Sunday, March 15, 2009

What Should Be Done With Mijares?

After a brief yet successful ten outings in a call up last September, a solid contingency of Twins fans were ready to anoint Jose Mijares the bullpen savior in 2009.  Since this audition however, Mijares has showed glimpses of a potential attitude problem and apathy towards his physical conditioning. 
In the 2008 Baseball Prospectus Annual, the commentator noted that Mijares' "attitude was a concern, as it seems that he doesn't like baseball as much as he's simply good at it."  These words were scribed months prior to Mijares' meltdown in Venezuela and it wound up being prophetic.  The Twins shuttled Mijares south to the Venezuelan Winter League in order to consume more innings considering the majority of his development in 2008 was sidetracked by a car accident a year ago while pitching in the same league.  His winter began much like his season ended: In 28 outings, Mijares worked 25 2/3 innings, striking out 32 and walking 12 while posting an ERA of 1.40.  However, the Twins reliever would find himself at odds with Tigres de Aragua manager Buddy Bailey, resulting in Mijares being a no-show to multiple games.  The feud culminated in Bailey scratching Mijares from the playoff roster in spite of Mijares' obvious success.  For their part, the Twins front office revealed little insight as to their interpretation of the events.  "I'm not sure [Mijares] handled it as well as anyone would have liked," Twins General Manager Bill Smith told reporters in January, sounding more like a parent that had been informed their child was acting out in class. 
The silver-lining that came from the winter ball incident was that the Twins were able to stress to Mijares that nothing is guaranteed -- his spot on the roster is going to have to be earned in the spring.  "If he comes to camp thinking he's a lock for our bullpen, he'll probably be in [Class AAA] Rochester after our first cuts," Smith said. "If he pitches the way he did in September, he has a good chance of making our club."  A introduction to Rochester would be wildly beneficial to the long-term development of Mijares' career.  Consider that including his 10 innings in September, Mijares has thrown just 19 total innings above Class AA. You can believe that teams scheduled to face the Twins in September must have been feverishly contacting scouts and coaches that had seen Mijares in AA in 2007 for some semblance of a scouting report.  Consider that he faced just 34 batters in his stint with the Twins in 2008.  Had Danny Valencia or Luke Hughes showed similar success in 34 plate appearances at the Major League level, this would be quickly dismissed as a small sample size rather than sustainable output.  Likewise, Mijares' 2008 should be viewed as just that, a small sample size success. 
Have you noticed that the Twins front office is more obsessive about weight loss than the trainers on NBC's Biggest Loser?  Last year it was Boof Bonser that needed lighten the load.  This year the Large Marge Award goes to Mijares.  Bonser's bio states that he is six-foot-four carrying 260 pounds, which is downright America's Next Top Model-ish compared to Mijares whose six-foot-even frame is carrying 230 pounds on his comparatively more squat body.  Following a team meeting at the conclusion of the 2008 season, manager Ron Gardenhire prodded Mijares to drop some of the extra weight before spring camp.  So far, Mijares has disappointed the coaching staff with his conditioning program.  During an outing on March 7th against the Pirates, Mijares summoned the manager and trainer to the mound after doubling over following a play that had him covering first and indicated that he had "tweaked" his ankle.  Gardenhire later dismissed this to the media, saying "I think he was out of breath.  He's a work in progress."

The weight and focus issues should not detract from Jose Mijares as a pitcher, however.  Nobody is questioning his talent - scouts like his fastball that can reach the mid-90's and his complementary slider with stomach-churning break.   Yes, the mental state of preparedness and extra poundage raises the concern over endurance and what his second-half might look like with substandard conditioning, both mentally and physically, but he has succeeded at every level in his career.  In 265-plus minor league innings, Mijares accumulated 319 strikeouts to 151 walks - a little over two strikeouts to every walk.  Throughout those levels, Mijares showed that he could retire both left-handed and right-handed opponents with ease, producing a .198 BA versus lefties and a .213 BA versus righties.  On top of that, nobody managed to find a way to hit his offerings squarely (opponents have hit line drives just 9% of the time against him). 
Unfortunately for Mijares, this spring has been littered with sub-par performances and ultimately failing to exert himself as the dominate reliever that the Twins need -- allowing six runs while striking out four and walking seven in 4 2/3 innings of work.  Giving Mijares the opportunity to refine his abilities to begin the 2009 season is the right decision for the organization.