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The long, strange 2018 trip for the Indians’ Francisco Mejia: While We’re Waiting

(Joe Santry/MiLB.com)

As this past weekend unfolded, the Cleveland Indians’ manager, Terry Francona, was asked a question about the team’s top prospect, Francisco Mejia. Mejia, a catcher by trade, had broken out of an early season  offensive slump in late May, and had been doing the types of things you would expect a player with his offensive skill to do.

He was hitting the baseball.

From May 25 through that Saturday press conference, Mejia had been dominating International League pitching. During that stretch of baseball, he was leading the league with a .393 batting average (.393/.428/.607 slash), with 15 doubles, a triple, and four homers. Even more impressive, and what led to the questions from the Cleveland media, was an eight game stretch in which Mejia had eight multi-hit games in a row (19 total hits), and came in with a .528/.564/.806 slash. During that stretch, Mejia played left field twice, was DH twice, and caught in five games (he started in left for a game, then finished at catcher).

So you can see, his season was complicated, but as he progressed, his offense not only came around, but reverted to the “top catcher in the minors” status. He was hitting, while playing multiple positions (sometimes in the same game), and doing all of this while in the midst of a lawsuit in which Mejia was trying to get out of a contract that seems reminiscent of bad contracts that musicians signed in the late 50’s, in which you gave up a percentage of your career earnings long before you knew any better.

When asked about Mejia’s progress, and when the Indians’ might call him up to the big leagues, the Indians’ manager had plenty to say.

The message is clear, right? The Indians wanted Mejia to play in the outfield, because it was the easiest path to the big leagues, but Mejia didn’t have his heart into it, and he could be the starter in right field!

Anyone looking at that quote as the solitary piece to this equation would be…should be…furious at Mejia. The Indians are offering up a chance at a big league starting slot, and your heart isn’t into it!

But the story is never that easy, is it…

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As the Cleveland Indians passed the Ides of March and headed towards the end of spring training, they told their top prospect, Francisco Mejia that he’d be heading to the minors. While Mejia was destroying spring training league pitching at the time, he was never making the big league club without an injury to the Indians starting catchers.

Mejia was hitting .421, going 8-for-19, with two homers at the time of his demotion. But when you play a position that also has Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez on the big league roster, you aren’t likely to crack the 25-man. While Mejia was certainly the future of the position, Gomes and Perez are both top defensive catchers in the league, but even more importantly, their relationship with the pitchers in the rotation and the bullpen is as good as it gets. Without an injury, Mejia, who hadn’t played an out in Triple A up to that point, wasn’t making the team as a catcher.

Terry Francona said as much in mid-March when they announced he was moving back to the minor league roster.

“He’s a catcher,” said Francona. “And he’s such an advanced hitter that, if he’s able to play another position and then there’s an injury or something, he could find himself not only in the big leagues, but playing. And I think he understands. We went to pretty good lengths to try to make sure that he understands that this is not an indictment on his catching. He’s just such an advanced hitter. We want to take advantage of it.”

If you follow baseball and read that comment, you probably think, “makes sense.” If you’re a fan that lives that “baseball life,” you probably start scratching your head a bit at that comment. Learning to be a catcher is complicated, and throwing another position in the mix, part-time?

It’s just not easy.

To go deeper into the move to the outfield, take a look at Jordan Bastian’s piece a couple of days after the Indians sent Mejia down to the minors. Here’s where the Mejia move really gets fun.

These comments add another twist to the story coming out of spring. Francona says, “Hey, if you want to be a full-time catcher, we’ll back you 100 percent,” but Mejia had the idea put before him, and according to Francona, Mejia was all in. “No, I need to do this.”

You see, it just isn’t as simple as it seems. It’s a conundrum as complicated as actually playing the catcher position in the big leagues. The Indians offered Mejia a chance to make the Major League roster in the outfield, while splitting his time between catcher and the outfield. On the outside looking in, it seemed pretty copacetic. The Indians said, “We want you to play catcher, if that’s what you want to do, but LOOK, YOU CAN MAKE IT TO THE BIGS THIS WAY (left field)!”

Mejia then responded, “THIS SEEMS GREAT, LET’S TRY IT THIS WAY.”

Perfect, right?

I’m hoping that you see the complexity in such a task, because since playing in Columbus, Francisco Mejia has been spending some time in the outfield, just the way the Indians had planned him to…right?

