When news hit that Jon Niese was heading back to New York with elbow discomfort, it was reported that one consequence of that could be that Rafael Montero would make the major league staff. The reports included a quote from Terry Collins indicating the role for Montero would be in the bullpen, not on the starting staff. Personally I was pleased with this news, except for the Niese part, of course. The idea of having Montero on the Opening Day roster in any role would indicate a major change in how the Mets have operated over the last few years.
Since 2010 no true emphasis has been placed on winning games, as winning has been considered to be an unreasonable goal. With many large non-performing contracts on the team’s books, and owners who were looking to simultaneously cut payroll, this was understandable. While waiting out the contracts, the organization attempted to do the only thing left to do: build some foundation for the future. Knowing that winning was far away, the organization did not even attempt to field rosters with our best players. Instead, young players such as Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, and Travis d’Arnaud were kept down in the minors to protect the amount of time they would eventually be bound to the Mets. Painful to live through, but consistent with a team that was also sitting out the free agent market.
But this offseason all of the old obligations were gone, and the Mets spent some money. Less than what many fans would have liked, but much more than in any year since Sandy Alderson became GM. We can argue the merits of the actions, but not the intent. Direction has changed; the building part of the rebuilding process has begun. Part of that direction change needs to be a greater emphasis on bringing young players up to the majors when they are ready to contribute—players like Rafael Montero.
Of course, for this particular discussion, there is the other factor, that Montero might be used in relief. If Niese is injured, that might mean that both Dice-K and John Lannan are in the April rotation and Rafael is not. This idea does not really upset me all that much either. The Cardinals have been breaking in young starting pitchers in the majors for years, and it has worked out very well for them. With organizations adhering to very strict innings limits for young pitchers today, there is strong logic behind having Montero pitch in relief for now. First of all, in April a strong bullpen might be more important than the back end of a rotation, as starting pitchers rarely go deep in games in the beginning of the year. On the other hand, there tends to be more days off because of bad weather, especially for a team in the Northeast such as the Mets, negating a need for all of your starting pitchers. But the big thing is, whether anyone, including me, likes it or not, Montero’s innings will clearly be limited. Using him as a starter in April almost ensures he won’t be starting by late summer.
There is one more issue, which I will call “Meija paranoia.” It has become legend with Mets fans that Jenrry Meija tore his UCL and needed Tommy John surgery because he was moved from being a starting pitcher to a reliever, and then back to a starter. This legend has led to fear of ever using any of our prospect pitchers as relievers. I don’t really understand this, pitchers’ elbows blow out every day. That is both sad and true. As we all know, Matt Harvey is recovering from Tommy John surgery right now. I must have missed Matt’s stint in the pen. It’s time Mets fans exhaled and got over Meija paranoia. Pitchers are going to get injured, no matter how you use them.
A lot of this seems to hinge on Niese’s health, and the best thing for the Mets would be if Jon is fine. But if he is not, it would be nice to see an organizational reaction that showed an eye on the present as well as the future. With Ruben Tejada still patrolling short and the Ike Davis and Lucas Duda follies still underway, I’m not ready to predict a World Championship in 2014. But an important step in becoming a winning team is to make winning a priority. A sign that this was beginning took place in the winter during the free agency process. Becoming more aggressive and creative in how we use our young players would be another.