This was the mantra of Frank Costanza, a phrase he said to keep his blood pressure down. The problem, of course, was that Frank would scream the phrase at the top of his lungs. And that is pretty much my reaction with Jerry Manuel’s bullpen deployment.
There may not be a baseball fan alive who is thrilled with the way his team’s manager handles his bullpen. But I would gladly settle for way south of thrilled. My goal is to be blasé about the bullpen. I just do not want to be abhorred, like I am currently.
The wrong relievers broke camp in Spring Training, players were put into odd roles, pitchers were overused to an extreme extent and closer Francisco Rodriguez has not been used in anything resembling an optimal matter.
Other than that it’s been great.
Because of the makeup of the Mets’ rotation, the bullpen has to be prepared to deliver three innings each and every night. Therefore, it would be nice to have several members of the bullpen ready to go multiple innings at a time and a few that could pitch consecutive nights. Here is the bullpen that started the season for the Mets:
Rodriguez – closer who only pitches an inning at a time but guy who could go back to back.
Pedro Feliciano – lefty setup man who could go back to back.
Ryota Igarashi – I was unsure on Opening Day what he could reasonably give. The hope was that he could develop into the “one inning, back to back” type who would take over the 8th inning.
Sean Green – righty setup man who could go back to back.
Jenrry Mejia – Manuel wanted him to be the 8th inning guy.
Fernando Nieve – A starter last year, figured to be multi-inning guy.
Hisnaori Takahashi – A starter in Japan, figured to be multi-inning guy.
I thought that Mejia and Nieve both should have been in the minors working as starters, with Pat Misch and Nelson Figueroa in the bullpen in the majors, available to go multiple innings. I would have preferred Kiko Calero, Elmer Dessens or Bobby Parnell over Green. But Green did okay after a terrible start to 2009, so I was willing to give Manuel a pass for this one.
Green and Igarashi went on the disabled list, replaced by Manny Acosta and Raul Valdes. Manuel’s bullpen became:
Rodriguez – closer
Feliciano – use every night if possible
Nieve – use every night if possible
Mejia – use in low leverage or any clutch situation where Feliciano or Nieve had already been used.
Parra – use after Mejia.
Takahashi – long man
Valdes – long man
Feliciano wants to be a cross over reliever but he is really best utilized against tough lefties in high leverage situations. He’s not a LOOGY like old pal Scott Schoeneweis, he is not someone that needs to be replaced once any righty batter steps into the box, but he is not someone who should be thrown into the game with three righty batters scheduled to hit, either.
The Mets have played 18 games so far in May and Feliciano has pitched in 11 of them. He has two losses and a blown save this month. Batters have a .394/.429/.545 line against him in May. There is a price to pay in using a pitcher every night, even if it is just for a batter or two.
At least with Feliciano, it is understandable why Manuel uses him like he does. But it is insane to do that with Nieve, a converted starter who made just two relief appearances all of last year. Nieve has appeared in 10 games in May (after 14 in April), has an 8.31 ERA and batters have a .998 OPS against him this month. He is walking guys and giving up HR at an unacceptable level.
Nieve came in and did a nice job as a starter in 2009, even if he did have a great deal of good fortune. His ERA for the Mets last year was 2.95 but his xFIP was 5.41. Still, there was a lot to like with what he did last year. He had much better control in the minors and if he could refine that control, it looked like he could be a very nice #3/4 starting pitcher. Instead, Manuel made him a reliever, enjoyed some short term success with him and is now paying the price. And what is his ERA right now? It is almost identical to last year’s xFIP at 5.40. No pitcher can succeed in the majors with a 5.82 BB/9. Nieve needs to be working on his command in the minors, as a starter.
The injury to Igarashi came at a most inopportune time, as Manuel was finally developing faith in him. If Igarashi had been available, perhaps neither Feliciano nor Nieve would have been overworked to the degree that they have been. But Manuel left himself few other options with his refusal to use Acosta in any key situations unless he had no other options and his insistence on keeping an unqualified Mejia in the bullpen.
Manuel gambled that Mejia could handle the demands of being a short reliever. That gamble failed. He could have salvaged the situation by making Mejia a long man, getting him some much needed innings in a low-pressure situation. Mejia has pitched more than an inning in just three of his 19 appearances this year. In those three games, he has gone 5.2 IP, given up 4 H, 0 ER, 4 BB and 4 Ks. Rumors are that Mejia to the minors is imminent, with a switch back to the rotation. Let’s hope that’s true.
Rodriguez is used in the manner that most managers use their closer. There is nothing specific to argue with Manuel on this one, even if the club would be better off if he came into the game earlier. Rodriguez would not have to pitch more than an inning in those roles – he could still be a one-inning guy. But he would not rack up saves this way and it would open Manuel up to more second guessing. There is zero chance this will happen, even if it is better than the current setup.
So, what’s the solution?
Send Mejia and Nieve to the minors. If Acosta cannot be trusted to pitch in a key spot, send him down and get someone up who can. Dessens has a 2.25 ERA in Triple-A, with 3 BB and 17 Ks in 16 IP. Misch has a 3.30 ERA and a 3:1 SO/BB ratio, albeit as a starter. Hope that Igarashi can come back and be effective. Limit the usage of Feliciano. Give Valdes more chances in higher leverage situations. Use Rodriguez before the ninth inning if the game is on the line.
The bottom line is that there are things that can be done, things that need to be tried, because the bullpen as currently constructed and utilized is not the answer.
The Mets’ pitching is not great but with a little finesse it could produce better results. The question is if Manuel and pitching coach Dan Warthen are the right guys to lead the necessary overhaul. Manuel makes decisions without regard to long-term implications. This is why we get guys in the majors who belong in the minors. In a purely selfish way it makes sense, because in the long run, Manuel will be fired. But when the short-term moves blow up, and there is no long-term planning, what’s left?
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can, and
the wisdom to know the difference.”
Sir Francis of Assisi could have been talking about the Mets. Now it is up to Omar Minaya to contemplate serenity, courage and wisdom with Manuel. I can tell him from first-hand experience that my pleas for serenity in regards to Manuel have not paid off in tangible results. Here is wishing Minaya wisdom and courage before the season is lost for good.
Fire Manuel and pick someone with a little fire who knows how to run a bullpen. Even in 2002, Bobby Valentine got good work out of every reliever who pitched significant innings for him. Six relievers appeared in 30 or more games and five of them had ERAs under 3. The worst one of the group was Scott Strickland, who had a 3.59 ERA in 68 games. Will any reliever on the 2010 Mets besides (potentially) Rodriguez work that much and finish with an ERA that low?
It’s time to admit a mistake from earlier in the decade and bring back Valentine as manager.