For those who are deeply committed to an MLB team, there’s nothing quite like saddling up and taking in a weekend of minor league baseball dished out by your team’s AA or AAA affiliate. And with the Mets Triple-A squad ensconced at Las Vegas in 2nd Place in the Pacific Coast League’s Pacific Southern division, the opportunity to take a in-depth look at Wally Backman‘s charges take on the PCL’s Pacific Northern division leader, the Tacoma Rainers, became an intriguing opportunity.
The Seattle Mariners enjoy the closest geographic relationship that any MLB club has to their AAA team, as the Rainers are parked a mere 32 miles south of Safeco Field along the I-5 corridor in the Puget Sound port city of Tacoma. Cheney Stadium, home of the Rainers, has been a bastion of PCL ball since 1960 (Giants) and affiliated with the Mariners since 1995. In 2010, the stadium was renovated to the tune of $30 million and the results are tantalizing to say the least.
For two Metscentrics, like my 11-year old son and myself, the drive north from the upper reaches of Vancouver, Washington (which sits on the North side of the Columbia River across from Portland), is about 110 minutes or so, when there’s little or no traffic to negotiate. The outing was to provide some interesting insights into the Mets system, some meaningful father/son baseball bonding (in the wake of the ridiculously premature end to the youth baseball season in these parts) and a chance to explore a new city and its surrounds.
If you don’t follow minor league baseball, there are a few things to take note of right off the bat…
Triple-A fields can be quite impressive. In this case, the LF and RF lines are a reasonable 325-feet. However, dead center checks in at a prodigious 425-feet with an equally prodigious 16-foot wall. Lots of territory to cover for any centerfielder. Needless to say, balls hit to CF in Cheney Stadium seem to meet a cruel and unusual fate, especially when patrolled by a speedster. A number of fans even commented that they had never seen a ball hit over that wall.
The managers—in this case Backman and another former Mets favorite John Stearns—manage from both the dugout and the third base coaches box. The 51s only carry two other coaches—George Greer, the hitting coach, and Randy St. Clair, the pitching coach. So, who coaches 1B?—The starting pitcher from the previous game.
When playing in the home ballpark of an American League affiliate, the DH rule is in effect, which means managers have very few decisions to make and second-guessing is limited to which concession booth you should visit to grab your next brew. If there was ever a reason to eliminate the worst rule that ever besmirched the great game, it is the simple fact that trying to anticipate the next crafty managerial maneuver is a lost art. And when you carry nine relievers (as the 51s do), the ubiquitous double switch is pretty much non-existent.
The Mets have parked an odd assortment of talent in Las Vegas. For the most part, they have very few real prospects and a whole lot of 4A players. With the ascendance of outfielders Juan Lagares, Andrew Brown and Kirk Nieuwenhuis, the 51s carry only three outfielders on the roster. Eric Campbell has actually been known as a corner infielder throughout his career. The others are Jamie Hoffman and our old friend Mike Baxter, who sat during Friday night’s 9-0 blowout of the Rainers and then departed for NY for the birth of his child and missed the games on Saturday and Sunday. Both would be considered 4A’s, as is Brian Bixler, who is a legitimate and talented utility player. He adequately covered CF during the entirety of the three contests we attended and was spared an error on a long run into RF in Sunday’s contest that went in and out of his glove. Matt den Dekker will be a welcome addition to the outfield mix. Captain Kirk is likely to reappear at any moment as well.
The infield was manned by Ike Davis, Wilmer Flores, Brandon Hicks and Rylan Sandoval and no one else. (Reese Havens is on the DL and Omar Quintanilla, Josh Satin and Zach Lutz are all with the Mets.) Defensively, this is a very good group. Sandoval is the real surprise, showing very good range at the third sack, a powerful arm, surprisingly good plate coverage (now batting .328) and power (two long flies during the weekend) for a 5′ 9″ lead-off hitter. Hicks is a very competent SS, who makes all the plays with his cannon arm and can provide better than adequate offense (.305 BA). Flores is the one everyday player who is a real prospect, but not in the National League. Wilmer has a fluid stroke, outstanding plate coverage and quick hands, but very limited range in the infield. His arm is slightly below average and can only really play 1B or DH. No one on the 51s can handle the bat quite like Flores, whose outs are scorchers of the first order. He leads the team with 63 RBI to go along with 10 HR and a .310 BA. In the major leagues he is likely to slot in as a 6th Hole hitter.
In spite of what is being reported in the NY media (most of whom have not seen a PCL game), Ike Davis has not changed much of anything in his “hitchy” swing. Like the proverbial golfer with the gorgeous practice swing who then swings ugly upon addressing the ball, Ike looks good in the on-deck circle and then proceeds to drop both his hands below the belt against real pitching. This significant hitch reduces his plate coverage and makes him susceptible to off-speed pitches, as well as anything down and away. Even worse, Davis continues to exhibit a petulant attitude toward umpires. No one in the NL questioned called strikes more than Ike and the trend has continued in the PCL. In the third inning of Saturday’s game he was ejected and the timing could not have been worse for his short-handed team. With one of the three available catchers DHing and no backup infielders or outfielders, Davis was completely out of line and put his team in real jeopardy. Reliever DJ Mitchell had to play RF and bat clean-up, with Eric Campbell moving to 1B, for the balance of the game.