But when you combine the spring comments with the summer comments, something doesn’t quite jibe, does it. The Indians offered Mejia a chance to play in the outfield. He agreed this was a good idea. The Indians consistently put him out there in a fairly stable pattern. They still considered him a catcher, but wanted him to work out in the outfield a bit. Now, read that last paragraph a few times, and ponder its complexity, because what came of it was…

“His heart isn’t into it,” and even though we only play him a couple of times a week, “we’re just not there yet.”

It’s here where I want to remind you that playing catcher is a complicated position. The joy in watching a catcher like Sandy Alomar Jr. behind the plate back in the day was that he was such a “natural.” Now, if you ever talked to him about it, you’d hear stories of the hours he spent learning the position, and the pitchers, and the coaches he’d be interacting with. You’d understand that the wear and tear kept Alomar Jr. from becoming the Hall of Fame player that his brother, Roberto was. He broke down, a lot.

Learning to play catcher at the professional level is as hard as it gets, and in the big leagues, you could argue that there’s no more important position in baseball. Rarely do players behind the plate not sit on the bench getting their rest twenty to thirty games, and rarely do catchers excel for long periods of time. As a matter of fact, the ones that do are mostly in the Hall of Fame, or at least in that discussion.

So how easy is it for a player like Mejia to continue his journey as a catcher, while also learning the outfield for the first time in his career?

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Baseball and playing catcher are strange bedfellows. Playing the position is a lot like buying a new car; the second you take it off the lot, the value starts to depreciate. For a catcher, the toll of playing the position begins almost immediately. Think about how many current catchers in the big leagues are worth talking about offensively. Think about the rarity of a player like Buster Posey, whose career is strangely undervalued.

If you look at the Indians catchers of recent past, you see the type of roller coaster ride that takes place. I’ve already discussed Sandy Alomar’s journey on-and-off the DL. Victor Martinez, an offensive-first catcher, began to see his time at catcher become start to disappear while still with the Indians, as he played some at first, and played DH as his career moved on. Once he left Cleveland, he slowly moved over to the DH-role, that has dominated most of the second half of his career.

Yan Gomes seemed like an offensive dream early in his career, but thanks to injuries and the nature of the position, he has seen his offense (and defense) fluctuate, at best, and get a lot worst (well…at worst). Roberto Perez, who has always been a fantastic defensive catcher, has had an offensive career that went from bad-ish to worst-ish. You can blame this one whatever you want…injuries or inconsistent time. Again, it’s a tough position.

How tough?

Just think about the day-to-day, without looking at the mental aspect for a moment. You’re basically wearing armor for an entire defensive portion of a baseball game that’s played in the dead heat of summer. You, at bare minimum, are standing and squatting 200-300 times a game, and during that time, you are taking foul tips off of every part of your body, and dealing with pitches that bend in every which way, including the ones that bound off the dirt or plate into the regions in which that suit of armor doesn’t quite protect.

That alone adds to the mental aspect to a game that is insanely hard to be good at. When you add the actual mental part of this game, things go from difficult, to downright complex. Remember, you have to have a relationship of some sort with every pitcher that you are catching, and in one game, that could be a multitude of different pitchers, coming at you from both sides of the rubber, and from different angles. You are also calling the game…every play on defense.

Every.

Single.

Play.

Every.

Day.

And while some of you might say, “Jim, the manager calls the game for some, and Mejia would be one of those (for the record, Mejia has called his own game in the minors for the most part).” That’s fine…let’s add that to the mix for discussion’s sake. Ponder a catcher, looking to the dugout for every pitch, figuring out a way to show it to the pitcher without someone on the other team seeing it, then having the pitcher shake it off. Rinse…Wash…Repeat.

The catcher is the captain of the team, whether he wants to be or not, and for the Indians, this is definitively the case. In discussions with the WFNY crew, we often ponder Perez or Gomes getting dealt, but inevitably realize that for this to happen, there’s no doubt in my mind that the rotation and bullpen likely have to buy in on such a deal, since both Gomes and Perez are so intertwined into what they do from day-to-day.

If you’ve ever watch the Indians in the bullpen prior to their starts, you can see the types of relationships that have developed between, say, Kluber and Gomes, and Bauer and Perez. This isn’t to say that the catchers can’t excel with other pitchers (they do), or that the pitchers can’t excel with a different catchers (they do), but as long as both are healthy and at the top of their game defensively (they are), the Indians aren’t changing their catchers.

