Four years ago, Jenrry Mejia was a 20-year-old pitcher making exciting first impressions in big league camp. Particularly impressed was then Mets manager Jerry Manuel. He was so impressed that he lobbied the team to take this talented youngster and put him in the major league bullpen. As unfathomable as it seemed that a team might put a 20-year-old pitcher with only a handful of innings above A-ball in a major league bullpen, by the middle of spring training the writing was on the wall. So we took a crack at fathoming it.
History records the decision as a poor one. Mejia was ineffective and ultimately needed Tommy John surgery. That his development wasn't even more stunted is a miracle in itself.
Skip ahead four years. The organization has a completely new set of decision makers. Mejia has flashed brilliance as a starter, though he has repeatedly had difficulty pitching in relief. The final spot in the rotation is unsettled, and will come down to a battle between Mejia and some veteran talent of unremarkable repute. And suddenly, the situation has become reversed. Writers and fans call for Mejia's inclusion on the Opening Day roster, while the sentiment among those in the know is that it is not to be.
The disclaimer this time is that we don't need a disclaimer. As has often been the case with this front office regime compared to the last one, even when they're not perfect, their position is far more defensible. And it certainly is here. In fact, contrary to popular belief, it is possible to argue that an even younger and equally exciting (albeit less experienced) pitcher would be a preferable choice to open the year as the team's fifth starter (or at least become so sometime in mid-April).
The first problem is that Mejia has only once thrown over 100 innings in a single season. Even if the team wants to bet that he's the most effective candidate for the job, to refrain from being reckless they'll still have to shut him down well before September. If they keep him in the minors, they can more easily manage his innings and stretch him out slowly. They can give him something like a long reliever's workload, but in a controlled manner, letting him warm up like a starter and pitch every fifth day.
The second issue is one usually reserved for rookies and top prospects: service time. No, Mejia isn't a rookie, but he is also yet to firmly establish himself as a major leaguer. Given that fact, and where the Mets currently project to sit on the win curve, and we have a pretty unique situation.
Before this offseason, the Creative Artist Agency (CAA)—one of Major League Baseball's largest agency groups—estimated the cutoff for Super Two status would be roughly two years and 120 days of service time. Even though that number does not technically apply to next offseason, the rules have not changed and it should once again remain a strong estimate.
Jenrry Mejia currently has one year and 140 days of service. If he spends the entirety of 2014 in the majors, he will become immediately eligible for arbitration. However, if instead he accrues 150 days of service, he (probably) will not. Since there are 182 days in the 2014 season, that would require he spend roughly a month in Triple-A.
Does an extra win or two in 2014 really justify the increased costs from 2015-2018? That's what the bet would be--that playing Mejia in April, innings limit and all, can make enough of an impact to increase the chances the team makes the playoffs (and thus enough of an impact to justify an escalating salary beginning next year).
Or, on the other hand, is 2015 the year with the bullseye on it? The year Matt Harvey (presumably) returns. The year the team's critical mass of young arms finally (hopefully?) outpaces attrition. What if having an extra $10 million from 2015-2018 helps sign J.J. Hardy or Jed Lowrie? Doesn't that sound much more like a contender than the 2014 Mets, even with Jenrry Mejia and, say, Stephen Drew?
We can even estimate the savings holding Mejia back would generate. There are four cases that could be particularly instructive for Mejia's salary escalation if he should pitch effectively this year: Jordan Zimmermann, Kris Medlen, Josh Johnson, and Stephen Strasburg. All four, like Mejia, were young and talented pitchers. All four, like Mejia, had their early careers derailed by Tommy John surgery. The difference is that Zimmermann and Medlen both qualified as Super Two eligible arbitration cases. Johnson and Strasburg did not.
Zimmermann spent most of 2010 recovering from his injury. In 2011, he threw 161 innings and posted a 3.18 ERA and 3.16 FIP. The result: the Nationals awarded him a $2.3 million salary. After an even stronger 2012, they paid him $5.35 million for 2013. And for his continued effectiveness, they bought out his remaining arbitration eligibility by signing him to a two year, $24 million deal this offseason. That's a total of $31.65 million paid over four seasons of arbitration eligibility (one of which was guaranteed in advance).
Kris Medlen faced a near identical situation a year later. He returned from his injury in 2012 to post a 1.57 ERA and 2.42 FIP in only 138 innings (he spent a good deal of this season pitching in relief). His super two salary award: $2.6 million. After following up with a strong 2013, he was given a $5.8 million contract for 2014. And while he sadly appears destined for a second surgery, it's not hard to imagine how his salary would have escalated had he remained healthy.
Now onto the non-super-twos.
Johnson had his Tommy John surgery in 2007. He was effective in an abbreviated 2008, with a 3.61 ERA and 3.37 FIP over 87 innings. He was awarded just $1.4 million for his efforts. A thoroughly dominant 2009 earned him a four year, $39 million extension, buying out two arbitration years and two years of free agency. That's just $15 million more total than Zimmermann got for half as many years, and none of Zimmermann's years were free agent years! Johnson earned $12.9 million in his three arbitration years, $11.1 million less than Zimmermann earned through his four years. Even accounting for a few years of inflation, it's still a substantial difference.
Stephen Strasburg reached salary arbitration for the first time this year. His case was unique in that he signed a major league deal out of college and was not earning the standard pre-arbitration renewal-rate. Even still, he was awarded just $3.975 million--almost $2 million less than Medlen made in his second year. We're yet to see how the rest of Strasburg's arbitration years will pan out, but it's safe to assume he'll earn quite a bit less than a healthy Medlen could have earned.
While the obvious alternative for Mejia is Daisuke Matsuzaka, there is actually a legitimate, if counter-intuitive, third possibility: Rafael Montero. Despite not reaching Double-A until last year, Montero has almost as many upper-minors innings as Mejia has, not to mention considerably more effective ones. He also threw 155 innings last year, meaning he should be well equipped to throw 180-190 this year and avoid an early shutdown.
Of course, the Mets won't include Montero on the Opening Day roster (they're not the Marlins, after all). But as a player who has yet to join the 40-man roster, they only have to leave him down for about 10 days to delay his service time enough to gain an extra year of team control. Even if Jon Niese is delayed in joining the rotation, this is still easily accomplished by allowing John Lannan to make a spot start on April 4. Niese can then join the rotation on April 6, and the next time the Mets' will need a fifth starter won't be until April 12, when they could tap Montero. They'll still be giving a young player an opportunity to qualify for Super-Two eligibility, but not until 2018, instead of 2015. While it's easy to argue the Mets should prioritize 2015 over 2014, it's much harder to do so with 2018.
As much fun as it would be to see Mejia break camp with the Mets this year, the team has plenty of incentive to make a different call. If they really wants to roll with a young phenom, Rafael Montero is surprisingly viable by comparison. But in the end, unless the team really believes its own 90-win tag line, they should just go with Daisuke Matsuzaka. They'll save themselves quite a few financial bullets over the next few years, when 90 wins could at long last be a believable outcome.