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Viva Livan!

By Jason Levy

Coming into Spring Training, there was an open competition for the New York Mets’ fifth starter spot. And it is all but certain now that the last horse in the race is the last one left standing as cagey veteran Livan Hernandez will win the job, beating out youngster Jon Neise and fellow veteran imports Freddy Garcia and Tim Redding. Many Mets fans out there are bemoaning the choice, not inspired by half brother of former Met Orlando Hernandez. But they are sorely mistaken. Hernandez could be the quiet innings-eater who could take a lot of the burden off the rest of the staff.
Fifth starters on any team don’t need to be the savior of a team, they just need to be effective and low maintenance. Livan has been just that since bursting on the scene in 1997 with the Florida Marlins, leading them to the World Series. He has reached at least 10 wins in all but one season (1999) since becoming a full time starter in 1998. Last year his numbers took a slight slide, it was the first season since 1999 that he didn’t exceed 30 starts or 200 innings pitched. But he was still effective for the Minnesota Twins and Colorado Rockies, winning 13 games. To put that in perspective, 2008 was the first season since 2000 that the Mets had four starters win at least 10 games (all five won at least 10 en route to the winning the National League) so if Livan can just stick to his career averages in 2009, the Mets will be getting a lot more out of the fifth spot than they have the rest of the decade. Any team in the majors would take 190 innings, 12 wins, 130 strikeouts and a 4.40 ERA from their fifth starter. And those would be slightly off of Livan’s career averages.
And as any baseball fan knows, over the course of 162 games your team will have more than five pitchers start a game. Injuries, rainouts, doubleheaders and off days all figure in sorting out a rotation, and it’s very likely that Neise, Redding, Garcia or others may get a shot to win a few games for the Mets. Neise would probably be the first to get a chance should the Mets need an extra arm, and is being groomed for a starting role in the future. So any fans clamoring to see a fifth starter not named Livan, they will get their chance.
But the Mets need a veteran like Livan on their rotation also to help with the kids in the middle of the rotation. John Maine, Mike Pelfrey, and Oliver Perez (especially Ollie) can use all the tutoring and mentorship they can get. We’ve all seen their flashes of brilliance, but have also had our hearts broken by them at the most inopportune times. Being around stalwarts like Livan and Johan Santana should only help their improvement. Plus you don’t want your staff to be overly reliant on youngsters that are still finding their game. It helps to have a veteran who knows how to get the job done.
Now a lot of the Mets fans are thinking that everything that Livan can provide could be provided by a familiar and loveable face that will end up in Cooperstown one day, former Mets pitcher Pedro Martinez. Every Mets fan has a soft spot in their heart for Pedro. His signing after the 2004 season brought life back to the organization. It helped in bringing fellow Latin superstar Carlos Beltran to Flushing. It made the Mets a team to watch again. Shea Stadium buzzed with excitement whenever he pitched. But his Mets glory was short lived. He broke down at the end of the 2006 season and missed the playoffs. He missed almost the entire 2007 season, and couldn’t get out of his first start in 2008 without a two-month injury. And after his return he was mostly ineffective. Pedro was dominant almost in spite of his body, and it would only be a matter of time before it broke down. He won 15 games for the Mets in 2005, and 17 total in the three years after that. He looked good in his short WBC stint and may still pitch with the Mets in 2009, but it’s difficult to argue that he would be better than Livan at this point.
There are a lot of variables to the Mets season yet to play out. How will Pelfrey do now that he is expected to win? Can Maine hold up physically? Can Ollie hold up mentally? Can Daniel Murphy be an everyday player? Which Ryan Church will show up? Which Carlos Delgado will show up? Does Luis Castillo have anything left? Does David Wright have more clutch hits in him after his WBC heroics? Can J.J. Putz be an eighth inning guy? Will the rest of the bullpen be any better than the last two years? Finding a starting pitcher that wouldn’t start in October just might be the easiest of those questions to answer. Livan Hernandez should help a lot of Mets fans breathe easier every fifth day.

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