Why mess with a good thing?

You can see that this puts the Indians and Mejia in a strange place…and you can see that the situation is as complicated as the weirdly contradictory comments that Terry Francona made at the beginning of the year, and now, in the middle of the year, seem to be.

Catching is tough, and Mejia needs more practice there defensively to be accepted by this rotation.

But oh, by the way…

You should play some in the outfield, but you still need to learn this complicated position, while learning this other position…on the fly…in Triple A.

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What about Mejia, the person? Okay, I know that sounds strange in an article like this, but hear me out for a minute. Players like Mejia, who are plucked out of their homeland, often find it a struggle learning a new way of life, and a new language. Think about it. Most of these kids stop attending school, as they enter the team’s rookie leagues in their spring training facilities.

According to the AP’s Mitch Stacy, Francisco Mejia has the equivalent of a ninth grade education. This isn’t an indictment on how smart Mejia is or isn’t, but it does give you a bit of a window into life in a country that doesn’t have the types of advantages that schools here in the U.S. have, and everybody is different. Everybody is different, but the one similar quality is that these players are coming to a new country, speaking a new language, long before they have any clue how to live their lives. Some handle it beautifully, and some need a lot more coaching than others.

Where does Mejia land in this spectrum?

I don’t know, and I’m not going to lie to you about that. I don’t have the necessary access that it would take to understand Mejia’s complexities, and honestly, nor does anyone else. The only thing I can tell you is that Mejia’s trying to learn the most complicated position, in a very complicated life-pattern. That can’t be easy, regardless of how easy you say it is in your head.

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It’s important here to note that there have been rumblings about attitude regarding Francisco Mejia over the years. Since I absolutely hate second-hand information filtering down the pipeline, I’m mostly going to ignore those rumblings. While I have had access to the Indians’ minor league organization in one form or another for the past 12 years, and while I hate throwing that out there in any piece, or conversation, it does lend some credence to understanding how those “rumblings” filter from one person to the next.

Try it sometime. We used to call it “phone tag” in elementary school. The person in the first seat would come up with a fact, and share it to the person in the second seat. They’d whisper it into their ear, then that person would take the same fact, and continue the process from student-to-student, until it gets to the last person.

What happens, as one person takes the information to the next, is that they start adding personal feelings and bias to the initial “fact,” changing it over time, completely. I remember starting this game off in Middle School once with something pretty basic: “George Washington was our first president.” By the time it got back to me, what was whispered into my ear was fairly shocking: “Dan has a crush on Melissa.” In 25 students, the George Washington fact flipped and flopped its way through the brains and mouths of babes, until we got down to the root of everything, Dan really thought Melissa was cute.

Sure, this extreme isn’t what happens with regards to baseball players most of the time, but when you have an organization as quiet as the Indians, sometimes personal bias comes into play. It happens, especially when you take into account the complexities of where we get our information. The websites available to the Indians’ fans are this fantastic mix of news and commentary, from newspaper sites, to blogs, from people with actual access, to people with phone call access, to people with copy from another access.

It’s complicated.

So when you hear that Mejia’s heart isn’t into the outfield, it certainly can elicit certain thoughts, when combined with his perceived history.

So I’ll give you some facts regarding Mejia, that go back to his days in Lake County. Mejia had some “run-ins” with manager-at-the-time Tony Mansolino. I know this because Mansolino actually said it. In that conversation, there were two instances in which Mansolino benched Mejia because he didn’t run out ground balls. But Mansolino was very complimentary of Mejia as the year progressed.

Monsolino discussed the talented Mejia with the News Herald’s David Glasier during his 50-game hitting streak that year.

Captains manager Tony Mansolino showed some tough love for Mejia this season, benching him on two occasions for multiple games for lack of hustle. Nevertheless, at the time of his promotion, Mansolino gave credit to Mejia for getting his act together and predicted a bright future for the 5-foot-10, 175-pound catcher.

“He’s a really, really talented kid,” Mansolino said. “The fact he’s a catcher and deals with all the physical demands of that position makes what he’s doing now all the more impressive.”

Is there more to it than this? That’s dangerous ground to walk on, because you have to disseminate the truth, from the bias. Did 19-and-20-year old Mejia have some attitudinal issues, or was he just an immature kid? There have been some interesting comparisons, especially to this other top prospect named Francisco.

