Published March 16, 2010
What else could the Mets screw up? How about their top pitching prospect?
Right-hander Jenrry Mejia, the talk of Mets camp, is 20 years old. He went winless in 10 starts at Double A last season, struggled in the Arizona Fall League. Yet there is growing sentiment within the Mets' organization that Mejia should make the team as a reliever, maybe even as Frankie Rodriguez's setup man.
Such insanity is acceptable only when a player is so gifted, he can simply bypass the game's normal ladder of progression. Mejia, whose cut fastball draws comparisons to -- ahem -- Mariano Rivera's, actually might be that good.
Still, caution is in order.
For starters, let's see Mejia handle the mounting pressure and better competition in the final three weeks of spring training. His only previous professional experience as a reliever was in 2007 in the Dominican Summer League, his first minor-league level.
The Mets currently project Mejia to be in their Double A rotation -- he had a 4.47 ERA at that level last season, pitching for a poor club -- but their plan is changing faster than President Obama's health-care bill. If the team indeed views Mejia as a reliever, fine. Just don't ask him to be a savior.
This isn't so complicated: The Mets, rather than transition Mejia into a new role in the majors, should send him to Triple A, allow him to build a foundation, then summon him as early as May or June.
If the Nationals can wait on right-hander Stephen Strasburg, the Mets can wait on their own phenom, too.
Heck, none of this talk would even be necessary if the Mets actually had a setup man, but Kelvim Escobar is hurt and Ryota Igarashi and Bobby Parnell cannot be trusted. The team is in its usual win-now mode, trying to keep up with the Yankees and sell tickets for its second season at Citi Field. Oh yeah, and don't forget that manager Jerry Manuel is trying to save his job.
Manuel had a memorable response when he was asked earlier this spring if he would need to be desperate and crazy to keep Mejia.
"Yeah," Manuel said, laughing, "I'm both of those."
Desperate and crazy - that's a far better motto for the Mets than their current "Prevention and Recovery," which is reminiscent of the "War is Peace" slogan from George Orwell's 1984.
Yet, Manuel no longer is alone in his excitement over Mejia. Over the past two days, I spoke with no fewer than 10 members of the Mets' organization - players, coaches, scouts, executives. All raved about Mejia, and some were downright eager for him to make the club.
Left fielder Jason Bay: "It's hard to judge from left field, but judging from some of the (hitters') swings and the buzz he's created, there is definitely reason to be excited."
Third baseman David Wright: "One of the great things about him is that he's so level-headed. He's not buying into all this hype around he's reading about himself. He still comes in, works his tail off."
Pitching coach Dan Warthen: "This kid is not afraid. He believes the last two years he was cheated out of major-league time."
When I mentioned to infielder Alex Cora, one of the game's most sensible players, that Mejia was only a baby, he replied, "Yeah, and Frankie Rodriguez was a baby, too."
Can't argue: Rodriguez was only 20 when he joined the Angels' bullpen in September 2002 and helped the team win the World Series.
Rodriguez recalls people saying he was too young. He says a pitcher can succeed at any age, young or old. However, he adds a qualifier:
"I know he's not scared, but it's still spring training. You've got to see how he'll react in front of 45,000 people in New York."
For me, the most telling comments came from catcher Rod Barajas, who has caught Mejia twice this spring. Barajas said he was impressed that a) Mejia threw strikes and b) that his fastball had so much movement and action, it was difficult to hit even when it drifted over the plate.
Still, Barajas understands the other side of the argument.
"Young guys, you like to see them develop," he says. "He definitely still has some work to do. His secondary pitches - the curveball and changeup - he has struggled with the curveball in camp so far. We've been trying to work on it in games. He just hasn't gotten that feel for it.
"You'd like to get him more seasoning down there, make him use those pitches. I think he could get major-league hitters out on a regular basis. With that fastball, he definitely can have success. But the second and third time he faces clubs, if they can just sit on one pitch, it's going to be tough for him."
Warthen offers a different view, saying that Mejia's curveball is above-average while acknowledging that he needs to lose 3 to 4 mph from his changeup, which is in the 88 to 90 mph range.
Mejia also throws a sinking fastball, giving him a potential four- pitch repertoire that would serve him well as a starter. Warthen says he holds runners well and pitches with a solid, repeatable delivery that he maintains under pressure.
"He's got a personality, too, a certain thing about him, confidence-wise," Mets general manager Omar Minaya says. "You know this kid is going to be able to pick up some things, take a challenge and go with it."
It's a classic spring-training conflict, one that plays out annually in Florida and Arizona.
"There are going to be some debates before this thing is over," Warthen says, smiling. "There will be some tempers flying."
Cooler heads should prevail, not the desperate and crazy ones. If the Mets screw up Mejia, they will have only themselves to blame.