The Great Debate

by JeffMoore

With all due respect to the 1949 classic, there’s something else that’s been happening every spring.  Each year, a young pitcher, usually already promoted as a future star, comes to Spring Training and wows big league veterans, coaches, and scouts with blazing fastballs, commanding presence, and dominating performances in games that have no meaning and bullpen sessions that have no audience.  Rumors fly and chatter fills the air.  Unfair and undeserved comparisons loom on the horizon, ones which no prospect could ever fulfill.  And eventually someone comes out and says it – that this young player, probably not yet even of legal drinking age, could make the team.  He could be a major leaguer right now.

THE SITUATION

This spring’s version of our annual conundrum comes to us in the form of Jenrry Mejia of the New York Mets.  A little background on Mejia:

  • Turned 20-years-old after the 2009 season
  • Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2007
  • Is the top prospect in the Mets’ farm system (according to Baseball America)
  • Has been primarily a starter in the minors, and used exclusively as one the past two seasons
  • Made 19 starts in 2009 – 9 in High-A and 10 in Double-A.  ERA in A+ was 1.97, ERA in Double-A was 4.47
  • In 210 career IP, has 205 K’s and 92 walks
  • Best pitch is a cut fastball that has slider-like action, but sits in the mid-90’s

Mejia has undoubtedly lit it up in Mets’ camp this spring.  He has a 1.93 ERA in 9 1/3 IP in relief this spring, striking out 8 batters and walking only 1.  From his first bullpen session, Mets’ manager Jerry Manuel has been gushing over the young pitcher, essentially using the media as an outlet to justify (and at times publically beg) why Mejia could help the team right now.

Further, the comparisons to baseball royalty such as Doc Gooden and Mariano Rivera have left Mejia with no choice but to leave Mets fans disappointed.  I assume if he were in Cleveland he’d be the second coming of Bob Feller, or in our nation’s capital, he’d be the reincarnation of Walter Johnson.

Manuel wants to keep Mejia in the majors to start the season, using him in the bullpen.  He has gone so far as to publically envision Mejia setting up for closer Francisco Rodriguez, saying “They may follow each other down there.”

So, the age old question is upon us.  Should the Mets keep Mejia in the major league bullpen, possibly solidifying a major weakness at the major league level, but at the same time possibly stunting the growth of a potential frontline starter down the road?

THE MOST RECENT EXAMPLE

When was the last time we saw a top pitching prospect with no major league experience dominate with virtually one pitch and work his way into a major league bullpen despite being a career starter in the minors?

Please New Yorkers, expand your horizons for just a second.  Not everything’s about you.

This situation is eerily similar to the career progression of Neftali Feliz, and the situation the Rangers had to deal with last season.  Entering last spring, Feliz was the top prospect in the Rangers’ system and sported a blazing fastball that was baffling veteran hitters.  He had 198 2/3 career minor league innings (to Mejia’s 210 IP) and to that point, the overwhelming majority of them had come as a starter.  Feliz did not make the team out of Spring Training, but was sent to Triple-A where he was a starter until late June.  It was decided that Feliz’s services would soon be needed in the major league bullpen, whereby Feliz began to pitch in relief, making 12 minor league appearances before his big league promotion.  His performance in the majors for the final two months of the season was nothing short of dominant, and he did it primarily with his blazing fastball.

Where does that put Feliz now?  Possibly back in the minor leagues.  The Rangers still haven’t decided how they want to use Feliz, but they know that if he’s going to start, his off-speed pitches still need refinement.  Considering he threw his fastball 70% of the time once he reached the majors, it’s hard to imagine his off-speed pitches got a whole lot of work after August (or perhaps even after June).

WHAT THIS IS NOT

This is not “The Joba-Situation” pre-2008.  And there are three main differences.

