This spring has brought us more stories of the Joba Rules. It has also created more pitchers likely to go under similar rules and talked about in “Is he (pick your guy) best suited as a starter or a reliever?”
Most relievers are failed starting pitchers. The New York Yankees closer extraordinaire Mariano Rivera is one such example. At 25 years of age, Rivera started 10 games in 1995 (the season before Joe Torre became manager), producing a 3-3 record, 5.94 ERA and 1.680 WHIP.
While their were flashes of brilliance, such as this July 4th (George’s Birthday) eight inning, 11 strikeout, zero run gem*, their were obvious duds, too, like three of his first four career starts when he gave up more earned runs than innings pitched in each of those contests.
*It is interesting to see that during that game, Rivera threw eight solid innings and was pulled after 129 pitches. His ninth inning replacement was John Wetteland, the first of many times the Rivera-Wetteland combination would help win a game for the Yankees.
We will never know if Rivera would have developed into a starting pitcher, as potential starters need more than 10 career major league starts to have a proper evaluation.
Besides the perpetual Joba starter/reliever story this 2010 spring training, the biggest starter/reliever conflict has occurred with the other New York team, the Mets.
Their 20 year old flame thrower Jenrry Mejia has been talked about as a top Mets pitching prospect for at least two seasons now. In his brief professional career, Mejia has been in 47 games, starting 40 of them. The only seven relief appearances for Mejia came in 2007, his first pro season as a 17 year old, when the Mets were slowly breaking him in.
Over the last two seasons Mejia has appeared in 33 games, and started all 33.
But at lest for this season, the Mets envision Mejia as a relief pitcher due to some dominant outings this spring.
They are making Mejia a relief pitcher despite the Mets lack of adequate starting pitchers in their organization, and seeing what happened to Joba over the last two seasons, as he was jerked around by the Yankees.
Many Met fans do not like it, and they are staged a protest to support keeping Mejia a starting pitcher.
As mentioned earlier, Mejia has only been a starter the last two seasons. In year one he advanced from Rookie Ball in the Gulf Coast League up to Short Season ball in Brooklyn, where he faced mainly recent college draftees.
Mejia fared pretty well that year producing a 2-0 record, 0.60 ERA, 0.800 WHIP in Rookie ball and a 3-2 record, 3.49 ERA, 1.147 WHIP in Brooklyn. Really good as he was still only 18!
In 2009, the Mets jumped Mejia to High A St. Lucie in the perennially pitching rich Florida State League (FSL), and Jenrry did not disappoint. He went 4-1 in 9 starts, with a 1.97 ERA and 1.132 WHIP.
At a tougher level, Mejia significantly improved his pitching numbers from one season to the next, just what an organization wants to see out of a young player.
After the great start in the FSL, Mejia was moved to Double A Binghamton, where he went 0-5, 4.47 ERA, 1.511 WHIP in 10 starts. In 44 innings, Mejia (still only 19!) struck out 47 hitters.
That Double A jump is the biggest a minor league player will make. If you can make it their (Double A) you can make it anywhere, meaning the majors.
After the successful adjustment Mejia made from his A ball stint in 2008 to 2009, the biggest no-brainer then is to see how your best #1 starting candidate pitching prospect (sorry Jonathan Niese), will fare starting his 2010 season in Double A Binghamton.
Will Mejia again adjust to the Double A hitters, and begin to pitch well early on? And with the annual terrible April weather in the Northeast, Mejia has the elements on his side, too, as pitchers usually fare better in early season nasty weather, especially when all hitters have been used to the Florida sunshine.
Wouldn’t this advantage allow him to gain confidence early and give the Mets another potentially major league ready starting pitcher if not later in 2010, but the following season?
We may never find out due to the inabilities of Mets General Manager Omar Minaya*. Coming off the debacle that was September 2008, and last season’s full-year disaster, the GM and manager Jerry Manuel NEED TO WIN NOW.
*Remember that Minaya was given his first GM job by MLB to be the GM of the Montreal Expos. He pretty much ruined that organization (now the Washington Nationals), but they are showing sign of getting things together, seven years after Minaya took the helm. Ironic that the Nats are now showing some young promise, and the Mets now being run by Minaya are starting to crumble.
That is why they signed Jason Bay in the off season instead of shoring up the starting pitching, and why Mejia will be in the Mets bullpen to begin the 2010 season. Minaya would have been better served to protect the franchise by saving the money spent on Bay, allowing all the kids Daniel Murphy, Ike Davis, Jonathan Niese, Josh Thole, etc. to play and develop instead of trying to win a very tough NL East in 2010.
