Mets 2010 fifth rounder CF Matt den Dekker has all the tools to play an above-average center field at the major league level.
Next up on our list of Minor League Monday rankings are the system's top defenders. These are the guys that regardless of all other tools already possess at or near major league-caliber gloves. In fact, a few of these guys are easily projected as plus defenders in the major leagues.
It's important to have at least a few of these players in a system at the high skill positions. Trends have shown that a league average center fielder at Triple-A will not cut it in the big leagues; same goes for catcher and shortstop. Therefore to stick up the middle you've got to excel with the leather. And with two of the team's better defenders over the past five years in Reyes & Beltran potentially on the way out, the Mets could definitely use some young defensive talent.
1) SS Wilfredo Tovar
At the age of 18, Tovar found himself at short for three different affiliates in 2010, including Hi-A St. Lucie. And despite being the youngest player on each team -- and sometimes the entire league -- Tovar didn't skip a beat with the leather, showing the kind of natural ability that just can't be taught. His impressive blend of first-step quickness and razor sharp instincts made it pretty tough to get anything past him and his range was superb. Now thanks to his small frame (5'10", 160 lbs) Tovar will likely never be a slugger but he showed pretty good contact ability for someone so young. And even if his bat never develops much further scouts who have watched him feel he could play the role of defensively-oriented backup shortstop in the majors today.
2) CF Matt den Dekker
Drafted out of the University of Florida in the fifth round this June, den Dekker immediately showed why he was the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year playing what many people felt was the best center field the conference had ever seen. Den Dekker uses above average speed and very good reads to track balls to cover a ton of ground very deep into both gaps. His arm is just average but that's negligible considering his vast range and excellent athletic ability. At the plate, he's a lefty swinger with legitimate gap-to-gap power but he swings and misses too much thanks to a long stroke. Though he's shown a decent eye in college, he clearly sacrifices a lot of that plate discipline for power. If he starts turning those doubles into homers then we can talk about a starting role at the major league level but chances are den Dekker is a fourth oufielder. However, like Tovar den Dekker probably already possesses the ability to come off the bench as a defensive specialist at the major league level right now.
3) C Kai Gronauer
An international free agent signed out of Germany in '08, Gronauer has always impressed with his advanced catching ability. From a strong and accurate arm to quick footwork to reportedly excellent game-calling ability, Gronauer looks like a major league-cailber defender behind the dish. Offensively he's starting to develop a little pop and he's got a decent idea at the plate but chances are his overall lack of punch will preculde him from starting in the majors. The 24-year old is a little bit behind in his development -- like pretty much all European prospects -- but he showed excellent ability at Hi-A as well as the prospect-laden AFL in 2010 and it's very conceivable that Gronauer is well on his way to a role as a part-time backstop in the majors.
4) CF Darrell Ceciliani
Aside from setting a whole bunch of Cyclones records with the bat, the 20-year old Ceciliani also excelled in center field this year for Brooklyn. The Mets '09 fourth round selection utilized his plus speed as well as a little bit of reckless abandon to cover a whole lot of ground at MCU Field out in Coney Island. This all-out approach led to a number of highlight reel catches but also led to Ceciliani getting a couple of bumps and bruises that had him miss games here and there throughout the season. Now he is still a little raw, often taking less than ideal routes to balls but to this point his speed has more than made up for it. In addition, as a lefty thrower Ceciliani's arm is below average so chances are if he profiles as a Johnny Damon-style defender in center.
5) OF Javier Rodriguez
Despite something of a bounce-back season with the K-Mets in 2010, Rodriguez has pretty much been a disappointment with the bat since his 68th overall selection back in '08. However, one thing he has always showed is the ability to play the outfield. Now he's not quite a burner like den Dekker or Ceciliani but he features tremendous natural instincts for the position, consistently taking excellent routes and tracking down balls that seem out of reach. His slender physique and long strides reminded many of another outstanding center fielder from PR, Carlos Beltran. And though Rodriguez doesn't possess nearly Beltran offensive ability, his glove would certainly play at the highest levels.
Honorable Mention: CF Eudy Pina
The ultra-athletic 18-year old from the DR played for the Mets DSL team this summer and according to first-hand accounts showed promising defensive tools in center field. As evidenced by his 29 stolen bases Pina can really fly, however like most DSL players he's still very raw. Either way Pina showcased the kind of tools on both sides of the ball in 2010 that have many excited to see him make his U.S. debut this summer.
Catch up on the other Farm System Top 5's below: