The New York Mets need pitching. This doesn’t actually need to be said, because every baseball team everywhere always needs more pitching. The Little League team I was on at age twelve had two good pitchers, and we really could have used three. There is a world wide shortage on pitching — I blame SPECTRE. Last season in the major leagues, just seventy-three pitchers threw at least 180 innings — this means there were less than two-and-a-half reliable starters per team. Of those seventy-three pitchers who threw at least 180 innings, just five are currently free agents. One is Kevin Millwood (5.10 ERA in 2010), another is Braden Looper (5.22 ERA), and another is Rodrigo Lopez (5.00 ERA). Which really means that there are just two inning eating starters in this winter’s free agent class: Cliff Lee and Carl Pavano. No, seriously. Carl Pavano is the second best pitcher on the open market. The supply of reliable pitchers can’t meet the demand for reliable pitchers, and never does. Pitchers are like extra years on a contract with the Washington Nationals — you can never have too many.
So every team needs pitching. But the Mets particularly need pitching, probably more than most teams. They have three proven starting pitchers — Jon Niese, R.A. Dickey, and Mike Pelfrey — ready for Opening Day 2011. They have three or four solid arms in the bullpen — Francisco Rodriguez, Bobby Parnell, Manny Acosta, and the newly signed D.J. Carrasco. (I should probably mention Pat Misch, who isn’t necessarily terrible, so: Pat Misch.) And that’s it. Hisanori Takahashi took his 100 plus innings to Anaheim; Pedro Feliciano has in all liklihood also parted ways with the team. Johan Santana is still a good pitcher when healthy, though that’s like saying Cy Young is still a good pitcher when not dead. Shoulder injuries are never good news for pitchers — just ask John Maine — and they are particularly bad news for those over thirty. This means the Mets currently have a total of seven or eight pitchers they can count on in 2011. They need at least 13, and would probably like more.
That’s not the only bad news, actually. The real bad news is that little help appear to be on the way from the minor leagues. 2010 was not kind to pitching in the Mets system.
Before the season, Toby Hyde of Mets Minor League Blog made his list of the the team’s top forty-one prospects; John Sickels of Minor League Ball also made a list of Mets top prospects. Hyde listed eight pitchers among his top twenty: Jenrry Mejia, Jon Niese, Brad Holt, Jeurys Familia, Kyle Allen, Steven Matz, Juan Urbina, and Eric Niesen. Sickels named those same eight pitchers, and three others in his top twenty: Brant Rustich, Tobi Stoner, and Dillon Gee. That gives us a total of eleven “top twenty” pitching prospects on the Mets’ farm.
So the question is: Out of the eleven pitchers mentioned above, how many had good seasons? And how many totally exploded?
I’d say that four had good, or at least okay, seasons — Mejia, Niese, Gee, and Urbina. Four prospects took varying sizes of steps back — Holt, Allen, Niesen, and Stoner. Matz and Rustich missed time with injuries, and number eleven, Familia, tread water because of his age and level. It wasn’t a good year to be a Mets pitching prospect.
And the bad group wasn’t just sort of bad. Some of them were really, really bad:
- Brad Holt’s implosion was epic. The Mets’ second pick of the 2008 draft began the year by posting a 10.20 ERA and walking 23 batters in 30 innings at Double-A. This earned him a June demotion to High-A, where things somehow got worse. Holt walked 56 batters, hit 14, and unleashed 20 wild pitches in 14 starts for the St. Lucie Mets. He also made two errors in four fielding chances. Holt finished 2010 by walking 9 batters in 12.1 innings in the Arizona Fall League.
- Kyle Allen, seen as a sleeper by many before 2010, went back to sleep. He made 19 starts for the St. Lucie Mets, walking 54 batters — one more than he struck out — and his ERA sat at 5.24.
- Eric Niesen, who turned twenty-five and pitched for Double-A Binghamton this season, also walked one more batter than he struck out, 60 walks in 77 innings. He put up a 5.14 ERA.
- Tobi Stoner, who made a cameo in the 2010 Mets bullpen, had a 5.97 ERA in 120 innings for Triple-A Buffalo, supported by a less-bad-but-still-bad FIP of 4.96. He is now twenty-six.
- Brant Rustich missed the first half of the season with a broken arm, pitched just 14 innings, and walked 11 in those 14 innings. Rustich still hasn’t made it to Double-A and also will be twenty-six next season.
- Steven Matz, the Mets’ top pick in the 2009 draft, underwent Tommy John surgery in May before he could pitch in his first professional game. He probably won’t pitch in a game until late 2011.
- Jeurys Familia had an ERA of 5.58 in 24 starts and walked 5.5 batters per nine innings for the St. Lucie Mets. However, the twenty year old did strike out 137 batters in 121 innings in a league where the average age is almost three years older. We can be generous and call his 2010 a wash.
And the good:
- Jenrry Mejia: surviving all that earns him good marks for 2010.
- Jon Niese appeared to tire down the stretch, but is arguably the best pitcher the Mets currently have in the big leagues. This is either really exciting or really depressing.
- Dillon Gee pitched better than his 4.96 ERA at Triple-A might indicate. 165 strikeouts in 161.1 innings is exciting. 23 home runs is less so.
- Juan Urbina is seventeen. Let’s just forget he exists for a couple of years.
The way I see it, the Mets have two pitchers from their farm system ready to contribute to the 2011 team. Dillon Gee is one; non-prospect righty reliever Manuel Alvarez — who struck out 84 batters in 78.2 innings with a crazy 7:1 strikeout to walk ratio — is potentially the other. (The Mets recently added Alvarez to the forty man roster, protecting him from the Rule 5 draft.) If you think Tobi Stoner’s 2010 was just a down year, you can throw him in too. But that’s sort of it. The young arms that were supposed to be ready for Triple-A or more this season — particularly Holt and Niesen — melted down. The previous regime setting Mejia’s development back for three months of irregular use didn’t help. Past Gee and Alvarez, no pitching help appears on the semi-distant horizon for the Mets. This makes Niese, Pelfrey, Santana, Gee, Parnell, and Carrasco the only pitchers under team control for 2012, with just Mejia projected to be ready by then.
The lack of pitching depth is the biggest problem with the Mets right now. They don’t have enough. It’s easy to see, particularly in a free agent market where Cliff Lee might get SEVEN YEARS and Carl Pavano is the clear number two option, why growing your own pitchers is so important. The market won’t be any better in 2012, when lefties Mark Buehrle and C.J. Wilson might be the best options. The Mets’ pitching ranks were decimated this past season. The attrition rate on pitchers is always high, but 2010 was particularly nasty. Don’t be surprised if these Sandy Alderson Mets move some of their expiring contracts for young pitchers. Everyone always needs pitching. But the Mets really need pitching.