Spring Training: Empty at the Backend

The New York Mets head into Spring Training, like any other club, with numerous questions. Manager Art Howe and Pitching Coach Vern Ruhle will have their eyes on several young pitchers -- Mike Bacsik, Jason Middlebrook, and Aaron Heilman -- who could possibly fill their void as the fifth starter in the rotation. Only one will be heading back the Shea Stadium with the job, but all are qualified for it.

The front end of the staff is set in stone with Tom Glavine, Al Leiter, Pedro Astacio, and Steve Trachsel filling the first four slots, but the last is still in limbo. One of the most crucial choices that must be made by the coaching staff is this: who is our number five?

The three leading men for the role include Mike Bacsik, Jason Middlebrook, and prospect Aaron Heilman. All three spent substantial time in the minor league system last season, but the organization is looking for one of them to win the job outright before they leave Port St. Lucie in late March.

Left-hander Mike Bacsik, 25, appeared in eleven games with the Mets in 2002 -- nine of them starts -- and compiled a 3-2 record with a 4.37 ERA in 44.2 innings. The second start of his big league career was a complete game win against the Florida Marlins at Shea Stadium and he showed promise for the remainder of the season.

After being drafted by the Cleveland Indians in 1996 during the 18th round, Bacisk developed into a solid prospect. He will never blow a hitter away, but mixes up his pitches -- curveball and changeup -- very well. One thing that he is prone to, since he doesn't have great velocity, is the home run ball. He surrendered eight with the Mets in 2003.

Jason Middlebrook, 27, is another option Art Howe has to choose from. The right-hander spent last season between San Diego and the New York Mets. He finished with a 4.73 ERA in 51.1 innings, but made three starts with the Mets and went 1-0 with a 3.94 ERA.

He was a highly publicized player during his freshman season at Stanford, but soon found himself facing shoulder and elbow troubles. Middlebrook has a fastball that clocks in the mid-nineties and mixes in an above average slider and curveball to his arsenal.

Highly-touted prospect Aaron Heilman, 24, breezed through the Mets minor league system last year and saw himself pitching in Norfolk before the season concluded. After compiling a 36-4 record at Notre Dame, the right-hander was selected as the organization's first selection in 2001.

His fastball tops out in the mid-nineties with excellent movement and he also possesses a very good sinker that produces a high amount of groundballs; much like Tom Glavine and Al Leiter. In Double-A Binghamton, Heilman was 4-4 with a 3.82 ERA in 96.2 innings. After moving on to the Tides, he started seven games and went 3-2 with a 3.28 in 48.1 innings.

If all three of them have equal success in Spring Training, it is very likely that Mike Bacisk will get the job based upon the fact that he showed some success last season in a substantial amount of time on the major league level. The best move could be sending Heilman back to Norfolk and then recalling him if need be later in the season.

But right now, the spot is up for grabs and it's anyone's guess. Even Art Howe's.

Writer Christopher Guy covers the Mets daily for NYMFansOnly.

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