Heilman's push to change roles has received two important endorsements. Pitching coach Dan Warthen said, "I'm all for Aaron coming to Spring Training as a starter."
The other came from manager Jerry Manuel, who said, "For Aaron's benefit and for us as a team, we have to explore that option."
But there was no indication that general manager Omar Minaya shared that sense or that he had revised or would revise his offseason shopping list to reflect a change of role for Heilman. There is, however, a strong sense among some members of the Mets' hierarchy, COO Jeff Wilpon among them, that dealing Heilman would be foolish, because as one of them said, "You can't give up an arm like that."
Word of Heilman's preference was reported in the New York Daily News on Thursday, some seven weeks after the veteran reliever and the Mets completed respectively disappointing seasons.
"The object the entire time has never been to get out of New York," agent Mark Rodgers was quoted as having said. "The object is to get out of the bullpen."
The agent wasn't quoted as saying Heilman's preferences had been expressed to the club, but a person with knowledge of the situation indicated Thursday the request had been made some time ago in either-or phrasing -- start me or trade me, a variation on the time-honored "play me or trade me" theme.
"No doubt, to be a starter in New York would be the greatest thing," Heilman said on Thursday night from his home near Chicago. "It would be ideal."
Heilman has been steadfast, though mostly silent, about his desire to pitch as a starter, discussing it only when asked about it.
"It's really nothing new," he said. "It hasn't changed in three years."
A starter almost exclusively in the Mets' Minor League system, Heilman has been a critical component of the bullpen since early in the 2005 season. His 25th and most recent starting assignment for the big league team came on May 15, 2005, one month after he pitched a one-hitter against the Marlins.
Now, after a season in which he fell into disfavor and then into disuse, Heilman wants to be used in a role he considers better suited for his skills, and for the first time, he has reinforced his request with an expressed willingness to leave the organization that developed him if his request isn't accommodated.
The Mets routinely had said they believed he was best suited to pitch in relief and, through the end of the season, given no indication that they intended to move him to the rotation. But Warthen and Manuel have replaced Rick Peterson and Willie Randolph, the tandem that favored Heilman as a reliever. That change, Heilman's restated preference, his poor performance as a reliever last season, the team's need for starting pitching and Wilpon's reluctance to trade the pitcher could foster a change of assignment.
The person familiar with the situation said Minaya is aware of Heilman's preference, but he was uncertain when Minaya was told and who delivered the message. The general manager, who underwent knee surgery this week, did not return telephone calls on Thursday.
Because he was the Mets' primary "crossover" pitcher -- a pitcher used against right-handed and left-handed hitters -- his ineffectiveness affected the bullpen more than the shortfall of any other reliever. It forced Randolph, and later, Manuel, to make more pitching changes. And more appearances and more times throwing in the bullpen wore down the relief corps and contributed to its poor overall performance.
Other players have suggested Heilman would benefit from a change of assignment or employer and that the abuse of Shea Stadium fans had worked against him being successful.
Moreover, a physical problem developed. After a loss in September, Manuel disclosed that Heilman had pitched much of the season troubled by patellar tendinitis, a malady that affected his landing leg, restricted his conditioning and non-game throwing, and reduced the sharpness of his pitches. Heilman since has undergone a noninvasive ultrasound treatment that has reduced the pain in his knee.
The problem may have contributed to his home run count, the highest since his rookie season, and a continued and startling decline in one category that reinforces the sense that his pitches lacked sink. Opposing batters grounded into one double play in the 76 innings Heilman pitched in 2008. The corresponding figures for the previous three seasons were 13 in 108 innings in 2005, eight in 87 innings in '06 and four in 86 innings in '07.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less