If we have learned anything from the post-steroids baseball era, it is the simple truth that a lock down bullpen has become even more important to winning teams than ever before.
Home runs are down and more and more games come down to how you can effectively close the game with not only 9th inning sure things but an effective corps of relievers that can also lock down the 7th and 8th innings as well. The Tampa Bay Rays are a great case in point to that--in 2008 their corps of relievers did the job en route to a World Series appearance but just a year later that same cast of characters betrayed them and the tough AL East ate them alive.
The Mets have a huge edge on most teams in this department as Frankie Rodriquez remains one of top 3 closers in all of baseball and more importantly has the mindset of a closer in the toughest of all cities to be the ninth inning guy. K-Rod embraced the New York challenge last year enough to earn an All-Star appearance and despite a less than stellar second half, he remained accountable for his mistakes and hell bent on being better. I also think he had a greater impact on others in the pen than his predecessor Billy Wagner who tended to talk more than lead. Frankie spends a lot of time with other relievers and has mentored them about approach and commitment.
But as I stated earlier, a bullpen is more than a closer and many of the other pieces that the Mets need may be staring at them right in the face in regards to the 7th and 8th innings. Brian Stokes and Pedro Feliciano have both shown the ability to get hitters out and very well could share the 8th inning duties. Feliciano is devastating against left handed hitters and with southpaws like Utley, Ibanez, Howard, McCann, and Dunn all residing in the NL East he could be a very important weapon late in the game.
Brian Stokes is a very interesting option as well as he throws an assortment of pitches that combine speed and location but still remains the forgotten and sometimes under appreciated hurler in the pen. He allowed just about 1 hit per inning in 70 innings pitched and also showed a durable arm making you believe he could be the workhorse that all bullpens need. In many ways, he deserves this chance because of all the righty set up guys he performed the best last year.
So what does the bullpen need? Simply put another lefthanded specialist and some righthanded depth as well as a long man or two. I firmly believe that Elmer Dessens and/or Nelson Fiqueroa will assume the long man role but the 2 other pieces could come from outside the organization. Names like Rafael Soriano, Fernando Rodney, Mike Gonzalez, Jose Valverde, and Kevin Gregg are on the free agent lists and one or two of them could end up in Flushing if the timing and the price tag is right. But my feeling is Bobby Parnell will be a year older and a year wiser and can serve the role as an effective 7th inning guy. He has great stuff but just needs more consistency as I feel the pen is a better place for him than the rotation.
The last piece here might be the way Jerry Manuel handles the bullpen and by that I mean how he defines roles, communicates those roles, and manages the workload so pitchers are not overworked and yet get enough work to stay sharp. In particular, K-Rod should NEVER and I repeat NEVER go more than 2 days without appearing in a game. And if Stokes or Feliciano are the 8th inning duo, let them know that so they could put together a routine EVERY night of preparing themselves for that role and ONLY that role. In fairness to the manager, he got used to mixing and matching at the end of the 2008 season because of injuries and no reliable closer but he has one now so roles should be easy to pinpoint.
For Omar Minaya, very little money should be spent on the pen if any because this can be a very good one if it is managed correctly and you show confidence in guys like Feliciano and Stokes who deserve it.