“Mejia is no Francisco Lindor.”

No, he’s not, and that’s not a rip on Mejia. It’s more a compliment to Lindor, who was as perfect a minor leaguer as you could get. He did everything that was asked of him, and carried that “team leader” persona at every step. The Lindor you see now, isn’t much different than the Lindor you knew then. You’d be hard-pressed to find anything negative about Lindor that didn’t involve power production. While some of you might say, “SEE, THAT’S WHAT I MEAN.!”

That’s just rare, and unfair, to compare Mejia to Lindor. In all of my years covering the minor league system, I’ve never known a player as smooth and ready as Lindor. He’s a rarity, the one kid you think “sure thing” in high school, and never waver.

Most players grow, mature, and while Lindor has certainly done that on several levels, his floor in this regard was just higher than everyone else’s.

Heres’ Mark Budzinski, talking about his work ethic both in Lake County (he managed him there first), and Lynchburg, and focused primarily on Mejia’s work towards becoming a better catcher between his A and High A stints.

“He and Sandy had a great working relationship,” Budzinski said. “They were working on everything — blocking, receiving, transition work. He’s continued to focus on all that with [Akron bench coach] Omir Santos here. He’s still working on game calling and hitter recall. But the important thing is we see him as a big league catcher. He knows that because he’s been able to see it.”

This current year, while Mejia was struggling offensively, manager Chris Tremie had nothing but glowing reviews for Mejia’s work ethic offensively, and defensively, according to the Columbus Dispatch’s Mark Znider.

The Indians are asking Mejia to play left field as well as catch. The organization briefly had him play third base in the Arizona Fall League last year.

“That is challenging, but he’ll handle it,” Clippers manager Chris Tremie said. “He is up to all of this. He is making strides, and you can see it. Some days he will lay off certain pitches, and that’s good to see.”

Recently, MiLB’s contributer, Michael Avallone discussed Mejia with manager Chris Tremie as well. While Tremie was talking about his offense here, he certainly doesn’t sound like a manager who struggles with his player having his heart into it, and before you say, “this is what manager’s do,” is this what Francona did?

“I think he continued to work through his early-season issues like a true professional would,” the skipper said. “He had a lot of good at-bats, but was hitting into some bad luck. He was always relaxed, stayed with it and now it’s manifested itself into a really good approach at the plate….

…I think his struggles were just part of the adjustment to another level,” Tremie said. “The pitching here is tough, but he’s made the adjustments and the results are terrific right now. He does a great job playing day to day and competing. He wants to do well and has kept his mind on the tasks he needs to perform here.”

Obviously, Tremie’s take on his defense wasn’t touched upon, but I think it’s reasonable to say when you use the phrases “professional” in a discussion regarding a player, or someone who “does a great job playing day to day and competing,” that the manager is happy with his player’s performance.

So what’s going on with the Indians and Mejia?

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I would love to sit here and tell you I have enough access to give you something definitive, but I don’t. I can only speculate, which is dangerous when you’re a writer or blogger of baseball. The fact is, I have no idea what the Indians’ message was, or is, to Mejia.

I can only tell you that the statements regarding Mejia from Terry Francona were vastly different from March, through July. Somewhere, Francona’s message has tilted from a “hybrid, catcher/left field experiment,” to “full-time starter in right field.” Somehow, the “we’re going to check on him and re-check on him because he’s our top prospect,” has turned into a “lack of heart” in the outfield. Somehow, we’re supposed to believe that “Damn, continuing his catcher progression, and learning the outfield for the first time, IS EASY, AS LONG AS YOUR HEART IS INTO IT!”

It seems to me that the real message that needs to be conveyed to Mejia is, “You’re playing in the outfield,” not, “you need to do both.” What was said to Mejia about playing catcher prior to the season? From that same Bastian article I quoted earlier, that message, it seems, is complicated.

Francona said the team was impressed this spring by Mejia’s defensive progress, which included spending a lot of time under the tutelage of Sandy Alomar Jr., along with Perez and Gomes. Defensively, Mejia boasts a strong arm, but is still “cleaning up” his transfer and working on carrying the strides made in workouts into games.

“We were really pleased with his progression,” Francona said.

