Commentary

Mets trying to find right fit for Mejia

Will the highly touted pitcher be a reliever or starter for the Amazin's in 2011?

Updated: February 24, 2011, 12:12 PM ET
By Adam Rubin | ESPNNewYork.com

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- If Terry Collins had been in his first spring training as manager in 2010, and if Sandy Alderson had been in his first season as GM last year, would right-hander Jenrry Mejia have broken camp with the New York Mets as a reliever?

"You're putting me on the spot, aren't you?" Collins replied Wednesday. "Well, I understood exactly what happened last year. I certainly don't blame the decision that was made. I will never second-guess that decision.

"I, in turn, as the guy on the other side of the field, in the development side, from what I had heard, thought he should go start [in the minors].

"They made the decision, which they thought was right for them. I'll certainly back it up and support it. But everybody I have talked to on the other side [at the minor league complex], who are good baseball people, think this guy has got a chance to be a top-of-the-order starting pitcher. So I'm going to give him his chance."

The 21-year-old Mejia threw batting practice Wednesday to a group that included David Wright, Ike Davis and Scott Hairston. He next will face batters Saturday, when he starts the Mets' Grapefruit League opener against the Atlanta Braves at Digital Domain Park.

Yet Mejia is pretty safely assured of being with the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons to begin this season, according to Collins, perhaps as the Opening Day starter against the Syracuse Chiefs on April 7.

That fate comes a year after on-the-ropes manager Jerry Manuel, with equally tenuous GM Omar Minaya's consent, took Mejia north with the Mets as a reliever to open the 2010 season. Mejia clearly was a better bullpen option than others available in camp, but the decision also was fueled -- perhaps more so -- by the staff being in job-preservation mode.

Mejia's development took a backseat.

Still, even if Mejia is slated to work as a starting pitcher in Buffalo, that does not mean Mets staffers uniformly believe he will end up in that role. Pitching coach Dan Warthen was particularly candid on the eve of camp in suggesting Mejia ultimately may find himself in a major league bullpen again because the effort he requires for his delivery may make him susceptible to injury with a starter's workload.

"I think Mejia works really hard to throw the baseball," Warthen said. "And I worry about the volume of pitches during the course of a year. You get 30 to 35 starts, and you're throwing 100 pitches each time, every fifth day, I worry. ... You just watch his arm swing. It's a long arm swing. His ball naturally cuts -- again, [like] a Mariano Rivera.

"If Mariano had to go out there and throw 100 pitches every fifth day, when a ball cuts all the time, instead of staying behind it, I think you find a lot of torque on your elbow and your shoulder. But, again, that's a singular opinion. [Mejia] is a very strong individual."

[+] EnlargeJenrry Mejia
Douglas Jones/US PresswireJenrry Mejia is expected to be the Mets' Opening Day starter for Triple-A Buffalo.

Asked about the merits of Warthen's assessment, Collins said he can see Mejia being promoted later in the season as a starting pitcher. Then again, the manager suggested, if Chris Young and Chris Capuano capably fill out the rotation and Johan Santana comes back for the second half, Mejia could help the Mets in the bullpen during the second half. And who's to say he won't just end up establishing himself in the 'pen and, perhaps, maybe even replace Francisco Rodriguez as closer in 2012 or 2013 -- depending on if that 55-games-finished vesting option kicks in?

In an interview with the Bergen Record on Thursday, Mejia registered his preference, loud and clear: "I want to be a starter," he said. "I liked it when I was starting in the big leagues last year. When I pitched in the Dominican [winter league] I was a starter. I come here now [to camp] as a starter. I want to be a starter. But I can't worry. It is what it is. It's the big leagues. I'd like to be a starter, but if they call me I have to be there. It's the big leagues."

"I think the jury is still out," Collins said about Mejia's ultimate role in the majors. "I don't know who to compare him to."

Collins then brought up the name Roger Clemens, from the perspective that he too had a violent delivery but was a physical specimen.

"Roger Clemens was pretty violent too. You've got to have arm speed to throw the ball hard," Collins said. "And this kid is some kind of strong. He's gotten stronger. He keeps himself in great shape. So I'm anxious to see him when he pitches on Saturday."

As for Warthen's assessment of Mejia's arm action being "long," Collins agreed.

"That's what it is," the manager said. "Everybody thinks there's so much effort in his delivery that he wouldn't be able to get through a game. But, again, there are always going to be a lot of opinions, and there will be in this camp, on this guy. But ultimately it's about, 'How are we going to develop him to become a major league pitcher?'"

Wright, who faced Mejia on Wednesday, interrupted a question midsentence when Rivera's name was broached -- even though the question was going to be about comparing the cutting action on the Yankee legend's signature pitch with the natural movement of Mejia's fastball.

"Let's not get crazy," Wright said. "Mariano can do it with one pitch. There are probably times where [Mejia] can do it with one pitch, but he's going to need some secondary pitches. He doesn't have the kind of bite that Mariano has on his. His is more like a true cutter, not like Mariano where it looks like it's a 93 mph slider. Mariano has got just more movement -- it looks like a true slider coming in at 93 mph."

Catcher Josh Thole echoed the sentiment that Mejia's cutter is more on a flat plane. Added Wright about Wednesday's session: "It looked like he was more around the plate and had a better idea of what he was doing today than what I saw last year. He's got an overpowering pitch, and there are not too many pitchers in the game that can say they could probably go out there with one pitch and have some success."

Said Collins: "Even if he comes up and he ends up being in the bullpen, the more he goes out there, the more [minor league] innings, the better the command is going to be of his pitches. If he goes and learns how to command that fastball to both sides of the plate, this guy may be the ninth-inning guy someday. Who knows with his arm. But right now I think he needs to go pitch."

Adam Rubin has covered the Mets since 2003. He's a graduate of Mepham High School on Long Island and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He joined ESPNNewYork after spending 10 years at the New York Daily News.
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