With injury in rearview, Familia makes bid for bullpen
Hard-throwing reliever works on control, determined to contribute in '14
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Jeurys Familia stood next to his locker, answering question after question about his mindset, his preparation, his rocket launcher of a right arm. He had arrived as a bona fide Major Leaguer, and he was happy.
This was last May, in the immediate aftermath of a 10-inning victory in Atlanta. Because Terry Collins had used regular closer Bobby Parnell earlier in the game, the Mets manager called on Familia to lock down his first career save in the bottom of the 10th. And he did so with aplomb, dialing his fastball into the upper 90s during a 1-2-3 inning.
What Familia did not reveal was that he felt something -- he was not sure what, but definitely something -- uncomfortable in his right elbow. The former top prospect ignored it at first, pitching two effective innings two days later against the Braves. But when Alex Rios homered off him the following week in New York, Familia knew something was wrong.
For the first time in his life, his arm hurt.
"I couldn't understand why I couldn't throw my fastball the way I was trying to," Familia said.
Doctors quickly determined the cause: bone spurs and loose bodies floating around his right elbow. The Mets scheduled surgery, making it clear that Familia's season was likely finished.
Except it wasn't. Four months later, following a rapid recovery and intense rehab program, Familia stepped back on the mound for one final appearance at Citi Field. To Collins, it was a testament to how hard the rookie had worked.
"He wants to pitch in the Major Leagues bad," the manager said, lauding Familia's decision to travel nearly a month early from the Dominican Republic to Florida for Spring Training. "He [lives] in a place where if he wants to, he can go work out every day. And yet he flies over here three weeks early to start the process here -- to be seen by our coaches that are here and get on the field and do things right."
Familia is rare in that way. For example, most pitchers loathe fielding practice, but he does extra glove work on the side every day, as reigning American League Gold Glove Award winner R.A. Dickey once did.
Most pitchers also do not possess Familia's natural ability. As recently as two years ago, mainstream media outlets were comparing Familia, Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler to the Mets' infamous "Generation K" trio of starting pitching prospects in the mid-1990s -- Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson. While Harvey has gone on to enjoy massive success and Wheeler is attempting to do the same, Familia was unable to follow their path.
Conversely, he struggled to such an extent that, by the spring of 2013, the Mets were convinced Familia would be better off as a reliever. So they converted him, and the team was finally starting to see him change the trajectory of his career arc when injury struck.
"He's blessed with some special tools that a lot of guys don't have," Collins said. "You can't teach it. It's just something that he does. Now it's about working on the delivery and the release point to where it can be consistent."
The Mets, in other words, will spend this spring attempting to match Familia's statistical performance with his natural tools and work ethic. He is concentrating on throwing first-pitch strikes and trying to minimize the control issues that have dogged his Minor League career. Now effectively a two-pitch pitcher with his mid-90s fastball and low-80s slider, Familia understands the need to jump ahead in counts as often as possible.
It's an opportunity he did not have a year ago, when injury troubles derailed him. But now Familia ranks among the leading candidates to score an Opening Day bullpen spot alongside Jose Valverde, Kyle Farnsworth, Vic Black and others.
"I love being in baseball and playing the game," said Familia, who lockers next to Valverde and is one of several Mets pitchers attempting to soak up the veteran closer's knowledge this spring. "Right now, I'm feeling like a new guy. I can compete without being scared anymore about my elbow. I'm ready to go."