PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Workhorse left-handers Pedro Feliciano and Hisanori Takahashi departed the New York Mets as free agents, receiving two-year, $8 million deals from the Yankees and Angels, respectively.
So just who will bridge the gap from the starting rotation to closer Francisco Rodriguez in 2011?
And who will not only match Feliciano's success against National League East left-handed batters, but also duplicate his durability?
Those are major questions manager Terry Collins must determine in spring training.
Feliciano set franchise records for appearances in three straight years -- 86 in 2008, 88 in 2009 and 92 last season -- while having success against the Phillies' top left-handed hitters. Ryan Howard has a .194 career average against Feliciano. Chase Utley's career average is .222. They have a combined three homers in 72 at-bats.
"When you've had a guy that's pitched in 90 games two or three or four years in a row, do we have that kind of a guy? I hope so," Collins said. "I really hope that he's in this camp. And Takahashi obviously did a great job coming out of the bullpen last year."
Carrasco, who went a combined 3-2 with a 3.68 ERA in 63 relief appearances with the Pirates and Diamondbacks last season, received the only multiyear deal given to a free agent by general manager Sandy Alderson during the offseason -- two years, $2.4 million.
Parnell opened last season at Triple-A Buffalo, received a June call-up and ultimately went 0-1 with a 2.83 ERA in 41 appearances before being shut down with two weeks remaining in the season because of an inflamed plica in his right elbow.
"I've talked to Bobby already," Collins said. "Carrasco is going to get us to him. He's going to get us to K-Rod."
As for who will retire the division's lefty hitters, Collins said having a specific lefty-on-lefty specialist is overrated. Still, the Mets signed a pair of left-handers to minor league deals: ex-Marlin Taylor Tankersley and ex-Astro Tim Byrdak. Tankersley has held lefty batters to a .223 average over parts of four major league seasons. Byrdak has held lefty batters to a .202 average over nine major league seasons.
Collins also advised not to discount former Nationals left-hander Mike O'Connor, who spent last season entirely with Triple-A Buffalo.
"What I saw last year in Triple-A, all he did was get people out," Collins said of O'Connor. "He's got a little different delivery and throws all of his pitches for strikes. We're going to give him a shot."
Added third baseman David Wright: "I think sometimes it gets a little overrated as far as the matchups go with lefty-lefty, righty-righty. If you've got a righty that can go out there and get lefties out, I don't think that's too big of a deal. But we've got some lefties that can fill that role as far as going out there and attacking some pretty good left-handed hitters.
"The biggest thing that people don't mention much is that we still with Frankie [Rodriguez] at the end of that bullpen have got one of the better closers in the league shoring up the ninth. So if we could just bridge that gap and have some guys step up, that's really when you get a good bullpen -- when you get a little mix of those homegrown guys and then go out there and have some hidden gems that you bring into camp."
Rodriguez's legal situation stemming from striking his girlfriend's father at Citi Field is resolved, assuming the closer attends mandated weekly anger-management sessions for a year, including during spring training in Florida.
The closer made a pair of appearances in the Venezuelan winter league after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb, so the biggest question with K-Rod will be whether he finishes 55 games. If Rodriguez reaches that total -- which he achieved five straight seasons before 2010 -- his contract will kick in for $17.5 million for 2012. Otherwise, the Mets owe him a $3.5 million buyout in addition to his $11.5 million salary for this season.
Collins indicated he did not know yet whether the Mets will carry six or seven relievers -- since it directly affects whether the Mets carry five or six bench players. But given teams more often go with seven-man bullpens, and given the Mets' starting rotation might not go deep into games (particularly with Chris Young and Chris Capuano yet to reestablish themselves following surgeries), seven seems like a safer bet.
If that's the case, who gets the nods beyond K-Rod, Parnell and Carrasco?
Right-hander Taylor Buchholz went 1-0 with a 3.75 ERA in nine appearances with the Rockies and Blue Jays last season after missing all of the previous year due to Tommy John surgery. An elite setup man in 2008 with Colorado, he would be logical as a fourth member of the relief corps.
Tankersley, Byrdak or O'Connor could emerge as No. 5 and the lefty specialist.
In a seven-man 'pen, that leaves room for a long reliever, potentially left-hander Pat Misch, who is out of options and would need to clear waivers to be sent to the minors.
And if all that materializes, one spot remains for a large field that includes Rule 5 pick Pedro Beato, Ryota Igarashi (owed $1.75 million in 2011), Manny Acosta, Oliver Perez and the other two left-handers from that specialist competition.
The Mets have indicated Jenrry Mejia is poised to open the season in Buffalo's rotation to develop as a starting pitcher.
"That's what the camp is going to be about -- the competition for those last few spots," Collins said.