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July 6, 1999

Prospectus Profile: Gil Meche

The Mariners’ newest rotation solution debuts

by Jeff Bower

Entering the 1999 season, 20-year-old Gil Meche was rated the fourth-best prospect in the Seattle Mariners' organization by Baseball America, behind Ryan Anderson, Freddy Garcia and Carlos Guillen. Both Garcia and Guillen started the year with the big league squad, and while Anderson is currently laboring at Double-A New Haven, Meche has pitched so well that he will make his major league debut Tuesday night in Anaheim.

Meche is a 6'3", 185-pound right-hander who throws a 94-mph fastball with good movement and a hard slider. He has reduced his reliance on a late-breaking curveball that he has trouble throwing for strikes and is instead throwing more changeups. Meche cites his improved changeup as a big reason for his success this year.

"My changeup is what has been getting me by lately," the right-hander said. "I'm finally pitching with confidence in it. Earlier this year and last, I was just throwing it as a 'show me' pitch to set up my fastball and slider. Now I'm trying to make them swing at it and hit it on the ground. It makes my fastball better, too."

Moving On Up

At 16, Meche was named the most valuable pitcher at the 1995 National Amateur All-Star Tournament, after his junior year at Acadania High School in Scott, La. But he suffered a viral infection that winter which limited his pitching during his senior season, and caused him to fall to the Mariners, who selected him with the 22nd pick of the June 1996 draft. As has become a Seattle tradition, he was a late signee and managed only two starts that year, both with Peoria in the Arizona Fall League.

Back to full strength in 1997, Meche spent most of the season at Everett in the short-season Northwest League. His solid performance there (74 2/3 IP, 75 H, 24 BB, 62 K, 3.98 ERA) merited him a late season promotion to low-A Wisconsin. Back at Wisconsin last year, Meche pitched in the shadow of the more-heralded Anderson, and improved on his numbers. He led all Mariner minor leaguers with 168 strikeouts, improved his ERA to 3.44 and was named to the Midwest League All-Star team.

Feeling a need to fast-track their young starters, the Mariners had Meche and Anderson skip high-A Lancaster and join another of their prized arms, Joel Pineiro, at New Haven to begin this season. All three struggled initially, but Meche righted himself after three mediocre starts, and over his next seven posted a 1.64 ERA, allowing only 31 hits in 44 innings, walking 18 and striking out 43. According to Meche, the improvement had nothing to do with any type of mechanical adjustment. "My stuff was good enough to do well there and I just didn't know it at the time. I was trying to make it better than what I had. Once I figured that out, I went out and pitched with what I had and it worked." It worked so well that in early June the Mariners moved him up to Triple-A Tacoma.

The promotion put Meche just 35 miles from Seattle, and the Mariners' never-ending pitching woes. It didn't take long for the parent club place a call to Tacoma. After just five starts for the Rainiers, word leaked out last Tuesday that if Meche had a good outing against Nashville on Thursday, he would be recalled to start against the Anaheim Angels on July 6th.

On the Brink of The Show

When Meche strolled into the clubhouse about two hours before game time on Thursday, it was apparent that this was no ordinary start. Benny Looper, the Mariners' Director of Player Development, was meeting with Rainiers' manager Dave Myers and pitching coach Jim Slaton. The Seattle media was on hand en masse to record Meche's final tune-up.

Meche was coming off a Monday start in which he lasted just one inning, taking a line drive off his pitching wrist. Adding to the drama, the Nashville Sounds--tonight's opponent-came in with the best record in the Pacific Coast League and the circuit's second-best offense. To his credit, Meche appeared calm before the game, evidence of the poise the organization credits him with.

Meche opened the game with three shutout innings, although it soon became apparent that he was having trouble getting anything over consistently but his fastball. Able to sit on Meche's heat, the middle of the free-swinging Sounds order hit him hard their second time through, plating two runs in a 27-pitch fourth inning. Meche, however, countered by effectively working both sides of the plate and gave up only a groundball single in his last two innings, departing after the sixth having thrown 103 pitches, 67 for strikes.

