With the New York Mets' struggles lately, the 2011 campaign is beginning to look like a forgetful one. Now seven games below the .500 mark, the Mets were relevant for much of the season, but in reality they were never going to be anything more than a .500 team -- no matter how good the early storylines were.
Sure, the players will compete for pride, but really, what they're playing for now are roles in the 2012 season.
For a team that's struggling to reach the .500 mark, there's inevitably going to be some holes. The hitting is pretty weak (especially when Jose Reyes is out of the lineup), the starting staff is filled with a bunch of mid-rotation starters and the relief corp has been exposed (since July 25 they have over a 6.00 ERA).
The struggles of the team's relievers have led to coach Terry Collins and team officials asking Mike Pelfrey to be the closer. While general manager Sandy Alderson ultimately vetoed the idea, it begs the question: Who will be the Mets' ninth-inning man next season?
I'm going to go over some factors, but I personally think that the answer is clearer than we all think.
First, to be a successful starting pitcher in general you have to do three things very well: get ground balls, have good command (low walks) and be able to strike guys out. Starters do three of those things well and they'll be very good. Relievers, though, just by the sheer fact they don't pitch as much can get by with two solid pitches (whereas starters really need three), but they also need to be able to get guys to swing and miss. They can, however, have success by doing two of those three things well.
While Alderson will certainly remake the bullpen to an extent this offseason, I do not believe he is going to shell out large sums to relievers. It just doesn't make sense because the sustained success rate of relievers is very low, and it's been proven that giving huge checks to relievers is just not money well spent.
Thus, my belief is that unless the Mets make trades that involve bringing in good arms, the closer is on this team. Right now.
And it's obvious that Bobby Parnell, the 26-year-old fireballer has the clear advantage. Not only does he possess killer stuff: fastball velocity averaging 97 mph and a wipeout slider, the underlying stats say so, too.
This season, Parnell has a 4.10 ERA and a 1.51 WHIP. Not exactly comforting numbers. Yet, looking closer, his 10.8 K/9 ratio is stellar, he's facing a lot of bad luck on balls put in play (.364 BABIP) and he's got a pretty low strand rate (70.7 percent). Ranking the relievers in the national league by xFIP (expected fielding independing pitching), Parnell ranks ninth with a 3.02 mark. xFIP is a pretty good indicator a player's future ERA.
Don't get me wrong, Parnell has a lot of work to do: No. 1 is consistency from night to night. He needs to trust his stuff and not be afraid to throw strikes ... a 3.67 BB/9 rate needs to be trimmed down. Command is the key for him. He will never be Greg Maddux out there, but he strikes out so many batters that he can get away with higher-than-average walk numbers, but a rate near 4 is tough to manage and be a trusted in the late innings.
Who else do the Mets have to close? Pedro Beato began the year strong, but has faded and his 4.09 ERA (4.52 xFIP) and 5.40 K/9 won't cut it in a closer's role. He's also being discussed as a potential starter.
Jason Isringhausen's season has been a nice story but his ERA is now 4.43 (4.38 xFIP), and he's had a terrible August. Maybe Alderson keeps him as a middle reliever, but I think his days as a closer are over.
Tim Byrdak has been sensational -- 10.68 K/9, 3.26 ERA (3.28 xFIP), but he's 37 and excels mostly because he's in a LOOGY role. And who knows if he's retained next season.
The Amazin's really don't appear to have a lot of names in the minors, either. But it's important to realize, a lot of good relievers come out of nowhere, they're guys you never think of. Often, too, starters who don't have three strong pitches, or struggle after getting multiple looks in a game, excel as a reliever. Shorter stints often are a boon for these guys.
Maybe Jeurys Familia, 21, ultimately becomes a ninth-inning guy, as some scouts aren't sold on him as being a starter, but it's doubtful that's even discussed until a few years from now. Maybe Jenrry Mejia, with all of his injury woes, becomes a back-end guy. But even after underoing Tommy John surgery, he will only be 22. A players is much more valuable as a starter -- throwing 200 innings a year -- than as a closer. With these guys being so young, the Mets have no reason not to keep these guys in their current roles.
In the end, the closer is probably the least of the Mets' worries, and Alderson knows that. The closer turnover rate is so high -- year-to-year ninth-inning men are in and out of jobs -- that it's not smart to "trade" for one. Alderson will certainly assemble a good group of arms heading into next spring training, and those guys will emerge as candidates. My bet is still on Parnell, though.