Mets starters shape up strong

By adding Pedro Martinez and bringing back Kris Benson, the Mets have virtually ensured that they'll feature one of the strongest starting rotations in the National League this season.

With Martinez and Benson combining with Tom Glavine, Victor Zambrano and Steve Trachsel, the Mets not only match up well with their league opponents, they match up well with club history. The starting five that GM Omar Minaya assembled is probably one of the best-equipped rotations the Mets can boast in recent memory, thanks in large part to the addition of Martinez.

Faced with the challenge of either landing Martinez or watching him go back to the Boston Red Sox, the Mets dug deep for Pedro, tendering him a stunning four-year, $54 million contract in December.

It remains to be seen just how healthy Martinez will be this season – what would be a great year for some pitchers is just mediocre for Pedro, and his 3.90 ERA in 2004 was the worst of his major league career – but time appears to be on the Mets' side for now.

Martinez isn't the same dominant hurler he was back in the late 1990s with Boston, but he could benefit greatly from a return to the National League, where he pitched with Los Angeles and Montreal from 1992-1997.

He'll be just 33 when he throws his first pitch of the season on April 4 at Cincinnati, but one thing to watch will be how the Mets will squeeze the most they can out of Pedro's gifted right arm: the Red Sox treated Martinez tenderly in recent years, adjusting the rotation several times to give him extra days to pitch.

The No. 2 starter figures to be Glavine, who would be a perfect fit in that role if he's able to pitch the way he did for the first three months of 2004, compiling earned run averages of 1.64, 2.59 and 2.14 in April, May and June.

If the 38-year-old lefthander pitches the way he did the last three months of the year, the results will be far less pleasing to the Mets' won-loss record – Glavine was 4-7 with a 5.06 ERA after the All-Star Break.

Regardless, Glavine should be able to benefit from the Mets' improved offense, as New York's ability to score runs cost him numerous victories en route to an 11-14 showing. He was especially solid at Shea Stadium, where his earlier worries about the QuesTec umpiring evaluation system dissipated and Glavine held opponents to a .234 batting average and seven homers in 325 at-bats.

The 2005 season probably represents Glavine's best chance yet to show New York what he's made of. The longtime Braves star hasn't pitched yet like an ace over a full season for the Mets, but now with Martinez in and Al Leiter – off to finish his career out with the Marlins - Glavine is a much more logical fit as a No. 2 starter.

Beyond Glavine is where the Mets really hope to make some hay, as the team's No. 3 through 5 starters match up advantageously with NL rivals.

Some baseball officials moaned when the Mets re-signed Benson to a three-year, $22.5 million pact – the signing, made in November, was thought to have skewed the entire market for free agent pitchers – but the 30-year-old righthander slots in nicely as the third man in New York's rotation.

Actually, the Mets probably had little choice but to sign Benson after dealing half the farm system in their July 30 trades with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Tampa Bay Devil Rays (dubbed 'Black Friday' by some fans due to the loss of top prospect Scott Kazmir).

It's worth mentioning in fairness, though, that Benson put on a good show for the Mets at the tail end of 2004, despite racking up his most innings in four years and tiring down the stretch. He finished 4-4 with the Mets and 12-12 overall, but the lifetime 47-53 pitcher believes that he'll be able to shake his median won-loss record in '05.

"Last year, I was rehabbing my shoulder in the offseason, so I missed out on about a month and a half to rest," Benson said. "I was able to take advantage of the whole offseason this time. I think that's going to translate into a fresher season for me – instead of spending a month and a half off and then starting to throw again, I was able to take three months off. That's going to spell big dividends for me."

The Mets' No. 4 and 5 hurlers are a bit of a toss-up, but it's a safe bet that Victor Zambrano and Steve Trachsel will be slotted in one way or the other. Zambrano made just two starts for the Mets after the July 30 trade from Tampa Bay for Kazmir, and when Zambrano's season ended with elbow inflammation, it was easy to rip the organization for flubbing the deal.

Kazmir may indeed be just 298 victories away from 300, but that won't help the Mets in 2005. Zambrano, however, could and should: after catching Zambrano for part of a seven-inning, two-hit performance against the Houston Astros on Aug. 12, Jason Phillips stayed at his locker for an exceptionally long time raving about Zambrano's makeup, particularly the lateral movement on his fastball and breaking pitches.

Zambrano, Phillips thought that day, could be just a few control adjustments away from becoming a 20-game winner in the major leagues. It will remain to be seen if pitching guru Rick Peterson is able to make those changes on Zambrano, who possesses a quiet, introspective personality and hadn't responded overwhelmingly to Devil Rays coaches.

"When we made the trade we felt that, at their peak, Zambrano and Kazmir would have equal value," senior VP of baseball operations Jim Duquette told the New York Daily News. "We saw them both as top-of-the-rotation pitchers, and we still see Zambrano that way. The true evaluation of that trade won't be known until sometime in the future."

The last piece of the equation, Trachsel, slots in as a very effective and relatively inexpensive bottom-of-the-rotation pitcher. The Mets reportedly had their chances to deal Trachsel this offseason, most notably to the Texas Rangers, but club brass agreed that the 34-year-old righthander probably was more valuable to the Mets than whatever Texas would offer.

One of the most consistent pieces of New York's rotation after a miserable start to his 2001 season, Trachsel is a workhorse and ate up 200 innings for the second consecutive year. He pitched better than his 12-13 record indicated, keeping the Mets in many games and displaying an uncanny knack for pitching at home (Trachsel was 9-6 with a 3.06 ERA at Shea Stadium, 3-7 with a 5.65 ERA elsewhere).

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