07/20/2009 11:43 AM ET
Eyeing the 2010 rotation for enigmatic Mets
With injuries mounting, it may be time to think of next year
By Howard Megdal / SNY.tv
As if things could get any worse for the Mets, starter Fernando Nieve was carted off during Sunday's loss in Atlanta. (AP)

Others see only despair in the Sunday night embarrassment by the Braves. But within that 7-1 defeat, encapsulated by Fernando Nieve's crumpling to the ground and being carted off, allegory-style, are the seeds for a closer look at the Mets' 2010 rotation.

Almost certainly, the injury paves the way for Jonathon Niese, one of the organization's most promising pitching prospects, to get a shot in New York. There are ample reasons for optimism in Niese that go beyond his famous birthday of Oct. 27, 1986 -- that's right, a pitcher could be born, grow up, get drafted and develop a major-league ready repertoire in the time since the Mets last won a World Series.

As documented by Toby Hyde, who is to Mets' Minor League prospects what Sheila Bair was to credit default swaps (check your 401(k) for details), Niese has been dominating lately. In his past eight starts, Niese has pitched to a 0.96 ERA, averaged better than seven innings per outing, with 46 strikeouts and just 13 walks. In short, he's made every offense he's faced look like the current New York Mets.

Niese has provided other reasons for optimism, of course. He's managed to excel at both Double-A and Triple-A, while still being young for each league. Even in his uneven Major League performances, he's managed a solid 21 strikeouts against 10 walks in 24 2/3 innings. And according to eyewitness accounts, he's throwing a solid variety of pitches successfully, which is of vital importance if he is to stay in the Majors for good this time.

But Sunday's game did more than just bring about Niese's promotion. It likely closed the book on Fernando Nieve for a while, if not the entire season. After all, I'm not a doctor, but Nieve crumpled in a heap. And given the team's recent inability to bring back those who haven't crumpled in a heap, I'm not optimistic Nieve will make his next scheduled start, or his next 10 for that matter.

What it does mean is Nieve pitched to a 2.95 ERA in 36 2/3 innings. While his peripherals were distinctly ordinary -- 19 walks, 23 strikeouts -- his stuff is not. And even that luck on batting average on balls in play had evened out-his season BABIP is .288, just a shade below normal -- yet he wasn't getting spun off the mound, Charlie Brown-style.

Nieve, clearly, has earned a chance to grab a slot in the 2010 rotation. He shouldn't be guaranteed one, of course, but the Mets would be foolish to close the door on a pitcher who may be figuring out how to harness top-of-the-rotation raw stuff.

And the 2010 rotation should be front and center right now. That means determining how far along Niese, Mike Pelfrey, Oliver Perez and John Maine are at this point. All four need to be in the rotation.

In the cases of Pelfrey, Perez and Maine, should they excel over the season's final half, the Mets can enter 2010 with pitchers in their 20s who have multiple extended periods of success. This was also true in 2009, of course.

So what is the difference? This time around, they can be bolstered by Niese, by Nieve, even by Brad Holt, who is quickly dispatching of Double-A the way he has every previous level -- 24 strikeouts, four walks in his past three starts.

In other words, it wasn't that the 2009 plan to rely on starting-pitching depth to carry the day in case of injury was flawed. It was relying on Tim Redding, Livan Hernandez and Freddy Garcia to be that depth. When the Red Sox did so using Brad Penny and John Smoltz, but also Justin Masterson and Clay Buchholz, the results were far different.

So, when John Maine returns, a rotation of Johan Santana/Perez/Pelfrey/Maine/Niese is the way to go. The Mets are nine games out, and it is time to deal Livan Hernandez. I write these words unhappily, since there is a tremendous pleasure as a baseball fan in watching Hernandez work, and I am particularly enamored with his 65 mile per hour curveball.

But Hernandez is not going to be a key part on the next great Mets team. Even his 2009 stats, which include a stretch of two full months (April 28-June 28) with a 3.36 ERA, have regressed to nearly 2008 levels. That he is likely the best pinch-hitter on the team right now says more about offensive depth on the Mets than it does about Livan's baseball value, unfortunately.

Enjoy Livan tonight, and get excited about the forthcoming return of Niese (see, no need to dread all Mets games until the Big Three return). There's no reason the Mets can't be entertaining the rest of the way. After all, each night someone other than Santana starts will amount to an American Idol for developing pitchers. All we need now is to figure out who among Gary, Keith and Ron is Paula Abdul.

Howard Megdal is a contributor to SNY.tv, The New York Observer and Rotoworld.com. His book, The Baseball Talmud, is available now.
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