Going down to the wire
Mets to decide bench, bullpen spots after next two games
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Joe Smith doesn't even know which suitcase to pack, let alone which address to stamp on it. His future, unclear from the start of Spring Training, has remained in a haze since. That much isn't likely to change right now.
"I think I'm throwing the ball better, and I know I feel a lot better," Smith said. "But at the same time, I'm saying, 'What's going to happen?'"
The Mets don't know, either. Two exhibition games now remain, and manager Willie Randolph has made it clear that he's willing -- almost eager -- to use both of them. His decisions need perspective; these games will provide it.
Randolph on Thursday reiterated that he would wait until late this weekend before deciding on the three roster spots still up for grabs. That affects Smith, who's battling for the last spot in the bullpen, just as it affects Mike Pelfrey and Orlando Hernandez, each aiming for the fifth-starter's role. And it affects Brady Clark and Fernando Tatis, now the two remaining candidates for the one spot on the bench.
"It's part of my job," Randolph said. "Sometimes, it's a good thing when you have some depth and some surplus, and hopefully, you keep some of these guys. I like the competition. It's always good."
Though the fifth-starter's competition has seemed fairly straightforward -- aside from a few dark-horse candidates, Pelfrey and El Duque have been the main attractions -- the other two battles haven't boasted the same symmetry.
Smith, for one, was a long shot to make the team at the start of Spring Training, back when Duaner Sanchez appeared to be a lock to reclaim a spot. Now Sanchez seems overwhelmingly likely to start the season on the disabled list -- the Mets could make such a move retroactive to Thursday -- opening up one additional spot.
Steven Register also appeared to be a candidate before the Mets placed him on waivers and removed him from contention. So Smith's only remaining competition appears to be Brian Stokes, whom Randolph said on Wednesday he envisioned as a starter.
Even with 1 2/3 shutout innings on Thursday, Smith didn't necessarily boost his cause, entering the game with two men on base and allowing one to score. But he didn't cede another run, and appears to be in better shape than Stokes with only two Spring Training games remaining.
"You can't root against the guy," Smith said. "He's a good dude. We play golf together. But that's just the way the game is. You don't want to root against one of your buddies, but at the same time, I want to be there and he wants to be there."
Same goes for the bench battle, which the Mets have now whittled down to two contestants -- Clark and Tatis. Both can hit left-handed pitching, which one Mets official hinted was a prerequisite to win the job. And both can play multiple positions.
Though Tatis showed up to camp about a month late after enduring visa problems, the missed time doesn't seem to have hindered his chances of making the club. He's versatile -- he can back up any number of infield or outfield positions -- which might just give him the edge. That is, if there's an edge to be had in a race that's not yet complete.
For the record, Tatis finished 1-for-5 against the Braves on Thursday to drop his Grapefruit League average to .241. Clark finished 1-for-4 to drop his own mark to .298. Let the jury decide.
"It's been a good camp," Randolph said. "We've had some good competition. The fact that it's going down to the wire is good."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.