  1. Both Feliz and Mejia were/are younger – Joba was already 22 while Feliz was not quite 21 and Mejia is just over 20.  Those are important years in pitcher development.
  2. Joba had already pitched in the majors, showing us in 24 dominant innings what he was capable in the bullpen.  We think Mejia can do something like that out there, and we assumed at the time that Feliz could too (and turned out to be right), but we don’t know squat.
  3. By all accounts, Chamberlain was such a highly rated prospect because his off-speed pitches were almost as deadly as his fastball.  A quote from the 2008 Baseball America prospect handbook about Chamberlain:

“Scouts chuckle with delight discussing Chamberlain’s raw stuff, and several give him 70 or 80 grades on the 20-80 scouting scale for three different pitches…He also commands two breaking balls—a mid-80s slider with depth and a nasty power curveball in the low 80s. Both are strikeout pitches.”

By comparison, here’s what Baseball America said about Feliz just last year (when he was the #10 overall prospect in the game):

“Sometimes Feliz drops his arm slot, causing his stuff to flatten out. He’s still fine-tuning his breaking ball, which at times becomes a slurve. The pitch was suspect early in the season at Clinton, but he made strides with it later in the year. He slows down his arm action at times with his changeup, and the Rangers still have to force him to throw it.”

And Mejia this year:

“Mejia’s slider needs a lot of work. He throws it with an inconsistent release point and arm speed, often leaving it up in the strike zone. He sometimes throws his changeup too hard and doesn’t achieve enough separation from his fastball.”

Now these are all common criticisms of young pitchers, especially those with plus-fastballs, but it’s an important difference that separates Mejia from type of prospect Joba was, and puts him much more in the category of Feliz.

WHAT TO DO

So with all the information at hand, what should the Mets do?  It is easy for Manuel to push for Mejia, but he is hardly an impartial judge.  After all, a shoddy bullpen could spell trouble for the Mets, and after last season, Manuel may not survive another long summer in Queens.  If he thinks Mejia can help now, he’d be crazy not to push for him.  After all, who says he’ll be around to reap the benefits of a properly developed young pitcher?

There is also no guarantee that pitching in the Mets’ bullpen his season will stunt Mejia’s growth.  He could learn some valuable lessons in the majors, an argument Manuel recently made in defense of keeping him around.

But the more likely scenario is one closer to that of Feliz.  Despite his dominating relief performance last season, spending two-thirds of the season pitching in relief took away valuable time for Feliz to throw more breaking pitches.  The same will be true of Mejia if he spends his season out in the Mets’ bullpen.  Could he have success?  Absolutely.  But at some point, if Mejia is to be a starter, he’s going to have to throw more than his fastball, and he won’t learn how to do that at Citi Field.

The Rangers tried to avoid temptation and let Feliz develop, but the chance at a playoff spot was too much to give up.  Now they may have to send Feliz back to the minors to finish his refinement.  If the Mets are willing to send Mejia back down in 2011 to complete the progress he should be making in 2010, then so be it.  But it seems more likely that once the relief role is selected for a pitcher, making the transition back becomes that much more difficult.

Finally, if Mejia is sent back to become a starter, what’s the worst thing that can happen (not including an injury, which could happen in either role at either level)?  Worst-case scenario, Mejia never develops as a starter and the Mets’ bullpen is missing one piece all season, and Mejia ends up in the bullpen anyway in 2011 or 2012, but 2010 is another “what could have been” season for the Mets.  From Manuel’s standpoint, this is his worst nightmare, and one that could end with him unemployed.  But is there really any long-term risk for player or team in sending Mejia back to the minors for another season?  The reward is a possible frontline starter, but the risk is that the Mets have to wait one more year for a dominant set-up man.  They risk having a bad bullpen this year, something that could happen with or without Mejia.

It seems obvious in this case that the reward greatly outweighs the risk.

Jeff Moore is the creator of MLB Prospect Watch, your one-stop site for following prospects.  If it happens on the farm, it happens here!

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29 Responses to “The Great Debate”

  1. Hossrex Says:

    I think if Jenrry Mejia works hard, and dedicates himself, someday he might be as good as Steven Strasberg.

