NEW YORK -- A sense that their bullpen was lacking depth again has prompted the Mets to trade a starting pitcher for reinforcement relief. Less than a month after dealing Jae Seo, their best starting pitcher for a month late last summer, they have dealt their No. 3 starter as well.
Kris Benson was traded to the Orioles on Saturday in an exchange that imports right-handed reliever Jorge Julio -- formerly the Orioles' closer -- and a right-handed starting pitcher with a modest big-league resume, John Maine.
Thwarted in their attempts to acquire Danys Baez, the Mets turned to the Orioles to obtain a pitcher who clearly was an alternate on their wish list. The deal came eight days after the Devil Rays traded Baez to the Dodgers and several days after Mets came to understand that they had little chance of working a deal with the Dodgers for him.
Now, Julio is instead part of the Mets' almost totally remodeled and predominantly right-handed bullpen. He and Duaner Sanchez, the reliever acquired from the Dodgers in the Seo trade, are likely to be the setup men for Billy Wagner, the lone left-handed pitcher guaranteed a place in the 'pen.
General manager Omar Minaya didn't discount the possibility of Aaron Heilman retaining a relief role, but said Heilman -- who has expressed a preference to start -- would be considered for the vacancy in the rotation created by Benson's departure.
After the Seo-for-Sanchez deal, a member of the Mets' hierarchy said that Heilman could be moved to the rotation if Baez were acquired, but that Heilman pitching as a starter would increase the need for a left-handed relief specialist. That need persists.
Julio, who saved 83 games for the Orioles from 2002-2004, lost the closer assignment to B.J. Ryan last season and was used in setup relief. He produced a 3-5 record a 5.90 ERA in 67 appearances and 71 2/3 innings in his fourth big league season. Julio pitched a career-high 71 2/3 innings, surrendering 76 hits, 24 walks, striking out 58 and allowing only four of 24 inherited runners to score. He had no saves, but only two save opportunities.
Minaya also pointed out his new man has pitched well in winter ball. Julio has a 2-1 record with nine saves and a 2.12 ERA in 14 relief appearances for the Caracas Leones of the Venezuelan Winter League. In 17 innings, he has permitted 14 hits, struck out 16 and not allowed a walk.
Julio's Major League ERA has increased three straight years, from 1.99 in 2002, to 4.38 in 2003, to 4.57 in 2004, before last season's unbecoming number.
But Minaya, while acknowledging that Julio's command is "an issue," said the Mets like Julio's power arm, the 27-year-old Venezuelan pitcher "has resume" and the club thinks a park more pitcher-friendly than Camden Yard and a general change of scenery may help Julio.
Because of the trade, the Mets now have a potential arbitration case. Last week, Julio submitted a proposal for a $2.3 million salary; the Orioles' proposal -- which now will be the Mets' if the case goes to hearing -- was $2.8 million.
Maine, 24, made his Major League debut in 2004 and has a 2-4 record and 6.60 ERA in 11 appearances, nine of which were starts. Executives from three other clubs were mostly unimpressed with Maine, one suggesting Saturday that he isn't ready to take a regular turn in the rotation of a contender.
Minaya included him in a group of secondary starters as he discussed the fallout of the deal.
"To me, a lot of it has to do with numbers," the general manager said, speaking of the Mets' stable. "And we do have numbers."
He named Maine, Heilman, Triple-A pitcher Brian Bannister, Alay Soler, the Cuban defector who has pitched 5 1/3 innings -- in the Dominican last summer -- in professional baseball and Yusaku Iriki, the 33-year-old .500 career pitcher in Japan whom the Mets signed on Wednesday.
Because Minaya identified Victor Zambrano as "probably one of our starters," the fifth place in the rotation after Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine, Steve Trachsel and Zambrano will seemingly come from among Heilman, Soler, Maine, Bannister and Iriki.
Of the five, Heilman and Soler probably have the greatest chances at starting.
No matter who replaces Benson and Seo, the changes leave the Mets with numbers, but with comparatively limited experience. Benson and Seo have 231 Major League starts between them, a composite 79-85 record and a 4.14 ERA. The cumulative numbers of the other five reflect big-league pitching by only Heilman and Maine and yield 34 starts, a 21-26 record and a 5.00 ERA.
If Heilman pitches in the rotation, the Mets may be vulnerable to late-inning left-handed hitting. Left-handed setup relievers are hardly available in abundance.
The Mets had steadfastly said Heilman, who is right-handed, would be the reliever to handle left-handed batters because of his effective changeup.
The Mets have four left-handed relievers invited to camp, including veteran Darren Oliver, who was released twice last season, castoffs Matt Perisho and Mike Venafro as well as Pedro Feliciano, who had his moments in stops with the Mets in 2002, 2003 and 2004. The left-handed Royce Ring, who produced uneven results with the Mets last summer, remains on the club's 40-man roster. But none of the five can be considered a favorite.
The higher-profile relievers the club has acquired, other than Wagner, have been exclusively right-handed -- Sanchez, Chad Bradford, Steve Schmoll and now Julio -- and none has been effective against left-handed hitters.
Opponents batting left-handed against Julio last season produced a .281 batting average, .526 slugging percentage and hit nine home runs in 135 at-bats.
Benson had been made available early in the offsesason, and Jim Duquette -- the former Mets general manager who now works with Mike Flanagan in the baseball operations with the Orioles -- had interest in Benson almost from the time he assumed his new duties in November.
The Mets wanted Julio, but they coveted Baez. A person familiar with Saturday's trade said Baez's unavailability, more than the Orioles' inclusion of Maine, made the deal happen.
While Benson was a bit of a disappointment to the Mets -- partially because of injury -- he did win 10 games last season. Only Martinez (15) and Glavine (13) won more. Now, the Mets have to replace Benson's 10 victories and Seo's eight.
The club had seemingly moved away from dealing Benson. Earlier this week, one of its executives spoke of Benson's value, citing the relatively inexpensive contract the pitcher signed in November 2004. But when the Mets learned that Baez was not available, Benson was made available again.
The Orioles have happily assumed the remaining obligation of owning Benson -- $15.5 million for two seasons. Duquette, who has twice traded for Benson, called the contract "a slight bargain" Saturday.
Benson said he was disappointed to leave the Mets, but he anticipated working with Leo Mazzone, the Orioles' new pitching coach and coach of the Braves' brilliant pitching staffs of the last 15 years.
"I wouldn't have been surprised [by the trade] two months ago," Benson said. "But things had died down."
At the same time, Minaya acknowledged the trade had financial implications for the Mets. He said he now has greater maneuverability with the $15.5 million removed from the budget.