Mailbag: Surveying the infield situation

Mailbag: Surveying the infield situation

What do the Mets have planned for Anderson Hernandez in 2007? He could be a reliable, if not spectacular, defensive backup to Jose Valentin. His light hitting is less than ideal coming off the bench. Do you think that would lead the Mets to have him start in Triple-A?
-- Kyle J., Jackson, Wyo.

Damion Easley is on the roster to back up at second base and, in a pinch, at shortstop. With Endy Chavez available to serve as the understudy for Moises Alou in left field, chances are Jose Valentin will see most of his playing time at second base. Those circumstances reduce the Mets' need for Hernandez.

If Jose Reyes were unable to play for 10 days, the Mets might consider using Hernandez at shortstop. But an extended absence of Reyes probably would prompt the club to look elsewhere for a replacement shortstop, one more likely to provide more offense than Hernandez.

Hernandez's offensive limitations make him less than ideal, even as a reserve. Given his defensive brilliance, if he were to hit big-league pitching as he hits in winter ball, he'd probably have the second base assignment by now.

As it is, he probably will begin the season as the Triple-A shortstop.

I think it's more difficult to understand the nuances of a bullpen than judge the strength of fielders, hitters and starting pitchers. Can you talk a bit about the Mets bullpen as a unit and how the pieces fit together? It seems that Pedro Feliciano isn't considered an essential component of the bullpen despite his very strong season. What factors count for and against his future with the Mets? He obviously doesn't have the experience of Guillermo Mota and others, but it seems that given his age, it's worth giving him a chance to prove he'll have more years like 2006. Does he have that chance until Mota's return? Why didn't Chad Bradford fit the puzzle of the '07 bullpen? Who is Scott Schoeneweis, and what role will he play?
-- Matthew W., Brooklyn, N.Y.

Bullpens are complicated animals for so many reasons: how quickly pitchers recover, whether they can work on consecutive nights, how often each member can pitch, how much pitchers have warmed up in the current game and the previous game, whether a pitcher is particularly susceptible to left-handed or right-handed hitting, the composition of the opponents' batting order and bench, the composition of the next opponents' batting order and bench and, of course, performance.

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No component of the game is more fickle than setup relief performance.

The Mets bullpen has been remarkably consistent in the two years Randolph has managed, despite the changes in personnel. Roberto Hernandez's ability to pitch often was critical to its success in 2005. The Mets' tendency to score early and ability to exploit opponents' bullpens reduced the pressure on the bullpen last season.

Teams seek balance in their 'pens -- ground-ball pitchers for double-play situations, strikeout pitchers for sacrifice-fly situations for jams that can't be defused by force outs, left-handed and right-handed pitchers for obvious situations and right-handed pitchers who can handle left-handed hitting, such as Aaron Heilman and Mota. Left-handed specialists are common, while right-handed specialists, like Bradford, aren't.

And every bullpen needs a pitcher who can provide four or five innings for extended, extra-inning games or for games in which the starter exits early.

Now, about Feliciano. My sense of it is that some left-handed hitters don't hit left-handed pitching mostly because they're certain they can't, not because the pitching is so good. And, really, what does it matter why they don't? Those hitters keep the marginal southpaws employed. But the marginal left-handed pitchers often are ineffective against right-handed hitting.

To me, that's the tale of Feliciano. His numbers last season certainly support that notion. He opposed 124 left-handed hitters, struck out 44, walked five and hit two. They batted .231 with a .272 on-base percentage and .316 slugging percentage against him -- pretty good numbers. And his numbers against right-handed hitters were these: 125 batters, 10 strikeouts, 15 walks. They batted .266 with a .354 on-base percentage and a .349 slugging percentage against him -- not surprising numbers.

Feliciano inherited 39 runners, 12 of them -- almost one third -- scored. That was about the team average. Bradford improved that average, allowing merely 14 of 53 to score.

The factors that affect Feliciano's future, for the time being, are his performance, the addition of Schoeneweis, the early season performance of Heilman (and his killer changeup) against left-handed hitters and the return of Duaner Sanchez.

Sanchez did more eighth-inning work than Heilman until he suffered the shoulder separation that ended his season on July 31. If Sanchez regains the later role, Heilman will be the seventh-inning setup man. And if he's effective against left-handed hitters, the need for Feliciano -- and Schoeneweis -- will be diminished. If Schoeneweis outperforms Feliciano, Mota's return could doom Feliciano.

Situations change, but at the moment it seems all but certain the Mets won't carry Sanchez, Heilman, Mota, Schoeneweis, Feliciano and Ambiorix Burgos as setup men for Billy Wagner. That would leave no place in even a seven-man bullpen for a long reliever -- Dave Williams?

