The Mets have a bunch of people vying for the fifth spot in their rotation.  The average fan looks at these guys and sees nothing to get excited about.  But they should provide better than average production for fifth starters, which will be a nice upgrade for the club.

The Mets continued to add to their pitching depth by signing veteran hurler Livan Hernandez to a minor league deal with an invitation to Spring Training.  Hernandez went 13-11 with a 6.05 ERA between the Twins and the Rockies last year.  While some of you might groan with this signing, I think it is a nice low-risk move for the club.

The Mets have Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey, John Maine and Oliver Perez as rotation locks.  They now have five pitchers vying for the final spot of the rotation.  The favorite is probably Tim Redding, but there is also Freddy Garcia, Jon Niese, Robert Parnell and now Hernandez fighting for the job.

Competition is good.  But just as importantly, this creates depth.  Last year the Mets were remarkably healthy with their starting rotation.  Yes, both Pedro Martinez and John Maine missed time, but their five starters combined to make 145 starts, which tied for the most in the National League last season.  It is unreasonable to expect that type of health two years in a row.

Well, you might be thinking that depth is nice but that this collection of pitchers the Mets have for depth, well, stink.  But I would counter that your expectations for a fifth starter are out of whack with reality.

Chris Jaffe did some research a few years back comparing the output of fifth starters for every club in both the American and National Leagues in 2005 and 2006.  Here is what the average fifth starters produced in that time frame:

.382 winning percentage

78 ERA+

170 IP

Last year, the Mets fifth starter was basically Pedro Martinez.  His final line was a 5.61 ERA (ERA+ of 75), 5-6 record (.455 winning percentage) and 109 IP.  So, if Martinez had pitched more innings and traded one of his wins for a loss, he would have been a textbook case of an average fifth starter, according to Jaffe’s research.

So, let’s take a look at what some of our candidates did last year in the majors.

Garcia 106 .500 15
Hernandez 69 .542 180
Redding 89 .476 182

Redding, the favorite heading into Spring Training, gives the Mets better than average production for a fifth starter in all three categories.  One gets the feeling the Mets would love it if Garcia won the job this Spring.  In his last full year in 2006, Garcia had an ERA+ of 105, his winning percentage was .654 and he threw 216.1 IP.

Anyway, let’s check what the Bill James projection system forecasts for our three veteran pitchers:

Record ERA IP
Garcia 10-9 4.05 168
Hernandez 8-9 4.90 150
Redding 7-12 5.01 168

None of these projections were made with the pitchers on the Mets.

Any of these three pitchers, if they match these projections, would be an upgrade on what Martinez gave the club last year.  They also would be an improvement, in at least one category, for what Jaffe showed an average fifth starter to be.

And the veterans’ presence allows Niese and Parnell to begin the year in the minors, where they really belong.  Niese has pitched just 39.2 innings at Triple-A, while Parnell has pitched only 20.1 at that level.

Ideally, the Mets have one of their three veterans in the rotation, another working long relief in the bullpen and another waiting for a shot with Niese and Parnell in Triple-A.  And if one of these five hurlers is the worst Mets pitcher this season, that will be a good thing.

It sure beats Tony Armas or Dave Williams or Jose Lima.