Today we'll wrap up our 2012 Minor League Season in Review series. If you've missed any of it, or perhaps you just like to reminisce, you can find the rest of the series here. And now, on to Buffalo.
In my experience I've found that more often than not the Mets' Triple-A and Double-A clubs often rhyme a bit in terms of their season arcs, and 2012 was much the same. Like Binghamton below them, Buffalo ran out a mostly average club that, when measured against a talented International League Northern Division, wasn't able to compete. Despite a strong crop of starting pitchers, the team's lack of bullpen depth left their staff in the middle of the pack in the IL. Meanwhile, the drastic needs of the big league club left their offense somewhat lacking throughout much of the season.
With lightning-rod manager Wally Backman in the fold, the Bisons once again provided a solid wave of depth for the big club. Notably, Buffalo provided significant debuts from Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Josh Edgin, and Matt Harvey while talented arms like Collin McHugh, Jeurys Familia, and Jenrry Mejia flashed great potential. With the Mets' affiliate headed west come 2013, it may not have been the swan song that many in Buffalo hoped for. As we become familiar with the realities of minor league baseball in the high desert, however, I expect we'll look back fondly on our time in upstate New York.
The Prospects (in alphabetical order)
LHP Mark Cohoon - STOCK DOWN
A couple of years ago I recapped a strong season by Cohoon in this space by characterizing him as a very polished pitcher that, despite tremendous success to that point, would have to prove himself at each and every level thanks to below-average stuff. Well, the proof is in the pudding:
ERA in Triple-A: 6.77
ERA everywhere else: 3.13
In short, the 2008 12th-round pick just doesn't have the kind of stuff to succeed against the best hitters in the world. With a fastball that works in the low-to-mid-80's, there's only so far that his excellent command can carry him. At a certain point you need to be able to keep hitters off balance and he just hasn't been able to do that. And at age 25, there's little chance we'll see much more development in that regard. Additionally, a move to the bullpen isn't ideal as he hasn't exhibited the strongest platoon splits over his career.
LHP Robert Carson - STOCK UP
2012 was a successful season for the 23-year-old lefty, if only because getting any former 14th rounder to the major league level is a win for the organization. In the absence of Tim Byrdak for the second half, it gave both Carson and Josh Edgin a perfect opportunity to audition for the LOOGY role, and blowing away hitters with 95-plus-mph stuff gets people's attention. Carson actually made two separate trips to Queens, first joining the Mets for a brief cup of coffee in May before getting an extended look in August and September — until a muscle strain in his arm, which is not considered serious, ended his season.
In terms of performance, though, the season was not as much of a rousing success as one might think. I'm not talking about his major league experience; that was just 13.1 innings so let's put that aside. In his first full season as a reliever, Carson appeared in 41 minor league games, most of those coming in Double-A Binghamton where he posted a 4.79 ERA. The good news is that, in relief, he saw a spike in his strikeout rate to 9.34 strikeouts per nine. My top beef with Carson, however, has always been his extreme hittability for someone with mid-90s velocity from the left side. He's struggled to limit the hits at every level since Rookie-ball, and 2012 was no different. In Binghamton, opponents batted .300 against him, in Buffalo they batted .276. Taking a peek at his big league service time, major league lefties batted .286 against him with an .875 OPS. That's not what you want to see from a potential LOOGY.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: Carson has a great arm, but ultimately he's just too hittable. The lack of a credible secondary pitch allows hitters to gear up and be ready for the fastball, no matter how hard he throws it. Carson will always get opportunities because of his excellent mix of size (6-4, 240 pounds) and stuff from the left side. Despite showing flashes at the highest levels in 2012, I still see him as a Donnie Veal-esque lefty (of Cubs/Pirates/White Sox fame) whose performance never quite lives up to his stuff.
OF Matt den Dekker - STOCK DOWN
2012 truly was a tale of two seasons for the former Gator of Gainesville. Upon his return to Binghamton to start the year, den Dekker absolutely tore apart Double-A pitching. The initial struggles and the subsequent .330 wOBA he posted there in 2011 were a distant memory as he posted a .423 mark over his first 58 games. He was hitting for power (.223 ISO), he was stealing more bases, his strikeout rate -- though still high -- had improved. Now his BABIP was a ridiculously unsustainable .429 but to be fair, some of that looked like a hitter that was just too good for his surroundings -- and was stinging the ball as such. Either way, by the All-Star Break den Dekker had gone from solid organizational center field prospect to the precipice of legitimate, blue chip status. Mets fans began hearing his name on the SNY broadcast semi-regularly and it wasn't unreasonable to assume we'd see him on said broadcast before year's end.
