The Great Debate
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
Tags: jenrry mejia