Figueroa may have secured roster spot
Veteran righty could be long man in Mets' bullpen
JUPITER, Fla. -- The bullpen remains unsettled, and the starting rotation is no more established than it was when last season ended. No matter, one unofficial position must be filled to protect the other pitchers the Mets intend to bring to Citi Field for Opening Day on April 5 -- staff-saver. And the pitcher most likely to serve in that role is Nelson Figueroa, all developments occurring Friday afternoon notwithstanding.
Two people among the club's decision-makers indicated as much before the Mets engaged the Marlins here Friday, before Figueroa, deployed as a starter, provided the kind of performance that makes staff-savers necessary. Whether he jeopardized his candidacy by allowing seven runs in 2 2/3 innings is undetermined. The state of the Mets' 'pen is such that no functional candidate can be eliminated even now, with less than a week remaining before the team breaks camp, on the strength or weakness of one appearance.
Until this, his second exhibition game start -- the first with the "A" team -- Figueroa had done all that was feasible to secure an Opening Day roster spot: eight scoreless innings, more strikeouts (nine) than baserunners (seven), no home runs.
"It would have been fun to stay perfect," Figueroa said. "But I wasn't too high on the zero. I'm not going to get too low on the runs today."
And why should he? He know he already had reinforced the general image the Mets' staff has of him -- give him a role, and he'll fill it. Not as well as some and better than others.
"I feel like I'm going after it [a spot on the Opening Day roster]," Figueroa said. "I feel that I can handle two roles with one arm. I'm planning on making the team. My suit is pressed, and I'm ready to go."
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Figueroa, 36 in June, spoke after his unsightly performance in what became a 10-inning, 8-8 tie with the Fish. He allowed a single but faced six batters in the first two innings. But he surrendered seven hits, including a double and a triple, in a nine-batter sequence in the third. He was charged with seven runs, the last four of which scored when Jenrry Mejia allowed hits to his first two batters, staining his own spring for the first time.
It was a performance Figueroa said should have been "rolled up and thrown in the garbage." And it deserved to be identified as a case of "unfortunate timing."
It could have been attributed to an on-mound change he and pitching coach Dan Warthen thought was good to try at this point. Figueroa moved from the third-base end of the rubber to the first-base end. The change was designed to afford his sinker more movement and make his changeup more effective. It's effect was to diminish the affect of his slider -- Warthen considers it the best on the team -- and cutter.
Other factors worked against him as well.
"There was some pitches that didn't go Figueroa's way," Rod Barajas said. "I didn't see the location I saw in other games."
Barajas, having caught Figueroa for the first time, called the appearance a fluke.
"Wind affects some pitches, too," he said. "But I don't think you can judge him on one game."
Warthen acknowledged Friday no other pitcher left in camp is better suited to handle the "staff-saver" role. And of all the pitchers without a defined role at this point, none is more aware than Figueroa of the need for such a pitcher.
The term "staff-saver" is PC for "mop-up man." Neither term offends a pitcher with nearly 1,500 innings in the Minor Leagues, another 160 in Mexico and other independent leagues and 377 in the big leagues. On successful teams, the role is more likely to be identified as "long relief"; see Darren Oliver, 2006 Mets, and Tom Gorman, '84 Mets. For now, the Mets' role is unnamed and unfilled but hardly unnecessary.
With exception of Johan Santana, the Mets' rotation is not expected to pitch into the seventh inning often. And Jerry Manuel, still searching for a crossover reliever, is more apt than most managers to make mid-inning pitching changes. So the other relievers will be used regularly. Figueroa is one who can pitch four innings on Tuesday night when a starter isn't in control and innings 10-14 on Friday night. He saves the staff.
Manuel regards Figueroa as a "strike-thrower," no small consideration in camp that emphasized strikes since the outset. So this 12th-man competition is not one to be decided by default.
"Not everyone can handle the role," Manuel said weeks ago, speaking generally. "You need a guy with a resilient arm and a willingness to do what the team needs."
Figueroa fits those requirements.
"I'm willing to fill any role," he said at the drop of a cap.
His journeyman reputation evidently has not been a compelling factor in the Mets' assessment of what he can provide. His history with them -- a 6-8 record in parts of the past two seasons -- is more than marginally better than the 7-17 record he has produced in five other stops in the big leagues, with the Phillies, Pirates and Brewers.
But it's not terrific. If it were, Figueroa wouldn't be in position he's in. And he might be without a position.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.