Maine will have to earn role

Mets aren't ready to name Maine No. 3 just yet

PORT ST. LUCIE, FLA. -- None of the assigned parking spaces has his No. 33. But his newly-located locker is there on Pitchers' Row. As John Maine sat on the stool Thursday, Tom Glavine's locker was to his right and the locker of Oliver Perez was to his left. The lockers of El Duque and Pedro Martinez were nearby.

So Maine knows where he parks -- "Some place out there" -- and where he sits. Where he stands, with the first official workout of the Mets' Spring Training still two days away, isn't quite so clear to him.

General manager Omar Minaya last week acknowledged that, because of their performances during the postseason last year, Maine and Oliver Perez have "a leg up" on the other candidates intent on filling the vacancies in the rotation. Maine isn't sure what that means. And manager Willie Randolph has yet to identify anyone as the man who follows Glavine and El Duque in the sequence of starters.

The location of his locker indicates equipment manager Charlie Samuels anticipates Maine will be in the sequence of starters come April.

"But I don't think Charlie has a say in it," Maine said. "I don't think I'm guaranteed anything."

The composition of the rotation is the most critical issue for defending champions of the National League East as they assemble for the first official Spring Training workout Saturday morning. Chances are it still will be the most critical issue come March 31 when they flee Florida.

Maine is the man in the middle, hardly the certainty Glavine and El Duque are, and less an uncertainty than the members of the army of alternates -- Perez, Chan Ho Park, Mike Pelfrey, Jorge Sosa, Philip Humber, Jason Vargas, Aaron Sele and Alay Soler. Maine sits on the fence in how the Mets speak of him and how he speaks of himself.

In one breath, the club notes his postseason resume as proof of some degree of readiness for regular duty. In the next, a spoken need for starters pitching into the seventh and eighth innings is expressed.

The resume shows Maine made three starts in October, won once, didn't lose and pitched merely 13 2/3 innings. His 15 regular-season starts produced merely 89 innings. Randolph learned to remove him quickly at the first indication of ineffectiveness or fatigue. Maine completed the seventh inning twice, the eighth and ninth once each -- in his four-hit shutout of the Astros on July 21.

"I didn't get tired too many times," he said.

Running out of gas?
An inning-by-inning look at John Maine's starts during 2006.
Inning
Opponent's
batting average
Maine's
ERA
First
.214
1.80
Second
.106
0.60
Third
.122
1.20
Fourth
.254
6.00
Fifth
.236
8.59*
* Six of the 15 home runs Maine allowed last season came in the fifth inning.

Maybe not, but the production against him suggests Maine loses effectiveness as he gets deeper into his starts. Opponents batted .151 and .222 against him, respectively, in his first two turns through the battng order. The composition average for all subsequent hitters was .299.

And by inning, a dropoff was more evident.

The numbers suggest Maine is better suited to pitch in short relief, a notion Minaya shared last spring before Maine produced a 6-5 record and 3.60 ERA in 16 games -- 15 starts -- and 90 innings in his first Mets season.

No such reassignment is in the offing, though Aaron Heilman would gladly trade places with Maine.

The Mets believe Maine lacks confidence -- a conclusion, they say, was confirmed in his poor performance against the Cardinals Aug 22. "They got in his head," a Mets coach said. "His stuff was still good."

Yet they club won't even speak the words that might bolster his confidence -- "You're No. 3."

"There's no need to make anybody No. 3 right now," Minaya said last week. "Let's let them compete and see how it plays out.

"John Maine is a quality arm who is going to help us win this year. That's enough for now."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.