The fragile, very hard-earned success of Jenrry Mejia
For years now, Jenrry Mejia has been the mascot of the Mets' farm system.
Mejia, signed as an international free agent in 2007, served as a window into how the team, under Omar Minaya, treated its prospects. Mejia had a live arm, a cut fastball in the mid-90s, and thus could overpower competition at lower levels. Smart organizations ignore those results and focus on things like developing secondary pitches, a must for any pitcher eventually hoping to succeed at the major league level in any capacity.
The Mets had him in Double-A at age 19, and at age 20 in 2010, rather than allowing him to continue to develop, they threw him into a major league bullpen mix. That would have been bad enough, but what followed was worse: manager Jerry Manuel, who'd begged for him, buried him, pitching him infrequently. Then the Mets sent him to the minors in June, jerked him back and forth between starting and relieving, and—surprise!—Mejia eventually hurt his arm.
By 2012, after returning from Tommy John surgery, Mejia looked like an afterthought for Sandy Alderson's Mets, and that was understandable. Mejia was still young, but his fastball was down a few miles per hour, and remember, he had no second pitch before surgery, either. When Mejia went down with elbow tendinitis this spring, and pitched in all of four games in the low minors by July, no one had Mejia on the list of potential Mets pitching prospects.
But a curious thing happened as Mejia had been bouncing around the minor leagues, careening between roles and various disabled lists: he'd figured out how to throw other pitches for strikes.
“When I came here in September last year, Dan Warthen showed me how to throw a slider,” Mejia said after his first start for the Mets in 2013, seven shutout innings against the Nationals. “Then I threw it in winter ball. And now I throw it perfect.”
It isn't just a slider, which checks in at mid-80s velocity. He's also throwing a curveball in the low-80s, and throwing that for strikes, too.
Still, the forgettable Collin McHugh had a single great start last season for the Mets. So it is quite encouraging that Mejia has done more of the same in two subsequent outings, including Tuesday night against the Rockies.
Mejia pitched into the sixth inning, his night derailed by a lengthy delay caused by an injury to the home plate umpire. Even so, he struck out seven over 5 1/3 innings, walked just two, and more to the point, commanded everything. He threw 30 of 45 cutters for strikes. He threw 12 of 16 sliders for strikes. He threw 11 of 12 curveballs (!) for strikes. He even threw 8 of 14 changeups for strikes, and utilized it more frequently against both lefties and righties than in previous starts.
Suddenly, and gloriously, the Mets' one-pitch pitcher has four pitches. Over his three starts with the Mets, covering 18 1/3 innings, he's walked just three, struck out 18. That's a recipe for enormous success, projected over a full season.
What happens next is trickier. The Mets obviously couldn't have been counting on Mejia for next year until recently. And he's still, remember, a pitcher with a Tommy John surgery in his past, 43 innings pitched, total, in 2013, and one who's never cracked the 100-inning mark in any professional season.
The result is that Mejia isn't the best pitcher to use in an offseason trade for offense the team desperately needs, since other teams aren't likely to deal an established hitter for a pitcher with Mejia's injury history. But the Mets shouldn't necessarily look to build around Mejia by dealing other pitchers either, for precisely the same reason. Mejia is, even now, pitching through bone spurs in his elbow, and plans to take care of it with offseason surgery, further depressing his trade value.
It's a reminder that teams generally shouldn't deal young pitching in general, but stockpile it instead. Yesterday's building block pitcher (Bobby Parnell, ace closer) can be today's sidelined pitcher with a bulging disk in his neck, surgery a possibility. The Mets have Mejia, and Matt Harvey, and Zack Wheeler, and Jonathon Niese could return this weekend from rehabbing a rotator cuff tear, with Rafael Montero and Noah Syndergaard in the offing. Assuming all of them, or even most of them, will stay healthy and effective going forward is making a bet that seldom comes true.
Then again, it seldom happens that a young arm, while battling injuries, manages to develop a full pitching arsenal. That's the great news as it relates to Jenrry Mejia, the team's windfall income, and a reminder that when projecting pitching, no one knows anything.