When the Indians had to make roster decisions heading into the 2018 rule 5 draft, the addition of Jean Carlos Mejia to the 40 man was the most off the wall. With no risk of being taken by a MLB team after just completing his first season in A ball, this was a strange vote of confidence in the 22 year old prospect.
Mejia was a solid reliever in the Dominican Summer League, but that is no guarantee of success at higher levels and the fact that it took him three years to get to the US was definitely a point of worry. Despite this, he really blossomed 2017 with the AZL Indians when he pushed his K/9 to 12 after averaging half that while in the DSL.
Between the 2017 and 2018 seasons, the decision was made to move Mejia to the starting rotation and, at least for one season, things couldn’t have worked out better. In his first two appearances, Mejia was stretched out in long relief and in early June he joined the rotation. Incredibly, over his first seven appearances Mejia averaged 4.1 innings per appearance with a 2.67 ERA, allowing more than one earned run in an appearance just one poor outing where he allowed four runs in four innings. While this lead into his worst appearance of the season (6 runs on 7 hits in 6 IP on July 6th), he immediately turned things back around and went on the best run of his career.
On July 25th, Mejia went seven shut out innings, striking out ten and allowing just three hits and a walk. He repeated the feat his next time out, striking out another ten in seven shut out innings, this time allowing just one hit. While he had never thrown more than 40 innings in a season before, Mejia had already surpassed that point in 2018 before he hit his peak.
In the end, it is possible that the extended use hurt Mejia in the end as his last two appearances looked considerably worse than the rest of his season. He allowed seven runs in four innings in his final appearance with Lake County, then four more in six innings in his only start with Lynchburg. While it wasn’t a perfect ending, Mejia had proven his value already and made a big enough name for himself to be added to the 40 man roster and to start the 2019 season in Lynchburg.
While Mejia is heading into his sixth season with the Indians, he is still only 22 years old, which makes him slightly younger than the average Carolina Leaguer. Looking at the expected rotation for the Hillcats of Mejia, Juan Hillman, Eli Morgan, Justin Garza and Nick Gallagher, Mejia has the odd position of being both the second youngest (Hillman is a few months younger), but the most experienced. Both Garza and Gallagher had major injury issues to start their careers, both missing the entirety of their rookie seasons (2015 for Garza, 2017 for Gallagher) and having to come back slowly after. Morgan has been dominant so far, but is only entering into his third year with the Indians and his second with Lynchburg.
While his role among the rotation is yet to be fleshed out, his experiences of being both a starter and reliever and a master of control turned strike out enthusiast could serve him well in becoming a leader on this staff. He may not have the highest ceiling among the Hillcats starters, but he doesn’t have the lowest either and he is certainly trending in the right direction. If he can maintain his BB/9 at 2.0 or below and keep the strike outs coming, Mejia would be valuable either as a starter, or back in the bullpen where he started. Look for him to increase his workload for now, possibly closer a normal MiLB starter’s (~150 IP) and for him to advance quickly if he does maintain his success.
From there, the Indians may need to make another difficult situation similar to the one made with the last well thought of Mejia. With Cleveland, he has little use as a starting pitcher and there are very limited chances of that situation changing over the next five years. He could, however, be greatly useful as a reliever starting as early as 2020. With another team, the situation could be the exact opposite as he could be a solid back of the rotation innings eater who won’t get you into too much trouble. This was a problem with Francisco Mejia as he was more valuable to the Indians in the outfield, but to every other team in baseball as a catcher.
Mejia is far enough away that he is likely to remain a starter for 2019, but we may get a glimpse of the Indians plans for the future should they change things up as the year goes on. If they think they can trade him, there is no reason to move him out of the rotation, but if they want to keep him, he should be converted back to the bullpen by the end of the year. Neither would be a bad fit for Mejia, however, and it could possibly benefit him greatly to take what he has learned as a starter and use that in a shorter role out of the pen.