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The Optimal Rotation Depends On Your Priorities

As decision-time for Jerry Manuel approaches, many are talking about the Mets fifth-starter race. The team seems to favor Jon Niese, with Fernando Nieve and Hisanori Takahashi as his main competition. Nelson Figueroa already seems eliminated and isn't too happy about it, which is understandable given the comparative talent and reliability of those pitchers ahead of him. 

So the Mets have options, and consequences that accompany every possible move. Niese and Takahashi can be outrighted to the minors at any time. Nelson Figueroa and Fernando Nieve are both out of minor league options, so would have to clear waivers to be demoted to Buffalo. Figueroa could also refuse assignment and test free-agency. He recently insinuated he would do just that, if waived, and sign for a better salary in Japan. With the Mets, Figueroa narrowly missed arbitration and has a very underwhelming split-contract that will earn him ~1/4 of the major-league minimum in AAA. 

Fearing Figueroa's release, some people have begun lobbying for his inclusion somewhere in the pitching staff. The main argument is a basic truth, most clearly demonstrated by a practical example here: teams always need more than 5 starters, often 6 or 7...or 11, in the case of the 2009 Mets. 

Howard Medgdal, ostensibly concerned with this depth, but also clearly infatuated with Figueroa, proposed this staff:

  • SP1: Santana/ SP2: Perez (he didn't explicitly say this but...)/ SP3: Pelfrey/ SP4:Maine/ SP5: Figueroa 
  • Pen: Rodriguez/Feliciano/Calero/Igarashi/Parnell/Green/Nieve 

Figueroa pitched well last season in the minors and averagely in the majors, but is a guy who sported a FIP well north of 5 for most of his career. I'll buy that he's figured a lot out since then, but a 36-year-old coming off a career year is a 36-year-old coming off a career year. 

Which leads to my real problem with Howard's idea: it assumes the Mets will be competitive without fielding the most competitive possible staff. The logic behind keeping Figueroa is that more depth keeps the team competitive, but here, Figueroa blocks at least one better pitcher. To illustrate this contradiction, consider two possible staffs, based on opposite philosophical extremes. 

Now to those of you convinced 2010 will be a playoff miss and developmental year: how committed are you to that idea? If you truly believe 2010 is a gap year, I'd recommend this staff:

  • SP1: Santana/ SP2: Pelfrey/ SP3: Perez/ SP4: Nieve/ SP5: Takahashi
  • Pen: Rodriguez/Feliciano/Calero/Igarashi/Parnell/Green/Maine

The rotation features three pitchers, who are extremely uncertain, but have the upside to be important rotation pieces going forward. Oliver Perez is self-explanatory: the Mets will be paying him a lot of money either way and a good year from him can only make him more useful or more tradeable in the future. Assuming his fastball velocity returns, the potential is there. 

I love Nieve's stuff and the flashes of a good changeup portend well for him becoming more than just a situational reliever. If his slider returned to pre-Tommy John levels, he could be a real force. Takahashi's fastball is underwhelming, but he's being severely underrated. Hiroki Kuroda came to America a year older than Takahashi, with worse peripherals, and turned in a season arguably better than Johan's. Kuroda does have a better fastball and generates a good number of groundballs to compensate for his lower strikeout rates, but Takahashi's screwball is supposedly good at inducing grounders and both pitchers have similarly deep and varied arsenals. Maybe my comparison is way off-base here, but we really do not know how Takahashi will fare, and therein lies the upside. 

The main objective here is exploring the unknown. We mostly know Maine's upside and starting the season on long-relief could help ease his shoulder back to a full workload. Figueroa's upside is also basically known and limited, so while his most likely performance this year is probably exceeds that of Nieve or Takahashi, he is expendable in the long-term. This staff also delays Niese's arbitration clock, while getting him and Mejia regular work in the minors. 

Alternatively, the most competitive squad seems to be this:

  • SP1: Santana/ SP2: Niese/ SP3: Pelfrey/ SP4: Maine/ SP5: Figueroa
  • Rodriguez./Feliciano/Calero/Igarashi/Mejia/Parnell/Perez

Niese is the second best starter in the organization right now. He's better than Pelfrey, all projection systems agree, and until Maine demonstrates some health, Niese is #2. This plan, however, has obvious problems, most obviously putting Mejia in the bullpen and, to a lesser extent, conceding Perez's contract as a sunk cost. 

So how do the Mets balance these two goals: winning and player development? Ted Berg provides one answer: demoting Green and Parnell and carrying the spot starters as relievers. I think this proposal sits closest between something I really like and something the Mets would actually do. 

Howard's staff is another such attempt at balance, but, because it excludes Niese for Figueroa, a fundamentally bad plan. It also relegates Nieve to the bullpen, potentially permanently, which prevent him from ever reaching his potential as a starter. Because I fear Nieve being claimed off waivers, my compromise would be to send Takahashi to AAA and start Maine in the bullpen. 

Mainly, I don't want to start Figueroa in the rotation. A good comp for Figgy would be Batman. Both, wealthy but unfulfilled in their youth, traveled the world honing their skills, and now return to defeat younger, physically superior combatants with superior technique. Do I fear and respect Batman? Yes, of course, but he's a crafty superhero, who relies on his wits and doesn't figure to get much better with age. Why call on Batman to do a simple job he's probably capable of doing, when one or more of these other guys might discover hidden superpowers?