Smith, Sele to join Park in bullpen
Korean righty would rather start; Pelfrey likely No. 5 starter
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The Mets' 2007 bullpen, likely to be a state of flux into the summer, on Saturday appears to have a semblance of definition for the first time. With the first game of the season slightly more than a week away, the club has decided to use Chan Ho Park, a starter by trade, in short relief and to carry rookie Joe Smith and veteran Aaron Sele on the season-opening roster.
At the same time, the plans for Park and Sele almost certify Mike Pelfrey as the No. 5 starting pitcher -- behind Tom Glavine, Orlando Hernandez, John Maine and Oliver Perez.
The Mets' bullpen seemingly would have Billy Wagner closing, Aaron Heilman and possibly Park as the respective eighth- and seventh-inning setup relievers, Scott Schoeneweis and Pedro Feliciano as left-handed specialists, Smith as a right-handed specialist and Sele as the long reliever.
Nothing has been "etched in stone," manager Willie Randolph said on Saturday, and no official announcement regarding the pitching staff has been made. General manager Omar Minaya would not even acknowledge that Maine or Perez is in the rotation.
What Randolph did say is, "Right now, [Park] is going to be in the bullpen," and that Park, Smith and Sele can pitch in long or short relief.
But players became aware Saturday morning of specific plans made in a meeting of manager, general manager, coaches and instructors on Friday night. And those plans, the players said, include using Park and Smith in short relief and Sele in long relief, and they exclude relievers Ambiorix Burgos and Jorge Sosa.
And a person with first-hand knowledge of club's intent regarding the bullpen said late Saturday "nothing is defined," but characterized the specific plans for Park, Smith and Sele as "in the ballpark."
The first phase of the plan was implemented during the Mets' home exhibition against the Orioles when Park, to his surprise and anger, was removed after pitching three flawless innings in a start and told his subsequent assignment would be as a reliever on Monday.
Park, Randolph and pitching coach Rick Peterson met in Randolph's office after the Mets' 2-1 loss to the Orioles that included another impressive performance by Smith. Minaya, after a subsequent meeting with Randolph, Peterson and owner Fred Wilpon, said Park had told the club he would do what's best for the team. The general manager acknowledged Park wasn't comfortable with the plan and said that was "understandable."
Before meeting with his manager and pitching coach, Park said, "Obviously, if they ask me to be a reliever, I'm unhappy," and "If they ask me to be a reliever the whole year, I'll have to think about it."
And a person who was in the clubhouse directly after Park's surprise removal from the game said the 33-year-old Korean pitcher was "really ticked off" about not being told of the plan before his start. Whether his anger had subsided after his meeting was unclear. Park declined to speak with reporters a second time and left the complex.
Randolph said he intends to use Park in as many as three of the Mets' final six exhibition games to allow him to adjust to the role. The manager didn't say Park would definitely be in the bullpen, but another person familiar with the manager's thinking said, "This isn't an experiment, because we know what we want to do."
Park made four relief appearances -- and 30 starts -- with the Padres in 2005 and '06. All but one of his other 45 relief appearances came in 1994, '95 and '96, with the Dodgers. He also pitched in relief against the Cardinals in the National League Division Series last season.
Minaya noted Park had pitched effectively in relief for Korea in the World Baseball Classic last year. Quite effectively, actually -- one five-inning start and three relief appearances in which he totaled five innings. He allowed no runs and seven hits and struck out eight in the 10 innings.
"To be honest, I feel more comfortable as a starter. That's who I am," Park said. "Yes, I have experience as a reliever and I had success. But I signed here looking for a job as a starter. That's for sure."
Park acknowledged he had one poor performance -- he had made three starts, pitched 9 1/3 innings and produced an 8.86 ERA before Saturday -- and said, "I feel much better now ... I'm sure I'm going to have a great season as a starter."
A need to use Park in a role mostly unfamiliar to him -- and to carry a rookie in Smith -- has developed because neither Duaner Sanchez nor Juan Padilla has recovered fully from his surgery and because Burgos and Sosa, birds of a feather because of their potential, velocity and lack of precision, have not pitched effectively in exhibition games. At one point early in Spring Training, a member of the staff said Sanchez, the incumbent reliever, was expected to begin the season on the active roster and that Burgos, a trade acquisition, would "have to pitch himself off the team." He has done that, evidently.
Moreover, Smith's performance has dispelled much of the concern about his lack of experience and pushed him past Sosa and Burgos in the Mets' eyes. Smith, who turned 23 on Thursday, had pitched merely 32 2/3 innings -- all last summer, after his selection in the third round of the First-Year Player Draft -- as a professional before Spring Training. But he has impressed the staff at almost every turn.
Smith pitched the fourth inning against the Orioles on Saturday, allowing a leadoff hit and striking out two. A left-handed hitter, Adam Stern, was responsible for the hit. And left-handed hitters often are nemeses for right-handed, sub-sidearm pitchers like Smith. But after retiring right-handed-hitting Chris Gomez, Smith struck out two left-handed hitters -- Nick Markakis swinging and Aubrey Huff looking with fastballs.
"I had real good movement today," Smith said.
And his catcher, Paul Lo Duca, didn't argue.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.