Comparing Jenrry Mejia and Neftali Feliz

How good would Jenrry Mejia look in the New York Mets starting rotation?

There’s a good chance the 21-year-old would be a fixture in the rotation this season had the Mets not insisted on starting him in the New York bullpen last season and wasting an available year of development time.

However, maybe the Mets have the wrong idea this year.

Maybe Mejia, like the Rangers’ Neftali Feliz, would be more valuable in the bullpen, perhaps as the heir apparent to Francisco Rodriguez.

Both Mejia and Feliz have similar profiles and backgrounds. Both are early-20s power pitchers signed out of the Dominican who advanced quickly through the minor leagues as starters.

When the Rangers were gearing up for a second-half playoff push in 2009, they decided Feliz could help in the bullpen, thus they converted him at midseason at Class AAA Oklahoma City and summoned him one month later.

The Mets took a similar approach with Mejia, considered the Mets’ top pitching prospect and ranked the 56th-best prospect by Baseball America entering 2010 and the 44th-best prospect entering this season.

The New York front office thought the power arm could help a bullpen that was unstable after closer Rodriguez and left-handed setup man Pedro Feliciano.

Although he had a respectable 3.25 ERA in 30 games, his WHIP was 1.590 and he walked nearly as many batters as he struck out – 15 walks and 17 strikeouts in 27.2 innings – nowhere near what Feliz had done in 20 relief outings in Texas (31 IP, 13 H, 8 BB, 39 SO).

The Mets decided in mid-June to scrap the experiment and send Mejia to Class AA Binghamton to start his conversion back to the rotation. He returned to New York in September and made three starts, losing two and posting a 1.951 WHIP in 11 1/3 innings.

Although Feliz dominated, it didn’t work out for the Rangers in 2009, but the club kept him in the bullpen last season. He took over the closer role a month in and won AL Rookie of the Year, helping the Rangers to the AL pennant.

Texas toyed with the idea of moving him back to the rotation this season, even having him pitch as a starter in spring training until they decided last week to keep him as the team’s closer.

Maybe New York should do the same with Mejia? Put him back in the pen and groom him to be the heir apparent to Rodriguez.

First of all, New York is in an entirely different situation than Texas. And second, Mejia, while a promising prospect, has done nothing comparable to Feliz.

To the first point, Texas won the pennant last season, should contend again this season and does not have a viable alternative to Feliz at the end of the bullpen.

New York is not considered a contender this season and even though there’s a need in the pen, New York has Rodriguez entrenched as its closer, so the Mets should do what is best for Mejia’s future.

And even though Feliz has been moved back to the pen, Rangers president, owner and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan insists he’d prefer Feliz pitch as a starter and hopes to return him to that role next season.

In a very short time, Feliz has established himself as an elite closer, but data has shown that closers are easier to find than dominant starters, and pitchers with the stuff and arm of Feliz, have the potential to be dominant.

The same can be said of Mejia. With his power arm and stuff, he has a chance on becoming a top-notch starting pitcher. If he doesn’t pan out in that role, New York can then move him back to the bullpen and possibly to the closer role. But if they continue to mess with him, it would become increasingly more difficult to try to convert him back to a starter.

Most development people agree that top pitching prospects need to be in the starting rotation to develop their secondary pitches and condition their arm. They also believe that a dominant starting pitcher who can pitch 200 innings will provide more quality than a closer who pitches 80 innings.

And let’s not get carried away with comparisons between Feliz and Mejia.

Feliz entered 2009 as the No. 10 prospect in the minor leagues by Baseball America and entered last season at No. 9 – considerably ahead of Mejia.

While their minor league numbers are similar, Feliz has been dominant in the majors, Mejia mediocre at best. So there is no merit in comparing the two.

While the possessor of overpowering stuff, Mejia has yet to pitch more than 94 innings in a season and walks close to a batter every other inning, including 20 in 39 innings with New York last season.

New York is doing the right thing with Mejia. Forget the comparisons to Feliz. He should pitch in the starting rotation, work on developing his pitches.

Mejia has time as far as development is concerned. He won’t turn 22 until after the season, and time is not running out for the flamethrower. If he comes up midseason, he could be come the first Met pitcher 21 or younger to make five starts in a season since Bill Pulsipher in 1995. So he’s still well ahead of the curve.

Only four pitchers 21 or younger made 10 or more starts last season. Conceivably, Mejia could be a full-time member of the rotation in 2011 at 22 years of age. Only three Mets since 1970 have started 25 or more games at age 22 or younger (Dwight Gooden four times, Jon Matlack, Sid Fernandez).

Be patient and perhaps Mejia will join an even more prestigious list, becoming the first Mets hurler age 22 or younger to win 15 games since Dwight Gooden in 1987. That would make him the first in the majors since Mark Prior did it for the Cubs in 2003 – a list that also includes Greg Maddux, Fernando Valenzuela, Ramon Martinez and Don Gullett.

Not bad company.

1 comment for “Comparing Jenrry Mejia and Neftali Feliz

  1. Brian Joura
    April 2, 2011 at 11:42 am

    While Feliz was higher ranked than Mejia by BA, it’s also true that Feliz was a year older with more pitching experience. When BA ranked Feliz #10, he was coming off a year where he made 27 starts for two full-season clubs. If Mejia could have had the same experience, he would have ranked much higher on the prospect lists.

    Nolan Ryan has it right — Feliz should be a starter and as far as the Mets are concerned – Mejia should be one, too. I’m glad he’s in the minors working as a SP and I fully expect he’ll pitch in the majors as a SP sometime this year.

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