Familiar bullpen issues haunt Mets

Familiar bullpen issues haunt Mets

NEW YORK -- Certainly, there was chagrin when Scott Schoeneweis and Luis Ayala served up back-to-back homers in the eighth inning of Sunday's season-ending game. But there was no shock, and barely a whimper of surprise.

The Mets, quite simply, had been doing this all season long.

"It's one of those things, I can't describe it," Schoeneweis said. "I'd take it back, but I can't."

Numbers, instead, were far better descriptors. Mets relievers combined for 72 save chances this season, and converted only 43 of them. Their 4.25 bullpen ERA ranked 22nd in the Major Leagues, by far the worst of any group with playoff aspirations. And their 28 bullpen losses were fourth in the National League.

It would be simple to point to the loss of closer Billy Wagner, who missed the final two months of this season with left elbow problems, as the reason -- and certainly Wagner's absence precipitated this fall. But Wagner blew seven saves himself this season, and his teammates endured problems long before he hit the disabled list.

Of manager Jerry Manuel's five most firmly entrenched relievers, only Schoeneweis and Joe Smith consistently performed in line with their expectations -- and even those two blew their share of leads, struggling mightily during long stretches of the season. Just see Sunday's final game for reference, when Schoeneweis and Smith were the two main bullpen culprits.

But other problems became far more pressing. Aaron Heilman, a trusted setup man coming into the year, struggled to produce outs over the second half of the season. Duaner Sanchez, back in the bullpen after nearly two years, never regained the swagger he had before undergoing two right shoulder surgeries. And Pedro Feliciano, trusted as a left-handed specialist, tacked almost a full run onto his ERA from last year to this one.

By season's end, Manuel was counting on Luis Ayala, acquired through a waiver deal, to be his closer. He was relying on Brian Stokes, who produced a 7.07 ERA with the Rays last season, to be his setup man. And he trusted rookie Bobby Parnell more than Heilman or Sanchez in key spots.

"Everybody went out there and gave it everything they had," Stokes said. "We all left everything on the field. It's just one of those things that happens."

Sizing up the bullpens
A comparison of the bullpens of teams in contention into the final week of the 2008 regular season
Team
W-L
ERA (rank)
Saves
Blown saves
Save Pct.
PHI
32-23
3.22 (2)
47
15
75.8
LAD
28-23
3.29 (3)
35
20
63.6
TB
30-17
3.49 (4)
52
16
76.5
LAA
27-22
3.69 (6)
66
23
74.2
MIN
24-27
3.90 (10)
42
23
64.6
BOS
23-20
3.97 (11)
47
22
68.1
CWS
23-18
4.05 (13)
33
18
64.7
ARI
17-28
4.07 (15)
39
23
62.9
CHC
28-23
4.10 (16)
44
24
64.7
MIL
31-24
3.83 (19)
45
26
63.4
NYM
28-27
4.25 (22)
43
29
59.7

But it happened over and over, again and again. The bullpen precipitated a seemingly endless string of crushing defeats over the season's final two months, including a 10-inning loss to the Cubs last Wednesday and a seven-run meltdown in Philadelphia last month. By season's end, the bullpen simply could not be trusted.

Things got so bad that the Mets briefly considered using John Maine, who missed much of the season's second half with a bone spur in his right shoulder, as a reliever in late-inning spots. They were searching for solutions anywhere and everywhere.

"But we just didn't get it done," Manuel said.

Certainly, the bullpen will be one of general manager Omar Minaya's offseason priorities, but there is only so much that he can do. Heilman, Sanchez and Feliciano are all due to receive raises through arbitration, and Schoeneweis has one year remaining on his three-year, $10.8 million contract.

The Mets will find no help from Wagner, who isn't due back from elbow surgery until September -- if at all. And so they will proceed this offseason unsure of their future makeup, knowing only that something -- if not everything -- needs to change.

"It's baseball," Stokes said. "You want it to be a storybook ending, but sometimes it just doesn't happen that way."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.