Perhaps the hardest decision for this countdown was not our decision who to place on top, but rather who would qualify. Once we agreed our chart-topper still counts as a prospect (it wasn’t a very hard decision, he’ll hopefully spend most of the year at AAA), there was little debate as to who should come first. Jenrry Mejia, come on down.
The 21-year-old fireballer has come an awfully long way since last year’s spring training, when I spent a significant amount of time trying to verify whether he spelled his name with 2 “r”s or 2 “l”s (there were huge discrepancies in the reports coming out of St. Lucie at the time). In a sense 2010 was a lost year for Mejia, with the first few months spent in the big league bullpen in some kind of frantic maneuver to save both his manager and GM’s jobs. Mejia’s bullpen placement isn’t too strange a decision: he doesn’t have very strong secondary offerings, and has drawn comparisons to Mariano Rivera, but the under-utilization of Mejia out of the bullpen when he could have at least tested his mettle as a starter in the minors, was clearly a blunder on the part of the Minaya administration.
Luckily, Mejia eventually found his way into the starter’s role in the minors. He struggled a bit with a shoulder injury that caused him to miss some significant time, but once his health improved he spun 6 sparkling starts in AA to earn a 1.32 ERA, an an 8 inning, 1 run performance in his Buffalo debut earned his return to the majors, this time as a starter. Mejia’s 3 starts in New York were unspectacular, as he struggled with his command and then another shoulder injury, not to mention strict pitch counts. The injuries are fairly concerning for Mejia, but he arrived to St. Lucie this year fully healthy, and looked solid in his first outing of the spring.
Mejia’s value is obscured heavily by the starter-reliever question that is likely to be debated for the next few years, but I think that debate does him a disservice. There is no question in my mind that with Mejia’s dynamic fastball (sits 94 with a ton of movement that can make it pretty heavy) and his developing secondary pitches that Mejia can be a passable 4- or 5-spot major league pitcher. The only question in my mind is whether the secondary pitches can develop to the point where he will be a top-of-the-rotation starter, or whether he will have to slip into the closer’s role. The ability to throw a straighter, harder fastball that sits in the upper 90s and a mid-90s fastball with more movement tells me that with the command that comes with experience (remember, the kid has been able to drink for 4 months now) will make Mejia a dominant bullpen option if the secondary stuff doesn’t come along.
That’s what 2011 is for (or rather, that’s what 2010 should have been for). A full season working on the off-speed pitches should give us a better idea of just how good Mejia is; in particular, the comparisons to Pedro Martinez (mostly based on build and demeanor, as well as the electric fastball) have me hoping he’ll work on the change-up in addition to the curveball he favored in the majors. The season will be spent in AAA, barring any setbacks, and a big-league call-up is entirely possible depending on the development of his secondary pitches and the health of the big-league rotation. His health will remain a slight concern as he continues to add innings, particularly as a small pitcher, but his relatively straightforward delivery doesn’t flash any warning signs (and really, considering Tim Lincecum’s longevity thus far, I am not too worried about small pitchers even with weird motions).
But mostly, Jenrry Mejia is a pitcher to watch just to enjoy pitching, and that’s why he tops the list. We want him to be starter more because we want to spend more time watching him pitch than simply because we think he’ll be good (although trust me, he will). While yes, there are some refinements to be made to his secondary offerings, the real learning will be in learning how to pitch, rather than how to execute. As a baseball fan who would give anything to have a fastball like Mejia’s I’ve found a remarkable joy in watching him figure out what to do with it. I plan on doing that every chance I get this summer, and I suggest you do too.