Right-hander Jenrry Mejia is a front-runner for the New York Mets‘ fifth starter job in 2014. His primary competition is composed of veterans Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lannan. Mejia is a better pitcher at this stage of his career than Dice-K or Lannan. In a perfect world, Mejia would win the fifth starter’s job right out of Spring Training.
If the Mets choose one of the veterans, manager Terry Collins suggested that Mejia could be used in the bullpen. If you want to trigger a small breakdown in the increasingly neurotic Mets fanbase, simply mention “Mejia” and “bullpen” in the same sentence. Why? Because using Mejia as a reliever in 2010 is popularly blamed as the cause for a series of arm woes that derailed the prospect’s promising career.
But what were the circumstances around the decision to use Mejia in the ‘pen in 2010?
Then, in his age-20 season, Mejia had three years of professional baseball experience, capped by a 10-appearance stint (all starts) in double-A Binghamton in 2009. After watching him pitch in Spring Training 2010, then-manager Jerry Manuel decided he couldn’t live without Mejia. Manuel successfully lobbied the front office to put the right-hander in his bullpen.
Manuel then used Mejia in a curious manner. At first, Manuel brought the youngster into games with great frequency. He made an appearance on one or zero days rest six times in April and two days rest three times. In May, Manuel started using Mejia in a more sporadic manner. After pitching back-to-back games, he would sit for three or four. That trend continued in June.
The Mets then made a decision to send him back to the minors to stretch him out into a starter. He returned in September and got pummeled for 10 earned runs in 11.1 innings. He left his final start with a strain of his rhomboid muscle. He started 2011 at Triple-A Buffalo as a starter, but was shut down in May due to an elbow injury, leading to season-ending Tommy John surgery.
In 2013, Mejia reminded people why he was so highly regarded. In five starts, he posted a 2.30 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP and a 8.9 SO/9 ratio. His command was also phenomenal as indicated by his 6.75 SO/BB ratio. Once again, Mejia’s season was cut short by bone spurs in his elbow, a problem he’d been dealing with all year long in the minor leagues.
Now, elbow clean, he has a chance to begin the 2014 season in the Mets’ starting rotation. So, why would he not?
Matsuzaka and Lannan have opt-out clauses in their minor league contracts. If they’re not on the major league roster in June, they can opt out of their deals with the Mets. Lannan may be considered for a bullpen slot if he doesn’t make the rotation, but no one in the Mets organization views Matsuzaka as a reliever. Mejia has the stuff to be effective out of the bullpen with a low-90s cutter to go along with a much-improved slider and changeup.
But wait, doesn’t putting Mejia in the bullpen automatically mean he’ll blow out his arm? Not necessarily.
Shifting a 20 year-old pitcher with little professional experience between the rotation and bullpen and back again was, if anything, more likely the cause of Mejia’s arm woes — not the decision to make him a reliever. Smarter use of Mejia in the bullpen should protect his arm. “Smarter use” includes things like being careful how many times he warms up during a game (preferably once) and using him on a steady basis without overworking him.
In recent years, many young pitchers have started in the bullpen, then moved onto successful careers as a starter. The St. Louis Cardinals organization, one of the best in baseball, has done this successfully with pitchers like Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha (among others).
In addition, it should be clear that the cause of arm injuries in pitchers is disputed science. It could be bad mechanics, bad genetics, or plain bad luck. Mejia’s arm woes could have been caused by how he was handled in 2010, but there’s no way to prove that.
Can the team really ask a guy who’s never compiled more than 94 innings in a professional season to throw 180-200 innings? By putting him in the bullpen, the Mets can better control the number of innings he can work this year. Putting Jenrry Mejia in the bullpen to start the 2014 season is not the death sentence some think it is. It may even be beneficial to him and the Mets.