Mets' Rotation in Disarray...Or Is it?

Much of the collective Mets fan community held their breathe out of nervousness after learning on March 7 that they may have to go without their number three starter, Pedro Astacio, for the first few weeks of the upcoming season. An MRI revealed no further damage to Astacio's previously torn right labrum but it looks like his shoulder soreness and inflamed right biceps tendon are enough to possibly land him on the disabled list.

"It is likely he would start on the DL to begin the season," said general manager Steve Phillips to

Astacio landing on the DL would leave two fifths of the rotation in question for at least the first month of the season. Not good news for the Mets, whose rotation already has a current unknown in its fifth spot.

But maybe Astacio's injury doesn't place the Mets in such a predicament as they appear to be in. The Mets four man race to be the number five starter has been highly fruitful with each competitor having thrown some quality innings.

Both 40-year-old David Cone and Jason Middlebrook, who the Mets acquired for Steve Reed last year, have been nearly untouchable in their spring work so far, while former Notre Dame standout Aaron Heilman and lefty prospect Mike Bacsik have had some impressive innings.

Sentimental favorite David Cone is most likely the leading candidate to be fifth starter because of his experience, endorsements from teammate Al Leiter and the three perfect innings he has worked so far.

"As things have gone, I'm encouraged," Cone told the AP. "I haven't pitched out of the stretch but its only three innings."

Twenty-seven year-old Jason Middlebrook has given up just one run in his four innings of spring training work and was considered by many to be the favorite before Cone entered the mix.

The Mets top pitching prospect, Aaron Heilman, has give up one run in 4 1/3 innings but considering that the hard throwing righty tossed just 49 1/3 innings at Triple-A last season, the Mets may opt to give Heilman more time to develop at Norfolk.

Mike Bacsik made nine starts for the Mets in 2002, posting a 2-1 record with a 4.37 ERA but the lefthander has struggled in some of his spring appearances thus far and his soft-tossing, precision style of pitching may be too similar to Tom Glavine's for the two to be in the same rotation. Bacsik may get the short end of the stick and start the season in the minors or out of the big league bullpen.

Based on each of their limited appearances in the spring thus far, Cone and Middlebrook would most likely get the nod to be part of the starting staff on Opening Day if Astacio is forced out of action.

The sold work by these four pitchers this spring shows the Mets have enough quality arms to survive a short term injury to their third starter.

Whoever the fifth starter turns out to be may not even be used regularly until Astacio's return.

Because teams have so many extra days off in the first month of the season, they often opt to sometimes skip the spot of the fifth starter, using these days off to maintain a schedule with each starter still pitching every five days, a practice Art Howe has used in past years managing Oakland.

Each starter still gets the four day rest period between starts that they normally would in midseason because of the extra days off.

With four days off in the first 31 days of the season, using the pattern of skipping starts with days off, the Mets would only have to use their fifth starter four times in the first month of the season if they opt for this.

The Mets can choose to skip their fifth starter when possible in April and rely on the top of their rotation to carry them through the first month of the season until Astacio can return.

Also, Astacio's injury would allow the Mets to get a more extensive look at whichever two pitchers make the rotation out of spring training and they would be able to make a more educated choice as to who their fifth starter will be for the long haul.

The two starters would be tested in real game situations rather than just spring training and would battle it out to see who stays on board as fifth starter after Astacio returns to the rotation.

So Mets fans can stop holding their breath. Pedro Astacio's short term injury won't hurt the starting staff as much as it appears to at first.

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