Monday, March 07, 2005

A Bridge to Nowhere? 

Despite an offseason that some say was "the best offseason of any team, not just this year, but in recent memory," Mets detractors are still out in force. This year the sour grape brigade points to the middle relief as the weakness that will sink the Mets. They may be right. Although, quite frankly, if all your detractors can point to is middle relief as your weakness, you should take it as a compliment. In fact, pointing to a team's middle relief as a weakness is tantamount to a good momma joke when you were little. You always have it in your back pocket if all else fails. "You're ugly." "No, you're ugly!" "Oh yeah, well yo momma so ugly her momma had to be drunk to breast feed her." (the crowd of kids on the playground goes, "oooooooo"). The commentators usually say, "the Mets have no bridge to Braden Looper." However, I'm more concerned - or just as concerned - not with the bridge, i.e. the middle relief, than I am with the bridge's destination, i.e. Looper.

Looper was a decent pick up when he was signed by the Mets before the 2004 season. The Mets had just come off another horrible season and seemed to be in some sort of quasi rebuilding mode. Jim Duquette was handed the reigns and spoke of "youth" and "athleticism," Fed Wilpon spoke of certain top prospects in the Mets system as "untouchable," and the team was even holding tryouts among young farm hands in camp to fill out the back end of the starting rotation. The Mets' goal was simply to be playing "meaningful games in September." God I'm so sick of that ill fated phrase. The rumor had it that until Art Howe objected, the Mets weren't even going to sign a closer. So, in that context, signing Braden Looper to a reasonable two year contract for about $3 million each year was a decent move.

Looper came to the Mets after five seasons with the Marlins, where he had a harder time keeping his closer job than Jack Bauer does trying to find time to go to the men's room. While exhibiting good stuff, overall he was inconsistent at best. In return for being handed another closer job, at 29 years old Looper responded with his best season in the bigs. While opponents batting average and slugging percentage against him was relatively stable, Looper posted, by far, his best ERA of his career (2.70) thanks to his ability to maintain his strike out rate (6.48 K/9IP) while drastically reducing the amount of free passes he issued. Thus, for a pitcher whose previously best strike out to walk ratio was 1.96, Looper posted a 2004 rate of 3.75. While I would love for Looper to continue this trend, I'm not optimistic.

Looper's decent 2004 numbers stemmed mostly from an extremely good first half of the season but the second half of the season he struggled. Before the All Star break Looper shut down opponents to the tune of a 1.88 ERA, a 1.08 WHIP while fanning 42 and only walking 6 in 48 inning pitched. In the second half, perhaps, gassed after already having throw seven multi inning games, Looper's numbers inflated to a 3.82 ERA and a 1.42 WHIP and he only struck out 18 while walking 10 in 35 inning pitched. These horrid numbers can be traced directly to an August 21st outing, when the Mets were out of the race - 9 and 1/2 games behind the Braves - yet Art Howe thought it prudent to leave Looper in the game for three innings. The result, Looper collapsed in September.

But that was then and this is now. After Black Friday and an offseason where the Mets brought in a new GM who embarked upon a spending spree that would make Paris Hilton (PG-13) blush, the Mets moved up their time frame to win to right now. No longer is this a team hoping for "meaningful games," this is a team expecting to, at the very least, snag a playoff spot. So while Looper may have been a decent gamble for the 2004 Mets, he's not such a perfect fit for The New Mets of 2005. I hope he can get back to his first half form of 2004 because how frustrating will it be if the Mets bullpen pulls together to create a stable bridge leading to nowhere.
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