One of the biggest concerns that the Seattle Mariners had entering this season involved the back end of their rotation. They had failed during the off-season to sign the top-of-the-line pitcher that Pat Gillick had talked about acquiring. So they were instead forced to anchor their rotation with a pitcher who had missed the better part of the past three seasons. But now, more than two months into the season, the right arm of Gil Meche has not only alleviated all concerns about the back of the rotation, but has turned it into one of the Mariners’ greatest strengths. Making Meche’s performance to date even more remarkable is the fact that many people thought we’d seen the last of him.
While battling through injuries over the past few seasons, Meche was almost a forgotten commodity.
After being taken by the Mariners in the first round of the 1996 draft, Meche quickly rose through the ranks before reaching the big leagues in 1999. With the Mariners, Meche dazzled major league hitters with his sharp breaking ball and hard fastball. After finishing off the 1999 season with 8 victories against 4 losses, the Mariners believed that they had a future ace in there pitching staff for years to come. But following that season came the landslide of injuries that would curtail Meche’s once rapid ascent to becoming a top-flight major league pitcher.
Meche got off to another good start in the 2000 season, going 4-4 with an ERA of 3.78. But by July he had begun to experience pain in his throwing arm. The Mariners ran an extensive amount of testing on his arm but all of the results showed no damage. Meche tried to give it another go in a couple of rehabilitation starts but he still couldn’t find his stuff. The negative test results led to much speculation in the Mariners organization that Meche wasn’t tough enough mentally to pitch in the big leagues. Even with the tests not showing anything, Meche still had Dr. James Andrews perform shoulder surgery but that revealed none other than a fraying of the labrum, a quite common condition for a pitcher.
After Meche came back from the first surgery he still didn’t have the same stuff that he had had in his previous stint with the Mariners. That led to even more questions and concerns about Meche’s psyche. Although, after Mariners team surgeon Larry Pedegana opened up Meche’s shoulder for a second time and loosened an impingement it showed that Meche’s struggles were in fact physical. But even that didn’t inspire much faith in people’s minds that Meche could ever again pitch at a successful level. In fact, Meche’s struggles in his first season back in professional ball since his injuries last year in Double A San Antonio led to even more speculation that his career would be cut dramatically short.
Despite all of the questions concerning his arm entering this season, during spring training this year Meche showed enough to warrant a starting spot in the Mariners rotation. His velocity was back up to 93-95 mph after being in the 87-89 range and he began to get stronger the longer he pitched in games. And most importantly, he finally felt like he had his “stuff” back. But Meche’s comeback is more than just some feel good story. His emergence early in this season has allowed the Mariners to jump out to a quick lead in the American League West despite the struggles of staff ace Freddy Garcia. And now that Garcia has started to turn the corner over his last few starts, the Mariners now may have the deepest starting rotation in all of baseball. That will allow them to concentrate on filling other holes on the team around the trading deadline.
A pitcher such as Meche will also give the Mariners a greater chance at succeeding in the later parts of the season and avoiding a late season collapse that plagued them last year. His power arm will give the Mariners a big lift when the bats start to get heavy around August. He may also give the M’s a chance to finally break through in the playoffs when games are won by great starting pitching. Although nobody can be quite sure how Meche will be throwing by that point in the season given that he hasn’t thrown a full season since the Clinton administration. But after a masterful performance Sunday night against the Braves, at 9-3, Meche looks like he will be representing the Mariner’s next month at the All-Star Game.
That is how far Meche has come from all of his injuries.
When a young power pitcher injures his throwing arm there are always questions about if he will be able to make a comeback. That is because pitchers with a lively fastball and a sharp breaking ball are able to dominate hitters with their stuff without really learning how to pitch. Then when their fastballs are taken away from them they have to learn how to get batters out without the benefit of just being able to throw it past them. Not all pitchers are able to handle that.
There have been a number of can’t-miss prospects such as Brien Taylor (NY Yankees), Roger Salkeld (Seattle) and Rick Ankiel (St. Louis) who were practically immortalized in Cooperstown before they even reached the big leagues but because of arm injuries were never able to succeed at the big-league level. But then there are pitchers such as Kerry Wood and Matt Morris who were not only able to regain their stuff but also become better pitchers after their injuries. Right now it seems that Meche is falling in with the later group.
The success that Gil Meche has had so far this season has been nothing short of remarkable. There probably were not many people around baseball who believed that Meche would even be one of the best starters on the Mariners let alone one of the best in all of baseball. Even the Mariners had many doubts about Meche, enough that they decided to bring in journeyman pitcher Jaimey Wright this spring to battle for the fifth spot in the rotation. Considering that last season the Mariner’s had John Halama and James Baldwin pitching at the back end of their rotation, with the emergence of Meche, the Mariners have improved themselves more than any other team in baseball. There are no other teams this season, let alone many in the history of baseball, that have a potential all-star pitching at the end of their rotation. And it is because of that now that the Mariners have their best chance at winning a World Series in franchise history.
Scott Smiles is a life-long baseball fan and 2002 graduate of the University of Washington. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.