Learning From the Best
The Mets recipe for pitching success last season was get to the fifth or sixth inning with a lead and hand it over to the bullpen. The bullpen led the NL with a 3.25 ERA and was over a run better than the Braves bullpen. The Mets bullpen had the most wins, was tied for second in strikeouts, and had the lowest BAA out of the entire Major Leagues. The Braves? Not so much. While the Mets bullpen was busy getting it done, the Braves bullpen blew 31 saves. Of course even if the Braves bullpen cut their blown saves in half, they still would have finished behind the Mets, but that is besides the point.
The Braves had largely been operating with the bullpen by comity plan after Smoltz's return to the rotation. They were doing that in part by choice and in part by necessity since they had no one step up, but next season they can look forward to stability and a lot of it. The Rafael Soriano deal for Horacio Ramirez was a fleecing and Mike Gonzalez is solid and deadly against lefites....deadly. His .163/.265/.256 line against lefties in '06 is flat out nasty and his .176/.260/.218 line since '04 is even more impressive considering it is a much bigger sample size. Just for good measure we can throw in the fun fact that he has allowed only five homers in over six hundred plate appearances against him.
Bob Wickman, Chad Paronto, Oscar Villarreal, Rafael Soriano, Mike Gonzalez, and Macay McBride certainly form a solid foundation for a bullpen, but a bullpen is not everything. The Mets bullpen only mattered because they had a good bench, a great lineup, and decent rotation. Unfortunately, the Braves have a pretty good offense and a good rotation as well. Make no mistake, the Mets are still undoubtedly the class of the division for me, but we all saw what a dominating bullpen could mean to a team. Yes, the Braves lost 32 homers when LaRoche was traded, but they still out homered the Mets by 22 and scored more runs in '06. Unlike last season, the Braves will finish over .500 this year and the NL East is going to be one fun division to watch all summer.
With Mariano Rivera nearing retirement in New York, the Yankees are already said to be eyeing Rodriguez as a potential replacement. Rodriguez could command a deal in the four-year, $38-million range.
Just identify the best player at what he does and rumor him as a Yankee target. Then just watch the fans make up ridiculous trades. Rinse...spit..and repeat. It happens every season and will happen for the duration of my life and it never fails to get me annoyed.
That's because the Howard camp, led by father Ron Howard, already has sent strong signals that they're after something more on the lines of what Alfonso Soriano received this winter than the going rate for a superstar with two years service time in the majors.
Soriano, the top free agent hitter this offseason, hit the jackpot by signing an eight-year, $136-million deal with the Chicago Cubs in November. Howard probably wouldn't ask for that much money, but you get the idea.
Dangerous precedents could be set as teams need to find young stars that produce to maintain payroll flexibility. All it would do to if Howard got something silly is give the Yankees first stab at most players at the end of their first six years of service. At this point, even small market teams can make a play to keep a Johan Santana or a Carl Crawford type for a few extra years before their inevitable departure, but they certainly will not be able to if things start to get out of control.