The only thing more hyperactive than Jose Reyes's thyroid at Mets camp has been the hype machine about 20-year-old righty Jenrry Mejia. He's thrown five-and-a-third innings of scoreless baseball with five strikeouts and no walks, giving rise to the notion of elevating him directly to the big leagues as a set-up man for Francisco Rodriguez.
There are reasons to like the idea. He's got an electric arm that, by virtue of getting big leaguers out with only his fastball, would seem to translate well to the eighth inning right now. The Mets have a hole in that part of their bullpen since their crack medical staff signed off on Kelvim Escobar, whose arm seems to have the consistency of tapioca pudding, and the other options are fairly underwhelming. Mejia's got the stuff, the argument goes, so why let his age get in the way?
Of course, that argument presupposes that you need an "eighth-inning guy." It's become a chic idea around baseball in recent years that such a role exists and that there are pitchers well-suited for it, but given the way that teams seem to cycle through these guys several times over a season it would seem that it isn't exactly the case. You don't want to blow leads in the seventh or eighth, of course, but as long as baseball managers keep using their best relievers only under certain circumstances in the ninth inning it is going to happen. It's not wise to base your long-term baseball decisions on hypothetical eighth inning leads, however, so let's look at other evidence.
Mejia has done very well in the minor leagues in his brief professional career. He's struck out nearly nine batters per nine innings, has posted a sterling 2.91 ERA and held his own in 10 Double-A starts before turning 20. Exciting stuff, to be sure. He's never thrown 100 innings in a season, though, and his walk rate of just under five at Binghamton shows that there's still work to be done.
Let that work be done back in upstate New York, no matter how good he looks in March, and there's a good chance that Mejia will join Johan Santana in the rotation come 2011. Force him into the bullpen to get key outs late in games and his fastball will be the only thing he uses, stunting his development for the price of what?
That's the biggest reason to be against Mejia. Right now, the Mets don't know what their season is going to look like. If we look up on June 24 and see that the Mets are hanging in the race and need a boost to the bullpen, it's very easy to revisit the Mejia question. If he's done well at AA and you think he's the difference in a pennant race, then get him to Queens.
If that sounds familiar, it's because of Joba Chamberlain. The Yankees rushed him to the bigs in 2007 and he was crucial to their attempt to make the playoffs. It's worth noting that jumping Chamberlain to the majors undoubtedly changed his development arc as a pitcher. Whatever you think about the right role for Chamberlain, it's hard to argue that he's better off for the way he's been handled over the last three seasons. It's also worth noting that Joe Torre was fighting for his managerial future that summer.
You can't eliminate that angle from the discussion. Jerry Manuel knows he needs to squeeze out every win to avoid getting the axe.
With his contract up after this year, he doesn't have much to lose by going all out. Omar Minaya needs to stand in the way of that, even with his own job security being hotly discussed. To the G.M.'s credit, he's been steadfast about sending Mejia to the minors but another clutch of dominant innings is going to make it harder to stick to those guns.
Stick to his guns he should, however, because there's so much more to gain by letting both Mejia and the Mets season develop before making any drastic decisions.