Bradford fit in the 'pen, but he didn't fit the payroll. They didn't want to pay a 32-year-old pitcher who they still consider more of a right-handed-hitter specialist for three years. Now, though, they are on the verge of signing Schoeneweis, who is 33, and something of a left-handed-hitter specialist. It seems like a "go figure." Schoeneweis was quite effective during his brief tenure with the Reds last year. From Aug. 13 through the end of the season, he allowed one run in 16 appearances (14 1/3 innings). Schoeneweis had been an American League lifer until then.

Possible reasons for the reported signing could be that they recognized something special in him, that they think he can provide more than Feliciano, that they see a need for two left-handed setup men or that they have a possible trade in place and the other club wants a left-handed reliever and doesn't want to pay Schoeneweis for three years.

I can't help but wonder if general manager Omar Minaya has severely underestimated the free-agent market this offseason. Why let Bradford walk and then sign Schoeneweis with his plus 5.00 career ERA for more money and the same years? The front office has done nothing to solidify the starting rotation. Of the potential starters, only Tom Glavine can be counted on to get past the fifth inning. Why did the Mets not sign Jason Schmidt or Jeff Suppan or even Barry Zito? I assume Minaya believes he has a great bullpen and plans to rely heavily on it, but relievers vary from year to year. Sanchez is a question with his shoulder injury, while Darren Oliver, Roberto Hernandez and Bradford are gone. I think Minaya wants to patchwork the rotation until Pedro Martinez comes back or they can make a trade later in the season. But isn't that a risky proposition?
-- Justin S., Richmond Hill, N.Y.

It's not as though the Mets didn't try to sign a starting pitcher.

A few other things: If, as you say, "relievers vary from year to year," how can you question the decision not to sign Bradford? He has been quite effective the last two seasons. He may be due for a bad year.

About Darren Oliver -- he did have a pretty good 2006. But the same thinking applies to him. Moreover, no club sweats the departure of its veteran long man. You shouldn't either. And I don't think Minaya prefers having a patchwork rotation; nor are the Mets counting on Martinez returning this year.

What is the status of Oliver Perez? I read John Maine and Dave Williams are the only big-league pitchers who participated in the minicamp. Given the open competition for the rotation, it would have made sense for "Oli" to take advantage of this camp. I recall Perez during his rookie season (I was based in Pittsburgh for two years), and he was incredible. I would love to see him get back to that with the Mets and finally fulfill his potential.
-- Yubbi C., Flushing, N.Y.

Perez probably should have attended the minicamp. But he couldn't be forced to.

It seems his performances in two National League Championship Series starts in October have purged the memories of so many people. Moreover, it's not as though he pitched successive four-hit shutouts. He produced a 1-0 record and 4.63 ERA in 11 2/3 innings. And if Chavez were an inch shorter or a step slower, Perez's record would have been 1-1.

Perez still is the pitcher who produced a 3-13 record and 6.55 ERA in 22 starts in the regular season. He remains a project and hardly is a lock to be in the rotation come Opening Day.

With all this talk about Johan Santana being traded by the Twins next year because they won't be able to afford him when he becomes a free agent after the 2007 season, what are the chances of the Mets trading for him some time before that? Not only would the Twins benefit by receiving players in return, Santana also would be out of the American League so they wouldn't have to face him and he wouldn't be in position to help another AL team reach the World Series. The Mets would certainly be one of the few clubs able to afford Santana.
-- Tony V., Syracuse, N.Y.

You've answered your own question. The Mets probably would be one of the few clubs willing to pay the price for the pitcher who has won the AL Cy Young Award in two of the last three years. The Yankees would be another. But with the money at the clubs' disposal these days, it's not definite that the Twins would deal Santana, particularly if they're in the process of winning a division championship.

My sense of it is that Santana and Houston's Roy Oswalt -- off the market now -- are the pitchers who could make the Mets a legitimate World Series contender. But Santana also makes the Twins what they are. Two suggestions: cross your fingers and don't hold your breath.

Are the Mets considering using a six-man rotation for the 2007 season? Until Martinez returns, they have Glavine and El Duque, two 40-somethings, headlining their staff, and a big group of maybes. A six-man rotation would allow the two big guns to rest their arms and Martinez, too, upon his return. He has been more effective on longer rest in his time with the Mets.
-- Rich R., Newburgh, N.Y.

I doubt you'll see a six-man rotation. Glavine prefers to start every fifth day, and, other than El Duque, the other possible starters are young and need to pitch regularly.

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