Phils, Mets, and Fifth Starter Competition

The Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets have, over the last several seasons, reignited a rivalry that many have been hoping to see for quite some time. They have also combined for extremely memorable finishes in each of the last two seasons. Entering 2009, the teams once again project to be very close in talent, with the Mets solidifying their bullpen and the Phillies ridding themselves of Adam Eaton. Both of the teams also happen to be four men deep in their respective starting rotations, with a decent number of hurlers competing for the final spots.

With Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey, John Maine, and Oliver Perez in the fold, Tim Redding looked to be the de facto fifth starter when he signed early in the offseason. Omar Minaya added some competition, however, by bringing prospect Jonathan Niese to camp as well as inking Livan Hernandez and Freddy Garcia to minor league contracts with spring training invites. Redding reportedly showed up overweight and has not been terribly impressive so far, giving up nine earned runs in just two innings of work.

Though we should never put too much stock into preseason statistics, you better believe that they play a part in the decision making processes. In 14.2 innings this month, Livan Hernandez has a 3.07 ERA and has not yet surrendered a home run. Sure, his 4.29 K/9 is below average and his success is likely smoke and mirrors, but he hasn’t looked too shabby. His low risk counterpart Garcia has been the opposite, allowing 14 hits and 13 earned runs in just seven innings, vastly reducing his chances of making the big league club. And despite being young, Niese has not looked great either, with seven walks and six earned runs in eight innings. He has shown a knack for fanning hitters, but his control needs improvement before we can consider him to be a viable and dependable major league pitcher.

Then we have Pedro Martinez, who as I wrote in a profile at Baseball Prospectus has seemingly been engaged in a one-sided game of hard to get with his former employers. The Mets apparently have an offer of $1-2 mil on the table for Pedro, and if the Dodgers fail to match these terms, Martinez would prefer to remain in New York. Assuming Garcia does not break camp with the team, and Martinez comes aboard, what do you do? Minaya will have Livan, Redding, Pedro, and Niese and just one spot available. Niese would presumably go back to the minors, but that still leaves Livan, Redding, and Pedro, with Redding being the sole owner of a guaranteed contract.

The Phillies situation is a bit easier in terms of the number of viable candidates left, but the remaining two hurlers have both been very impressive. With Kyle Kendrick and Carlos Carrasco out of the hunt, just J.A. Happ and Chan Ho Park remain. In 15 innings this month, Happ has a 3.60 ERA with 11 punchouts and just three free passes issued. Those numbers are bested by Park, who has a 1.54 ERA, 11 punchouts and no walks in 11.2 innings.

With the uncertainty surrounding Cole Hamels‘ availability, both Happ and Park could conceivably start the season in the rotation. If Hamels is available right away, the Phillies have a decision to make: which one starts and which one goes to the bullpen? The “logical” decision would be to place Happ in the bullpen to start the season given the absence of JC Romero for at least 50 games. Either way, whichever pitcher loses out will be close behind should the fifth-spot victor struggle.

If you’re a Mets fan, do you want Redding, Pedro, or Livan? And for Phillies fans, Park or Happ? And if you’re a fan of neither, who has the more intimidating name: Balfour or Broxton?

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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.

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