Notes: Bannister starts; Heilman to 'pen
Rookie excited to join rotation; Veteran not happy with move
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The misadventures of Braden Looper aside, the bullpen was one of the Mets' primary assets last season, mostly because of Aaron Heilman and the since-departed Roberto Hernandez. Until Tuesday morning, little guarantee of comparable reliability in the 2006 bullpen existed. Not until the Mets assigned Heilman to the role in which he excelled last summer did the Mets have what they coveted -- a killer 'pen.
To achieve that objective and create what general manager Omar Minaya called the best bullpen in the National League, the Mets confidently entrusted a role in their rotation to rookie Brian Bannister, whose performance in exhibition games and poised persona made moving Heilman from the rotation more than possible.
Rookie status isn't conspicuous with the 25-year-old son of former Major League pitcher Floyd Bannister, and that is part of the reason manager Willie Randolph acknowledged on Tuesday that the rotation with Bannister is comparable to the rotation with Heilman. It goes without saying that the bullpen is significantly better with Heilman than it would have been without him.
And, as Randolph said, "What we're trying to do here is [about] team. ... We're a better team this way."
Minaya invoked the names of John Smoltz and Derek Lowe, pitchers who moved from starting to relieving to the benefit of their teams. Dave Righetti did the same with the Yankees after Rich Gossage left. And lest we forget, Dennis Eckersley made the move as well, though against his better judgment.
As joyful as Bannister was after hearing of his promotion from prospect to big leaguer, Heilman was equally disappointed. The change of direction, hardly a surprise given the tea leaves of the last 10 days, came as a punch to his solar plexus. In Heilman's mind, he is a starter who is wrongly cast in the seventh and eighth innings. He spent much of his offseason in the Dominican Winter League preparing to pitch in his preferred role.
Heilman's responses to reporters' questions on Tuesday weren't spoken spontaneously: "It is what it is. I'm certainly disappointed. ... But I'll go to the bullpen and give it my best. ... There aren't many people who can say what they want and get it."
The reassignment hardly is a slap in his face, though. The Mets have the highest regard for Heilman. They recognized his value last season, found more evidence of it when other clubs inquired about his availability this offseason and they ultimately realized the bullpen, even with Billy Wagner, might have become a liability without Heilman.
"With all the money we're paying Billy, you want to be able to get to him with a lead," a member of the club's hierarchy said on Sunday before the decision was made. "With Aaron and Billy, we can shut 'em down in the eighth and ninth."
Randolph generally prefers not to be pinned down, so he didn't make the eighth inning Heilman's domain. The three relievers the Mets imported during the winter -- Dauner Sanchez, Jorge Julio and Chad Bradford -- will have equally undefined roles, but all will find work after the starter has been removed. But the three are not nearly as effective against left-handed hitters as they are against right-handed hitters. It's not a small consideration. Heilman referred generally to needs of the bullpen as a "certain other circumstance."
Though right-handed, he was quite effective against left-handed hitters last season because of his changeup. No less a left-handed hitter than Carlos Delgado raved about him last year.
Moreover, the presence of Bradford, a rarity in that he is a specialist to be used against right-handed hitters almost exclusively, puts greater demands on the other relievers. Any inning Bradford pitches that has a left-handed hitter would, almost by design, become a two-pitcher inning. With Heilman, any inning can be a one-pitcher inning and be less of a drain on the 'pen.
If only Heilman wasn't so effective in a role he doesn't like, he wouldn't have found himself on the mound as a reliever on Tuesday in Jupiter -- he allowed the Marlins a run in two innings -- and wouldn't be in position to begin the adjustment to pitching without an established schedule.
Disappointed as he was, Heilman still said that relieving for this promising Mets team -- made more promising by his reassignment -- is preferable to starting elsewhere.
"I'm happy to be here," he said. "We're going to have a good team this year, and I want to be a part of that."
It was Heilman's first step toward reconciling his preference with his renewed reality.
Bannister's reality is one he fantasized about. The name on the cap of his first Little League team was Mets. They have been his only employer. His affection for them is evident.
"This is going to be a special team," he said.
Bannister's personal scenario couldn't been better.
His outward joy was dulled on Tuesday because he knew Heilman's disappointment, and he and Heilman have put aside their respective Southern Cal and Notre Dame allegiances to forge a friendship during this camp. Bannister didn't choose to deny his buddy. And his demeanor had to remain subdued, because the Mets told him of the decision before they announced it. His curve is deceptive, as is his poker face.
"I'm excited," Bannister said, "because we'll be able to play together."
Bannister will become the third rookie starting pitcher to begin a season with the Mets in a four-season span. Jae Seo and Tyler Yates pitched regularly in the rotation in April 2003 and 2004, respectively. Neither stuck. The Mets anticipate more from Bannister, even though they are relatively unfamiliar with him. The big-league staff didn't see much of him last season when he seamlessly moved from Double-A to Triple-A. He won nine of 13 decisions in 18 starts with Binghamton and four of five decisions with Norfolk.
He didn't necessarily "put Triple-A behind him" as Bobby Valentine used to say. But this spring, as Yogi Berra used to say, "he exceeded expectations and more." Bannister's 1-2 record meant nothing, and really, neither did the 0.95 ERA he produced in five games -- three starts -- and 19 innings. March has been shown to be a poor proving ground.
What impressed his manager and coaches was his ability to control his pitches and his emotions. General managers and their player development staff like to see how a player handles adversity. Bannister endured an ugly second inning against the Astros on Sunday. He hit a batter and walked in a run. But he minimized the damage -- one run -- and subsequenly retired 10 of 12 batters.
Bannister wasn't guaranteed a place in the rotation then, but that performance put the momentum back in his favor. The majority of those who will be his first big-league teammates had advocated having him in the rotation and Heilman in the 'pen. But when some of the left-handed relievers began to assert themselves last week, the momentum slowed.
Then on Tuesday, the club assigned two of the four relievers, Royce Ring and Juan Perez, to the Minor League camp. Now the possibilities are Pedro Feliciano and veteran starter Darren Oliver, this spring's Hernandez. And neither is likely to be what Mike Stanton was for the Yankees or Jesse Orosco was in his late years. Hence Heilman's change of duties.
It is not a permanent exile. Steve Trachsel could be gone next year, Tom Glavine, too. Victor Zambrano, though the Mets are encouraged by his throwing this spring, begins the season as an uncertainty. And no one can say Pedro Martinez will make 30 starts this year, much less next.
More roster moves: Five other players were cut on Tuesday, including outfielders Lastings Milledge, Tike Redman and Todd Self, catcher Sandy Martinez and second baseman Jeff Keppinger.
Matsui to DL: The Mets placed second baseman Kaz Matsui (sprained medial collateral ligament) on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to March 18. He's eligible to return on April 8.
Coming up: Opening Day starter Tom Glavine will make his final spring appearance on Wednesday as the Mets visit the Braves in Lake Buena Vista for a 1:05 p.m. ET game. Right-hander Tim Hudson gets the nod for Atlanta.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.