This Year's Ace?

Opening Day is now less than a week away and rosters across the league are rounding into shape. Vying for supremacy in the National League East will be a tough task for the Mets this upcoming year, what with the Phillies assembling a fantasy-type rotation, the Braves looking to build off of last year’s playoff appearance, and even the Marlins and Nationals boasting some premier talent. Because the division is loaded, the Mets will need a number of factors to break right if they are to contend deep into the season, as well as improved production from several crucial players. The following Mets must each take their games to a higher level this year if the team is to make some noise in 2011…

1) Mike Pelfrey. Overall, some aspects of his 2010 season look good enough on the surface: 204 innings pitched, 15 wins, and an ERA of 3.66. Pitching away from spacious Citi Field, however, he had a 5-6 record as with an ERA of 4.95. Furthermore, his career WHIP is an unseemly 1.46, and his 1.67 strikeouts-per-walk ratio over the past three seasons ranks 7th-worst among pitchers with 480-plus innings (stat from espn.com).

During his time as a Met, Pelfrey has shown flashes of dominance and possible ability to become a big-time starter, but has never really put it all together for an entire season. With Johan Santana sidelined until at least the summer, Pelfrey suddenly finds himself the current ace of the staff. With a bunch of questions surrounding the Mets rotation — Can Chris Young and Chris Capuano make major comebacks this year? Can 24-year old Jon Niese continue to improve? Is R.A. Dickey for real? — the Mets need Pelfrey to anchor the rotation. Since he’s now 27 years old and has endured some growing pains (of the 5 years he‘s pitched in the majors, he has finished with an ERA above 5.00 in 3 of them), if he does have the ace-like talent that’s been advertised since his call-up in 2006, this would be a prime year for it to be realized.

2) Bobby Parnell. When Francisco Rodriguez isn’t busy beating people up, he’s one of the more efficient closers in the league — his ERA has been under 3.00 for 6 of the past 7 years and he has averaged 42 saves a year for the past 6. But the rest of the bullpen — Taylor Buchholtz? Tim Byrdak? — is, to put it mildly, an uncertainty.

Which is where Parnell comes in — providing a reliable bridge to K-Rod will go a long way towards the bullpen getting itself in order. There’s no doubting his pure stuff — a power fastball in the upper 90’s, mixing in a nasty slider — but his performance has been uneven his first few years (career 4.63 ERA and 1.57 WHIP). However, as he enters only his third full season in the majors, he figures to improve on those numbers.

3) David Wright. While he did enjoy a comeback year last year and was able to hit 29 home runs despite playing half of his games in Citi Field, there are some issues in his hitting that must be addressed, most namely his performance with men on base. While looking at last year’s numbers, I was actually pretty surprised to see his struggles in those situations (.261 average, .332 OBP). Taking a closer look, last year with runners in scoring position, he batted .260 and struck out 50 times in 150 official at bats — about a third of the time in these critical spots, he didn’t even put the ball in play. It actually gets worse — with the bases loaded, he batted .250 and struck out in half of his official at bats. Then, with 2 outs and runners in scoring position, he batted a paltry .236 and struck out 34.5 % of the time.

For a career .305 hitter and cornerstone of the team’s lineup, these numbers are pretty disconcerting. Especially considering the questions regarding the hitters who follow him in the lineup — How will Carlos Beltran/Jason Bay bounce back this year? Will Ike Davis fall prey to the sophomore slump? — Wright definitely needs to perform better in these key situations.

Of course I’d predict big years from each of them — it’s still the spring, where optimism reigns supreme.