Mets Will Be Tempted by Power Bats, but Need Better Pitching to Get Back to Playoffs

If the Mets are known for anything these days, it’s for acquiring big names in the offseason.

Jason Bay in 2010. Francisco Rodriguez in 2009. Johan Santana in 2008. Even Carlos Beltran in 2005. All of these players were brought in by the Mets during the offseason in an attempt to better their team, and also in an attempt to steal some headlines from the cross-town Yankees.

But while the Mets perennially feature some of the game’s premier players and one of its highest payrolls, they haven’t made the playoffs since 2006 and have failed to surpass the 80-win mark two seasons running.

Last season would seem to suggest that the Mets need to focus on their offense. They were a horrible offensive team in 2010, finishing 13th in the NL in runs scored and home runs and 12th in total bases. Their pitching, meanwhile, was at least average, as they finished 6th in the league with a 3.70 team ERA and 9th in the league with a 1.36 team WHIP.

Because of those numbers, the Mets will be tempted to add another marquis offensive player to a roster that already includes Beltran, Bay, David Wright and Jose Reyes this offseason. After all, Luis Castillo is a black hole at second base, Josh Thole is unproven behind the plate and Ike Davis isn’t the kind of All-Star caliber bat that division rivals Philadelphia and Washington have run out at first base over the last couple of years.

Despite the temptation to add a Jayson Werth or Victor Martinez, the Mets would be best served taking that money and investing it in something they’ve sorely lacked over the past few seasons: solid mid-rotation starters.

The Mets essentially have two reliable starting pitchers headed into the 2011 season in Johan Santana and Mike Pelfrey. Santana has been one of the best pitchers of his generation, but the 31-year-old left-hander suffered a shoulder injury late last season and may be hampered in early 2011. Pelfrey looks unlikely to blossom into the type of No.1 starter the Mets imagined he would be when they took him with the ninth overall pick in the 2006 draft, but he’s developed into a solid No. 3 starter, and posted a 3.66 ERA last season.

But if the season started today, the Mets would be left with a fairly rag-tag group of pitchers competing for the No. 3-5 spots in their starting rotation.

Youngster Jon Niese has the ability to be a solid No. 4 starter for years to come, but has a limited upside, and threw almost 200 innings last season. How he responds to his first full season will be important, as he could be the type of solid young pitcher the Mets have been unable to develop in recent years. He’d be the favorite to be the No. 3 starter if spring training began tomorrow.

Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey had an extraordinary 2010 campaign, having his best season at the age of 25 by going 11-9 with a 2.84 ERA and 5.4 strikeout-per-nine-innings ratio. He’s worth giving another shot at a rotation spot, but needs to have another good year before his reemergence can be taken seriously.

Had the Mets handled his development differently, the uber-talented Jenrry Mejia could have been ready to be a key contributor to their 2011 squad. But instead of allowing Mejia to develop as a starter at his own pace, the Mets jerked him between the rotation and the bullpen, rushed him to the majors, and essentially wasted a half-season of his development time as Mejia suffered from arm injuries last year. He could eventually be a top-of-the-rotation starter, but after last season’s setbacks, he likely needs more time in Triple-A.

John Maine was good for the Mets in 2006 and 2007, but has regressed for three seasons in a row, and he posted his worst full season as a professional in 2010. Maine was blasted for a 6.15 ERA and 1.815 WHIP, and would be a non-tender candidate on a lot of teams. He’ll be just 29 when next year begins, but there are few signs his career is headed anywhere but down.

And finally, the last pitcher with a chance to crack the Mets rotation is Oliver Perez, who the Mets signed to one of the worst contracts in recent MLB history before the 2009 season. Perez was paid $12 million to post an 0-5 record, 6.80 ERA and throw just 45 1/3 innings last season, and will receive the same hefty amount in 2011. He has the most upside of anyone in the Mets’ organization save Santana and Mejia, but also has the smallest chance of fulfilling that potential.

In short, the Mets need to sign at least one reliable mid-rotation starter this offseason, and would be better off signing a high-risk, high-reward guy as well. Luckily for new Mets GM Sandy Alderson, the market is ripe with such pitchers.

In the dependable department, Jon Garland, Kevin Millwood, Carl Pavano, Hiroki Kuroda, Jorge De La Rosa and Vincente Padilla will all be free agents, and all would sit nicely in the No. 3 or 4 spot in the Mets’ rotation. Garland and Kuroda are the most reliable of this group, and while both performed well last season, neither should expect more than a two-year deal.

 In the riskier category fall names such as Ben Sheets, Brandon Webb, Rich Harden, Aaron Harang and Erik Bedard. All have top-of-the-rotation potential, but all have struggled mightily in recent years as well. Still, there’s no harm in throwing one of these pitchers an incentive-laden one-year deal and hoping they can turn their careers around in pitcher-friendly Citi Field.

Even signing has-beens such as Jeremy Bonderman, Brad Penny, Dontrelle Willis or Ian Snell would be wiser than splurging on another veteran offensive player who is sure to weigh down the club’s payroll within a few seasons. At least any damage done by those pitchers would be short-lived.

If the Mets take the conservative route, they will get slammed in the media, won’t be atop any expert’s pick to win the NL East and won’t grab any splashy headlines this offseason.

But what they will do is put themselves in a better position to win going forward. That’s a concept former GM Omar Minaya struggled with, and is a big part of the reason he’s no longer calling the shots.

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