  2. brautigan Says:

    Let the Yankees be your guide: Do NOT do what they did with Chamberlain.

    My belief is, if you’re good enough to be a major league pitcher, what better lab to work in than at a major league ballpark.

  3. Richard Says:

    The Mets have more to worry about in 2010 than the destination of a Double-A pitcher with a 4.47 ERA. I understand the upside, and the great stuff, and even the miniscule spring ERA, but maybe the reason the Mets have digressed so far in so little time has more to do with (mis)management wistfully hoping for a 20-year old set-up man and hoping to groom the next Matt Thornton, rather than trying to be patient with him, work on his arm slots, work on his command, and groom him to be the next Santana, Johan OR Ervin.

    How about another (at least) 2-4 weeks without both Beltran and Reyes? How about David Wright’s mental problem with hitting at Citi Field? How about Oliver Perez’s “Stuff Like Randy Johnson, Mind Like Spongebob?” Who’s the fifth starter?

    I liked the article, and love the fact we’re talking about prospects. Jennry Mejia has special stuff, and may indeed grow to be a key factor for the 2011 or 2012 Mets. But let’s let the kid develop.

  4. Alex S Says:

    The Mets potential bullpen sports two different types of pitchers: specialists, and long relievers. There is no guy in the ‘pen, besides K-Rod, that can come in for one inning and dominate it. The Mets bullpen has too many guys suited to the role of long reliever, a reliever who comes in for a few innings if the starter leaves early, and specialists, guys who pitch to one or two batters per game.

    Mejia, fills the role of one or two dominant innings, aka, setup man.

    Figueroa, Nieve, and H. Takahashi are the long relief types, soft-tossing Glavine-esque pitchers that are actually starting pitchers.

    Green, Feliciano, and any no-name lefty like Blackeley, Niesen, or A. Lopez, are specialists. Feliciano is probably the closest to being the most reliable setup man, and he throws 88mph. Besides, he has the defined role of Howard/Utley/Ibanez specialist. Green, was kind of in the running for setup man, but his spring stats disagree.

    Those that are/were in the running for setup man include Escobar, Calero, Igarashi, and Parnell. Escobar got injured, Calero isn’t making good progress, Igarashi is an unknown, and Parnell has not shown consistency.

    That leaves the one guy who has been consistently spectacular all spring: Jenrry “two Rs” Mejia.

  5. Hartvig Says:

    I know Earl Weaver always liked to have his starters put in a year or 2 in the bullpen before moving into the rotation & it seemed to work pretty well for him. I can’t think of any current major league manager who’s done that on a regular basis. But of course, most of them came to the majors after being starters in the minors. So maybe it does make sense to send Feliz & Mejia back down.

  6. Chuck Says:

    Did any of you see Mejia pitch in the Arizona Fall League?

    I did.

    He was arguably the worst pitcher in the league.

    http://mlb.mlb.com/milb/stats/stats.jsp?sid=l119&lid=119&t=l_pit

    Combine his Double A numbers with his AFL numbers and you have a pretty good sample size.

    He is no where close to being a ML caliber pitcher, even for a fustercluck staff like the Mets.

    Mejia’s not even in the same conversation stuff wise with Neftali Feliz.

    Joba is one of the more overrated pitchers draft-wise in the last ten, fifteen years, easily. If he’s drafted by anyone but the Yankees only his Mommy knows who he is..comparing anyone to him is an embarrassment to YOU, not to him.

    Seriously, I’m an idiot.

    Don’t listen to me.

    Just look at the last 58.2 IP Mejia threw last year between Double A and the AFL.

  7. Raul Says:

    14.1 innings, 13 walks, 25 hits, 20 earned runs.

    Damn.

  8. Jim Says:

    Why would you want to screw up the development of a young pitcher, who at present, projects as a quality starter, just to use him as a reliever on a team who might be out of contention on Memorial Day? Except of course, Jerry Manuel is worried about his job.

