Fifth Starter Blues

Ugh, now what? Orlando Hernandez and Mike Pelfrey both had their respective fifth-starter asses handed to them by the Cardinals on Sunday afternoon, further distorting what was already a slowly-developing potato sack race for the last spot in the rotation.

El Duque made his first start of the spring and, after throwing in the mid-seventies during a simulated game last week, was apparently rocking the mid-eighties this time around. Though pretty fast for a jalopy, 85 isn't enough mustard to get the ball by established major leaguers like opposing starting pitcher Todd Wellemeyer (1-for-2 on the day). All told, Hernandez allowed five runs on four hits in just three innings, striking out one and walking two.

Thankfully, I didn't see any of the game when it was on, as I was amidst a marathon five-hour Resident Evil 4 session on Wii. I went back and watched some of it on MLB.tv later on and was surprised to see El Duque look even worse than his pitching line would have you believe. Despite a sweet "Mirror, Mirror" goatee*, El Duque had very spotty control of most of his repertoire and featured a fastball that was noticeably devoid of life.

*Perhaps fitting, as this crappy El Duque must be from a diametrically opposing universe from the real (read: good) El Duque. We'll know for sure if this one stays healthy all year.

I'll concede that we should cut Hernandez some slack; having pitched using his customary stork-kick for so many years, many of them under the iron fist of Ramon Fidel Castro, there is unquestionably an adjustment period as he acclimates himself to pitching like everyone else. Radar gun flakiness notwithstanding, his fastball was reportedly ten clicks quicker on Sunday than it was last week, so given another three weeks it doesn't seem so unreasonable that he could ramp it up to the low-nineties by then. Given the assorted off-days in early April -- scheduled and otherwise -- the Mets won't need a true fifth starter until the middle of the month, so that gives El Duque a bit of leeway as he continues to get himself into playing shape.

El Duque wasn't alone in his brutal suckitude yesterday. Mike Pelfrey, who is also competing for that last rotation spot, was so much worse than El Duque yesterday as to make the Cuban's outing seem decent by comparison. Pelfrey allowed eight runs, all earned, on 13 hits in just 4.1 innings, a bit-spitting of biblical proportions. When Pelfrey struggles it is usually because he can't keep his fastball down, and this game was no exception, as his "sinker" would consistently drift up in the zone. I wrote about this last week, but Pelfrey will continue to fail at this level if he can't induce more groundballs. Sunday was more of the same, as Pelfrey recorded just four outs on the ground, just half of his flyball out total. That ratio needs to be flipped for Pelfrey to be successful.

I'm not the sort of fan/writer/basement dweller to throw around tired baseball platitudes like "step up his game", but Pelfrey has to be kicking himself for letting a golden opportunity to win a starting job with this team slip away. El Duque is a mess right now, and this was the perfect time for Pelfrey to "step up his game" and win the last starter spot out of spring training. Even a decent spring -- 3.50 ERA with so-so peripherals -- would have done it. But, much like intelligent design, that hasn't exactly happened. Pelfrey has an ERA of 8.31 in 17.1 innings and a lousy 6-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. That's called "not getting the job done", whether you're from the new school or the old school.

To make matters worse, the Mets don't even have a passable Plan C. They've got Tony Armas in Triple-A, but he just arrived in the states last week after sorting out some visa issues, so he won't be ready for anything for at least a few weeks. Also, he's Tony Armas.

What else? Jorge Sosa, I guess. He was decent as a starter last year until his weak strikeout-to-walk rate came face-to-face with a little something we like to call "regression to the mean", and *bam*, he turned back into a pumpkin.

What the Mets could really use is a guy like Kyle Lohse, whom the Mets could have had for pennies on the dollar (i.e. $4.25 MM), but for whatever reason they didn't make an offer and Lohse signed with the Cardinals. It's possible that the Mets were interested but Lohse simply preferred a guaranteed spot in the rotation. Whatever the case, one year and $4.25 million seems like a pretty reasonably-priced insurance policy.

So now we wait and see. It may be that both Pelfrey and Hernandez stay behind -- Pelfrey in Triple-A and Hernandez in extended spring training -- until the Mets actually need to call on that fifth starter. Maybe one or both of them will figure things out by then and we'll have gotten all worked up over nothing. One prominent trait of championship teams is player depth*, and the Mets have very little in that department right now, particularly in the rotation. As it stands they have four guys for five spots. What happens if one (or two!) of their other four starters get hurt? Bad things, man. Bad things.

*Unconfirmed, but sounds reasonable.

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