Terry Collins did not consistently have the luxury of a second left-hander in his bullpen alongside Tim Byrdak last season. And that prompted the manager to have to consider in-game when was the best time to use his lone southpaw reliever.
Collins again may be confronted with that issue this year.
While four prospective left-handed relievers are in camp -- Chuck James, Garrett Olson, Daniel Herrera and Robert Carson -- it’s entirely possible all end up in the minors to open the season. James and perhaps Olson would be the most serious contenders, although neither is on the 40-man roster.
The Mets have five bullpen locks in right-handers Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch, Ramon Ramirez and Manny Acosta, plus Byrdak. Meanwhile, right-hander D.J. Carrasco has an existing $1.2 million contract and right-hander Bobby Parnell, despite a minor league option remaining, seemingly merits some role in the big league pen.
Other than random appearances in relief by Chris Capuano and Jon Niese last season, Collins at points had Pat Misch, Mike O’Connor and Herrera to complement Byrdak. They were active for a total of 57 games, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Collins was without a second left-hander in his bullpen for 105 games in 2011.
“You didn’t want to burn him too early,” Collins said about his usage of Byrdak when the manager had no other left-handed relievers on the roster. “I tried to pick my spots of saying in the seventh inning, ‘Is this the guy I’ve got to have?’ Or, ‘Hey, look, this guy is going to come up in the eighth, or somebody is going to come up in the eighth. I need to save him for that guy.’
“It was always nice to have that second guy down there, but I tried to use Tim as best I could. And a lot of times it was hard. A lot of times you’d look up and you’d say, ‘God, I’d like to use him right now, but those other guys have got to get it done.’”
Here are profiles of the four candidates for second left-handed reliever:
Carson, a native of Hattiesburg, Miss., has represented the Mets in the Arizona Fall League two straight Octobers, but this past offseason there was a twist: For the first time in his career the 23-year-old prospect, who was added to the 40-man roster this offseason, was used as a reliever. Carson even entered games mid-inning a couple of times in the AFL, although primarily to start an inning.
“The first outing out of the bullpen, it was a little different,” Carson said about the adjustment. “I didn’t really get as warm as I wanted to. But after that I kind of got into a reliever’s mentality and got into a routine and it was cool from there.”
Assuming Carson does not make the Opening Day roster, which is the likelihood even though he is the only candidate on the 40-man roster, minor league officials say it’s “still in discussion” whether Carson works as a starting pitcher or reliever in 2012. Collins believes it’s worthwhile for him to continue as a starter for now. The manager suggested that if Carson was reassigned full time to the bullpen in the minors upon breaking camp, it would strongly suggest the front office believes Carson is close to being ready to contribute at the big league level in the bullpen.
Carson has a natural cutting action even on his standard fastball, but he now has added a cutter. He has worked on a two-seam fastball that dives down and in on left-handed batters to try to get a pitch that goes in the other direction. A slider and changeup also are part of his regular repertoire. He usually sits at 92-94 mph, and has registered as high as 96-97 mph.
“I don’t know where Robert’s going, I’m just talking, but in order for him to advance, he’s got to go get innings,” Collins said. “If they start him [in the minors], I think it’s the right move. If they say, ‘Hey, look, it’s time to put him in the bullpen,’ then I’m hoping he makes fast adjustments, because that’s telling me, hey, they’re trying to get this guy ready for a possible role in the big leagues.”
Said Carson: “I’ll be ready for either one. We’ll see.”
New York Mets
The Mets acquired the 5-foot-6 Herrera as one of two players to be named in the trade when they hurriedly sent Francisco Rodriguez to the Milwaukee Brewers in early July -- before new agent Scott Boras recognized K-Rod’s no-trade clause had not been properly submitted. The move mostly was intended to dump Rodriguez’s contract so that a $17.5 million vesting option could not kick in rather than to gain young talent.
