Notes: Heilman would solidify bullpen

Notes: Heilman would solidify bullpen

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The paint wasn't dry on the Mets' 2005 season when the club's hierarchy began planning to refurbish the bullpen for 2006. More than a new coat of a new color was planned.

Phillies closer Billy Wagner was going to file for free agency. And the Mets thought they had a chance to trade for Devil Rays closer Danys Baez. General manager Omar Minaya planned to load up and create a killer bullpen.

Wagner brought his triple-digit fastball to Shea Stadium in November, and though a three-way trade with the Dodgers and Devil Rays that would have imported Baez fell through in January, Minaya held to his plan of shutting down opponents in the last three innings.

And now, partially because the Mets' rotation isn't expected to be particularly thorough -- complete games are an endangered species in Queens -- the club may load up the 'pen in a different way by moving Aaron Heilman back into his relief role from a year ago, and by carrying a left-handed setup man, too.

That possibility came to light Sunday as people familiar with Minaya's thinking discussed the situation. Wagner, Heilman, Duaner Sanchez, Jorge Julio, Chad Bradford and a left-hander would then make up the bullpen. "That would make us lights out from the seventh inning on," one source said.

As recently as Friday, speculation about the composition of the 'pen had Heilman pitching in relief -- not the role he prefers -- only if none the four left-handed relief candidates asserted himself. But when all four -- Royce Ring, Juan Perez, Darren Oliver and Pedro Feliciano -- "stepped it up" in Minaya's words, the thought of Heilman and a lefty in the same 'pen struck the general manager.

"It is a possibility," Minaya said Sunday, but he said nothing definitive.

Others say Minaya is weighing all the scenarios, wondering whether, with Heilman in the bullpen, the Major League and Triple-A rosters would have sufficient pitching depth to cover an injury to a member of the rotation -- Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine, Steve Trachsel, Victor Zambrano and, if Heilman is relieving, Brian Bannister.

Other elements to be considered include the likelihood of Martinez, Glavine and Zambrano averaging about six innings per start and whatever uncertainty exists about Bannister, a rookie.

"Our 'pen probably is going to have to throw a lot," Minaya said.

Heilman, because of his effectiveness against left-handed hitters and his arm strength, could provide two innings from time to time and allow manager Willie Randolph to rest his other relievers.

Moreover, the sense that the Mets' rotation may be better with Bannister in the rotation than with Heilman was reinforced Saturday when Bannister pitched effectively against the Astros despite being squeezed by the plate umpire.

"He showed us a lot," Minaya said. "He's going to help us sometime this season."

And April qualifies as sometime.

"We know what we have with Heilman in the bullpen," one member of the hierarchy said Sunday. "We've got something good. Why not keep him there? Our starters aren't going to pitch into the eighth very much, so build up the 'pen to protect them. We could have the best of both worlds: a real deep 'pen with Aaron and a deep rotation with Brian."

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Medical report: Wagner threw again Sunday morning and said he experienced less stiffness in the middle finger on his left hand, even though he threw harder and from a greater distance that he had Saturday. The closer was encouraged by how his finger had responded. He said he expects to pitch again in Spring Training and that there is a better chance for him to be available for Opening Day than there was Friday. ... Kaz Matsui jogged for the first time since he injured his knee March 16. ... Cliff Floyd, still weak and ill, hopes to play Monday. He has missed three games.

What makes news? As a group of reporters focused on Wagner playing catch and testing his finger Saturday, Trachsel wondered aloud: "I had back surgery last year and no one ever watched me throw."

Second-game starter: It's possible that Zambrano could start the second game of the regular season, after Glavine starts on Opening Day. Randolph said Sunday that Martinez now is likely to start the season's third game, on April 6. And not only is Zambrano is line to start the second game, but other staff members say it's likely he will.

Auditions for five at 10: Baseball isn't a morning game. But the spring debut of Martinez in the afternoon prompted the Mets to schedule other business for the morning. A special game with mostly Minor Leaguers playing was scheduled so the decision-makers could get another glimpse at four pitchers from the big-league camp -- all with chances to be on the Opening Day roster: Yusaku Iriki, Oliver, Ring and Perez.

Heath Bell, not likely to be on the Opening Day roster, also pitched in the morning. Feliciano, the fourth candidate among the left-handed relievers, was to have pitched against the Orioles in the afternoon but didn't.

Oliver, Iriki, Ring, Perez and Bell pitched one inning each. Only Iriki and Oliver allowed walks (one each), and only Iriki hit a batter and allowed a run (unearned). His control has betrayed him of late. Ring allowed two hits.

For whom this Bell toils: Scouts for other clubs wonder about Bell, who fell into disuse late last season and hasn't emerged. They seem to have greater regard for him than the Mets do. The Devil Rays are in need of relievers, and they're asking about Bell's availability.

Second base second fiddle: Two days after Matsui injured his knee and removed himself from second base competition, the Mets played two split-squad games. Anderson Hernandez played second base in the home game, and Jeff Keppinger played second in a game against the Nationals in Viera, far from the eyes of Randolph and most of the staff.

The Mets have played five games since then, and Hernandez has started each at second base. Keppinger has played third in some, replaced Hernandez in others and not played in one.

Enough said? It should be. Hernandez will be the Mets' second baseman until Matsui's return and, in the minds of some, after Matsui is ready to play again, probably 10 days to two weeks into the season. If Hernandez wasn't the choice, he wouldn't have spent so much time on the left flank of Jose Reyes.

Teammates consider Hernandez the best defensive player of the three, Matsui and Keppinger superior to Hernandez as offensive players, and Keppinger the best mix of offense and defense. And some wonder why Keppinger hasn't been give more of chance to win the job.

Speed thrills: Former Mets pitcher Sid Fernandez, serving as a Spring Training instructor, has been rather impressed by reliever Jorge Julio. "I told Omar, 'I haven't seen anyone throw like that since Doc [Gooden] in '84 and '85 when he was great,'" Fernandez said. "Doc and Lee Smith. Julio was up in the high 90s."

Living a clean life: Bannister just had finished his running two miles Sundat morning. He was sweaty. The time was 9:12 a.m. ET when he peeked at the clubhouse clock. "I've got three minutes to get undressed, shower and get to chapel," he said. Evidently, cleanliness is next to godliness.

Coming up: The Mets play the Dodgers on Monday at 1:10 p.m. at Tradition Field, with Trachsel making his fifth start of the exhibition season -- he pitched once in a Minor League scrimmage as well. The club is bit concerned about his velocity.

Julio and Sanchez are to follow him. The Dodgers pitchers will be Brett Tomko, Lance Carter, Yhency Brazoban and Tim Hamulack, the left-handed reliever the Mets included with Jae Seo in the trade for Sanchez.

Marty Noble is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.