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01/29/2003 8:30 pm ET 
Mets Spring Training preview
Fifth spot in rotation poses intriguing questions
By Kevin Czerwinski / MLB.com

Several teams have expressed interest in Aaron Heilman, but the Mets aren't dealing. (Rick Silva/AP)
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NEW YORK -- There are issues in the outfield and questions about third base. Yet, one of the most intriguing scenarios the Mets are faced with as Spring Training draws near is the one regarding the starting rotation.

Oh, it's not the top end of the staff on which new manager Art Howe will have to make decisions. Pencilling in Tom Glavine, Al Leiter, Pedro Astacio and Steve Trachsel every turn will be one of Howe's easier tasks this season.

complete coverage: spring training 2003

Rather, what Howe and his staff have planned for the fifth and final spot in the rotation has been cause for much speculation this winter. Whether Mike Bacsik, Jason Middlebrook or Aaron Heilman steps forth, the battle for that spot should provide much drama as the Mets open camp at Port St. Lucie.

Each of the three hurlers is intriguing in his own way. Bacsik spent much of the second half with the Mets last season, going 3-2 in 11 games (nine starts) with a 4.37 ERA. He was only the fourth New York pitcher in the last 25 years to win his first two starts in the big leagues and it's the poise and confidence he displayed last summer that has many in the organization willing to take a chance on him.

    Mike Bacsik   /   P
Height: 6'3"
Weight: 190
Bats/Throws: L/L

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A control-type left-hander, Bacsik figures to make considerable strides if he is allowed to spend an entire season with his locker next to fellow southpaws Tom Glavine and Al Leiter.

"I hope I showed enough," said Bacsik, 25, who had laser surgery on his feet this winter to eliminate bone spurs that were causing plantar fascitis. "Obviously that's how I feel inside. How the Mets feel, I don't know. I don't know exactly what they think about the situation but I think I pitched well enough last year that I deserve an opportunity to make this team and help it to become a better team.

"It's up to them to decide if, as long as I am healthy, if I am the guy or not. If it's starting or just getting some starts and helping out in the pen, so be it. I'm not averse to that. Whatever I can do to help I will. But I'm not in any position to say that I am a starter or I am a reliever. They'll put me in a situation and I'll do what I can to the best of my abilities."

Middlebrook's approach to the situation is as healthy and upbeat as Bacsik's. He knows he's not in a position to make demands. He just wants to go out and prove that he deserves a spot on the team.

    Jason Middlebrook   /   P
Height: 6'3"
Weight: 215
Bats/Throws: R/R

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He certainly made a positive impression on the front office last summer after coming over in a deal with San Diego. Middlebrook began his stretch doing rehab work at Triple-A Norfolk and was stellar in five International League starts. He went 2-1 with a 2.66 ERA, earning pitcher of the week honors in August. He was 2-0 in his final three starts for the Tides, posting a 0.00 ERA over 18 innings.

Middlebrook then made three September starts for the Mets, going 1-0 with a 3.94 ERA. While late September games are often not a true barometer of a player's ability, Middlebrook is confident that what he did in those outings certainly counts for something.

"I figured it was a positive showing," said the 27-year-old righty who has a 4-4 mark in 19 career games (eight starts). "I don't know what the decision makers thought of it. Personally, I felt I made a favorable impression.

"Whether that was enough, I don't know. I know I can pitch at this level and help a team out. Hopefully it's New York because I want to be in New York."

The wild card in the equation is Heilman. The former first-round pick from Notre Dame has been a hot commodity this winter. Teams have asked for the big right-hander in trade talks with general manager Steve Phillips refusing to include Heilman in any deal. The general manager has continually made it a point to mention that Heilman will be part of the fifth-starter mix but also admits that he might benefit from some more seasoning at Triple-A.

    Aaron Heilman   /   P
Height: 6'5"
Weight: 220
Bats/Throws: R/R

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Heilman was 6-7 in 27 games [24 starts] between Double-A Binghamton and Norfolk last season. He posted a combined 3.64 ERA, striking out 132 in 146 innings. He is a power pitcher who has drawn comparisons to Tom Seaver.

"I'm open-minded about the fifth starter's spot," Howe said. "I'll evaluate it during the spring and give the candidates an opportunity to win the job. Bacsik is your typical lefty with that changeup while Middlebrook has a fine arm. I'm excited to see how it all works out."

Bacsik admits he spent some time this winter thinking about earning a spot in the rotation while Middlebrook says he gave it little or no thought at all. Heilman, meanwhile, has said that he's determined to make Howe's decision difficult but knows he could wind up back in Norfolk for at least part of the season.

The prospect of returning to the minors isn't appealing but each of the three candidates understands that someone will have to go down at some point.

"It would be very disappointing; I can't say it wouldn't be," Bacsik said. "Everyone wants to play in the Major Leagues. But as long as they explain to me what they want and what they need and what I didn't show them, then I have to accept that and pitch as best I can in Triple-A.

"If I dwell on it and say that I should have made this team and don't concentrate on getting the Triple-A hitters out, then I won't even make their decision tougher to keep me there. I'll go there if I have to, do the best I can as quickly as I can and make them say 'Lets get him up here'."

Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.



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