During the middle of Spring Training, if you asked 10 different people to predict who would be in the Mets’ bullpen on Opening Day, you might have gotten 10 different answers. Manager Jerry Manuel did not go for either the popular or conventional way when he constructed his bullpen. Manuel opted to look elsewhere besides Nelson Figueroa, Pat Misch and Bobby Parnell, who each had some success for him in 2009.
Francisco Rodriguez and Pedro Feliciano were givens for the bullpen but a case could have been made for keeping numerous relievers besides the ones Manuel chose – Jenrry Mejia, Fernando Nieve, Ryota Igarashi, Hisanori Takahashi and Sean Green. The big concern was which reliever was going to step up and be the main bridge to Rodriguez in the eighth inning.
There was talk about Mejia eventually filling that role, while Feliciano actively campaigned for the job. Igarashi had just worked his way into the position when he landed on the disabled list. By that time Nieve had become a favorite of Manuel’s and the club opted for Manny Acosta, no threat to be used in a high-leverage situation if it could be avoided, to replace Igarashi.
Currently, Manuel mixes and matches Feliciano and Nieve in key spots prior to brining in Rodriguez. Acosta and Mejia are used in low pressure situations if at all possible, while Raul Valdes (called up when Green went on the DL) and Takahashi are the long men or used in shorter spurts when Manuel looks to give one of the other relievers a day off.
It seems like no one is happy with the way Manuel has handled the bullpen, but it is hard to argue with the group’s success so far in the 2010 season. After Wednesday’s loss by Rodriguez, the Mets relievers are 9-8 with a 2.67 ERA in 124.2 IP,
Still, did Manuel assemble the best bullpen for the 2010 Mets and were his personnel decisions in the best interests of the club’s long-term needs?
So much has been made of the Mejia situation that everything else gets lost in the shuffle. But did Manuel make the right choices in making relievers out of Nieve and Takahashi while cutting Figueroa, Misch and Parnell? Each of those latter three players filled starter and reliever roles for the 2009 Mets and were potentially more useful for the major league roster than Green, Mejia and Nieve.
As mentioned earlier, Rodriguez and Feliciano were locks for the bullpen. Igarashi’s contract probably clinched his spot even before he threw a pitch in Spring Training. A fair question would be if Manuel was left unconvinced that Igarashi could be his eighth inning guy after he saw him first hand in Florida or did he intentionally downplay Igarashi in order to justify keeping Mejia? Everyone says Spring Training stats are meaningless but Igarashi did not set the world on fire in his first exposure to hitters in this country. He had a 7.90 ERA with 10 BB and 8 Ks in 13.2 IP in Grapefruit League action.
Takahashi also was likely to make the team. He was nominally in the running for the fifth starter’s job but ended up in the bullpen as a long man. Since a bad outing against the Cubs on April 21, Takahashi has been extremely effective for the Mets. In his last eight games, he has a 1.80 ERA, with 2 BB and 20 Ks in 15 IP.
Keeping Takahashi as the long man apparently left no room for either Figueroa or Misch. The Phillies claimed Figueroa off waivers and he has pitched decently, with a 4.30 ERA in six games, including one start. Misch has been a starter at Triple-A and has been nothing special, with a 4.15 ERA in six games. He does have a noticeable home/road split, with a 5.87 ERA in three home games and a 2.79 ERA in three road games, all Quality Starts.
Many people were surprised that Green made the 25-man roster while Parnell was shipped out. Fans cringed when Green was brought into the game while Parnell at least had success early and late last year for the Mets. Green appeared to be a guy who could only pitch to RHB while Parnell at least showed flashes of being a good reliever against all hitters. But when in doubt, look at the money. Green avoided arbitration and had a deal just under $1 million. Parnell had a major league minimum salary.
With Green on the DL most of the year, we have been unable to see if could build on the end of 2009, when he posted a 3.15 ERA and gave up just 2 HR in his final 54.1 IP. But what we have seen of Parnell in Triple-A has not been encouraging. He has a 4.76 ERA in 11 games as a reliever. While he has 15 Ks in 17 IP, he also has allowed 13 BB.
Manuel seems to have made the right call in sending down Parnell and keeping Takahashi as the long man over Figueroa and Misch. But would one of those guys have been a better choice than either Mejia or Nieve?
Mejia belongs in the minors as a starter. That is a position with which most people agree. However, I think the same thing should be said about Nieve. Last year in the minors, Nieve showed very good peripherals in nine games split between Double and Triple-A. He had 42 Ks and 16 BB in 42.2 IP. In the majors, his peripherals were not nearly so good, he allowed 19 BB in 36.2 IP, but he had a nice 2.95 ERA.
It was a pretty successful year for Nieve last year and 15 of his 17 appearances were as a starter. In my opinion it was too soon to give up on him as a starting pitcher. Nieve should have been starting every five days in Buffalo, working on his command and waiting for an injury at the major league level for another chance at a rotation slot. Instead, he is a short reliever that Manuel has the Mets broadcasters calling “Nightly Nieve” with his league-leading 21 appearances.
If Manuel had Mejia in Double-A and Nieve in Triple-A as starters, he could have opened the season with both Figueroa and Misch in the bullpen. And if the eighth-inning role was really a concern, he could have easily kept either Kiko Calero or Elmer Dessens, both major league veterans who were in Spring Training, rather than the two unproven youngsters.
While there has been some outcry about Mejia, generally most fans have given Manuel a pass on this issue because he and Nieve have been effective. But while their ERAs look good, their peripherals suggest that those results carry a lot of good fortune. Mejia has a 2.35 ERA but a 4.63 xFIP, while Nieve’s numbers are 3.32 and 5.02, respectively. As a comparison, Takahashi has a 2.74 ERA and a 3.17 xFIP.
So, while Mejia and Nieve have produced good results in the bullpen for the 2010 Mets, I think both of them are pitching above their heads and would be better served working as starters in the minors. There has already been a cost, as keeping both of them meant cutting ties with Figueroa, a popular player who is now helping the first-place Phillies. The real cost comes if neither of them ever starts another game for the Mets.
Therefore Manuel gets kudos from me for his decision on Parnell and Takahashi and jeers for his decisions with Mejia and Nieve. That makes Manuel’s record .500 in the bullpen by my scorecard. In his career with the Mets, Manuel is 143-146 (.495) so a .500 record sounds about right. And I would prefer that a .500 manager not be allowed to turn two interesting starting pitchers into bullpen fodder.