When evaluating the Mets, one doesn't often have the luxury of seeing depth.
There's no real Plan B should Luis Castillo regress, or even maintain the status quo defensively at second base. With Jose Reyes out, the choices are between Ruben Tejada, who may not be ready to hit big league pitching, and Alex Cora, who may not be able to field or hit at this point. And don't even ask what happens if David Wright gets hurt.
But the fifth-starter spot has an embarrassment of riches. No fewer than four candidates are vying for it, each with a unique set of reasons for optimism.
But not all four candidates have an equal chance of sticking around. And given the question marks with the first four pitchers in the rotation, the team's ability to hold onto these pitchers has to be taken into account.
Let's start with Nelson Figueroa. The primary reason for optimism is that for the past several years, he's been a dominant starter at Triple-A, and a good starter in the Major Leagues. As I pointed out just after the season, adding Figueroa's 2009 Major League equivalents from Triple-A to his 2009 Major League performance, and you get, essentially, John Lackey.
The only argument against Figueroa is that Major League teams haven't given him a regular chance yet. Frankly, that doesn't surprise me, nor is it a good reason to discount him now. He's managed to stick around despite a build people call into question, a mediocre fastball, and the non-prospect knock for more than a decade.
Figueroa has also made it clear that he's likelier to go to Japan than Buffalo if he doesn't make the Mets, and who can blame him?
So Figueroa is really out to be the fifth starter. At the very least, his ability to pitch every day should land him a bullpen role. But would you put John Lackey in the bullpen?
Second on the list is Fernando Nieve. The reasons for optimism with Nieve are probably the least clear of the four pitchers. His stuff is top-shelf, but his success last season appears to be relatively ephemeral. Yes, his ERA was 2.95, but he had nearly as many walks (19) as strikeouts (23) in 36 2/3 innings. His FIP for that time was a far more ordinary 4.90.
Still, the combination of his stuff and Minor League success means the Mets probably shouldn't risk losing him to waivers. A spot at the back of the bullpen, with some low-leverage innings at first to see if his stuff will translate to relief results, would be the best of all worlds. Of course, if he excels, he can become a more important part of the 'pen. Should multiple starters go down to injury, Nieve would also be an insurance policy, given his history of starting.
Third on the list is Hisanori Takahashi. Although his numbers have been tremendous this spring, it is important to remember that in Japan, this lefty actually retired righties at a more impressive rate than he retired lefties. In other words, he profiles as a multi-inning pitcher, not a lefty specialist, and his options include Triple-A.
The Mets can safely stow Takahashi at Buffalo, putting him in the rotation, see him log more innings, find out if his 10 or so Spring Training innings mean anything and have him stretched out if any of the starters falters.
The same goes for Jon Niese, of course, though the reason for optimism with Niese is far more evidence-based than with either Takahashi or Nieve.
After all, Niese dominated at Triple-A last year, held his own in the Major Leagues and has three strong pitches now: a fastball, a cut fastball, and that devastating curve.
Niese's time may soon be upon the Mets. If placing him on the roster at the expense of Nieve, or even Figueroa, didn't mean likely losing both of them, he would probably be my choice to start the season in the fifth spot.
Consider, however, that with one of these four -- Figueroa, Nieve, Takahashi, Niese -- in the fifth spot, the Mets have three other pitchers in reserve. Not only could something go wrong with the winner of this derby, but their 1-4 spots are taken up by question marks. They have a starter coming off of elbow surgery (Johan Santana), a starter coming off of knee surgery (Oliver Perez), a starter coming off of several years of shoulder woes (John Maine) and Mike Pelfrey, a ground-ball pitcher who may have his psyche crushed by the up-the-middle Maginot Line, Cora and Castillo.
It would be unduly pessimistic to assume the worst from these four. But it would be catastrophically foolish not to have backup plans for more than one of them. That would be akin to failing to anticipate that the Nazis could conceivably go through Belgium.
So, in summary: start Nelson Figueroa, relieve with Nieve and send Takahashi and Niese to the rotation in Buffalo. It is the prudent way forward. If you don't believe me, ask the French.