Mets should have added a starter in offseason

John Maine of the New York Mets grimaces

John Maine of the New York Mets grimaces as he walks to the bench after allowing a two-run third inning to the Florida Marlins. (April 7, 2010) (Credit: MCT/David Pokress)

David Lennon

David Lennon has been a staff writer for David Lennon

David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since

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The Mets were two days away from leaving Port St. Lucie when every member of the starting rotation was called into the manager's office that morning and told there had been a change in plans.

Jerry Manuel explained that due to "matchups" with the Marlins, the team's first opponent, he was blowing up the rotation - after Johan Santana, of course. The previous No. 4 starter, John Maine, was now the No. 2, followed by Jon Niese, Mike Pelfrey and Oliver Perez.

The pitchers were surprised by the sudden shift, with Opening Day less than a week away, but they didn't say much about it. The rotation had been in place a month. The entire Grapefruit League schedule played out according to that plan. Upon hearing about the shuffle, one Met joked, "Did they just come out with the schedule?"

Manuel's logic was sound. Maine had ridiculously good numbers against the Marlins: a 5-1 and a 2.96 ERA in his last seven starts. By comparison, Pelfrey was 1-6 with a 5.63 ERA, which made him a better fit for the Nationals tomorrow.

The problem was not switching the order; it was the timing. Manuel's decision to play musical chairs reeked of panic and suggested that management had more faith in what they read on baseball-reference.com than the pitchers themselves.

That evidently is still the case. Santana was Santana on Monday in allowing one run in six innings. But the off day might have given Manuel a little too much time to fret about the upcoming week - and the four starters not named Santana.

In the hours leading up to Maine's first start, Manuel was surprisingly candid Wednesday when prodded to evaluate the rotation. Asked if it had as many unknowns as the bullpen, and was he worried about it, Manuel agreed - a little too enthusiastically.

"Sure, sure, sure," Manuel said. "I think an honest assessment is that we have to be somewhat concerned. We had some setbacks and some inconsistencies there last year, so we can't just assume that that's going to be lights out. We have some questions there, and hopefully tonight we'll see where we are at least in part to that particular issue."

Did he say last year? April 7 is not the best time to be talking about rotation issues. If the Mets were truly concerned about the ability of this group at the end of the 2009 season, then it was something the team should have dealt with in November.

Instead, they dismissed the middle-tier starters who were available on the free-agent market this winter - Randy Wolf, Jason Marquis, Joel Piñeiro - by insisting the pitchers they already had were better or equal, so why overspend for any of them?

Only now the Mets are talking like they want a do-over and there's no "Hot Tub Time Machine" in the trainer's room of their luxurious Citi clubhouse. Wednesday was not a particularly great day on the pitching front, either.

That afternoon, the Mets lost a chunk of their rotation depth when Nelson Figueroa was claimed off waivers by the Phillies - the one remaining roadblock to Buffalo after 28 teams passed on him. A few hours later, the Marlins roughed up Maine for eight hits and four runs in five innings. Maine struggled with his location during the 92-pitch outing and the ceiling on his fastball was 90 mph, well below the 95 he featured during his more successful times.

This was not the Maine that previously had won six straight in Flushing, the longest home streak for a Met since Sid Fernandez in 1990. And it was not the Maine that had limited the Marlins to a .181 batting average in their past meetings.

On top of that, the Mets used Jenrry Mejia, the team's top pitching prospect, for the sixth inning, which did not make the front office look any better with the possibility of desperately needing rotation help in the not-too-distant future.

These are going to be an anxious three days for the Mets as they watch the rest of the rotation with their fingers crossed. Concern may again give way to panic before the weekend is over.

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