03/29/2007 10:07 AM ET
Minaya gives his take on spring training
GM calls rookie Joe Smith biggest surprise of camp
By Michael Salfino / SNY.tv baseball analyst
The struggles of reliever Duaner Sanchez have been a source of great disappointment for Omar Minaya and the Mets this spring. (AP)

Mets GM Omar Minaya expressed his views on various spring training developments to fans while sharing the microphone with Keith Hernandez and Gary Cohen during a recent Mets telecast.

Let's review his comments and examine the biggest issues that face the team heading into the opening night game on Sunday in St. Louis.

"(Duaner) Sanchez was expected to break camp," Minaya said. "That's the biggest disappointment (of the spring)."

Minaya added that rookie sidearmer Joe Smith, a 2006 draftee, has been the "big surprise" in camp. "He's ahead of where Chad Cordero was in his first spring training." After that first camp, Cordero went on to record a 2.94 ERA with seven wins and 14 saves, averaging a strikeout per inning in his 82.7 frames.

However, Cordero was given big-league experience the same summer he was drafted. Smith pitched mostly in the low minors last year and was hammered by lefties (1.283 OPS) after his promotion to AA Binghamton (just 12.2 innings).

Baseball America said last year that Smith can hit 94 MPH with his fastball, very unusual for a sidearmer. He's registered radar readings in the low-90s this spring. That scouting report said his "two-plane slider destroys righties," but that he needed to continue developing his changeup in order to keep big-league lefties honest.

This spring, he's allowed 12 baserunners in 13 spring innings with 15 Ks. But the safe assumption for the moment is that he must be used with great caution against most left-handed hitters. This makes him ill-suited to replace Sanchez in the seventh-inning role.

Minaya did not mention Ambroix Burgos. And he said that Chan Ho Park has value in the pen because he can start if needed.

Burgos (17 Ks/4 BBs) has come on in the past week after it looked like he was ticketed to AAA New Orleans. Park is rumored to be on the outs due to his unwillingness to embrace the relief role. There's no knowing the degree to which a player's happiness impacts performance, but what choice would Park have other than to pitch to the best of his abilities?

As I noted in a prior column on Aaron Heilman, a broad sampling of starters-turned-relievers revealed that performance improved dramatically after these mostly mediocre and poor starters were moved into the pen. On average, hits-per-nine improved by 18 percent, Ks-per-nine by 37 percent, walks were reduced by 18 percent and ERA was lowered by 29 percent.

Make these average adjustments for Park based on how he fared last year as a starter and his projection as a reliever is 3.42 ERA, 1.13 WHIP (baserunners per inning), and 8.6 Ks per nine innings. It is worth the very small risk of finding out if Park could benefit from the switch to the degree other similar starters have.

The major focus of the Minaya interview was the rumored switch of David Wright to the second spot of the lineup. At one point, Minaya even sought advice from Keith Hernandez on the move (Hernandez seemed somewhat conflicted, though generally supportive). Note that Willie Randolph has batted Wright second almost exclusively of late.

"Our stat guys like Wright batting second because of his historical OBP (on-base percentage)," said Minaya. "He'll get 50 or 60 more at bats and that's going to get us more runs when Reyes is on. And he's easier to get home when he's on base because he runs well. But what I think about is what happens if Reyes makes an out? Then you have a 100-RBI guy not able to drive someone in. It's Willie's decision. I can see how it makes sense statistically. Willie hasn't told me what he'll do if Alou isn't playing that day. Where do you bat LoDuca then?"

There's a tremendous amount of evidence that lineups don't matter much. It's far more important to play the right guys than it is to sequence them in any particular way. Remember, you set the lineup only for the first inning and, after that, it's pot luck.

There's no doubt the top of the order is much stronger with Wright batting second. But the big problem is putting in the important sixth spot either singles-hitting LoDuca or Shawn Green, .199, .228 and .252 with runners in scoring position the past three years.

This calculation might be different with Lastings Milledge in the lineup. In fact, Milledge has the makings right now of an adequate big-league No. 2 hitter. But Minaya made it seem like Milledge was every unlikely to supplant Green even before he got hit on the hand by a pitch later in the game.

"We haven't found out (who Shawn Green is)," Minaya said. "We're not asking him to bat third or fourth. But we owe it to (him) to let him go out and play. Last year, we were talking about Valentin the same way we're talking about Green now."

That's true. I confess to not thinking there was much of a chance at all for Valentin to be as productive as he ended up being. However, the Mets had no real alternative to Valentin. There clearly is one to Green.

"If Milledge doesn't play everyday, I don't know if it's fair to keep him up," Minaya continued. "We're very happy to have him available. Whenever the opportunity comes, I'd like to see him play every day."

Teams base roster decisions on spring training only when they want to. When they're looking for a reason to make a change, the stats matter. When they're not, they don't. But you can't have springs that contrast more sharply than those of Green and Milledge. While Green did nothing to dissuade detractors either at the plate (.464 OPS in 69 ABs) or in the field, Milledge was a revelation - adding muscle, maturity and raking to the tune of a .963 OPS in 54 ABs (9 Ks/4 BBs). He also stole five bases in six attempts.

Remember, it does not serve Minaya at all to give Green a lukewarm endorsement. But forget about what anyone says about him and figure that the objective reality of March demands that Green has a couple of months at most to prove he can again be a competent everyday player.

Minaya seemed very pleased with the status of his rotation, even as new fifth starter Mike Pelfrey was again struggling to demonstrate an out pitch (just five Ks in 19 spring innings). Oliver Perez was specifically noted for his ability to get guys out this spring even when lacking his best stuff. Of course, that's a good news/bad news thing, as Perez largely has been without the explosive fastball he demonstrated periodically as a Met last year.

Michael Salfino is a nationally syndicated football and baseball newspaper columnist and a regular contributor to SNY.tv.
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