The Kids Are Alright


One of the best — and also most frustrating — things about baseball, is that over time, things always end up like they should. In that way, baseball is like life.

Over the course of 162 grueling games, the best teams will win, the Albert Pujolses will break out of their slumps, the and the Justin Turners will no longer hit .500 with runners in scoring position. It is not like football, where you only need to get through 16 games and can find a Maurice Jones-Drew out of nowhere. It’s not like basketball or hockey where half the teams make the postseason. In baseball, six months will usually allow the best teams to prevail and for just enough time for magical fairy dust to wear off.

This is particularly poignant at this moment, as our Mets crash and burn in spectacular fashion (though personally I prefer this scenario to a late season collapse).

The other night, we all watched Dillon Gee struggle epically in his start against the Phillies. Gee was a great story for a while, but for those of us who were more than causal observers, we knew that he wasn’t just an extraordinary kind of “gamer” or that he hadn’t figured out “how to win” better than the next major league pitcher. Ultimately, you knew that he was going to gravitate toward his actual talent level. Perhaps, Gee will be quite good in the majors. Perhaps Gee has grown over time to become a better pitcher than he was in the minor leagues. But right now, he’s sporting a 4.37 ERA, which is a lot closer to what you’d expect for Gee than the 3.32 ERA he had on July 1st. Most likely, he will become, to paraphrase Dennis Green, “who we thought he was.”

The reason for this lengthy introduction is because as the Mets play out the string here in late August and September, most fans, myself included, begin to have their thoughts turn to the 2012 season. Thoughts of stars returning from injuries, discussions about free agents, and analysis of minor league prospects will ensue as we assess the strengths and weaknesses of our organization. We here at Fonzie Forever have always consistently stressed that the most important thing that an organization needs to do before making a plan for the next year is to make an honest assessment of there they are TODAY.

As an example, we all remember the Winter and Spring before the 2010 season. For a few months, the Mets maintained the status quo — they acted for months as if they thought they had a shot to make the playoffs in 2010 and that all they needed to do was patch the holes. They signed Jason Bay to a large, lucrative contract — one which I at the time predicted would cost Omar Minaya his job. They signed or acquired players such as Alex CoraElmer DessensHenry Blanco, Gary Mathews Jr., Frank Catalanotto, and Rod Barajas. Those players were, for the most part, players that you might acquire if you THINK you can contend and you need to fill out your bench, bullpen, or Triple-A roster. However, for the 2010 Mets, each and every one of those acquisitions ranged from mistake to disaster. The Mets behavior that offseason wasn’t anchored in reality at all, and we here at Fonzie Forever said it every step of the way:

With the health of Carlos BeltranJohan Santana, and Jose Reyes all uncertain, there was no way a coherent plan could have been developed for the 2010 season. Under any set of circumstances, they were unlikely to succeed. Even if Santana, Beltran, and Reyes all came back strong, the Mets would also need David Wright to return to form, Mike Pelfrey to continue his growth, and for other players to step up.

The Mets, as we’ve said here before, were very fortunate in 2010. Out of nowhere, we discovered a quality major league center fielder in Angel Pagan; a high quality starter in RA Dickey; David Wright returned to form as an all-star caliber third baseman; Ike Davis had a wildly successful rookie year; and Carlos Beltran returned from his surgery and showed that he had a chance to contribute in 2011.

The 2011 edition of our Mets has been similarly successful, though their successes have been subtle, or modest, or in far away cities such as Binghamton or Port St. Lucie. Leaving aside any discussion of Madoff and the Wilpon’s financial trouble — about which no independent blogger can truly say make any predictions — the Mets organization as a whole is in a much stronger place today than it was at this time last season.

Obviously, the major league roster now is not as talented as the one we fielded in April — Davis and Reyes are hurt, while Beltran and K-Rod have been traded — and not every prospect has advanced his standing. However, from the low minors to the major leagues, there have been a great deal of successes.

Below, I am going to take a look at some of the players who have made significant gains or significantly improved their stock in the last year. Undoubtedly, some of these names will be familiar to casual fans — and others only to statheads. For space reasons, I’m not going to be able to go over everyone in the low minors, but limit myself to those players already on the major league roster or in the higher minor leagues.

I am proud to report that, for the first time in a while, I am very happy about the strength of the organization in general. An organization does not need to consistently produce super stars in order to be useful — and in fact, in New York, it is even less important that they do — because the development of useful, cheap, cost-controlled young players allows you the financial flexibility to make moves elsewhere. Now, on to the players:

Stock Up

Lucas Duda: You can count me as one of the many observers who did not think that Duda would amount to too much in the majors. Before 2010, Duda was a defensively-challenged corner outfielder who at the age of 23 posted an 808 OPS in Double-A. Then, something clicked. People have speculated that Duda had gotten over an injury, but since the bell rung in 2010 — over 800 at-bats later — he’s been a very, very good hitter. He put up a 999 OPS in Triple-A last year, a 1011 OPS in Triple-A this year, and has hit .275/.345/.464 in the majors this year. In the last 45 games — a decent proxy for since he’s gotten regular playing time — he’s hit .300/.376/.531, which is outstanding.

