Setup reliever still undecided for Manuel, Mets

The eighth-inning setup role has been a big question for the New

York Mets at spring training, and an answer doesn’t appear to be

coming any time soon.

Veteran pitcher Kelvim Escobar has spent time in both the

bullpen and starting rotation during his 12-year career and

appeared to be the front-runner for the job entering camp. But

Escobar arrived in Port St. Lucie with a weak shoulder and was shut

down last week.

Now, manager Jerry Manuel seems fixated on the organization’s

top prospect, right-hander Jenrry Mejia. The 20-year-old Mejia, who

has risen no higher than Double-A, has created a buzz this spring

with an electric fastball that has carried him through 5 1/3

shutout innings.

While the club prefers to develop Mejia in the minors for a

future starting role, Manuel can’t help but be intrigued.

“I like him a lot,” Manuel said. “For me, when you are that

dominant, you hope as you progress that you continue to see that

consistency. What he has to do is prove he can throw consistent

strikes. If he can do that, you’ve got somebody fighting for

him.”

Mejia began last season with the High-A St. Lucie Mets before

earning a promotion in June by going 4-1 with a 1.92 ERA. His 98

mph fastball could translate well into the eighth inning right now,

and Manuel is looking for someone who can throw strikes.

The young right-hander struck out 91 batters in 94 2-3 innings

combined between St. Lucie and Binghamton last year, though he went

just 0-5 with a 4.47 ERA in Double-A.

“If you can bring them along – back in the day you used to

bring them along in the bullpen – until there’s a comfort, then you

can go back and work on some things,” Manuel said. “For me, it’s

just as important for a guy to be comfortable at the big-league

level, to get that experience, whether it’s the bullpen or not.

Rather than wait and say `Here’s your starter,’ you still have to

get through that period of adjustment with the major leagues.”

Manuel admits he sees Mejia through a prism because of the dire

need for an eighth-inning guy, but said he probably wouldn’t start

him in that role right away. He’d like to ease him in, but then

that leaves the setup spot still up in the air for Opening Day.

Right-handed relievers Bobby Parnell and Ryota Igarashi, a

Japanese pitcher signed to a major-league contract, are candidates,

and former Marlins reliever Kiko Calero signed a minor-league deal

last week to enter the mix.

Igarashi, who signed a two-year, $3 million contract, appeared

to be the likely alternate to Escobar entering camp, but Manuel

would like to see more from him before making an assessment.

Igarashi has given up three hits and two runs in four innings with

two strikeouts in his three appearances this spring.

Parnell struggled in his first full season in the majors last

season, posting a 5.30 ERA with 74 strikeouts in 88.1 innings,

mainly out of the bullpen except for eight games as a fill-in

starter. He continues to work on his fastball location after

leaving too many pitches up the middle of the zone last year and

said he is ready to fill whatever role in which he’s needed.

“I’d like to help the team any way I can, and if that’s where

they need me in the eighth inning, that’s where I will be,”

Parnell said.

Calero has the same mentality, except his focus is on first

making the team. The 35-year-old right-hander had what he called

his best season while pitching for the Florida Marlins last year

when he compiled a 1.95 ERA in 67 relief appearances, striking out

69 batters and walking 30 in 60 innings.

Shoulder issues have been a concern ever since he tore his

rotator cuff in 2007, but he said he feels “great.” Calero missed

more than 50 games in 2008 and spent two weeks on the disabled list

last season because of inflammation in the shoulder. Calero has yet

to appear in a spring training game since signing.

“I came in here to try to make the team first and then I can

figure out sixth, seventh or eighth inning, whatever they say my

job is,” Calero said.

Manuel virtually eliminated the idea of a setup man by committee

early in camp and said the eighth-inning pitcher is the biggest

hole that needs to be filled.

“For me, that’s something I have to make sure I get out of in

spring training, is that I feel confident in that role,” Manuel

said.