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The Strike Zone

Rafael Montero's curious debut part of Mets' rebuilding plan for 2015

Rafael Montero will make his MLB debut against the Yankees on Wednesday night. (Jeff Roberson/AP)Rafael Montero was 4-1 with 41 strikeouts in 41 2/3 innings at Triple-A this season. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

In a curiously-timed move, Rafael Montero, the Mets' second-best pitching prospect, will make his major league debut Wednesday night. He'll be doing so in the middle of the Mets' four-game interleague series against the cross-town Yankees (in the first game at Citi Field in that series) opposite the Yankees' Masahiro Tanaka in an attempt to clinch a series win for the Mets. But the local hype surrounding the game is just one reason why Wednesday night is strange timing for Montero's debut. More significant is the fact that his debut is coming in mid-May, just three weeks or so before the likely cutoff for Super Two arbitration eligibility.

Super Two status, which makes a player eligible for salary arbitration a year early and gives him four rather than three years of eligibility prior to his free agency, is tricky. The cutoff isn't officially determined until years later, when the top 22 percent of players by service time with between two and three years of major league service are identified, but it typically falls in early June. As a result, it is not uncommon for teams, particularly rebuilding teams with little hope of contending in the current year and teams with limited financial flexibility, to delay their top prospects' debuts until they can be reasonably confident those players won't become Super Two eligible.

The Mets are very much a cash-strapped team with little hope of contending in the current year, the former due to ownership's mountains of debt, the latter due to a weak offense, creaky bullpen, and the presence in their division of the heavily favored Nationals and Braves. So why call up Montero now? It can't be to give attendance a boost; Tanaka and the Yankees will spike Wednesday night's attendance far more than Montero, a prospect few casual fans know.

"We’ve been ridiculed at times about Super Twos and other things going on." Mets manager Terry Collins said before Tuesday night's game in the Bronx when asked about the promotions of both Montero and fellow right-hander Jacob deGrom, who will work out of the bullpen. "We’re worried about winning. And if that means we bring up a young player that people think we might bring up later in the summer to come up now to help? That should tell you that we’re trying to win. . . . We talked about this in spring training . . . May was when we were going to call someone up. We just didn’t know who it was going to be."

If the Mets are so concerned about winning, why not call up their top pitching prospect, Montero and deGrom's Triple-A rotation-mate Noah Syndergaard, who has clearly out-pitched Montero over the pair's last four starts? It's likely because of the team's evaluation of the two pitchers' relative readiness for their major league bow. At 23, Montero is two years older than Syndergaard, and, thanks to a mid-year promotion last season, Montero has three times as many Triple-A starts under his belt as Syndergaard, who made his Triple-A debut in April. Syndergaard is the elite talent in that Triple-A rotation, but Montero is a pitcher who has received high marks for his maturity and ability to mix and command his pitches, such that he has consistently out-pitched his rather underwhelming stuff (low-90s fastball, solid changeup, unexceptional slider). Perhaps that's just an excuse to play Super Two games with Syndergaard, but it's a good one, and given the pitchers' relative potential (Montero is seen as a mid-rotation starter rather than a potential ace), Syndergaard is the player whose arbitration value is likely be of greater concern.

Even more curious, Montero's start Wednesday night is coming in place of another of the team's top young arms, 24-year-old Jenrry Mejia, who was bounced to the bullpen over the weekend after following two disastrous starts with a relatively effective but inefficient one against the Phillies. Mejia, a former top-50 prospect per both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus, went 3-0 with a 1.99 ERA and 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings in his first four starts this season, and Collins said as recently as Tuesday night that the Mets "wanted to give Mejia a legitimate chance to be a starter."

It's difficult to argue that they have done that. One of Mejia's disaster starts came in Denver against the Rockies, who are averaging 7.6 runs scored per game in Coors Field thus far this season. In the other, he struck out six men against just one walk in 5 2/3 innings and allowed just one run through his first five frames before things fell apart in the sixth. That last one points to Mejia's struggles when facing hitters for a third time in a game this season (in 44 such plate appearances, his opponents have hit .405/.500/.595), but that wasn't an issue for Mejia in his five major league starts last season. So why pull a talented young pitcher out of the rotation now just to start the clock on another arguably less talented pitcher who is only a year younger?

Two reasons. The first is that Mejia, who had Tommy John surgery in 2011, is going to be limited to roughly 125 innings this season. That comes a year after he threw a career-high of 120 frames, only 27 1/3 of which came in the major leagues, in a season that ended with Mejia having bone chips removed from his pitching elbow. The other is that, with Bobby Parnell out for the year after his own Tommy John surgery and due to become a free agent after next season, the Mets need a closer. Mejia, after years of being jerked between starting and relieving by the organization, may yet be that guy.

The Mets' primary goal this season was to sort out their young pitching talent in order to have those pieces in place by the time Matt Harvey returned from his Tommy John rehabilitation next spring. If everyone can stay (or get) healthy, the Mets' 2015 rotation could include Harvey, Syndergaard (with roughly half a season of major league experience under his belt), Zack Wheeler, Jonathon Niese, and Bartolo Colon. But how will the Mets fit in Mejia, Montero, and Dillon Gee, who has two team-controlled seasons remaining after this one? The team has the rest of the year to figure that out, and this is part of that process.
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