Even coming into spring training, Mike Pelfrey had to know he had his work cut out for him. Trevor May and Alex Meyer are two pitchers around whom the Minnesota Twins will be building a pitching staff for the next half-decade-plus, and Tommy Milone is not only left-handed but - outside of his six games in a Twins uniform late last summer - is the owner of a pretty good Major League track record. All three of those players combine to have 16 years of team control remaining.
Pelfrey, on the other hand, is a 31-year old right-hander who owns a 5.56 ERA in 176.1 innings since coming to Minnesota for the 2013 season. Recovery from Tommy John surgery robbed him of his best stuff early in '13; a strained back in the middle of the campaign wasn't serious, but it's another thing to add to the list of injuries. A groin injury took him from the Twins rotation after five starts in 2014, which made the two-year contract Minnesota handed out after a disappointing 2013 all the more dubious. He's owed $5.5 million this year, whether he pitches or not, and then he'll be a free agent.
It will be almost impossible for Pelfrey to escape the cloud of fan criticism by the end of spring training, regardless of how well he pitches. Even if the Twins name him the fifth starter at the end of this month, whether that decision was made because he was the right man for the job is almost irrelevant. That decision would be seen as veteran-pandering or as a move by the organization motivated by the extra few zeroes on Pelfrey's paycheck.
That's the situation for Pelfrey at the moment: boxed in by a pair of arms being groomed for the future, a veteran southpaw who is potentially tied to the team for four more years, and injuries that have torpedoed not just his stat line but the impression of his abilities to the fanbase. No doubt the money is a nice consolation, but pitchers pitch for the same reason that teachers teach or actors act: they love it. They want to do their job well.
After his performance today, it's worth noting that Pelfrey has looked good so far this spring. He pitched three scoreless innings this afternoon, striking out two and allowing two hits without surrendering a walk. More importantly though, he actually looked the part of a pitcher in control. He was hitting his spots, was mixing his pitches with confidence, and he even threw a handful of pitches called a "split changeup."
As we've discussed the potential makeup of Minnesota's rotation over the winter, I've been as critical of Pelfrey's chances as anyone. Rightfully so, probably; his best chance to both make the team and have the expanded opportunity necessary to bring Twins fans to side would appear to be as a member of the bullpen...if it's feasible at all. Bryz doesn't believe Pelfrey will be with the team at all when the dust clears.
We've all been in situations where we want to do well, or at the very least do better, but the odds are stacked against us and we feel as though nothing we do will be good enough. Results or judgement seem preordained; perhaps someone's mind is already made up before your case has been made. It's not a fun place to be. Most of us can empathize with that.
Pelfrey's role of the underdog has been well-established. It's a role that he seems to embraced as well. Maybe the Twins will be better off without him in the end, paying him not to be on the roster. But as a human being and as someone who always wants to see the underdog pull through, I'll be rooting for Pelfrey this spring...even if the endgame doesn't look too promising.