For Mets, a submarine relief race

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – In their own version of 'relievers row' at the minor league complex, the Mets' bullpen hopefuls assembled this week with different resumes, release points, body types and backgrounds.

The one thing they all have in common? They're all competing for the same general job – getting outs leading up to Billy Wagner.

This spring, manager Willie Randolph and his staff figure to have another relief race on their hands. Several of the hurlers made their way down to Florida for the club's mini-camp, anticipating a shootout derby for the Opening Day roster over the next two months.

"We'll see who wants to step up and shows they want to be part of the group," Randolph said. "I can't know for sure how it's going to play out, but that's exciting for me."

Dropping down seems to be in vogue, as two of the mini-camp attendees – Chad Bradford and Mike Venafro – favor submarine pitching motions, a near-rarity around the Mets in recent years.

Steve Schmoll, a right-handed reliever acquired from the Dodgers in the Jae Seo deal this month, also throws from below.

"I didn't care too much for those kind of guys [as a hitter]," Randolph said. "They always seem to have the upper hand. I don't think there's too many right-handed hitters who like submariners."

A right-handed reliever who signed with the Mets after being non-tendered by the Red Sox, the 31-year-old Bradford was an icon in Oakland with his soft-tossing, nearly-knuckle-scraping style.

Pain-free after having lower back surgery last March, Bradford was aggressively recruited by the Mets. He's hoping to reunite with pitching coach Rick Peterson and carve out a role in his first taste of the National League.

"There's hitters I've never faced, and hopefully that's to my advantage," Bradford said. That could be in my favor. I didn't really pitch a whole lot of innings [last year], but it ended healthy. Hopefully, I can pick up where I left off."

With returning reliever Aaron Heilman and recently-acquired Duaner Sanchez already figuring into the mix as Wagner's supporting staff, the Mets appear to have a need for middle relievers and situational left-handers over all else.

One of those lefties is Venafro, the left-handed answer to the side-slinging Bradford. After spending all of last year with Triple-A Las Vegas in the Dodgers' organization, the 32-year-old Venafro is hoping to get back to the Majors as a non-roster invitee.

"There's no guarantee there will be a spot for any of us," Venafro said. "But I want a ring. I want to know what it feels like to win a championship. To be part of something like that, not many guys can talk about it."

A former Minor Leaguer in the Texas Rangers organization, Venafro had a small amount of personal history with Mets GM Omar Minaya, a former executive with the club. He said the relationship contributed to his signing with New York.

"There weren't a lot of teams banging on my door begging me to try out for a lefty's spot," said Venafro, who owns a career 4.11 ERA in 300 Major League appearances.

"You'll get to a point where you're thinking, 'Do I still fit in with this picture?' I believe I can fit in with the Mets, and by inviting me to a camp like this, I think [the Mets] believe in me also."

To get to Shea Stadium, however, Venafro will have to beat out a pack of left-handed relievers that also includes veteran Matt Perisho – inked to a minor league contract – and Royce Ring, who saw action in 15 games with the Mets last year.

While the 30-year-old Perisho admits he "doesn't have a lot of trick to [his] game," he did spend most of the last two seasons in the NL East with the Marlins, appearing in a total of 90 games for Florida. Potentially, he sees the Mets as not only his home for this season, but well beyond.

"I definitely don't want this to just be another team," Perisho said. "I'm looking to step in and be the lefty they want for the next five years."

But that's the same role Ring hopes to fill. Once billed as the Mets' closer of the future, Ring was advised by Peterson before the 2005 season to try dropping down to a three-quarters motion, improving his deception against left-handed hitters. He now considers himself a left-handed specialist.

"It makes hitters uncomfortable," Ring said. "I saw it last year when I was pitching. If I'm making you uncomfortable, then I might as well stay there."

The 25-year-old Ring held International League lefties to a .145 average at Triple-A Norfolk; a good enough performance to get him to New York.

But Ring – acquired from the White Sox in the July 2003 Roberto Alomar deal – walked 10 batters in 10-2/3 innings for the Mets, a ratio he's hoping to improve upon this spring. He has also struggled against right-handed batters, and Randolph said he'd prefer a pitcher who can consistently get outs from both sides of the plate.

"You have to think they're only going to take one [left-hander], especially with Billy as the closer," Ring said. "We've got so many guys for one spot. Hopefully in Spring Training I'll get some innings and a chance to prove I can pitch."

Indeed, the competition figures to be interesting. If past experience counts for anything, five potential candidates for the bullpen – Heath Bell, Bartolome Fortunato, Juan Padilla, Jose Parra and Ring – have already appeared in Major League games for the Mets.

With Fortunato returning from back surgery, Bell – who appeared in 42 games for New York last year – could have an early advantage over some, especially after developing his splitter in the Dominican Republic this winter.

But like a number of the candidates said, it's still way too early to tell. Bell insisted that performances against live hitters – not early January talk – would be the biggest factor.

"It's like my first Spring Training when I was a non-drafted guy, and I heard I was going to be released," Bell said. "I've been around and I've been here, but I don't feel like I have seniority. I've got to go out and show them I'm the best reliever."

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