Spotlight slowly moving away from Mejia, Familia

Spotlight slowly moving away from Mejia, Familia

JUPITER, Fla. -- Around this time three years ago, no one in camp generated more excitement than Jenrry Mejia. He was 19 years old at the time, a fresh new face, with the type of dynamic cut fastball that made scouts dream about his future at the top of a rotation.

Around this time one year ago, all the hype surrounded Matt Harvey and Jeurys Familia. Though neither was expected to break camp with the team, both figured to make an impact before long. Both also profiled as front-end starting pitchers.

Harvey is still very much on the radar, slated to open the season in the rotation. He is the star of a pitching renaissance in Flushing, one that the Mets hope will eventually come to include Zack Wheeler, Rafael Montero, Noah Syndergaard and others.

But the hype machine has moved on from Mejia and Familia.

The only headlines that Mejia made on Tuesday were negative. In his Grapefruit League debut, against the Marlins, Mejia committed a two-base throwing error on the first play of the game, walked a batter, threw a wild pitch and served up a grand slam to Casey Kotchman. He threw 30 pitches in the first inning alone, half of them outside the strike zone.

"That was my first time," Mejia said. "The only thing that I have to work on is to throw strikes, attack the zone, throw the first pitch for a strike."

Chalk some of Mejia's struggles up to rust, considering he has only been in camp for three days. The right-hander's arrival was delayed nearly two weeks due to a visa issue, and although he pitched in multiple games at the Mets' complex in the Dominican Republic while he waited, nothing can quite simulate big league competition.

Now that Mejia is facing Major League hitters on a regular basis again, he must adjust. He avoided his changeup altogether on Tuesday, but he plans to polish his entire four-pitch mix while spending this spring as a full-time starter.

He could open the season in the rotation if Johan Santana is not ready to go, but he is far more likely to wind up at Triple-A Las Vegas, putting himself in line for a midseason promotion.

"I feel ready," he said. "I feel loose. Everything has been good."

For Mejia this spring represents the next step in a three-year journey spent bouncing from the rotation to the bullpen and back to the rotation again, with multiple arm injuries sprinkled in between. He is a starter now, once and for all -- at least until he proves unequivocally that he cannot handle the role.

For Familia the immediate future seems a bit murkier. In part because he struggled as a starter last summer at Triple-A Buffalo, the Mets are looking at him exclusively as a reliever this spring, but that is a new role, and Familia must adjust to it in the weeks and months ahead.

In his second Grapefruit League appearance, on Tuesday, Familia pitched a perfect inning of relief, recovering from his shaky debut over the weekend. He said that soaking up knowledge from closer Frank Francisco and bullpen coach Ricky Bones last September helped him embrace his new role.

"I was in the bullpen with some veteran guys," Familia said. "We talked about the situations, about the game."

Familia may still develop into a successful big league player, even if his potential as a top-of-the-rotation starter may be lost forever. Bullpen arms can certainly be valuable, but front-office executives always value starting pitchers more highly.

As for Mejia, his ceiling remains unclear. Though the Mets are once again trying him in the rotation, he may not stick there unless he develops three reliable pitches. He may be a starter now, but his ultimate fate could also be a life in relief.

"You've got to look at everything involved," manager Terry Collins said. "Down the road, maybe Jenrry's best slot is going to be coming out of the bullpen. He's got a great arm. If he can regain the cutter that he had three years ago, that's a pretty dynamic situation."

No such questions surround Harvey or Wheeler, two of the darlings of this year's camp. Both possess ace potential, and both seem to be well on their way to realizing it.

And both have been in the organization long enough to understand the cautionary tales of Familia and Mejia, who not so long ago walked in their shoes.

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDicomo. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.