Just a little over five weeks away from the start of spring training, the Mets' roster is not yet fully filled out. As currently constituted, it's debatable whether the team has improved a whole lot from the 2013 iteration despite adding pricy veterans Chris Young, Curtis Granderson, and Bartolo Colon to the fray. The loss of Matt Harvey to injury and Marlon Byrd to trade wiped away two of the three most valuable players from the 2013 club and as James Kannengieser projected last month, the Mets only look poised to win about 74-78 games this coming season as constructed. There is still time for the team to add to their core of talent but even adding a shortstop like Stephen Drew may only add a marginal win or two to the projections, probably not enough to make all that much of a dent if we were to consider those projections in a vacuum.
Of course, it's important to remember that baseball isn't played in a vacuum, mostly because it would be incredibly windy and dusty in there. Baseball is played by real people who develop, learn, and get better (worse, too). It's not played by computers, you geek! So when we look at the Mets roster, there are young players on it who have the ability to step forward and, with some playing time, provide some hidden wins to the team this season. Get a few of those guys to improve and suddenly, the projected 74-78 win team could end up in the 84-88 win range and surprisingly enter the competition for a wild card spot in September. Conversely, those young players may just fall on their face and...well, let's not discuss that.
The above is a long-winded way of saying I believe that one of the best and possibly most overlooked breakout candidates on the Mets' roster coming into 2014 is 24 year old former top prospect Jenrry Mejia. It's easy to overlook Mejia thanks to all of the struggles with injury over the years combined with the way his development was stunted by the previous front office and the fact that the Mets have pumped star pitching prospects Harvey, Zack Wheeler, and Noah Syndergaard through the farm system in recent years. There are plenty of questions about whether Mejia can stay on the field for an extended period of time, let alone a full season. Heck, he hasn't ever even thrown 110 innings in a season as a professional. So why do I see Mejia as such a breakout candidate? Well, you see something like this...
...and you stop and begin to think "why not?" for a second. That start, Mejia's 2013 debut against the Nationals, was eye-opening for me. On that day, a Jenrry Mejia like I had never seen before in the majors took the mound. He featured a nasty slider to go along with his curveball and the hard, cutting fastball that once drew comparisons to Mariano Rivera's cutter. The best part was that this Mejia showed up for four more starts before the bone spurs in his elbow proved to be too painful to pitch with. That his season ended due to injury isn't a footnote, as the injury history is not to be ignored. However, it's clear that when he's healthy, Mejia can pitch and pitch very well.
So how well did he pitch in his brief 2013 stint? Over 27.1 innings, he tossed up an excellent 2.30 ERA and a 2.46 FIP. He struck out 27 batters and walked just 4, a huge change from the Mejia we saw in 2010 and 2012. How did the strikeouts tick upward? According to PitchFX data, the righty relied mostly on his cutter, which he threw 37% of the time, and that new slider, which he threw 21.4% of the time. In contrast, Mejia relied mostly on a four-seam fastball in previous seasons with occasional use of the cutter, curveball, and changeup. The change in usage resulted in Mejia doubling his swinging strike percentage from the subpar 6-7% range in 2010 and 2012 all the way up to an impressive 12.1%, a number which would've ranked Mejia fourth in the majors in the category if he had enough innings to qualify, behind Yu Darvish, Matt Harvey, and Anibal Sanchez. Are these numbers a small sample size? Absolutely. Will Jenrry Mejia pitch this well over 200 innings and completely replace Matt Harvey's production? Will he even pitch anywhere close to 200 innings? It seems unlikely at the moment. But with stuff of this caliber, Mejia still could be an incredibly valuable player even if his overall performance regresses slightly from 2013 and I'm excited to see him get that opportunity.
The big cloud hanging over Mejia's head is clearly the injury bug and it's one that he hasn't been able to shake. Injuries to his finger, shoulder, and elbow over the years have caused Mejia to miss extensive time. So why should we believe this year can be different? First of all, Mejia will be three years removed from his Tommy John surgery and based on his five starts, his stuff seems to be back and better than ever. Further, Mejia had his elbow cleaned out in August and should be set to go for spring training. Assuming there are no unexpected setbacks, Mejia is poised to be in camp healthy and ready to pitch for the first time since 2011. This is great news, as the Mets need to see what Mejia offers them going forward.
Entering a year where the projections don't look all that great, the Mets could use a lottery ticket like Mejia, who offers plenty of upside if he can come close to duplicating those outstanding 27.1 innings over a larger portion of the season. Using Mejia in the rotation is somewhat of a risk considering his injury history but it's a risk the Mets need to take because it's the type of risk that could reap big rewards. Great teams often get production from unexpected players, "hidden wins", so to speak. If he can stay on the field, Jenrry Mejia could provide a lot of production for the 2014 Mets and help to propel them to bigger things.