While warming up for the Mets' spring training opener, lefthander Oliver Perez threw a pitch so far out of the strike zone that not even Bob Uecker could have come up with a reasonable explanation for it. Perez, who has alternated between phenom and disaster in his five-year major league career, nailed SI photographer John Iacono in the leg. Thus, questions related to New York's starters began with, "How's Iacono?" (He had to leave after the fourth inning but recovered quickly.)
Early exits are one of many concerns for a rotation marked by age and know-how at the top (are there two smarter pitchers than Tom Glavine and Orlando Hernandez?), uncertainty in the middle (Perez and 2006 surprise John Maine), a virtual tryout camp for the fifth spot and untapped talent waiting in the wings. Beyond the likelihood that in 2007 the 41-year-old Glavine will win his 300th game -- he needs 10 -- there are no certainties but plenty of questions. Such as:
• Is Mike Pelfrey, 23, the strapping righthander who's been compared with Justin Verlander, ready to contribute?
• Is Maine ready for prime time?
• Is Perez the guy who dominated in 2004, the one who crashed and burned in '05 and early '06, or someone in between?
• Can Hernandez stay healthy?
And that's just for starters. Of even greater intrigue will be the recovery and progress of Pedro Martinez, who had rotator cuff surgery in October and has the potential to be baseball's best midseason pickup. If these questions linger, the action around the trade deadline should be furious. That's when general manager Omar Minaya may finally submit to the pressure to give up one or more of the club's top prospects -- from among outfielders Lastings Milledge, Carlos Gomez and Fernando Martinez, or even pitchers Pelfrey and Philip Humber -- to improve a rotation that could be all that's keeping the Mets from a return to the NLCS and possibly a trip to the World Series.
This is a wonderful team with a deep, talented relief corps and a loaded lineup. Minaya talks about the rotation's great "numbers"; he isn't referring to ERA or wins but rather the sheer volume of hopefuls. One Mets decision-maker referred to pitching coach Rick Peterson and his new three-year, seven-figure contract, saying that with this set of starters, "he's going to have to earn that money."
If Peterson can scrape together some magic or, more likely, if Minaya can pull off a midseason trade after failing to land either of this winter's marquee free agents, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Barry Zito (New York came within $12 million of Boston's posting price on Dice-K but was $51 million short of Zito's Giants haul), the Mets still could easily position themselves for another run at the World Series. Hardly anyone has a better blend of speed and power or two more versatile talents than Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran, who provide the lightning and some thunder in a lineup that has four genuine MVP candidates when you add emerging star David Wright and thumper Carlos Delgado.
While the Mets have more than a little age on them, they have plenty going for them beyond their experience. "We feel good about what we have here," manager Willie Randolph says. Although, you know they'd feel a little better if they added another starter. -- Jon Heyman
Issue date: March 26, 2007