The biggest mistake Alderson and Collins can make right now is to bring up Ike, hand him 1B and bat him 4th or 5th—not to mention displacing Josh Satin, who like Davis, drops his hands, but is able to bring them back high enough for a good path to the ball. Satin is also a thinking man’s hitter, who relishes hitting to the opposite field and is an on-base machine. Isn’t that the real Alderson MO?
Behind the dish, the 51s are ostensibly very deep. With Travis d’Arnaud still on the shelf, the Mets are getting a good look at Francisco Pena, the impressive son of Tony. Pena is a real physical specimen at 6′ 2″ and 230 lbs. He is a fine receiver with a gun, is quiet behind the dish and hits solid line drives. At 23, he is a potential high ceiling prospect and is getting a chance to handle a veteran pitching staff. Pena splits the catching duties with Juan Centeno, who as a batsman is a Josh Thole clone. He swings from the left side, is a top-half-of-the-ball contact hitter with very little power. Unlike Thole, he appears to have decent catching skills with an average arm. Centeno has also hit for average at every level since 2010 (.302 this year with Vegas). The third catcher is Kai Gronauer (27), who mostly DHs and is hard to assess as a backstop.
Since the departures of Zach Wheeler, Carlos Torres and Colin McHugh, Backman has a curious rotation to manage. There are no southpaws (which is a serious deficiency in the Mets system) and three 4A starters—Giancarlo Alvarado (a recent 35-year-old pickup from the Mexican League who pitched six innings of shutout ball on Friday night while never exceeding 89-mph), Matt Fox (31, who tossed six shutout innings on Sunday) and Chis Schwinden (26). The two legitimate prospects recently promoted from Binghamton are Jacob deGrom and Raphael Montero. The 24-year-old deGrom went seven strong and has been virtually un-hittable in his first three AAA starts during which he pitched 18.2 innings. Jacob tops out at about 96-mph and is consistently in the 93-94 range with his hard stuff. His change-up and slider are decent and should come around with a little more seasoning. His slender 6′ 4″ frame and three-quarter delivery should confound hitters beyond Triple-A, especially if he perfects one of his secondary pitches. Raphael Montero (22) did not pitch against the Rainers, but is the second highest ranked pitching prospect in the Mets system after Noah Syndergaard. He will represent the Mets on the World Team at Citi Field on Futures Sunday.
The 51s bullpen is crowded and Wally has clearly been charged with crafting sufficient work for Greg Burke, who the Mets would really like in their bullpen, but with options aplenty is spending more time with Vegas than anyone had intended. As a result, starters are generally going no more than six innings and the rest of the pen beyond Burke is substantially underutilized. With four options from the port side (Sean Henn, Justin Hampson, Jack Leathersich and Robert Carson) and five righties (Greg Peavey, Gonzales German, DJ Mitchell, Armando Rodriguez and Burke) there is a veritable movable feast of arms. German, who was brought up to the Mets today, Peavey and Leathersich are the prospects with the most upside. Leathersich (23 in two weeks) made two appearances over the weekend where strikeouts were called for. He was effective, but not overwhelmingly so, with his fastball topping out at about 93. Certainly, control is and will be an issue for a while. The comparisons to Billy Wagner are not apparent right now. For Peavey (25 next week), control is not much of an issue. With excellent command and two quality pitches (a sneaky fast fastball that tops out at 94 and hard slider), the issue is how to make one of the other off-speed options in his repertoire as effective as his two primary selections. The Mets spent considerable resources sending Peavey to the Arizona Fall League this past fall and are clearly intrigued by his rubber arm, control and arsenal of pitches. German is a pure fastball pitcher with command issues, but he is on the 40-man roster and hence the call to Flushing.
While taking three of four in Tacoma against a quality team, the 51s are apparently being well guided by Backman, Greer and St. Claire. They outscored the Rainers 17-4 and got four stellar starts and excellent relief pitching to go along with superb defense (no errors in the four games) and excellent base-running, which are staples on a Backman-managed team. Six blasts and lots of raised batting averages (32 hits) were also front and center. The 51s are on track for a solid winning season and are likely to continue to adroitly fill the roster needs in Queens. The additions of den Dekker and Nieuwenhuis will add some depth and balance to the right-handed lineup. Ruben Tejada will add some pizazz to the infield. The sure things are Flores and d’Arnaud (if he can stay healthy), but deGrom, Montero, Leathersich, Peavey, Sandoval and Pena may make some serious statements during the next 15 months.
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