The U Files # 61: Taking the Fifth

It is doubtful general manager Jim Duquette of the New York Mets would use his Fifth Amendment rights when confronted with the media on his recent manipulations. However his moves do complicate the matter of who will pitch in the fifth spot in the rotation for the Mets. The team, in a semi-rebuilding mode, has more young arms coming up than spots in the rotation but Duquette has signed two veteran pitchers to minor league contracts.

Late last week the Mets announced the signing of pitcher Scott Erickson to a minor league contract. More recently the team signed pitcher James Baldwin and relief pitcher Ricky Bottalico to minor league contracts.

The Mets last year started the season with the last spot in the rotation going to a pitcher whose age was determined by carbon dating, David Cone. Not a month into his season his official retirement began. The spot for the rest of the season was constantly juggled among disappointing pitchers including the injured Pedro Astacio and young upstarts Aaron Heilman and Jeremy Griffiths.

Heilman remains a well thought of talent who will not benefit from too much more time at class AAA. He has been working with new, heralded pitching coach Rick Peterson and will need a chance soon to show that he can be a quality Major League pitcher. Griffiths was never as highly regarded as Heilman, but is similarly needing a chance at a Major League roster spot.

More recently thrown into discussions about the highly contested slot are pitchers Grant Roberts, who has been successful in a role as a relief pitcher for the Mets, and prospect Tyler Yates. Yates has been talked of as a potential closer and in recent times a potential starter. The Mets pitched Yates in a starting role at class AAA as he recovered from ligament replacement surgery. Yates is reputed to throw a fastball approaching triple digits, though he did not post exceptional numbers in his last year.

Erickson has had a quite odd major league career. When at his best he has been a quality pitcher, but he's mixed in years in which his performance would not draw raves. His overall career ERA is about exactly average. More pertinent to this discussion are his recent troubles. He has not been fully healthy in years. His last good season came in 1998 for the Baltimore Orioles when he pitched 251 innings to an ERA of 4.01. Erickson missed all of the 2001 and 2003 seasons, and his performance in 2000 and 2002 ranged from the cringe inspiring to the criminal. Erickson will be 36 years old in the 2004 season.

Baldwin has been healthy; he simply has never been effective. The career end-of-the-rotation filler has posted career numbers about as bad as you would ever see from a pitcher with as many career innings as Baldwin (anyone worse won't stick around too long). His career ERA is 5.02, which is eight percent higher than the park and league adjusted ERA in the environs he's pitched. My own projection for Baldwin, based on a weighted average of his last three years as a starter (excluding 2003, when he pitched 15 innings in relief) and adjusted for park and league-year but not age, is for 163 innings and an ERA of 4.69 at Shea Stadium in the National League in 2003. This would be twelve percent worse than the league average (an ERA+ of 88).

Neither Baldwin nor Erickson projects to pitch any better than Heilman or Griffiths. Yates, based on his recent struggles at AAA, projects particularly poorly (though he'd have nowhere to go but up from his projection); and Roberts is hard to project as a starting pitcher, though he may be the best option if you're looking for success out of the number five spot. What transpires from here will demonstrate how much the Mets are really willing to put trust in prospects. Heilman, though his 2003 demonstrates that he has work to do to get to where the Mets thought he'd be, is more likely to improve than anything else.

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