Phillies by one game, yet the pitchers who would make up their postseason staff are still largely a mystery.

Between the 18 pitchers currently with New York since rosters expanded on Sept. 1, as well as the currently injured John Maine, there are just a handful of definite Mets should the team make it to October. For everyone else, the final 14 games of the season won’t just determine whether the Mets can do what the 2007 team did not, and advance to the playoffs. They are all fighting for a chance to be a part of any October play.

Baseball’s flexible playoff roster rules are what will allow the Mets the chance to include September call-ups. Strictly speaking, no player who joined the Mets after Aug. 31 should be a part of the postseason. But the loophole is that if the team has a player who was on the major league roster, but on the disabled list, the Mets can replace him with anyone who was in the organization on Aug. 31.

This was most famously done back in 2002, when the Angels added Francisco Rodriguez to the postseason roster, though K-Rod had debuted on Sept. 18. Rodriguez won five games in relief for the Angels during the playoffs en route to a world championship.

The Mets are certainly hoping to catch a similar hot streak from anyone in their bullpen, with roles ranging from closer to long reliever still up for grabs. That uncertainty likely means the team will carry 12 pitchers. Only three are particularly secure.

Guaranteed Spots (3): Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey, Oliver Perez

The key to New York’s success thus far has been a solid offense and excellent pitching from three of their top starters. Santana has been as advertised, Pelfrey has developed into one of the National League’s top pitchers and Perez has recovered from a shaky start to not only show flashes of brilliance, but the ability to keep the Mets in games on nights when his best stuff is missing.

With a large number of off-days, the Mets could well avoid using a fourth or fifth starter in the playoffs. Given both the success of this trio, along with Pedro Martinez’s inconsistency and Jonathon Niese’s inexperience—just two career starts—the Mets are likely to employ this rotation.

Near-locks (3): Luis Ayala, Joe Smith, Brian Stokes

Though he blew the save in Sunday’s loss, Luis Ayala has emerged as Jerry Manuel’s closer—for now. Manuel has indicated that no one has a lock on any job, and though Ayala saved seven of his first eight games, another blown save could open the door for a different closer. In fact, with just 14 games left, Ayala might have already lost the job with Sunday’s performance. Still, a bullpen spot is his to lose.

Joe Smith has become the most reliable member of the bullpen, a dubious honor, but important for handicapping purposes nevertheless. Smith hasn’t allowed an earned run since August 11, a run of 16 scoreless appearances. He has the ability to pitch more than an inning at a time, with a high of 2 1/3. And lately, his difficulties against lefties have subsided, though they are hitting .326 against Smith in 2008 overall. Still, should lefties begin feasting on Smith again, his ability to pitch more than an inning becomes a lot less valuable, and he might get passed on the depth chart by other right-handers.

Brian Stokes, meanwhile, has displayed disturbing indications that his Cinderella story may be coming to an end. Stokes, who pitched to a 7.07 ERA for Tampa Bay last year, had a 2.25 ERA through his first 13 games as a Met. But Stokes allowed a three-run homer Wednesday, blew a save Saturday, and allowed a sacrifice fly Sunday. Lefties are hitting .333 against him in 2008, right in line with his career line. If he stops getting righties out, Stoke may go from eighth-inning pitcher to spectator.

Work left to do (7): Pedro Feliciano, Scott Schoeneweis, Nelson Figueroa, Aaron Heilman, Duaner Sanchez, Pedro Martinez, Jonathon Niese

For Pedro Feliciano and Scott Schoeneweis, roles should be available. Both have been used as lefty specialists by Manuel, and both excelled—lefties are hitting .198 against Feliciano, .156 against Schoeneweis. But neither one has been able to get righties out all year—for Schoeneweis, continuing a career-long trend, but for Feliciano, a change from his successful 2006 and 2007 seasons. Should Feliciano get some important right-handed outs over the final 14 games, he could become the closer. If he falters as he did Sunday—five batters faced, four reached safely—one of the longshots could pass him.

Nelson Figueroa, Aaron Heilman and Duaner Sanchez are like on-again, off-again bad relationships for Manuel—he stays away from using them, then turns to them in case of emergency. Occasionally, they provide good outings. Then, quickly, they remind Manuel why he dumped them in the first place. Still, any of the three could catch fire over the final two weeks and become New York’s de facto long man, or even eighth-inning option. Sanchez, who actually looked impressive in an appearance on Saturday, could become the closer with a terrific performance in a critical late-inning situation.

Pedro Martinez and Jonathon Niese are the most intriguing of this group. Martinez appeared to be rounding into form–after posting a 6.16 ERA through August 1, he had a 3.62 ERA in his next six starts. But Martinez got pounded by the Phillies on September 7, with his velocity and command seeing to come and go several times an inning. His difficulties in getting loose make the idea of Martinez as reliever a non-starter.

That could open the door for Niese, who gave the Mets eight shutout innings against the Braves Saturday. However, that was Niese’s second career major-league start—in his initial appearance, against the Brewers, he got rocked. There were mitigating circumstances in both starts. In his debut, he was pitching on short rest against a team that feasts on lefties. On Saturday, he was facing mostly Atlanta backups. But Niese should get at least two more starts, and could secure a spot as both longman and occasional lefty specialist with competent outings.

Longshots (6): Brandon Knight, Carlos Muniz, Bobby Parnell, Al Reyes, Ricardo Rincon, John Maine

Brandon Knight would step in as long man if both Martinez and Niese falter. Carlos Muniz could become a late-inning option if righties Stokes and Ayala continue to struggle. Bobby Parnell throws harder than anyone else in the New York bullpen—a strikeout-filled outing or two could catch Manuel’s eye. Al Reyes has the most closing experience of anyone in the New York bullpen, but hasn’t gotten a chance to even pitch—yet. His lack of Mets failure, should he succeed in the next 14 games, is liable to help him. Ricardo Rincon pitched 2/3 of an inning, striking out one, against the Phillies on September 5. If Manuel loses confidence in Feliciano or Schoeneweis, Rincon could step in as lefty specialist.

And if John Maine, sidelined with a bone spur in his shoulder for the remainder of the regular season, declares himself healthy enough to pitch, Manuel has not ruled out taking a chance with Maine, hoping to catch a few innings of his successful starter out of the bullpen.

And if Maine pitches well early in the playoffs? Manuel might even make him the closer. Shelled Game: Mets Scramble to Assemble a Playoff Bullpen