Rewarding Minor League Lifers (or: The Story of Jesus Feliciano)

A little over a week ago, Nelson Figueroa ripped the Mets, saying this about his old team, according to Fred Kerber in the Daily News (among other things of course):

Figueroa blasted the Mets' "reward system," noting some players languish in the minors -- he named outfielder Jesus Feliciano in Triple A -- while others are promoted from lower levels.

The comments were framed as sour grapes by most of the New York media, and they may have been. Of course, Figueroa was, himself, one of the 'minor league guys' he was talking about, and he was bypassed by players like Jonathon Niese, who jumped past him in the pecking order while the were teammates.

Let's zero in on this charge by Figueroa, since it goes straight to the ongoing evaluation of Omar Minaya as a general manager. There are rumors that Jesus Feliciano is on his way to the majors -- is this a day late and a dollar short? Is Omar ignoring value in his minor league system and playing favorites?

Feliciano certainly looks, on the surface, to be ready for the bigs. His current .381/.429/.476 line is gaudy and even when translated to its major league equivalent (via MinorLeagueSplits.com), it stands up to scrutiny - .327/.370/.409. There's not a ton of power there (.345 career SLG in the minors), but he has speed (186 SBs) and can play center field. He's even hit over .300 four four straight years in the minor leagues, with patience. Why isn't he on the Mets?

Well there's an easy answer. Jesus is old -- not quite centuries old -- but old. At 31 years old, he is no longer a prospect. In fact, he was no longer a prospect once he joined his third organization without garnering a single major league at-bat at the age of 26. This age component is not one that the players would like to hear about -- they would probably feel that if they can play, they can play. But the minor leagues are full of players that can't yet drink, so beating up on players many years younger isn't terribly impressive.

Take Nelson Figueroa versus Jonathon Niese. Let's just do some lines here (hah), showing the 2009 minor league stat lines for two pitchers that were in direct competition for starts with the Mets last year:

Pitcher A (35 years old, AAA): 2.25 ERA, 1.027 WHIP, 7.6 K/9, 1.9 BB/9
Pitcher B (22 years old, AA): 3.82 ERA, 1.283 WHIP, 7.8 K/9, 2.5 BB/9

If it's me, I'm taking Pitcher B almost every day of the week if I know his age. Pitcher B was, of course, the then 22-year-old Niese, while Pitcher A was the 35-year old Figueroa. It may cause some scowls from the guy who has put in years of work in my minor leagues, but hey, the GM needs to think with his brain, not his heart. Pitcher B, at 22 years old, offers much more promise by putting up similar stats. Just look at Figueroa's line when he was 23 and in AA - 4.34 ERA, 1.434 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 4.3 BB/9. Not quite Niese-ian.

Then again, it's rarely that clean cut that you have a choice like that. There are a lot of spots on the 25-man roster, and some can go to less exciting prospects. Figueroa might say, fine, take me over Fernando Nieve, or some other scrub on the roster in 2009. And Figueroa would then have a point, because he probably would have been better than some of the final pitchers that headed north with the team that year.

And around the round-about we come, back to Jesus Feliciano. Where there players that he could have out-performed that made the cut after Spring Training? Emphatically, yes. Most obviously,  Gary Matthews Jr. comes to mind. Sarge-lite gave no indication he could be even an average player over his final two years in Los Angeles, but Minaya felt he needed a center fielder. And he felt he needed a Veteran Presence, despite this team having other old men to fit the bill. So Matthews came to Flushing and Feliciano went to Buffalo.

At first glance, Figueroa's comments seem to be the misguided sour grapes of a player that was always destined to bounce between the major and minor leagues. His stuff was never that good, and his results only became interesting once he was older than most people in his league.

But with a little unpacking, we do observe a rightful critique and another example of Omar Minaya's blind side. His insistence on using overpaid, washed-up aging veterans in backup roles has left the team with a poor bench. While Feliciano doesn't own much upside, he costs half as much as Matthews and owns options. That would give Minaya flexibility, and would reward a minor league lifer with a shot of a lifetime. Remember that next time the lifeless corpse of Matthews whiffs lazily at a slider outside the zone.

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