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
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.
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.