Bullpen: Set-Up Men Preview

As we enter the 2003 baseball season the NY Mets are bursting with questions. Look anywhere season previews are published and you see the same questions. How will the players who under-performed last year rebound? How will new manger Art Howe handle an underachieving team? Is Tom Glavine too old to be effective? One area where there has seen little questioning is the set-up tandem of the righthanded Scott Strickland and newly acquired lefty Mike Stanton.

Many would agree that this facet of the 2003 Mets is among their strongest.

The lack of uncertainty surrounding these two Texas born players is based on their performance in 2002. Strickland possesses a great fastball (92-95mph) an impressive slider and an improving change-up. Acquired from the Montreal Expos at the beginning of last season, he became a steady force in the late innings after a rocky first half. Once he settled down, Strickland posted a 1.99 ERA after August 3rd. Opponents hit only .234 against him for the season.

Many in the Mets organization believe that he is their future closer and will replace the unreliable and heart-breaking Armando Benitez. A move which many Mets fans are waiting for with baited breath. Strickland is not without question, though. He gave up a number of late inning homeruns last year, as well as 4 blown saves. He averaged a strikeout per inning but averaged almost a baserunner and a half per inning as well.

These troubles have left many in the organization believing he is still a year away from taking the coveted closer position. Yet at age 26 his potential is immense, with another year behind him Strickland should be ready to assume any role the Mets offer.

Stanton signed with the Mets this offseason after the Yankees gave him a take-it-or-leave-it 2 year $5 million offer and he declined. It was relatively easy for the Mets, who did not offer lefty Mark Guthrie arbitration, to scoop him up. Stanton had no desire to leave his family in North Jersey and became one of the Mets three big name acquisitions of the offseason (along with Cliff Floyd and Glavine) by signing a 3 year, $9 million deal.

Stanton has been one of the most dominant lefties in the American League for the last 8 years, with opponents hitting only .254 against him, while compiling 8 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched. Stanton is good at facing both righties and lefties, he incorporates a low 90's fastball, sliders and splitters. His career ERA is 3.77 but, statistically, is coming of his best two years of 2.58 and 3.00. Where Stanton really helps his team is with appearances.

He has been in 64 or more games each year since 1996. These appearances will be needed to replace Guthrie who appeared in 68 games last year. The questions about Stanton revolve around his age. He will be 36 this year and 38 by the end of his contract. Many wonder if his arm can withstand the such a high number of appeareances.

It will be extremely difficult for him to keep this pace up for the next three years, but the Mets fans and brass are taking it one year at a time. Another big reason the Mets acquired Stanton, much like Glavine, is to instill a winning atmosphere. Stanton has been in the playoffs each of the last 12 years and is known as a good influence on younger players.

The combination of Strickland and Stanton should be an impressive one for the Mets. Both are coming of notable seasons and are healthy entering the 2003 season. They present a contrast which could benefit each other, the young Strickland could learn a great deal about relief pitching from the experienced Stanton as well as his mentor from last year, John Franco.

Both have also proven an ability to pick up his workload due to injury. It's safe to say that a great deal is expected from both pitchers this season and the Mets need them to be up to the task. If these two pitch well into the season it is a distinct possiblity that the Mets will look to trade Benitez and use one or both as the closer.

Cerrone's Certain Facts
-- For his career, Mark Strickland has held right-handed hitters to a .185 batting average, while allowing left-handed hitters to bat .291 against him.

-- Mike Stanton has averaged at least 20 holds (earned when a relief pitcher enters a game in a save situation, records at least one out, and leaves the game without having given up the lead) in each of his last seven seasons, placing him amongst the top 10 American League pitchers in each of those seven years.

Matthew M. Cerrone is a MLB research coordinator for NYFansOnly.com

This column is part of a continuing series previewing the 2003 Mets season. Friday will feature the prospects you might see on the Mets in 2003.


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