Nearly three months ago, the Mets based an Opening Day roster decision on three weeks of exhibition pitching against a mixed bag of offensive opposition ranging from minor league non-entities, has-been fringe major leaguers, and actual big leaguers going through the motions at half speed. Considered in a vacuum, that decision wasn't terribly surprising because nearly every team uses Spring Training performances as the basis for who scoops up the last couple of spots on the club. The worst-case scenario is usually allowing a washed-up nobody pitch a couple dozen low-leverage innings or giving a tired hack a few throwaway pinch hitting appearances. This move didn't happen in a vacuum, though, and ten weeks after the decision was made there still isn't a likely defensible explanation for it.
In 2009, then 19-year-old Jenrry Mejia breezed through High-A St. Lucie before stumbling upon his call-up to Double-A Binghamton, allowing 71 baserunners in 44.1 innings. The strikeout rate was still impressive (9.54 K/9), but the walk rate was disappointing (4.67 BB/9). It wasn't a big deal, though, because he was about to turn 20 in October and nobody actually expected him to crack the big league roster for at least another full season.
Then Spring Training 2010 rolled around, and despite inviting a bunch of interesting bullpen arms to camp -- Kiko Calero, Ryota Igarashi, Nelson Figueroa, Clint Everts, and so on -- the Mets were understandably wowed by Mejia's mid-to-high nineties heat during his bullpen sessions and early exhibition play. Mejia's fastball was so impressive that he went on to pitch more innings this spring -- all in relief -- than all but three other pitchers threw overall: Mike Pelfrey, Jon Niese, and Oliver Perez, all starters. So Mejia tossed 17 innings in March against, on aggregate, something well below the level of major league competition. He threw hard, walked few, struck out few, threw hard, got plenty of ground balls, and also threw hard. That overpowering fastball was the party line we were fed every day in March, and that was ultimately the reason Mejia made the team.
It seemed clear at the time that at least one ulterior motive for Mejia's promotion was the boost it would give Jerry Manuel's chances of surviving the first month of the season as the team's manager. Besides, why should Manuel care if the move could potentially delay Mejia's development as a starting pitcher? Manuel was on the hot seat, after all. What's clear is that the difference Mejia was likely to offer in a best-case scenario over, say, Kiko Calero or Elmer Dessens, was negligible at best. One win? Probably not even that much. As it turns out, Mejia struggled with his control early on, as many 20-year-olds do, and was quickly relegated to middle relief/garbage innings. But that happened at least a month ago, so why did it still take this long for the Mets to cut their losses and send Mejia back where he belonged? That one is still a mystery to all.
The only rationally sound explanation for keeping Mejia with the big club to have him pitch mop-up innings out of the bullpen was to save his arm a bit so he could put in a partial season as a starter in the minors and still pitch winter ball to round out his development season. There's actually some logic to that plan, but it's a certainty that it isn't one of the reasons Mejia has been with the Mets to this point. How could it be? Every other explanation is either fatuous, retarding to Mejia's development, or both, so any intellectually honest organization would just come out and say that was their plan from the outset.
So where does this leave Mejia? As Sam astutely pointed out back in March, here's what the Mets were risking by adding Mejia to the active roster.
When Mejia starts this season as a reliever, he will be afforded no opportunity to develop his curveball and changeup, essential to his long-term development as a starter (see: Pelfrey, Mike). While the Mets may indicate that the long-term plan remains using him at a starter, this move retards his development as a starter by at least a season. It also starts his arbitration clock, meaning he would begin arbitration and free agency a year earlier than if he just spent two months in the minors. That's potentially two lost seasons of an ace pitching on major-league minimum.
That still pretty much sums it up. Have the Mets caused irreparable damage to Mejia's career? No, probably not. Was bringing Mejia up instead of leaving him in Double-A defensible? Doubtful, and certainly not for the reasons the Mets have given. Should we have any confidence that they've learned something from this debacle that they might apply to similar situations in the future? One can only hope. At all events, our long national nightmare is finally over, which is good news for Jenrry Mejia, Double-A starting pitcher.