Nobody is going to project Duda to post a 900 OPS over the course of a full season, but it’s pretty clear now that Duda can hit, and that I was wrong about him. It remains to be seen whether Duda’s glove will be good enough for the outfield (fangraphs has his career UZR/150 in the outfield at an atrocious -32.9 over a small sample size), but it is clear that Duda’s stock is WAY WAY up and that he is a major leaguer.

Kirk Nieuwenhuis: Another player who took his enormous strides of 2010 and solidified them in 2011 was Captain Kirk Nieuwenhuis. Considered an overachiever by many, Kirk was not highly regarded even after posting an 847 OPS in Double-A at the age of 22. Scouting Book called him a fourth outfielder, while Keith Law, who strongly weighs scouting and tools in his ranking, did not place Kirk in his Mets Top 10 before the 2010 season.

The Captain, however, improved on his great 2010 season with a stellar 2011 season before going down with an injury. In 53 games, he batted .298/.403/.505 — a batting line that will play anywhere, but is fabulous for a 23 year old center fielder. He underwent labrum surgery on his non-throwing shoulder in midseason, and there are substantial questions about how he will recover, but he has shown that, if healthy, he has a bright future.

The Big Three Pitching Prospects — Matt HarveyJeurys FamiliaZack Wheeler: Much virtual ink has been spilled already on these three, so I will be brief, but suffice to say that each of these three have taken big steps forward this year. All three have good “stuff” according to scouts, and have backed it up with their performance on the field.

Harvey, my favorite of the three, has struck out 59 batters in 51 innings in Double-A, including 7 shutout innings yesterday. He’s been a little unlucky with balls in play, but with a strikeout to walk ratio of 59-15, he is having one of the best pitching prospect seasons I’ve seen. Familia may have been even better, with 63 strikeouts in 48 innings and an 11 inning shutout streak of his own in Double-A. Finally, Wheeler, the project of the three, is also striking out more than a batter per inning for the Single-A St. Lucie Mets. Toby Hyde was very impressed with his last start:

His fastball sat 94-96 mph with a few 93 mixed in later and one 97 as well early. He showed both the ability to throw it down with run and sink and throw it shoulder-height to change batters’ eye-level and produce swings and misses. Early on, his curveball was 77 mph with bite, by the end of his outing he was throwing it in the low 80s. It was nasty.

I try not to engage in hyperbole, but this is the best crop of Mets pitching prospects that I can recall seeing. All of them, in my opinion, compare favorably to Pelfrey (who, in his own right, was an impressive minor leaguer) and even to Jon Niese (who I was a big fan of from even the beginning).

Josh Satin: Although he doesn’t profile to be an impact player any time soon, Satin has transformed himself from a non-factor into a player who can contribute on a major league team. After a relatively unremarkable minor league career, where he posted good-not-great numbers at each minor league level while being a little old for each level, Satin has exploded at the dish this year. He posted a 962 OPS at Double-A before his promotion to Triple-A. While with Buffalo, he’s put up a respectable OPS of 808. That mark includes a .392 on-base percentage.

Zach Lutz: Similarly, organizational soldier Lutz made it to Triple-A and has posted an OPS of 933. It was just two seasons ago that Lutz was a non-factor, posting an 822 OPS in High-A. He’s been quite good in Buffalo this year, and may find a way to be a useful major leaguer.

Chris Schwinden: Although Schwinden is not as good as his stats would indicate this season, he’s taken a big step forward this season for Triple-A Buffalo. Schwinden last season posted a 5.56 ERA in Double-A, and the year before spent the majority of the season in Low-A Savannah. This year, however, Schwinden has handled his promotion to Triple-A with aplomb, posting a 3.60 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and striking out 8.2 batters per nine innings — all of which are career bests. The former 22nd Round draft pick may make good.

Jordany Valdespin: The 23 year old Valdespin was featured here a year and a half ago where we said:

There are a lot of reasons to like Valdespin. Obviously, his Savannah performance was good. More importantly, being rated the “best athlete” in the system…ahead of the likes of Wilmer FloresJefry Marte, Kirk Nieuwenheis and others says a lot about his tools…In addition, he had a very strong Winter League performance…All of these things point to a bright future for Jordany. Although it could be seen as an indictment of his talent that he has not yet reached High-A ball entering his age 22 season, his physical abilities and variety of talents (speed and defense) make him an intriguing prospect.

