The best days for a bullpen are the ones when the telephone doesn't ring, and R.A. Dickey gave the Mets' relief corps, with the exception of closer Francisco Rodriguez, a much-needed breather in yesterday's 4-0 victory over the Cardinals.
And with each game that gets scratched off the schedule, the Mets are feeling less inclined to turn over a decent prospect for bullpen help. One person familiar with the club's thinking believes there is a good chance the Mets will stand pat before tomorrow's non-waivers trade deadline.
Posturing? Perhaps. That's part of the negotiating game in the final hours leading up to the deadline. But as the Mets assess their needs and weigh their odds of making the playoffs, the bullpen is not the reason the team has lost 21/2 games off the division pace since the All-Star break.
The bullpen has a 1.39 ERA in the last eight games but is 0-4, thanks to four extra-inning losses, which is more the fault of the Mets' AWOL offense. The pen's success is difficult to explain. Without a legitimate shutdown reliever for the eighth-inning role, manager Jerry Manuel has survived by using up the bullets of his most trusted pitchers and then moving on to a fresh one.
Fernando Nieve is the most glaring example, having been designated for assignment last Friday after spending the first two months of the season as Manuel's setup man. The new flavor of the month is the rubber-armed Raul Valdes, who went 12 days without an appearance, including the three-day All-Star break, but has been used seven times, for a total of 121/3 innings, in the past 13 days.
Not only that, but Manuel is being forced to deal with a shorthanded bullpen. On paper, the Mets have seven relievers. In reality, it is six, because Oliver Perez comes with the label "break glass in case of emergency." Despite his public statements to the contrary, in which Manuel suggests that Perez is showing improvement, he has given no indication that he can be trusted, even in a lefty-on-lefty matchup role.
To help fill that void, the Mets chose to skip Hisanori Takahashi this time through the rotation, sticking him in the bullpen, and will do so again at some point with two more off days coming up. Ideally, the Mets would like to keep Takahashi in that role permanently, but that can't happen until they find another starting pitcher.
That's why it makes more sense for the Mets to devote their time and resources toward acquiring a starter. Entering yesterday's game, the Mets' relievers ranked eighth in the majors with a 3.49 ERA, but they've done so by allowing, as Manuel likes to say, "a lot of traffic" on the bases. The Mets' relief corps was 20th in the majors with a 1.42 WHIP, as compared to the Padres, the top team, who boast a 1.04.
Building a bullpen is always an inexact science, and one that rarely goes as planned. But in the Mets' case, both of their higher-priced options for the setup role, Kelvim Escobar and Ryota Igarashi, turned out to be lost causes.
Escobar, signed to a one-year, $1.25- million contract in the offseason, never made it out of spring training and had season-ending shoulder surgery May 3. The prognosis for Igarashi is not as dire, but it's unclear when, if ever, the Mets can rely on him again.
Igarashi was signed to a two-year, $3-million contract last winter but was demoted to Triple-A Buffalo on July 9 without an estimate for a return date.
Igarashi was sent down to "work on things," and when pitching coach Dan Warthen was asked this week specifically what he needs to do, he replied, "Calm down."
"He overthrows," Warthen added. "He's thrown tremendous bullpens for us, but he gets into the game and the excitement overtakes him. He doesn't control the baseball."
Warthen suggested that might have to be at 94 mph rather than 96, "which is fine with us." But Igarashi apparently has lost faith in his splitter, and that has as much to do with the different baseball used here in the U.S. as anything else.
Back in spring training, Koji Uehara, who has struggled since signing with the Orioles in 2009, told Igarashi that the splitter might never be an effective pitch for him in the majors because of a slicker baseball that is more difficult to grip than the one in Japan. In the days before he was sent down, Igarashi had even abandoned the splitter for his curveball.
"He wanted to because he said, 'Every time I throw it, it's a home run,' " Warthen said. "It got into his head. We wanted him to go down there and throw it a few times and get the confidence back with it."
But Igarashi is still in Buffalo, and the Mets are still looking for help.