Every spring there’s a big fuss made about a team’s Opening Day starter. Who will it be? Who wants the ball? When will the decision be made? Is this the pitcher’s first Opening Day start? It’s a nice little story about who the team pegs to toe the rubber on Opening Day, but in actuality it doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot.

It’s definitely a nice honor for the individual that the team wants him to go on the first day of the season, but in the grand scheme of things it’s one start out of an 162-game season. The media will pour over it for days, but like I said above, it doesn’t make or break the season or a pitcher’s career.

Being named the Opening Day starter is an honor for a pitcher because it usually signifies that pitcher as the team’s ace. That’s not the case every time, but for the majority of the time it is—i.e. Roy Halladay will start Opening Day for the Phillies, Tim Lincecum will go for the Giants and Felix Hernandez for the Mariners. No questions there. Those obviously makes sense. But as I was sifting through some other team’s Opening Day starters, you start to really see that some teams are really hurting in the pitching department.

Orioles – Jeremy Guthrie. The O’s have some good, young pitchers on their staff, but they wanted to go with some experience, but this still isn’t very good.

Padres – Tim Stauffer. Mat Latos had a breakout season in 2010, but doesn’t get the nod on day one as the Padres will roll with Stauffer. Ouch.

Pirates – Kevin Correia. The Pirates “big” free agent pickup will start Opening Day for the Buccos. Correia had a 5.40 ERA last season, but lack of other quality options will dictate bad decisions like this one.

Diamondbacks – Ian Kennedy. Kennedy actually turned in a quality season last year, but I don’t see him improving much on it. This is another lack of other quality options (see above) with Zach Duke, Barry Enright rounding out your rotation though Dan Hudson should emerge as the team’s ace by the end of 2011.

Nationals – Livan Hernandez. Really? Livan Hernandez is your Opening Day starter? I realize Strasburg is still injured, but come on. How old is this guy? I looked it up, he’s 36. He won’t end up being the team’s ace, but I guess they wanted to go with experience.

Twins – Carl Pavano. Not sure what exactly is behind this decision to start Pavano ahead of Francisco Liriano, who is clearly a better pitcher and the Twins ace. Yes, Pavano had one of the better seasons for a pitcher in the AL in 2010, but a career year at age 35? I see some regression from his numbers last year.

Royals – Luke Hochevar. Yes, he has a 5.60 career ERA, but I give the Royals props for at least going the young route and giving their prospect the ball on Opening Day and see how it turns out. Then again, who else is there for the Royals…Bruce Chen?

Mets – Mike Pelfrey. Don’t get me wrong, Pelfrey’s a good, young pitcher but he is not Johan Santana. The Mets are really going to miss their ace and the fact that Pelfrey suddenly becomes your ace and R.A. Dickey your number two guy is cause for serious concern.

The lack of depth on some of these staffs is disturbing. At the end of the day (or season) who your team’s Opening Day starter is really doesn’t matter, but there’s a lot to read into about the quality of certain rotations by who is tabbed to start game one and their chances in 2011.

Advertisements

Are the Mets really relying this heavily on R.A. Dickey this upcoming season? The Mets signed Dickey to a two-year deal worth about $7.5 million this offseason following his surprising 2010 season where he posted an 11-9 record with 2.84 ERA, 5.4 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9. I’m finding last year just a bit too good to be true.

Dickey’s best ERA prior to 2010 was 2009 with a 4.62 and his six seasons before that, he didn’t have an ERA below 5. Not to mention he didn’t pitch in the Majors at all in 2007. Dickey is 36 years old, had one good season suddenly but I think it’s foolish for the Mets to move forward with him as their No. 2 starter this spring. Yes, Dickey’s a knuckleballer so he could be a workhorse like Tim Wakefield, but not every player to ever throw a knuckleball finds consistent success with it. But the Mets have serious problems if they plan on Dickey being their second arm in the rotation and he struggles to find last year’s success.

Johan Santana, who is making over $20 million a year, is out until most likely at least June. That leaves Mike Pelfrey as your ace for the beginning of the year. While Pelfrey is almost 10 years younger than Dickey, he’s not exactly the model of success either. He had a nice 2010 campaign (15-9, 3.66), but he also had a good 2008 season and followed it up with a step back in 2009 (10-12, 5.03). Does he regress again this year? The Mets can’t afford that at all. They desperately need him to step up and be that starter they can rely on to stop losing streaks if need be.

After Pelfrey and Dickey, you have patchwork that includes the likes of Jonathan Niese, Chris Capuano, Dillon Gee and Chris Young. Gee has five ML games under his belt, Niese just put in his first full season in the bigs, Capuano was a mediocre pitcher at best with the Brewers and Young has appeared in four games in the past year and has more injuries than the entire Mets team suffered last year. Definitely some cause for concern, huh?

Out of this group, Niese holds the most potential by far but there’s no guarantee that he’s going to roll out there and produce behind Pelfrey and Dickey. Plus, even when Santana returns in June or July, what can the Mets expect of him after coming off shoulder surgery last September? It may take him the rest of the summer to shake off the rust and get back into his old form.

It’s going to be another long season for the Mets, one that they may not be able to blame on injuries this time. Even if Dickey meets the lowest bar of expectations for him, the rest of the rotation will need to exceed them for the Mets to put together anything close to a winning season. There’s just too many “if’s” with Dickey and the rotation for me to be confident for the Mets chances in 2011.

Is there anyone in the National League that’s improved more in one year than Mike Pelfrey?

Pelfrey continued his bounce back season last night by tossing seven shutout innings against the suddenly punch-less Phillies (Mets shut them out in three straight games). The Mets right-hander improved to 7-1 with a sparkling 2.54 ERA in 10 starts in 2010. He even picked up a save in his only outing out of the bullpen in mid-April. Pelfrey has been a huge shot in the arm for the 25-23 Mets being their most effective starter to date, and that includes better than Johan Santana.

After his breakout season in 2008 (13-11, 3.72) Pelfrey was terribly inconsistent all of last year before finishing 10-12 with a 5.03 ERA in 31 starts. So what’s the difference through 10 starts this year? Well for one thing he’s not allowed as many hits and home runs are significantly down. Last year, Pelfrey gave up 10.4 H/9 while he’s down to 8.1 H/9 in 2010. He also served up 18 long balls last season, but has only seen three bombs go against him this year. While his BB/9 is essentially the same, his strikeouts are up from 5.2 to 6.2 K/9. He’s also getting better defense/luck behind him with a .285 BAPIP (batting average on balls in play) down 35 points from his 2009 BAPIP of .321.

It’s definitely possible that Pelfrey will eventually balance out a bit and see his ERA rise somewhere in the 3.00 range, but one thing is for certain—this is the pitcher the Mets thought they were getting with the ninth overall pick in the 2005 draft. If they are to compete all summer in the NL East, this is the Mike Pelfrey they need.