It’s clear they are pleased with his development as a catcher so far, right? This spring, they were clearly working on his being a catcher. This spring, and into the summer, it’s clear he was still playing catcher, because…well…HE STILL PLAYED CATCHER…MOST OF THE TIME.

When they brought him up for two seconds in early June, there was no mention of heart. He came after playing two games at catcher, then got sent down, and in his first two games back, he played catcher again.

Message sent?

That’s, I don’t know, complicated?

Let’s look closer at Mejia’s lack of heart.

Mejia has been consistently playing in the outfield since the start of the season. Mejia’s longest stretch of games between playing catcher or DH, and finding time in the outfield has been five games (once), with a couple of four game stretches in there as well. For the most part, Mejia has played a couple of days a week in the outfield, with the rest coming at catcher and DH.

My simple point here is that regardless of “heart,” the Indians have really done nothing to show Mejia that the outfield is anything but a part-time gig. Any smart person says, “show with action,” and the actions of the Indians organization regarding Mejia is to play him mostly at catcher, with a couple games in the outfield peppered in. It’s not even arguable, because it’s exactly what they’ve done with him.

And in the end, I keep coming back to the “man you could be a starting right fielder” comment. Obviously, Francona’s comment came after right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall, and his platoon-mate Brandon Guyer, both went down with injuries in the span of two games.

Prior to July 3, Mejia had one game in right field…ever…in his entire professional career.

From July 3 through today, Mejia has played in four-of-six games in right….but you know…HE SHOULD BE READY TO START IN RIGHT FIELD?

Maybe there’s more to the story than what’s out there. I’m sure that’s likely, but I ask you, the WFNY readers, to use some good common sense here.

Regardless of heart, if the Indians wanted to push the issue of playing in the outfield, wouldn’t they just play Mejia in the outfield? Every manager, from A ball through Triple A has talked about his hard work, both offensively and defensively. The Indians themselves have spent a ton of time working him out with Alomar Jr., and every veteran catcher, and catcher-turned-coach in the system. While I understand that the Indians may be trying to cater to their player by splitting time, doesn’t it seem somewhat incongruous to common sense to think that a 22-year old needs to be catered to in this manner? And why would we think that this was the case, when Francona and the Indians have been on the “some time in the outfield” train that they put on the tracks back in April.

What did they expect from a couple games a week, and honestly, why does it matter? The Indians, over the years, have wheeled out Mike Aviles and Carlos Santana and Melky Cabrera into the outfield, and I could list a few more sub-standard outfielders that fit into that club, including a couple currently on the roster.

Yet, here we are. The Indians manager has come out and said that the reason why Mejia isn’t up with the club is because he hasn’t thrown his heart into the outfield, and on face value, I’m sure there’s truth to that. But shouldn’t we question the message that the Indians have publicly presenting since March? And…if we question it, what do you think is going on in the head of Francisco Mejia, the 22-year old plucked out of high school of a poor Dominican Family all those years ago?

The same Mejia that was “traded to Milwaukee for Jonathan Lucroy,” and then wasn’t.

The same Mejia that Francona said, “If you want to be catcher, we’ll back you 100%,” but agreed to play the outfield.

The same Mejia that was already hitting before June 11th, but needed that one-day call-up to motivate him.

The same Mejia that only played one game in right, but was mentioned as a full-time right fielder, if his “heart” was into it, this past weekend, via two time World Series manager, Terry Francona.

You can spin it any way you want to, depending on whether or not you back the player, or the manager, but things must have sure gone south pretty quickly, and not worth mentioning until early July. Back in April, Mejia seemed to be as content as anyone.

“It’s a work in progress, which we knew it would be,” said Indians manager Terry Francona of the early returns on Mejia as an outfielder.

“I don’t know that you can go from being a catcher to being a Gold Glove outfielder,” Francona said. “But as long as he’s willing to try it and put the work in, which he is, it just opens up maybe more avenues for him to get to the major leagues.”

“He has a tremendous arm,” Francona said. “That’s not going to be an issue anywhere. Balls off the bat, you can take all the drills you want—and he does—but balls off the bat are probably the hardest thing (in terms of) your first step. You have to make sure you’re going in the right direction.

“Repetition will be the best thing for him.”

Unfortunately, that repetition isn’t something that the Indians have offered Mejia from the jump. Instead, like Francona’s messages to Mejia through the press during the past four months, the top prospect’s journey to the Big Leagues isn’t going to come easily.