A promotion to Triple-A following the break was an inevitability and while some slowing down was in order, few could have predicted the kind of regression that would follow. Den Dekker would go on to lose .120 points off his batting average -- a result of the .150 he lost off his BABIP -- while watching his strikeout rate skyrocket, short-circuiting the rest of his offensive game. His walk rate -- which at 7.5% in Double-A was not far off his career mark -- plummeted to a career-worst 4.4%. He was able to maintain some home run power (.153 ISO), though well below his career norms. In a reverse from earlier in the season, a .279 BABIP looked less like bad luck than a hitter who just couldn't make enough solid contact against more advanced pitching.
Many prospects struggle in their first exposure to a new level; take Wilfredo Tovar whose stock is still rising despite scuffling in his Double-A debut. However, the difference is age. As a 25-year old in the minors, den Dekker has little margin for error -- especially when he exhibits a nearly 30% strikeout rate, indicative of a serious fundamental flaw. On the bright side, based on the trends he's exhibited in the past, it's not unfair to hope for a bounceback upon return to Triple-A. In fact, there is still a scenario where he could end up as a low average/on-base, high strikeout, plus-center fielder with strong power, in the mold of a Tyler Colvin or Drew Stubbs. Additionally, his defensive value in center means that he will have an impact on the big league team in some way, shape or form. However, it must be pointed out that the Colvin/Stubbs profile is not a franchise center fielder by any means. His Triple-A debut was very telling in that the road to an everyday role in the majors is no way guaranteed for the 2010 fifth rounder.
RHP Jeurys Familia - STOCK HOLDING
The 23-year-old Familia made his major league debut in 2012, showcasing a nasty sinking fastball and excellent -- as well as inconsistent -- secondary stuff in an eight-game preview as a member of the Mets bullpen. While he often looked dominant (authoring two of my favorite GIF's of 2012, seen here and here), his central issue was the same one that plagued him during his debut season in Buffalo, that being command. After watching his walks per nine jump above 3.5 at Double-A in 2011, it continued to rise to an ugly 4.80 mark with Buffalo. Otherwise, his final numbers look quite strong, including 8.4 strikeouts per nine, a solid 3.78 FIP and one of the strongest starter's groundball rates in the IL.
Going forward, Familia's role -- for 2013 and beyond -- remains clouded. His swing-and-miss stuff seemed to translate exceptionally well to relief work, which did not go unnoticed by the club's manager. That may sound dangerously familiar, yet in this case
cooler smarter heads should prevail. In any case, at 23, Familia is in an entirely different boat developmentally than was Mejia and wouldn't necessarily be harmed by a stint in the bullpen -- though I do feel he has the ability to start at the highest level. Oftentimes I've compared him to the Rangers' Alexi Ogando based on the quality of his fastball/slider mix as well as the inferiority of his change-up. I could easily envision Familia in a similar role where he alternates between stretches in the rotation and the bullpen, as the team's needs dictate.
Looking back, the last season Familia exhibited such a large spread between ERA and FIP was 2010, while making his High-A debut for St. Lucie -- another season where his walk rate spiked (5.50). Fortunately, his second shot at the level in 2011 saw him dominate the competition, demonstrating far better command (1.98) until he forced a promotion. It's important to remember that, even for a top prospect, scuffling a bit in one's first exposure to a new level is not the end of the world.
3B Zach Lutz - STOCK HOLDING
More of the same from the 26-year old Lutz who, as always, beat up on high level pitching in between stints on the mend. However, 2012 was notable in that the 2007 fifth rounder first, didn't miss quite as much time as he has in the past, and second, finally made his major league debut in late April. Unfortunately, neither storyline had a fantastic ending. In terms of his debut, he only garnered 11 big league at bats, striking out in five of them. He was featured at first base a tad to potentially get him more exposure, but it's not like the Mets have a gaping hole at first either. And on the injury front, while he remained healthier than he has on the whole, his season ended in early September with a fractured hamate bone -- an injury known for sapping power upon return.
Really, there's not a ton to glean from Lutz's 2012 campaign -- aside from the consolation that comes from effectively bouncing back from multiple concussions in '11. We'll have to watch the hamate thing going forward but power has never been an issue for Lutz, who regularly posts ISO's above .250. Otherwise, we already know he can hit; despite strikeout rates that are regularly in the 20% range, this marks the third straight season that he posted an OPS at or near .900 in Triple-A. Additionally, we know he has enough plate discipline; 2012 continued his streak of double-digit walk rates at every level. BABIP's of .388 and .391 in his last two stops with Buffalo demonstrate the fact that he has mastered the art of hard contact against the highest level of minor league competition. At this point he needs to be tested against major leaguers, it's just a matter of when he'll get that opportunity and if it will come with the Mets (short answer: probably not).
