By Joe Christensen
The Twins had seen flashes of brilliance from Jose Mijares before promoting him from Class AA to the big leagues last September. But as he reeled off those 10 impressive outings, posting a 0.87 ERA, insiders cautioned that the young lefthander needed to remain focused.
Mijares, 24, has struggled with his weight in the past. The Twins can remember when Rich Garces posted a 1.59 ERA in September 1990, at age 19. He seemed a lock to make the Opening Day roster the following spring, but came to camp overweight and didn’t return to the big leagues until 1993.
Last winter, Mijares got into a car accident and fractured his pitching elbow. From all accounts, it was an innocent mistake — a one-car accident with no alcohol involved, but it did happen in the wee hours of the night.
After opening the 2008 season on the 60-day disabled list, Mijares wound up becoming the eighth-inning force the Twins had been searching for since Pat Neshek got injured in May.
He maintained that focus through the regular season in the Venezuelan Winter League, going 4-1 with a 1.40 ERA with 32 strikeouts and 12 walks in 25 2/3 innings pitched. He helped lead Tigres de Aragua to the playoffs.
He opened the postseason with a one-inning, three strikeout performance on Jan. 2, but took a loss on Jan. 4. After a scoreless appearance on Jan. 5, Mijares had a particularly brutal outing on Jan. 7, facing four batters without getting an out as Lara roared back from an 3-0 deficit to win 4-3.
From there, the details are fuzzy. Depends on who you talk to, Twins officials say. But Mijares had a feud with Aragua manager Buddy Bailey, a no-nonsense skipper who has butted heads with players in the past.
Mijares left the team and didn’t return for a couple days. Bailey didn’t use him in another game and cut him from the playoff roster. (One of the pitchers Aragua added for its playoff run was former Twin Juan Rincon. De Tigres will play Game 7 of the VWL championship series tonight.)
“We’re happy he pitched winter ball; he had a good regular season,” Twins General Manager Bill Smith said.
But one measure of an athlete is the way he handles adversity. Mijares has a history of letting things spiral after they start to go wrong.
It’s one thing to cruise through a great month with the Twins, making a surprising impact as they fight for a playoff berth. But it’s another to bounce back when things go bad, the way they did for Matt Guerrier and even Joe Nathan at times in the second half.
During November and December, the reports on Mijares were glowing. He was throwing hard, getting the work he needed after missing all that time in April and May. He had good control, and he was keeping his weight in check.
Now, the Twins are taking a wait-and-see approach, wondering what kind of shape Mijares will be in when he reports to spring training.
As for walking out on the Aragua team, Smith said, “I’m not sure [Mijares] handled it as well as anyone would have liked.”
Then Smith was asked if Mijares is a lock to make the Twins’ Opening Day roster.
“No he’s not,” he said. “If he comes to camp thinking he’s a lock for our bullpen, he’ll probably be in [Class AAA] Rochester after our first cuts. If he pitches the way he did in September, he has a good chance of making our club.”
Clearly, the Twins are trying to send a message here. They see great promise in Mijares, and they don’t want to him to turn into another Rich Garces.