The Fine Art of Developing Talent
By BEN SHPIGEL
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla., Feb. 25 — Of the nine Mets pitchers in the mix for three starting spots, Philip Humber and Mike Pelfrey clearly have the most potential. They are tall, polished right-handers from strong college programs and are projected to be frontline starters. It can be tempting to want to rush such talent, but the Mets are mindful of protecting their former No. 1 draft picks.
Humber and Pelfrey will not be permitted to throw too many innings too soon; the Mets do not want to risk compromising long-term plans for the sake of what could be fleeting success.
“That’s why we have an Aaron Sele, a Park, a Sosa — those types of pitchers in camp,” General Manager Omar Minaya said of Sele, Chan Ho Park and Jorge Sosa, starters he signed after missing out on acquiring a frontline starter before spring training started. “They give us insurance, in case some of our young guys need to develop a little bit further.”
Tom Glavine and Orlando Hernández, if healthy, are assured spots in the rotation. John Maine and Oliver Pérez are considered favorites for the third and fourth slots.
The Mets are eager to see just how much more Humber, 24, and Pelfrey, 23, need to develop. So far, they have combined to pitch 23 1/3 innings at the major league level, with Pelfrey accounting for 21 1/3, including four starts last season. That alone is not reason to hold them back. But neither has come close to reaching the 200-inning threshold that durable pitchers throw in a season.
Pelfrey threw 117 2/3 last season, which included stops with three minor league teams. Humber, recovering from reconstructive elbow surgery he had in 2005, threw 78 1/3 with the Mets and three minor league teams.
“I don’t think there’s any way to know for sure until you do it,” Humber said of pitching a full season in the majors. “I feel that the preparations I’ve made and the routines that I follow since my surgery will help me stay healthy.”
The Mets intend to increase their workload gradually. The accepted yearly addition is about 30 innings; it is thought that more than that increases the risk of injury and could affect a young pitcher’s development.
“If you’re a two-miler, you can’t run a marathon without gradually increasing your mileage,” the pitching coach Rick Peterson said. “It’s the same thing here.”
Since 1996, of the 10 rookie pitchers who threw the most innings (counting the postseason), seven have either required major arm or shoulder surgery or spent significant time on the disabled list. Another, Joe Blanton of Oakland, noticeably declined after his solid 2005 season.
Detroit will find out in the coming months how Justin Verlander, last season’s American League rookie of the year, will fare after pitching 207 1/3 innings. The Tigers skipped his turn at the All-Star Game break, and once in August, then gave him an extra day of rest a few times in September to keep him fresh.
That is a plan the Mets, should they keep Pelfrey or Humber in the rotation, expect to follow, too.
“There’s definitely an awareness of what happened in Detroit last season,” Peterson said. “You depend on your best guy to help you win a championship, and you’re balancing going out there and trying to win every game with putting out your best pitcher as much as possible. It’s tough.”
Of the two, Pelfrey figures to have a better chance at joining the rotation immediately. Minaya said that Pelfrey, who is 6 feet 7 inches and 210 pounds, would have no problem throwing 160 to 170 innings this season.
“I know you can’t make huge, huge jumps,” Pelfrey said. “I just think everybody begins to hit a certain wall at a certain point, and you have to be careful what you do when you get there. I haven’t gotten to that point yet.”
With Humber, the Mets intend to be particularly careful. They kept him on a strict pitch count last season. And even though Humber passed the 18-month anniversary of his elbow surgery with no side effects, he will almost certainly not throw as many innings as Pelfrey.
Not all innings are created equal, however, in quantity or quality. Averaging 15 pitches a inning, for instance, puts far less strain on the arm than throwing 20 does. In the case of Humber, he threw 128 innings for Rice University in 2003, when it won the national championship, then another 30 2/3 innings that summer in the Cape Cod Baseball League.
“I threw almost 170 innings that year, and they were intense, pressure-packed innings,” said Humber, who is 6-4, 210 pounds.
It is not hard to envision a situation in which Pelfrey or Humber, or probably both, spend the first few months at Class AAA New Orleans, then, if they pitch well, earn promotions. Or, just as easily, one of them could pitch well enough in spring training to gain a spot in the rotation, leaving the Mets in a desirable but tricky situation.
“If they go out there and blow people away, you can’t hold them back,” Minaya said. “You have to challenge them, but the key is to be smart doing so. We want them with us for a long time.”