Herrera, 27, did have a 1.13 ERA in 16 late-season appearances with the Mets, allowing seven hits and two walks in eight innings. Lefty batters hit .294 against him, while righties hit .381.
The Mets are concerned Herrera’s signature screwball will only become less effectivene as National League East batters become more familiar with it. They cite stats that NL Central batters had more and more success against Herrera as they saw the southpaw frequently while he pitched for the Cincinnati Reds and Brewers.
Herrera was removed from the 40-man roster and cleared waivers in mid-January, when the Mets needed two roster spots, to sign Ronny Cedeno and to re-sign Scott Hairston. He had the right to become a free agent, but decided to remain with the organization and is now in camp as a non-roster invitee.
“I felt like I did a good-enough job as far as September goes,” Herrera said. “But that all changes, as I’ve seen. I guess it’s all relative to what they think is right at the moment and what moves they make in the offseason. … I was quite surprised [by being placed on waivers]. I didn’t really expect to get that kind of news.”
As for remaining with the Mets after the 40-man roster decision, Herrera added: “It’s a great organization for me to be in. I feel like I still have a great opportunity to make the team out of camp.”
New York Mets
James grew up in Mableton, Ga. -- 15 minutes from the Atlanta Braves’ home ballpark. He was drafted by his hometown team in the 20th round in 2002, and debuted in the majors to rave reviews a few years later. In fact, James went 11-4 with a 3.78 ERA during his rookie season in 2006. From his first major league start on June 25 through the remainder of that season, only one National League pitcher had more wins -- teammate John Smoltz with 12.
James drew comparisons to Tom Glavine.
“It’s one of those things when you first come up, you’re not really sure what to expect. It kind of sets your feet in and lets you know that you could do this,” James said.
However, by the 2008-09 offseason, an injured James had been non-tendered by the Braves. He spent 2010 entirely in the minors with the Washington Nationals, where he moved to a relief role. Last season, he appeared in eight major league games with the Minnesota Twins.
“I didn’t play at all in ’09, and in 2010 I came back and I started. And I just didn’t bounce back real well after surgery, or that first year that I played after surgery,” said James, referring to an extensive procedure that included repairing a rotator cuff tear and addressing the labrum being pulled off the bone. “So I went to the bullpen [with Washington] because they were going to let me pick and choose the days I would throw. It just started there. [The shoulder] just kind of bounced back a lot better and so I’ve just been in the bullpen since.”
New York Mets
Say this for Olson, he has a bright past. Academically speaking, certainly. Olson decided to play baseball at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo because of its aerospace engineering program. His father Ken is an engineer. His mother Donna is a librarian. His sister Kayla majored in biology at UCLA and is now in the pharmaceutical industry.
“I went for aerospace and transferred to mechanical,” Olson said about his college engineering study.
As for pitching, Olson -- who was signed to a minor league deal by the Mets during the offseason -- will work as a starter in camp. Assuming the five established starters -- Johan Santana, R.A. Dickey, Niese, Mike Pelfrey and Dillon Gee -- break camp healthy, Olson’s best ticket to an Opening Day roster spot would be as a situational left-hander and/or long man in the bullpen.
In 2008, Olson started off quickly with the Baltimore Orioles, opening with a 5-1 record. He made 28 starts that season, which ended up fourth most among American League rookies.
More recently Olson has bounced around. He was traded with fellow new Met Ronny Cedeno from the Chicago Cubs to the Seattle Mariners for Aaron Heilman in January 2009. Only 10 days earlier, the Orioles had sent to Olson the Windy City for Felix Pie.
“I had a feeling through just interaction,” Olson said about not staying in Chicago long.
Olson spent last season with the Pittsburgh Pirates after being claimed during spring training off waivers. He pitched only 4 1/3 innings at the major league level in 2011. He went 4-3 with a 3.05 ERA in 24 appearances (15 starts) at Triple-A Indianapolis.
His fastball usually sits about 90 mph.
“I have respect for both positions,” Olson said about starting versus relieving. “They’re both fun in their own right.”