Gil Meche Retrospective
Kansas City Royals pitcher Gil Meche announced his retirement yesterday, so this seems like a good time to look at his career path and what he was like as a prospect.
I wrote a Prospect Retro for Meche on January 23rd, 2007, four years ago, right after he signed with the Royals as a free agent. The historical background is still valid, of course:
Meche was a first round pick in 1996, out of high school in Lafayette, Louisiana, 22nd overall. Most teams saw him as a third or fourth round talent because of an erratic senior year that saw dropping velocity, but the Mariners cut him some scouting slack because he had been physically weakened by a virus for much of the spring, hurting his velocity. A sore elbow was also worrisome, but they felt that a few months of rest were all that was needed to restore his fastball. He pitched just three innings in rookie ball after signing, allowing four hits and two runs while striking out four. I didn't give grades to rookie ball pitchers back then, but nowadays a similar pitcher would probably get something like a B- from me.
Meche pitched in the Northwest League in 1997, posting a 3.98 ERA with a 62/24 K/BB in 75 innings for Everett. He also made two late-season starts for Wisconsin in the Midwest League, losing both games but posting a 14/4 K/BB in 12 innings. He threw 92-94 MPH most of the summer with a very good curveball and better-than-expected command. Grade B would be appropriate.
Meche moved up to Wisconsin full-time in 1998, going 8-7, 3.44 with a 168/63 K/BB in 149 innings. His K/IP was excellent, as he continued to work his fastball at 92-95 MPH while improving his curveball, slider, and changeup. His control needed work, but his ceiling was obviously very high. But as I wrote in the 1998 Minor League Scouting Notebook: "outstanding pitching talents in the Midwest League have a habit of burning out before they reach the majors." I gave him a B+.
Meche pitched so well in spring training '99 that he skipped advanced A and went right to Double-A, going 3-4, 3.05 in 10 starts. Promoted to Triple-A, he went 2-2, 3.19 in six starts, then reached the majors, going 8-4, 4.73 in 15 starts. However, his K/BB was horrible at 47/57 in 86 innings. . .obviously he needed to improve his control. He had too much experience at that point to be in the 2000 book. He was certainly an exciting young pitcher, jumping from the Midwest League to the majors in less than a year. But the ugly K/BB stood out as a red flag for his future.
He posted a 3.78 ERA in 15 starts for the Mariners in 2000, but hurt his arm and ended up missing all of '01 following shoulder surgery. He came back in '02 and was terrible in Double-A (6.51 ERA in 65 innings). He rebounded in '03 and won 15 games for the Mariners, but has been erratic ever since. His stuff is still strong, but his control remains problematic.
Meche signed a five-year, $55 million contract with the Royals, expected to anchor the rotation. His first year with the Royals was quite good: although he went just 9-13 due to poor run support, he posted a 3.67 ERA, a 125 ERA+, with a 156/62 K/BB in 216 innings, earning an All-Star nod. It was the best season of his career. He followed it up with a similar, if slightly-weaker, 2008 campaign, going 14-11 (due to better teammate support) with a 3.98 ERA and a 183/73 K/BB in 210 innings, ERA+ of 110. He led the American League with 34 starts both seasons.
Things went awry early in '09. His shoulder (which had almost destroyed his career in Seattle) bothered him all spring, then his back starting hurting in July. He tried to pitch through both problems, but something was obviously not right, as his velocity dipped into the 80s by late spring. Manager Trey Hillman and the front office received criticism for pushing Meche even when he was clearly not healthy, a 121 pitch-outing on June 30th being a particularly bad example. In the end, he was limited to just 23 starts and 129 innings by "dead arm" syndrome, resulting in a 5.09 ERA, 87 ERA+, with a 95/58 K/BB. All of his component ratios slipped: his strikeout rate was down, his walk rate was up.The general consensus around Kansas City was that Meche had been abused.
More shoulder problems cropped up in the spring of '10, and Meche was never right last year, posting a 5.69 ERA(74 ERA+) in 62 innings of work, with a 41/38 K/BB. His K/9 dropped to 6.0, his BB/9 jumped to 5.5. Although there was some hope late last year that Meche could rebuild his career in the bullpen, no one who saw him pitch last year can be genuinely surprised that he decided to hang things up from a performance perspective. At the same time, he still had $12 million left on his contract, and a lot of pitchers would have kept going, eeking out one more season for the money if nothing else.
Meche finished his career with an 84-83 record, with a 4.49 ERA in 1432 innings over 10 seasons. His career ERA+ was 99: he was basically an exactly average pitcher in aggregate. His performance was above average as a rookie and sophomore in '99 and '00, before he hurt his shoulder, then below average on a per-inning basis for the rest of his career in Seattle. He had two very fine seasons in Kansas City before physical problems knocked him back again. As a prospect, he was pushed through the Mariners farm system very quickly, perhaps too quickly, although he did perform well in the majors at first until he got hurt.
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