I fixate. Anyone who has been reading my writing long enough to remember my unending Val Pascucci campaign in 2008 knows that.
These days, I’m fixated on the idea that Jenrry Mejia should open the season starting games in the Minor Leagues, or, now, stretching out to start games in the Minor Leagues, and not in the Major League bullpen. See here, here and here for details.
I realize that obsessing like this is stupid; by now, Mets fans have all likely made up their minds one way or the other about where they feel Mejia should be pitching in April, and continuing to beat the drum only opens me up for criticism in the event that he does start the season in the Major League bullpen and manage a successful conversion to the rotation down the road.
And I know the Mets haven’t actually put him in the bullpen yet. So it’s pointless to get too upset, since all using him in relief in Spring Training could end up amounting to is a little more time getting Mejia stretched out in April — ultimately keeping his innings total down — plus some needless screwing around with him and a whole lot of wasted words.
But whatever. I persist.
Anyway, plenty of people who are understandably excited about the possibility of Mejia breaking camp with the big club have countered arguments like the ones I’ve made by comparing him to other pitchers who debuted in the Majors as young as Mejia or successfully made the conversion from a bullpen role to the rotation.
But the following pitchers are not like Jenrry Mejia:
Dwight Gooden: Gooden comes up a lot because Gooden also wowed Mets coaches in Spring Training at a very young age despite no Triple-A experience and wound up on the Major League club in 1984. And Gooden went on to win the Rookie of the Year that year and then the Cy Young Award the following year, when he put on one of the most dominant season-long pitching performances in Major League history at the tender age of 20.
But Gooden is not like Jenrry Mejia because Gooden came with a wildly different Minor League pedigree. Look at what Gooden did in 1983. 191 innings, 300 strikeouts, 112 walks. That’s insane, and an insane amount of pitching for an 18 year old. Or anyone, really. If Mejia had dominated High-A ball to the tune of 14.1 K/9 like Gooden did and was going to be used as a starter in the bigs like Gooden was, then there would be no great reason his age should hold him back.
Of course, there’s a case to be made (that I’m not here to make) that Gooden could have used a little more time pitching under the radar, even if he was physically ready.
Adam Wainwright: Wainwright is a great example of a pitcher who came through the Minors as a starter, was used as a late-inning reliever in his rookie season, then became a successful starter, as some hope Mejia can.
But Wainwright also is not like Jenrry Mejia. By his rookie season in 2006, Wainwright was 24 and had thrown 784 2/3 innings, including 245 1/3 at Triple-A. In them, he developed enough confidence in his curveball to throw it 25.9% of the time in 2006, including, as we all recall, in some pretty big spots.
By most accounts, Mejia still needs work on his secondary stuff. That type of work is best done in the Minor Leagues, which brings me to the next guy:
Johan Santana: Santana is another pitcher who came up in a relief role and became a successful starter, and since he’s on the Mets, he makes for an easy comparison to Mejia.
But Santana is not like Jenrry Mejia because the Twins were likely only keeping him around in their bullpen in 2000, his rookie year, because he had been a Rule 5 pick, and Santana — hard as this is to believe — sucked that year.
Santana didn’t become the awesome Johan Santana we know and love until 2002, when, surprise, surprise, he went to Triple-A for a stint to refine his changeup. The Twins slowly transitioned him into a starting rotation role over the next two seasons as they eased up his innings total, but he was never a one-inning reliever.
Francisco Liriano: The Twins began Liriano in a relief role in 2006 to give him his first taste of the Majors before moving him into the rotation in late May. And though they were careful with him — Liriano never pitched on back-to-back nights, and usually had two days off between appearances — his stellar rookie season was shortened by an elbow injury that ultimately required Tommy John surgery. He has not been the same since.
So I don’t see why Liriano’s a great example to point to for why the Mets should start Mejia in the bullpen. I don’t think the Twins’ handling of Liriano had anything to do with his injury, but a great pitching prospect who threw a half of a really good season shouldn’t be held up as a success story. The Mets want more than that from Mejia.
Still, Liriano is not like Mejia for a number of reasons. He entered the Majors in 2006 after a full season of starting in the high Minors in 2005, including a dominant 14-start stretch in Triple-A. Plus Liriano had a developed a wide enough arsenal of pitches that he threw under 50% fastballs that year and the highest percentage of sliders (37.6%) of anyone in the Majors with at least 100 innings pitched.
So: In truth, Jenrry Mejia is only like Jenrry Mejia, obviously. It’s fun to cite examples when making arguments, and drawing comparisons to players that have come before is a big part of what talking sports is all about. I get that.
And heck, for all I know, Jenrry Mejia can dominate out of the Mets’ bullpen this year while at the same time perfecting that secondary arsenal, then transition smoothly into the rotation next year to become a frontline starter and serve as a comp for all sorts of future young pitchers to come.
But as far as I’m concerned, it’s hard enough for a prospect to turn into a frontline starter without obstacles to his development, and the Mets would be best served making Mejia’s path to becoming a big-league frontline starter as smooth and effortless as possible.
That means a ticket to Binghamton or Buffalo, where Mejia can stretch out and strengthen his arm, gain valuable experience, and fully develop his entire array of pitches before being thrown to the big-league wolves.
The value he’ll add to the Mets’ 2010 bullpen over whomever he’d replace — be it Kiko Calero or Sean Green or Bobby Parnell — is simply not enough to jeopardize all the value he could add to the Mets’ future starting rotations. And just because there are a few vague examples of guys that have come before him in similar situations and succeeded doesn’t make it worth the risk to the Mets.