Dillon Gee made his first Major League relief appearance on Friday, and it went like this: 1.2 innings, two walks, one hit, a hit batter, and four earned runs on a Ryan Howard grand slam. Before Friday, Gee had only pitched professionally in relief three times, all in his first minor league season in 2007 with the Brooklyn Cyclones. He started 75 games in the minors, and in his first seven starts with the Mets (five in 2010) he’s posted a 2.12 ERA.
When Chris Young returned to the rotation on Tuesday, some felt that Chris Capuano — who’s made four starts in 2011 but began the year in the pen and has a 6.04 ERA — should go back in relief to make room for Gee. Instead, the Mets let the newly signed (one year, $1.5 mill), 32-year-old veteran stay in the starting five over Gee, who turned 25 on Thursday.
Certainly, one bad relief outing from Gee is not sufficient evidence to say he won’t have success in the role. However, the Mets have made a habit in recent years of having ex-starters pitch in relief when it suits the immediate needs of the big league squad. (In my opinion, he should keep starting — whether it’s in the majors or minors — as long as there’s someone else in the bullpen who can do a decent job.) Here’s a look at a few Mets who made the transition and how they fared.
Heilman pitched out of the pen as a freshman at Notre Dame, but for the next three years he was a bona fide stud as a starter. In his senior season for the Irish in 2001, Heilman went 15-0 in 15 starts with 12 complete games, three shutouts, a 1.74 ERA and a 0.98 WHIP. Naturally, when the Mets drafted him 18th overall in the 2001 amateur draft, they treated him as a starter, and he kept his ERA in the threes in 47 minor league starts with St. Lucie, Binghamton and Norfolk from 2001-2003.
But when the Mets called him up in late June 2003 to join the rotation for the remainder of the season, he struggled against big-league hitters. He managed just three quality starts in 13 tries, going 2-7 with a 6.75 ERA. In ’04 he spent even more time in Norfolk than he had the previous year, and in 26 starts he had a 4.33 ERA and a 1.46 WHIP. Still, he got a one-month shot in the bigs at the end of the year and again was sub-par, going 1-3 with a 5.46 ERA.
Desperate to get something out of the 6’5″, 230-pound first-rounder, the Mets gave Heilman one last chance to start in the beginning of the ’05 season. This time, he had a 4.71 ERA in seven outings, but he showed flashes of brilliance, including a one-hitter against the Marlins on April 15. But exactly a month later, Heilman gave up four earned in 5.2 innings and took the loss against the Cardinals, and he hasn’t started a Major League game since.
Heilman excelled out of the pen for the rest of 2005, and also did solid work for the Mets in ’06 and ’07, logging over 85 innings each year. 2008 was brutal — 5.21 ERA in 78 appearances — and it was his last year as a Met.
The Verdict: Right Choice. Overall it seems that, despite Heilman’s frequent (and somewhat annoying) pleas to start, the Mets made the right decision. Heilman was unpredictable as a starter, and he ended up giving the team three solid years out of the pen from 2005-07.
Mejia was just 17 in 2007 when he began playing in the Mets system, and as a starter he has mowed down minor leaguers at every level. He made seven relief appearances in ’07 but has been a starter in every one of his minor league appearances since, and in 280.2 minor league innings he has a 2.66 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and 8.7 K/9.
Nonetheless, when Mejia began last season with the Mets, it was as a reliever, and from April to June he made 30 appearances and had a 3.25 ERA. In late June, though, he was sidelined with a strained rotator cuff, and after missing six weeks he returned to the minors to work back up to becoming a starter. He then returned to the Mets to make three September starts, but on September 15 against the Pirates Mejia left the game in the third with what turned out to be a season-ending shoulder strain.
Now, Mejia is back at AAA Buffalo doing what he does best — starting — and despite a few shaky recent outings he has looked sharp in five starts. But were the Mets right to put their star prospect in the pen in 2010?
The Verdict: Wrong Choice. While it’s not clear whether Mejia’s first injury was related to the fact that he had never pitched out of the bullpen before, they shouldn’t have messed with a guy who has the potential to be an ace. Understandably, the Mets were desperate to compete last year, and Mejia did all he could to help. But Mejia is a starter, and it ought to stay that way.
The 36-year-old southpaw from Japan spent 10 years as a starter for the Yomiuri Giants from 2000-2009. While he was by no means an ace there, he had two strong seasons in 2007 and 2009, posting ERAs of 2.75 and 2.94, respectively. He averaged just 2.3 BB/9 from 2007-09. Still, when he began pitching for the Mets in 2010, he immediately was used as a reliever, and he adjusted well.
But after 15 relief appearances, the Mets threw “Taka” into the fire, giving him the nod against the Yankees and Phillies on May 21 and 26. He dazzled, throwing six shutout innings both times. From there, it was essentially two-games-on, two-games-off, but even after a pair of stellar performances in late July he was relegated back to the pen for the rest of 2010. Over the final two months, he was nearly unhittable, allowing just four earned runs in 27.1 innings. Now, he’s being used frequently as a reliever by the Angels.
The Verdict: Right Choice. Given that Taka is in his mid-30s and clearly does not have the stuff to be any more than a fifth or fourth starter at best, the Mets had to utilize him in whatever way was necessary. If he had been more convincing as a starter, perhaps he would have stayed there, but like Heilman he was somewhat unpredictable. Takahashi did everything the Mets asked of him, and he helped make 2010 just a little less painful.
Okay, so the Mets weren’t the ones who moved him to the pen. But he’s still a starter-turned-reliever — and who doesn’t love his story? Izzy was drafted by the Mets in the 44th round of the 1991 amateur draft, and he spent his fair share of time in the minors working toward becoming a big league starting pitcher. He came into his own in 1994, making 14 starts apiece at St. Lucie and Binghamton and compiling a 2.61 ERA. Then, when he came up to the Mets in July 1995, he was flat-out awesome, going 9-2 with a 2.81 ERA in 14 starts. But it was all downhill from there.
In 1996, he made 27 starts and went 6-14 with a 4.77 ERA, 1.52 WHIP. Then a plethora of injuries ruined his career as a starter. He was terrible in six starts at the end of ’97, missed all of ’98, and has been a reliever — and a good one– ever since. Now, after another recovery from injury, he’s back in New York where it all began. And don’t expect him to join the rotation any time soon.
The Verdict: Right Choice. By the A’s, that is. Izzy’s career as a starter declined until it completely blew up in his face in 1997. In retrospect, it was clearly the right decision — Izzy had seven years with over 30 saves between 2000 and 2007, and for now the 38-year-old is the Mets’ setup man.