Prior to the contest, Slaton had said that Meche hadn't yet a thrown game with Tacoma in which all his pitches were working, but that he is poised and finds a way to keep the team in the game. Thursday's performance was another example of that. Meche helped himself by getting ahead of the hitters, throwing first-pitch strikes to 15 of the 26 batters he faced. He fell behind in the count 2-0 or 3-1 to only three hitters, never going to 3-0. Meche's final line: 6 IP, 7 H, 2 ER, 0 BB and 6 K.

Outlook

Clay Davenport has run an up-to-date Davenport Translation, which may provide some insight as to how Meche will fare with the Mariners:

Year Team  Lge    IP   H ER HR BB  K  ERA  W  L    H/9 HR/9 BB/9  K/9  KWH PERA
1997 Ever  Nwn  71.3  95 40  9 25 34 5.05  3  5  11.99 1.14 3.15 4.29 0.37 5.80
1997 Wisc  Mid  11.0  16  5  1  5  9 4.09  0  1  13.09 0.82 4.09 7.36 0.76 6.55
1998 Wisc  Mid 145.0 171 82 13 71 71 5.09  6 10  10.61 0.81 4.41 6.95 0.77 5.21
1999 NewH  Eas  56.0  65 27  3 24 24 4.34  3  3  10.45 0.48 3.86 6.91 0.89 4.50
1999 Taco  PCL  30.0  33 11  3 12 12 3.30  2  1   9.90 0.90 3.60 5.70 0.68 4.50

Translated norms: 4.00 ERA/PERA, 9.00 H/9, 1.00 HR/9, 4.00 BB/9, 6.00 SO/9

The translations confirm that Meche has been solid at every stop in the system and able to make the necessary adjustments to succeed at each level. Comparing his ERA to his PERA indicates that he has been fortunate at Tacoma, maybe more evidence of the poise we've talked about. Overall, Meche has shown continuous improvement and could, under typical conditions, be a league-average starter right now.

However, "typical" isn't an adjective often used to describe Seattle's pitching situation. When Meche toes the slab against the Angels, he will be the 23rd pitcher used by the Mariners this year. That's a high number for a entire season, and a staggering total a week before the All-Star break. Eleven of the pitchers have been rookies, as the trial-by-fire process Lou Piniella uses to assemble a staff churns through the Tacoma and New Haven rosters. So, while Slaton hopes that the Mariners will be patient with Meche, he acknowledges that the 20-year-old will be expected to perform immediately.

Meche will bring a fairly fresh arm with him when he joins the parent club. His workload has been kept at a moderate level, thanks to an organizational rule that no minor-league starter will begin an inning if his pitch count is above 100. That may change when Meche encounters Piniella and pitching coach Stan Williams, who have expressed a desire to have their starters throw upwards of 130 pitches per start, regardless of their age.

Meche is aware of the environment he is going into, and expressed his concern. "The most pitches that I've ever thrown in pro ball is 115. I've never extended it, so I don't know what's going to happen."

Even though Meche spent less than a month at Tacoma, the incessant shuttling of pitchers back and forth between the Rainiers and the Mariners enabled him to seek out advice on how to be successful in Seattle while working under the demanding Piniella. He tries to keep the lessons he has learned simple. "Getting ahead of the hitters is the most important thing up there, for sure," he says. "That and throwing off-speed pitches for strikes and trying not to waste pitches. I'm going to go by their game plan...whatever [Mariner catcher] Dan Wilson calls for. I doubt that I'll be shaking him off too much."

Meche is keeping his expectations realistic; he plans on maintaining his apartment in Tacoma for the rest of the season.

Bringing up a pitching prospect who has little or no experience above Double-A is a strategy that Piniella has employed in the two previous seasons that the Mariners won the AL West title. After being promoted, both Bob Wolcott (1995) and Ken Cloude (1997) buoyed the their staffs with solid performances. But both struggled the following season, were castigated by Piniella and neither has been able to rediscover his promising form. Short-term returns are what Piniella is seeking, as he tries to keep the Texas Rangers within shouting distance. Tuesday night in Anaheim, Gil Meche gets his turn to contribute to that goal.

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