Jordany is a project, but this year has taken a huge stride forward. After ending the 2010 season with a poor 698 OPS between Single-A and Double-A, he hit a robust .297/.341/.483 for Double-A Binghamton earlier this year. I think that the talk of Valdespin as a potential major leaguer next season is premature, but he is still only 23 and may still have room to grow.

Reese Havens: Back in 2009, when Reese Havens and Ike Davis were coming off their first full seasons in the minor leagues, we here at Fonzie Forever could not understand why Davis was being held in higher regard than Havens. We pointed out here that they were picked only four selections apart in the 2008 draft, both had hit well in the minors, and Havens had the positional adjustment advantage (second base versus first base). However, Havens has been plagued by injuries since then, and his stock — through early this year — had dropped substantially.

However, I am glad to report that Havens has come back strong in the last two months, and has upped his batting line in Double-A to .287/.370/.420. Even better, he’s gained momentum as the year has gone on, posting a line of .323/.402/.430 since the All-Star Break. Granted, he will have to prove that his injury problems will not derail his once promising career, but Havens stock has certainly risen since April. He’s a second baseman capable of posting an OPS of 800 or better, and those are exceedingly rare.

Justin Turner: Although by no stretch would I ever want Justin Turner starting on my contending team, my man @redturn2 has finally gotten the opportunity to show that he deserves to be in the major leagues. Turner hasn’t hit a lick since his third week in the majors and his OPS is now down to 678 — however, he plays decent defense and is fun to be around and can be a piece on a winner. ZiPS projected Turner for a 697 OPS in preseason, which is on the money as usual, but that is fine for organizational depth.

Stock Down

As I mentioned, not everyone in the Mets organization has been all puppies and rainbows in 2011. It’s been a tough year for Fernando Martinez, while we watched Jenrry Mejia undergo Tommy John surgery. Stephen Matz, the Mets first pick (second round) of the 2009 draft has had some soreness in his recovery from his own Tommy John. I still believe that these players have a chance to contribute (particularly Mejia, who observers believe can still be a big impact pitcher) but their fortunes have dimmed somewhat since this time last year.

But in general?

A hallmark of a good organization is not just in the superstars at the major league level or super prospects in the minors, but in the depth of the rosters at each level. If you trade a Beltran, do you have a Duda to fill in? If Davis gets hurt, do you have a Daniel Murphy to take his space or do you need to pay a Mike Jacobs?

In that sense, it’s been a very, very strong year for the organization. Aside from the one big question mark surrounding the Mets’ financial situation, this is a team that could probably start making some noise as early as next year. Provided that the majority of players come back reasonably healthy, this is what the Mets squad could look like next year without a single addition from free agency.

1B Davis

2B Murphy

SS Reyes

3B Wright

LF Bay

CF Pagan

RF Duda

C Thole/Paulino

SP Santana, Niese, Dickey, Pelfrey, Capuano

RP Parnell, Beato, …

The team as constituted above is not going to win the National League East. The Mets still have significant weaknesses when it comes to the starting rotation and the bullpen, and the Jason Bay contract will haunt the organization for another two years, but given average health that team will not be terrible. And more importantly, it’s not constituted so poorly that it makes me want to run to the Mets offices at Citi Field and say “Are you mad?! Trade everything that’s not nailed down!! You guys are crazy for keeping up this charade!”

Generally speaking, the players mentioned above have shown that the Mets are going to be less likely to suffer should they be befallen by a major injury. The days of Alex Cora and Miguel Cairo seem to be past, for now. And even better, the above guys, if we need them to play, are going to be making the minimum salary. That is why Angel Pagan and RA Dickey have been the most valuable Mets over the last couple of years — they are providing value and barely costing anything.

These kids are alright. Luckily, all the trading of stars and doom and gloom at the major league level hasn’t done anything to dampen the future prospects of our minor leaguers. Granted, reinforcements would have been nice in 2009, or 2008, but once again, that’s part of the beauty of baseball.

Prospects, or major leaguers, or injuries, or luck, don’t develop because you NEED them to at that moment.  That’s one of the beautiful things about baseball. Tragically, Daniel Murphy got injured again this year, just when we needed him. The Mets made silly moves in advance of 2010 because they thought they needed to compete, and damn the fact that the roster just wasn’t good enough at that point. Where are we on the success cycle?

These kids are alright. The ones above — and many others, who I did not get a chance to mention — had a good year this year. I am excited to watch our boys play out the string here in late August and September, and hopefully, they’ll be here contributing to the major league team very soon.

But not because we need them to. Because they are ready.