On August 6th, the Texas Rangers released right-hander Joe Van Meter from their Double-A Frisco affiliate. A week later, the Rays signed him and assignmed him to Double-A Montgomery, where he made his organization debut last night. When you hear about something like that–a player getting released from one team and quickly catching on with another–your knee-jerk reaction has to be that the Rays see something in Van Meter that the Rangers did not. In this case, though, that isn’t really true. Sometimes you simply have no idea why a player got released and you sign him as fast as you possibly can.
Joe Van Meter was an interesting prospect right from the start. A 21st round selection by the Rangers in 2010, Van Meter had been a two-way player at Virginia Commonwealth who had done much better at third base than on the mound. He managed a .434/.484/.663 line with 13 doubles, 7 triples, 10 homers, 76 RBI, and 14 stolen bases in 61 games and 278 plate appearances. On the mound, he had managed just a 5.40 ERA and a 13-11 strikeout to walk ratio in 13.1 innings pitched. But the Rangers decided to throw those statistics out the window and make Van Meter a pitcher as a pro. At the plate, he had some power, but he didn’t have great bat speed and plate discipline, making his path to the majors as a position player quite dificult. On the mound, however, he had touched 95 MPH while showing some aptitude with a curveball, and while he was very raw, the potential was there. Van Meter made the Rangers look good on their decision when he managed a 2.25 ERA and 13-1 strikeout to walk ratio in his 12-inning pro debut, starting at Rookie ball before tossing 2.1 scoreless innings at Low-A to end the season.
Van Meter had a tougher time at Low-A when he spent all of 2011 there, managing a 4.15 ERA and a 65-35 strikeout to walk ratio in 82.1 innings pitched. But the following season at High-A, Van Meter returned to dominance, putting up a 2.71 ERA, a 9.0 K/9, a 2.7 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9 in 79.2 innings pitched. Despite his strong season, though, the Rangers for whatever reason sent him right back to High-A for 2013. Once again, he pitched well if not quite at the same level, going 3-4 with a 3.48 ERA, a 10.8 K/9, a 4.4 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9 in 51.2 innings pitched. But after he was finally given a chance at Double-A, he was tagged for 7 runs on 13 hits in 8.1 innings, and despite some positive signs, including a 7-2 strikeout to walk ratio, he was quickly released. What happened? Van Meter was pitching well, struggled for just a couple of weeks, and all of a sudden found himself without a job. Why did the Rangers release him?
It’s often stated that the jump from High-A to Double-A is the hardest jump in professional baseball up until a player goes from Triple-A to the major leagues. The Rangers didn’t think that Van Meter was ready. Why? They didn’t believe that his secondary pitches were up to the task. Van Meter did a good job throwing his fastball for strikes and was able to use its good late life to force swings-and-misses and weak contact. It was a good pitch that stayed in the 91-93 MPH range and touched as high as 95. But Van Meter’s curveball remained extremely inconsistent and his changeup was still quite raw. The Rangers made the decision that they would rather have Van Meter languish at High-A and work on his secondary pitches than go to Double-A and learn by experience that he would need to improve them. When that didn’t work out, he was let go.
In Joe Van Meter’s first appearance in the Rays system on Wednesday night, he started for the Montgomery Biscuits and went 5 innings allowing 3 runs on 4 hits, striking out 4 while walking none. He showed some promise, but there is plenty of work still to be done. However, the Rays are confident that their pitching coordinators can hone Van Meter’s curveball and changeup to go along with his fastball and turn him into an effective reliever before long. When they saw a player like Van Meter hit the open market, they rushed to sign him as soon as they possibly could. It wasn’t a player being undervalued but simply a good player for some reason available for almost nothing. Only time will tell whether the Rangers were right to release Van Meter. But to the Rays, he looked like an obvious player to sign and a project worth undertaking in the coming years.