Mejia was a forgotten entity by many Mets fans prior to his return to the big leagues last summer. Upon returning, he dazzled on the mound, looking like a young Pedro Martinez with both his hair and his offerings. While he pitched in just 27.1 innings, he recorded a 2.30 ERA and a 1.3 BB/9, the latter being a significant number since control was his biggest problem during his development.
33-year-old veteran Matsuzaka pitched for the Mets last September, and after performing poorly upon arriving in New York, he settled down and showed signs of promise in his final three outings. He recorded wins in all three starts, pitching 20.2 innings and giving up just three earned runs.
Mejia seemed like the favorite to be the fifth starter all offseason (provided that he is healthy), but as spring training started, buzz began circulating that Matsuzaka had earned the edge in the competition instead. Via ESPN’s Adam Rubin, manager Terry Collins said early in camp that the team preferred having a veteran as the No. 5 starter, seemingly giving the edge to Matsuzaka over Mejia.
The Mets also have a financial incentive to make Matsuzaka the No. 5 starter.
They would need to pay him $100,000 in order to retain his minor league rights if they choose to send him to the minors, and Matsuzaka has the ability to opt out of his contract if he is not on the major league roster by May 30.
Losing Matsuzaka, who has performed well in camp and who the Mets seem to like, would cost the Mets veteran starting pitching depth—and with Jon Niese’s shaky health and the fragile-nature of major league arms, he could be valuable later in the season.
General manager Sandy Alderson was expected to declare a winner of the competition on Tuesday, but instead the usually frugal Mets decided to offer the $100,000 to Matsuzaka and give themselves more time to make the decision.
The argument for Mejia to be in the rotation is an easy one to understand: He has the ability to dominate any lineup in the league on any given night, and has exhibited greater consistency (when healthy) since returning to the mound last season.
Matsuzaka is the less sexy choice, but relative to Mejia, he is appealing because the Mets seem to know what they have with him. Mejia has never pitched 100 innings in the majors, while Matsuzaka has done so on multiple occasions. If the Mets choose Mejia and then lose him to injury, and they also lose Matsuzaka because of the opt-out clause, then the team would be in a much worse situation this season.
Right now the Mets have a problem that most teams wish that they could have.
Mejia’s injuries will always be a concern until he stays healthy for an entire season, but as long as he is healthy and pitching well, wasting his innings in Triple-A is fruitless for the organization.
The Mets also don’t know what to expect from Niese as he is coming off of a season with shoulder issues and has had injury scares this spring. Having a guy like Matsuzaka to come up if anything goes wrong is a valuable commodity.
However, losing Matsuzaka wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.
The Mets are blessed with some of the brightest young pitching stars in the minors in Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero, and they have other arms like Jacob deGrom who could become serviceable starters in the near future. If the Mets' rotation (with Mejia at the back of it) stays healthy through May 30 and Matsuzaka decides to opt out, any injury following that date would be an acceptable time to call up one of the Mets' young arms.
The Mets also need to take into account how sending Mejia down to Triple-A would negatively affect him as a pitcher.
Beyond wasting his 2014 innings in the minors, the Mets Triple-A affiliate in Las Vegas plays in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in one of the most hitter-friendly leagues in the minors. Mejia has always had outstanding stuff, but until last season his major problem was attacking hitters and consistently throwing strikes. Giving up hits and home runs in the minors on balls that would be outs in most stadiums could make Mejia wary of attacking the zone moving forward.
As long as he is pitching well and throwing strikes, the Mets should not risk altering his approach to pitching.
Both Mejia and Matsuzaka have one more start remaining in spring training, as they will pitch this weekend in Montreal. But making a decision based on one performance isn’t smart business.
Based on how the Mets have handled this situation, it appears as if both Matsuzaka and Mejia will get starts the first week of the season (giving Niese another week to prepare). Mejia should then be the No. 5 starter once the rotation works itself out, since they could have saved themselves $100,000 dollars by declaring Matsuzaka the starter on Tuesday.
The Mets made the smart decision to maintain the minor league rights to Matsuzaka, as it gives them much more flexibility moving forward. However, if the Mets still choose Matsuzaka over Mejia, that would be a big mistake. They would be risking one of their highest ceiling arms for the sake of having a below-average veteran who has no long-term future with the club.
Having Matsuzaka improves the Mets as an organization, but only if it doesn’t affect the future of Mejia—who could become an elite pitcher if he proves that he can handle a starter's workload.
All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.