    If Mejia were 24-25 and he’d pretty much accomplished everything in the minors that he could then maybe. But a 20 yo with great but inconsistent stuff, to AA with you son.

  9. Patrick Says:

    Chuck’s post was illuminating. I usually think a guy like Mejia should be in the bullpen, learning on the big stage with the ML coaches, but only after he dominates the AFL or the minors.

    If your name isn’t Mariano Rivera, there is no reason to put a kid in the majors who has only one major league pitch.

  10. brautigan Says:

    This morning, I looked up Mejia’s numbers. Yup, he SHOULD begin the season in AA. No way is he ready for the big stage.

    I just knew Chuck would be on this……….

  11. Chuck Says:

    Another thing about him which is a concern..at least for me.

    6′0″ 162.

    Not very big for a power pitcher.

    Sure, Pedro wasn’t very big either, (although he was bigger than Mejia) but there’s only been one Pedro.

  12. Hossrex Says:

    Patrick: “I usually think a guy like Mejia should be in the bullpen, learning on the big stage with the ML coaches, but only after he dominates the AFL or the minors.

    Pitchers who’re projecting to be major league starters need to make 100 actual game pitches every fifth day. This is fundamentally important.

    In theory (and Chuck will clearly shoot this down), minor league coaches are more able to work with kids. More willing to develop talent, than simply work on talent (there’s a difference).

    If Mejia comes up to the big club, and works out of the pen, it’s because the club has lost faith in his abilities to start.

  13. brautigan Says:

    It was interesting how Detroit handled Rick Porcello in the minor leagues. That might be the way to go, but certainly unorthodox, which to me is a positive.

  14. Chuck Says:

    Why would I shoot down your theory?

    When you’re right, you’re right.

  15. Len Says:

    Bob Feller was 6′0″ and was a power pitcher and lead the league in k’s 7 times.

    Robin Roberts was 6′0″ and was a power pitcher and had 9 top ten finishes in k’s in his career.

    Early Winn was 6′0″ and was a power pitcher and had 11 top ten finishes in k’s in his career.

  16. Raul Says:

    Feller was listed at 185 lbs
    Roberts was listed at 190 lbs
    Wynn was listed at 190 lbs

    That’s a lot different than Pedro and Mejia being 165 lbs

  17. brautigan Says:

    Monte Ward logged 921 innings before he turned 20. Feller had 488.

    For every Milt Pappas, Curt Simmons, Dwight Gooden, Bert Blyleven, there is a Larry Dierker, Gary Nolan, Wally Bunker and David Clyde. Dierker, Nolan, Bunker and Clyde were all saddled with injuries throughout their careers, while the former were able to forge long and productive careers.

    When all is said and done, it’s fairly rare to have a teenager throw significant innings in the big leagues.

  18. Len Says:

    Raul,

    He’s only 20 years old so I would assume he’s going to gain some weight.

    Pedro gained weight as time went on. He’s listed as 5′11″ 195 on baseball reference.

    I don’t know if height/weight is a great predictor as to if/when a player gets hurt. There’s been plenty of big strong guys 6′1″-6′5″ 200+ pounds that have gotten seriously hurt and had relatively short careers.

  19. Richard Says:

    Ron Guidry – 5′11, 161 lbs. Tim Lincecum 5′11″ 170

  20. Hossrex Says:

    Len: “I don’t know if height/weight is a great predictor as to if/when a player gets hurt. There’s been plenty of big strong guys 6′1″-6′5″ 200+ pounds that have gotten seriously hurt and had relatively short careers.”

    I always think it’s interesting when this sort of discussion comes up, since if the topic were broached in a different way, and I’d said “the wonderful think about baseball, is that any type of player, any position of player, any “anything” of a player could have any body type whatsoever…

    All of you would have said “yup. That’s one of the greatest things about baseball. That you don’t have to be seven foot two, or four hundred pounds.”

    Do players with a certain body type correlate better with certain skill sets?

