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Mets turn to youth movement

by Alan Schwarz
May 1, 2004

NEW YORK--Art Howe's dugout phone rang minutes before the Mets' third game this season. It was the future calling.

Scott Erickson, a 36-year-old manual for aspiring orthopedists, was warming up in the bullpen when his hamstring gave out. He could not start against the Braves. The disabled list beckoned. Emergency pitcher Dan Wheeler, hours removed from a relief appearance, took the mound, gave up three runs in four innings and yielded to an even less effective bullpen as the Mets lost, 10-8.

It was the most promising night for the Mets in months.

Jim Duquette has made a slew of moves to shove the leaden Mets in a more positive direction--jettisoning the likes of Jeromy Burnitz, Armando Benitez and finally the vertiginous Roger Cedeno--but none was more important than the move Erickson's injury forced him to make. To plug the rotation, Duquette called up Jae Seo from Triple-A Norfolk. Sounds small. But the Mets' upturn to respectability had officially begun.

The Mets right now are like one of those computer-generated, 3-D paintings: a mess at first glance, but when you deepen your focus, through the surface to what lies behind, a better picture emerges. Thanks to a slew of young, hard-throwing pitchers throughout their farm system, the Mets have a strong future growing, one that cannot peek through until they stop fertilizing their roster with unfounded optimism.

Erickson's injury hurt for one night. But anyone with any vision in the Mets organization--and Duquette is one--should only have been relieved.

Meaningful's New Meaning

Mets owner Fred Wilpon rallied his troops early this spring training by proclaiming, "We want to play meaningful games." The only such games for the Mets this season will be those started by pitchers under 27.

Seo and fellow 26-year-old Tyler Yates won't be spearheading any October run in Flushing, but the spirit of their starts are a pill a club like the Mets must swallow at least twice every five days for any plan to work. As Al Leiter, Tom Glavine and Steve Trachsel remain as reminders of the future that never came, the final two spots--and any that open because of injury or trades--must be devoted to developing the club's future that actually could.

From ready now (Seo, Yates, Aaron Heilman), to ready soon (Jeremy Griffiths, Matt Peterson, Bob Keppel, Jose Diaz), to ready in two years (Scott Kazmir), the Mets have an alarming opportunity to grow themselves a strong rotation, one that could provide talent and flexibility for half a decade. Their old fertilizer will only kill it.

"We've got to start developing these pitchers," Duquette says. "I'd like to find three-fifths of our rotation from within our organization. That's not unreasonable. Our mantra is, 'Let's develop our own.' "

So many say that; so few follow through. To make good on this kind of situation, a club must cast a big, realistic net. Maybe one of three true pitching prospects turns into a worthwhile starter. That's what makes relying on one or two so dangerous, but investing in six or eight so promising. A thoughtful plan can allow each arm to audition at the major league level and prove whether it can survive.

With the Mets, the first half of this season can be spent assessing the Seo-Yates-Heilman first wave. The second half and next spring training will allow the next group's most ready to be woven in. If the club can somehow trade either Leiter or Glavine at some point, that rotation spot can be put to long-term use, rather than the short-term one those veterans were originally hired for.

"You can't expect all of those guys to pitch in our rotation," Duquette says of the Mets' arm prospects. "But you pick the guy you think can succeed now in this market. If he succeeds, terrific. Now he can move up the ladder to No. 4, and you bring up another guy in the 5 spot, and so on. It's introducing a starter hopefully each year with the thought that they'll develop into a better starter the following year, and push themselves up the ladder."

Two Out Of Three Threes

If Duquette wants to develop three-fifths of his rotation, he's working for the right club. Two troikas, Seaver-Koosman-Matlack and Gooden-Fernandez-Darling, serve as reminders of how to do it right. More recently, Wilson-Pulsipher-Isringhausen symbolize the dangers of overworking them to oblivion. (Isringhausen himself told Newsday, with regard to the tantalizing Kazmir, "Tell that kid good luck, OK?")

Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson knows the opportunity he now faces. He helped the A's keep their Hudson-Zito-Mulder group healthy by keeping pitch counts both in and out of game competition, and monitoring deliveries in a biomechanics lab. "You keep focus on the process," Peterson says. "You don't want to be fooled by a good result and a bad process."

Funny he mentions that. As Peterson spoke, Yates and Seo had lost their previous starts. Meanwhile, Erickson was rehabbing that hamstring in St. Lucie, Fla., with talk of his possible return.

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