AFL Notebook: Mejia Showing Signs Of Life

SURPRISE, Ariz.—Jenrry Mejia signed with the Mets two and a half years ago in relative anonymity.

His $16,500 signing bonus looks like a clearance-aisle price today for the organization’s No. 1 prospect, a power-armed righthander who reached Double-A in June before just turning 20 last month.

Pitching for Surprise yesterday after missing his last scheduled start due to illness, Mejia touched 96 mph with his fastball once, otherwise ranging from 90-95 mph and mostly sitting 92-95 (he’s been clocked as high as 98 mph in previous outings here in the AFL and during the minor league season). 

His fastball is a swing-and-miss offering, not just because of its velocity but because of its outstanding movement. Mejia generates tremendous cutting action on his fastball, and he’ll also put some sink on his heater as well. Between the velocity and movement, Mejia has a pitch he can use as an out pitch or to induce grounders—71 percent of his outs on balls in play were groundouts during the minor league season. 

“It has a lot of power—it gets on you quick,” said Surprise pitching coach Tom Phelps, the Yankees’ Double-A pitching coach at Trenton during the 2009 minor league season. “He has a fastball that will cut, and he also has a fastball that will sink. As long as he keeps it down in the zone, he gets a lot of ground balls and a lot of early outs and quick innings. The big thing for him is controlling it in the zone and not getting behind hitters and walking hitters.”

Mejia did a good job limiting free passes during the regular season with high Class A St. Lucie, where he had a 1.97 ERA in 50 1/3 innings and walked 2.9 batters per nine innings. His walk rate increased to 4.7 per nine in 44 1/3 innings upon his promotion to Double-A Binghamton, an increase partly due to better competition but also likely because six of his 10 Double-A starts came in August and September when he was returning from a strained right middle finger.

The shakiness with his command has carried over to the AFL. He’s allowed 11 walks in 11 1/3 innings and has an 11.91 ERA through five starts. Mejia did allow five runs yesterday, though one was unearned. Two other runs scored after Mejia left the game with two outs and runners on second and third in the fourth inning, when White Sox outfielder Jordan Danks hit a groundball single off Mets righthander Josh Stinson to bring home the runners.

Aside from improved command, scouts want to see more consistency from Mejia’s offspeed pitches. His 78-82 mph curveball showed flashes of tight spin and sharp downward bite at times, but he also threw some slurvy ones as well. Mejia didn’t show much of his high-80s changeup, but it’s a projectable offering, too.

“When he just throws it and doesn’t try to overthrow it, he’s got a good curveball,” Phelps said. “It looks like his heater, he’s got good deception and it’s got some quick break to it. Also his better secondary pitch is his changeup. His changeup has a lot of depth, has real good arm speed and looks like his fastball. He’s got the pitches to complement (his fastball), it’s just a matter of him being able to control it in the zone and keeping it down in the zone.”

• Royals righthander Blake Wood had a marginal regular season with Double-A Northwest Arkansas, posting a 5.83 ERA in 78 2/3 innings with 28 walks and 49 strikeouts. He’s given up nearly a run per inning for Surprise, but the he had his best outing of the AFL on Tuesday, striking out three in 1 2/3 shutout innings. Wood, 24, pitched at 93-96 mph.

“He’s shown that plus fastball with some hard sink,” Phelps said. “He’s got the pitches and he’s got the demeanor. He’s more of a quiet bulldog on the mound. He’s got a plus sink fastball. The biggest thing with him is mixing his pitches well and not missing up out over the plate. But when he gets going with his fastball, he’s tough to hit and gets a lot of ground balls."

• Tanner Scheppers has created buzz by pitching in the mid- to high-90s for Surprise. A likely top 10 pick out of Fresno State in the 2008 draft prior to hurting his shoulder that April, Scheppers opted not to sign with the Pirates when he slipped to 48th overall in the draft that year. After rehab and pitching for the St. Paul Saints in independent ball this spring, he signed with the Rangers for $1.25 million as the 44th overall selection.

One scout pointed out that Scheppers still has a hitch in the back of his delivery, but he’s flashed plenty of arm strength in his brief appearances.

“He’s got a pretty good idea of what he’s trying to do, especially for not being in pro ball,” Phelps said. “I know he played one year in the independent league after he got drafted, but for a young kid he’s pretty mature and he’s got a pretty good idea of what he’s doing. He’s got that plus fastball, he’s got good angle with it. He doesn’t have the command with it yet, but when he gets the command, he could be something pretty special.

“With that arm speed, he’s got a curveball that has big bite and can be a plus pitch for him. The changeup he’s still developing, he’s still trying to trust and use it in the game. When you’ve got that big plus fastball a lot of times it’s tough for him to start working in that changeup, but I think over the next few years he’ll develop that.”

• Freddie Freeman’s numbers with the Peoria Saguaros haven’t been overwhelming, but the Braves’ 20-year-old first baseman has drawn some praise from manager David Bell for his work at the plate and in the field.

“I see why he’s a top prospect in the Braves organization,” Saguaros manager David Bell said. “A young kid, but a great approach at the plate and uses the whole field. He’s a line-drive hitter, but he’s just going to continue to get stronger and hit for more power. He’s an athlete at first base—he moves around very well and has a good arm. It’s not about running speed, but he moves around the base well.”

• Finally, a word of caution for any conclusions to draw from the AFL, be it from the numbers or first-hand observations. The AFL is a great way to congregate prospects in a relatively small area. While at a typical minor league game there might be just a few future big leaguers on the field, almost everyone here in the AFL is worth bearing down on.

Still, from seeing some of these players during the regular season compared to now, and from talking to scouts about the challenges of AFL evaluations, putting too much stock into what you see at the AFL can be dangerous.

The first week of the season can be especially deceiving with hitters and pitchers coming back from a long layoff. Scouts who have been around the league for a while say that several players’ mechanics look sharper than they did the first week of the season. Velocities have greater variance here the first week of the season as pitchers are getting back into their routines, and throughout the entire AFL season because they throw in shorter stints than they do in the regular season.

Then there are other players who simply look tired. I’ve heard a few players now who said they’re just looking forward to having the season end and are ready to go home at this point.

One other major variable affecting the hitters is that they don’t get to play every day. During the minor league season, any player who is a prospect is going to be in the lineup every day. That just doesn’t happen in the AFL, where every organization is going to want their position prospects to play as many games as possible. They might take batting practice, but not facing live pitching every day the way they’re used to can throw some guys off.

So while the AFL is a great tool for evaluators, it’s important to remember not to get too carried away with what happens here.