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.