But Minaya and Manuel (the lousy version of the M&M boys) need to win now to save their jobs. If the Mets get off to a slow start in 2010, they both could be fired by June 1. If that happens, neither one will ever get another chance at their current roles with any other organization.
This is it for both of them. Last chance.
There is an old sports cliché which states a team never wants to face a desperate opponent, because that opponent will do anything to win. Manuel and Minaya are desperate people. When asked by a reported if he was desperate and crazy to bring Mejia north as a reliever, the very honest Manuel has said he “Yeah, I am both of those.”
The Wilpon ownership never should have allowed their GM and field manager to come back for 2010 for the same reason. The Mets M&M boys will do anything to win this season, and that includes ruin the Mets for the future.
The game of baseball is about starting pitching. The teams with the best starters will usually win.
Mejia in the bullpen gives the Mets the best chance to win in 2010, but his bullpen gig in 2010 will hamper the Mets development in future years.
With the injuries last season Minaya did not have good enough replacements in the minors to make the necessary moves to improve a bad situation. He continually spent for free agents trying to win now, and it pushed the Mets into a bad overall organization, similar to a Ponzi scheme.
Like Bernie Madoff** in pulling in more investors to pay older investors, the Mets constantly needed to replenish their older resources (Delgado) with more expensive resources (Bay), in order to win now.
**Ironic how the Mets ownership was moved to keep Minaya and his Ponzi player scheme due to his guaranteed salary in order to save money, when much of their family fortune was lost to the same Ponzi type scheme run by Madoff.
Back in early March when Manuel said that Mejia reminded him of Rivera, with a sharp cutter, people took that as Mejia was going to be the Mets 8th inning guy. With the entire talk surrounding starter vs. reliever, it appears Manuel began to listen (and believe) to all that talk.
The primary reason why starters fail is that they have a limited amount of pitches in their repertoire. Guys like Rivera (and all time saves leader Trevor Hoffman) can become good relief pitchers is they have a master of one or two pitches which translates well to shorter stints in a game. Has Mejia mastered his pitches yet?
Often the second or third time through a lineup as a starter, the lack of different pitches leads to getting hit hard. Mejia has four pitches, including an exploding mid-90’s fastball, and has a cutter, curve and change up. He also can sink the fastball as a fifth pitch.
In seeing him pitch this spring, Mejia needs to get more command of the off speed pitches, and he doesn’t seem to use his curve that much. That shows a lack of feel for the pitch, and is something that can be worked on down in the minors.
Mets starting catcher Rod Barajas said “You’d like to get him more seasoning down there, make him use those pitches. I think he could get major-league hitters out on a regular basis. With that fastball, he definitely can have success. But the second and third time he faces clubs, if they can just sit on one pitch, it’s going to be tough for him.”
Mejia has made hitters look bad this spring, but has faced mostly non starters so far. Up until this past week, Mejia has faced only six hitters who have had over 300 at bats in the major leagues. But the last week or two of spring training is when the regulars are going to play most of the games.
Mejia did not do well yesterday in the Mets game against the Florida Marlins when he faced seven hitters, allowing three hits and a run. That appearance was against the Marlins regulars.
That 1.1 inning appearance is another telling sign that the Mets are going to take Mejia north with them as a reliever. If teams were going to use a pitcher as a starter, they would allow him to throw more innings in each appearance to get him ready for the season.
In developing a starter for the season, a team extends the innings each appearance to allow him to throw at least 5-6 innings in the first regular season start.
However, Mejia has not been extended out, never pitching more than into a second innings in any appearance this spring. He also has been used back to back days this past week, something the Mets would not do unless they were going to use him in the bullpen.
The Mets are in a difficult division, with Philadelphia, Atlanta and Florida all capable of winning the division. While I am not saying the Mets are not in the hunt, they have a lot more questions than the other three teams. Plus, after Johan Santana, their starting pitching stinks.
And when the starting pitching is terrible, you need better starters. No amount of capable relief pitchers will help you win many games. That is why Mejia needs to start the season in Double A to continue his development as a starter. To see if he can replicate the advancements he made the prior season.
While Mejia did well early in the week throwing in back to back games, they were in front of about 6,000 vacationing sunbathers. How will Mejia react to a situation in front of 45,000 serious baseball fans? If Mejia does wilt under the major league New York pressure, will the Mets send him down to Double A and convert him back as a starter?
We shall see. But it would be better for the Mets if Mejia made his major league debut later in 2010 as a called up starting pitcher who dominated Double A, or in 2011 when he is informed by new Mets manager Bobby Valentine that he made the team.
But it shouldn’t be at the beginning of this season as a reliever.