    Of course.

    But at any point, with any body type, playing any position… there’s a potential hall of famer waiting to take the field.

  21. Patrick Says:

    Hossrex, the thing is, why is Mejia being projected as a starter? He only has one major league level pitch. I know he’s young but most pitchers have learned how to pitch a little, and not just throw, by his age. Some guys get wrongly typecast as starters.

    Normally I’d say if he has a million dollar arm, get some use out of it and have him throw the 7th or 8th inning every other day. That’s what I would’ve done with David Price last year. That’s what Earl Weaver used to do.

    I understand that the idea is for Mejia to learn a second and third pitch and you don’t want to be doing that on a major league field but rarely does this kind of guy develop Maddux or Glavine type feel for the game. You either have that or you don’t.

    Anyway, that’s just me and how I would usually handle these types of pitchers but with Mejia, I think he would get rocked in the majors even as a short reliever so I would keep him in AA and try to develop not only another out pitch but also a general understanding of pitching at the major league level.

  22. Raul Says:

    A lot of one-legged outfielders in the majors, eh Hossrex?

  23. Len Says:

    Hossrex,

    Whenever heights and weights of pitchers are brought up as predictors for future success I always think of guys like Ben McDonald, Todd Van Poppel and Paul Wilson who were these big huge guys that were all touted as can’t miss stars and ended up as complete busts.

    Then you get a guy like Tom Gordon at 5′10″ who had a 21 year career and is listed 24th all time in k/9 and 76th all time in career k’s.

    Tommy Bridges who was a great power pitcher for the Tigers in the 30’s was 5′10″. He has a carer era+-(126)-(25th since 1901, min-2000innings), he had 12 top ten k seasons, 8 top five k seasons, 10 top ten era seasons, was 12th in k’s from the end of the dead-ball era to the beginning of the pitcher’s era in the 60’s 1920-1960. Bridges really should be in the HOF.

    Then you get guys who weren’t “power” pitchers but were great at 5′10″-6′

    Carl Hubbell-6′0″-era+(130), 8 top five k seasons.
    Billy Pierce-5′10″-era+(119), 9 top ten k seasons
    Whitey Ford-5′10″-era+(133), 10 top ten k seasons.
    Johan Santana-6′0″-era+(143), lead league in k’s 3 times, 2 #2 finishes.
    Luis Tiant-6′0″-era+(114), 35th all time in k’s

    Even a guy like Fernando Valenzuela at 5′11″ had a great 7 year run from ‘81-87, when he had a career era+(115) and finished in the top 5 in k’s all 7 seasons.

  24. brautigan Says:

    Len: You left off Bobby Shantz. (5′6 140 pounds)

  25. Len Says:

    Brautigan,

    I didn’t realize Shantz was that short.

    Billy Wagner and John Franco were pretty successful at about 5′10″-5′11″.

    Andy Benes was another big tall guy that was suppose to be a can’t miss super-star. He had some decent success but never lived up to all the hype that surrounded him.

    It’s funny looking back now but I remember the Expos were “killed” in the media for trading Delano Deshields for Pedro Martinez.

  26. Hossrex Says:

    Raul: “A lot of one-legged outfielders in the majors, eh Hossrex?

    It’s not the guy I was looking for… but check out the second bio on this page:

    http://www.celebrityamputeegolf.com/amputees.html

  27. Raul Says:

    Hossrex.
    Flawless Victory.

  28. Richard Says:

    How did that dude try out for the Dallas Cowboys without legs?? Now THAT’s an athlete.

  29. brautigan Says:

    The 1991 baseball register lists Greg Maddux at 170 pounds (yeah, I know he wasn’t a “power” pitcher, but he was a hell of a pitcher).

    Also, you have Freddie Norman at 5′8 and Harvey Haddix at 5′9. Then you have Mike Fornieles and Roy Face at 155 pounds.

    I haven’t weighed 155 pounds since I was in the 8th grade.

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