Monday, March 22, 2010

The Mets Most Critical Spring Training Issue: Holding On To Figgy

Howard Megdal published a great article yesterday regarding the Mets fifth starter competition, and may have accidentally highlighted what I believe to be the most important and interesting issue surrounding the Mets this spring -- keeping Nelson Figueroa the property of the New York Mets.

(I know articles about Mejia, Ike Davis, and Fernando are much sexier, but sometimes the boring issues are the most important)

In his blog for, Megdal points out that the Mets have an "embarrassment of riches" competing for the fifth spot in the pitching rotation. And he's absolutely right.

The most interesting part of the article, however, was the angle that he took on the topic. After basically assuming that all the candidates are good and viable (which they are) he discussed the competition in the most important context: "given the question marks with the first four pitchers in the rotation, the team's ability to hold onto [the fifth starter candidates] has to be taken into account."

Medgal concludes:
Niese's time may soon be upon the Mets. If placing him on the roster at the expense of Nieve, or even Figueroa, didn't mean likely losing both of them, he would probably be my choice to start the season in the fifth spot.

Consider, however, that with one of these four -- Figueroa, Nieve, Takahashi, Niese -- in the fifth spot, the Mets have three other pitchers in reserve. Not only could something go wrong with the winner of this derby, but their 1-4 spots are taken up by question marks. They have a starter coming off of elbow surgery (Johan Santana), a starter coming off of knee surgery (Oliver Perez), a starter coming off of several years of shoulder woes (John Maine) and Mike Pelfrey, a ground-ball pitcher who may have his psyche crushed by the up-the-middle Maginot Line, Cora and Castillo.

* * *

So, in summary: start Nelson Figueroa, relieve with Nieve and send Takahashi and Niese to the rotation in Buffalo. It is the prudent way forward.

Exactly. Not only must we decide who the best candidate for the fifth starter is, but we must also try to find a way to hang on to all of these potentially valuable pitching options. You can never have enough pitching in general, but this is especially true with this year's edition of the New York Mets with all of our question marks in the rotation.

In fact, we said something nearly identical last week:
It appears that the Mets consider Takahashi and Nieve as candidates for the bullpen, but not Figueroa. According to Brian Costa of the Star-Ledger, Fernando Nieve [and Figueroa are] out of options and cannot be sent to the minor leagues without clearing waivers...

... a few things are clear. Fernando Nieve and Hisanori Takahashi will be on the roster Opening Day. If I had it my way, both would be in the bullpen and Nelson Figueroa would be the fifth starter. Jon Niese would have a few months to hone his craft in Triple-A.

This option allows us to a) retain all our players, b) allows Niese to mature as a pitcher, and c) gives Figueroa the shot at the rotation that everyone thinks he deserves...

For the best chance of winning now, holding on to our player properties, and allowing Jon Niese to reach his potential, this arrangement seems to be the obvious answer.

The Mets need to be very smart when making their decision on this - but unfortunately, it seems like they won't be. Based on the little that we can glean from spring training games, it seems like Figueroa may not be receiving consideration. Instead of getting a regular start this week or last week, he was "relegated to a "B" game on a back field against the Marlins' backups, then Sunday's outing against the University of Michigan." (Daily News). It would be disappointing to lose him, but it's pretty obvious what will happen if the Mets try to send him through waivers again:
If Figueroa doesn't make the team, the Mets must place him on waivers before sending him to Triple-A Buffalo. If Figueroa is claimed, that team will be obligated to keep him in the majors. If Figueroa clears waivers, he can declare himself a free agent. Figueroa strongly indicated he would use that option, and would not remain with the Mets in the minors.
* * *
As for playing in Japan, Figueroa noted he could make a seven-figure salary, more than his entire career earnings. His minor-league salary as a Met would be $119,500 this year. "I've been playing for 15 years, and I haven't made $1 million," Figueroa said. "I would like to have the opportunity to have some security for my family, of course. ... Everybody says they're not playing for that payday, but it would be nice. It would be nice to not have to go to winter ball to also get a check. (Daily News)
If we demote him, Figueroa is as good as gone. That is not the case with any of the other pitching options.

Don't think this issue is important? Well, consider this. If we make the wrong decision by, for example, sending Jennry Mejia down to the minor leagues - we can always promote him again to the majors. If we keep Ike Davis as our first baseman to start the year and he is incapable of handling major league pitching, we can send him down and we will likely not have suffered more than a game or two drop in the standings because of it. But if we waive Figueroa, he is gone, and we'll have lost a cheap, reliable, potentially good pitching option for nothing.

We said the same thing last season around this time about not wanting to lose Darren O'Day to waivers:
As for the rest of the pen, I rank them like this: K-Rod, Putz, and Feliciano as locks. I think Stokes and O'Day should be locks too, considering we lose them if we waive them. That would leave Parnell, Dessens, Green, and Nieve competing for two spots.
The Mets didn't listen, we waived O'Day, and he went on to be one of the most valuable relievers in the entire American league last season, posting a 1.94 ERA and 0.95 WHIP and striking out 54 batters in 55 innings while pitching in a good offensive ballpark. It is not a stretch to say that O'Day would probably have been the Mets best reliever, and that losing him cost us quite a few ballgames last year.

Pitchers who can post even league average statistics as starters are valuable and hard to find. Even if Figueroa takes a step back from 2009 and from his sterling spring performance, and posts statistics closer to what the computer projections have for him (CHONE: 4.59 ERA, ZiPS: 5.06 ERA) he will be valuable for us this year. The Mets should not risk losing him for nothing - even if the price is waiting a month to see what Jon Niese or Hisanori Takahashi can do.

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