RHP Collin McHugh - STOCK UP
It's a big win for a club anytime they can graduate a former 18th round draft pick to the majors. Much more so when said player has the kind of debut that McHugh did back on August 23rd, when he allowed just two hits over seven shutout innings while striking out nine Rockies. But the best part about McHugh's 2012 season is that, beyond the outstanding debut, he has now done enough to comfortably say that he will likely have an impactful big league career, when just a couple of years ago he was barely on the prospect radar.
After a very successful return appearance in Binghamton to start the year, the right-hander from little Berry College was excellent upon promotion to Triple-A Buffalo. In his first exposure to the level he posted an impressive 8.55 strikeouts per nine mark while allowing Triple-A hitters to bat just .216. Now two key indicators that look like red flags in hindsight were his elevated walk rate -- 3.54 walks per nine isn't awful but it represented a career-high -- as well as his high home run rate. For a pitcher that lives and dies by his plus-curve, he found that more advanced hitters would tee off when he hung them. Both of these trends would persist throughout his eight games with the big club (four starts), leaving him with a rather ugly line overall.
Regardless, the 25-year old McHugh showed the kind of maturity of stuff in 2012 to garner consideration for a back of the rotation spot at some point in 2013 -- should one open up. And while he waits his strong secondary mix and good-enough fastball velocity would likely profile well in middle relief, again granted he can rein in the command just a bit while his unsustainably high home run rate comes back to Earth (see, 4.77 xFIP). In many ways I can envision McHugh playing a similar role that David Phelps successfully held for the Yankees in 2012 while attempting to imitate the success of similarly polished righty Dillon Gee as a member of the rotation further down the line.
IF Josh Satin - STOCK HOLDING
Yet another good, not great, season from the '08 sixth rounder out of the beleaguered Cal baseball program. In his first full year at Triple-A, Satin did what he always does, posting his same-old excellent 14% walk rate, troubling 20% strikeout rate, moderate .150 ISO and batting somewhere around .300. It's a decent offensive profile, but based on his defense, it's not enough. The club again tried him all over the infield in 2012 to boost his versatility, but his sub-par foot speed precludes him from regularly appearing anywhere but an infield corner at the next level. They've even toyed with the outfield, but that too was ruled out.
In short, Satin's most promising major league profile is a righty off the bench with some pop and some patience -- but zero speed -- who can capably handle a number of positions in a pinch. Basically, he wants Justin Turner's job. The one hitch in the plan is that Satin doesn't play into the profile in terms of his production against lefties, against whom he batted just .223 with a single home run in 2012. Unfortunately, it's a not an ideal skillset and the fact that he's already 28 (yes, 28) doesn't help.
Like Zach Lutz, based solely on the merits of his 2012 in a vacuum Satin's prospect stock remains unchanged -- there's still little doubt that he could help a major league team in some way, shape or form right now. However, he isn't in a vacuum; he's in the minors, amidst many other players -- most of whom are younger -- which means that standing still is moving backwards. He's certainly not a non-factor at this point, however as many a quadruple-A player has found out, the absence of any one truly above-average skill/tool -- no matter how well-rounded a player may be -- doesn't bode well for a one's long-term chances.
RHP Chris Schwinden - STOCK DOWN
It was quite a strange 2012 for Schwinden. After getting out of the gates quickly with a nice sub-three ERA through the first month and a half with Buffalo, the now-26-year old got the call to replace Mike Pelfrey in Queens. Considered the first line of defense after a solid major league debut in 2011, Schwinden scuffled in a pair of four inning, five run starts. At that point he gave way to Jeremy Hefner, but something funny happened on his way back to Buffalo -- the former 22nd rounder did not make it through waivers...ever. He was claimed first by Cleveland, then the Yankees, then Toronto. And then as fate would have it, he was re-claimed by the Mets a couple months later. Needless to say, his numbers suffered during his whirlwind summer. However, to his credit, Schwinden got it together, posting a 2.45 ERA with just a shade under eight strikeouts and roughly two walks per nine over his last 11 starts with the Bisons.
The thing about this season is that it shouldn't really change our opinion of the solid, if unspecactular, right-hander much. I mean, any player will get dinged a bit if they're allowed to walk that many times (conversely, that also means that many clubs were interested in his services). Additionally, as a 26-year old righty on the low end of the velocity scale he's running out of time to establish himself. However, In terms of his performance, his five-pitch repertoire looked as well-developed as ever. Nothing has changed from last winter when his stuff drew comparisons to Dillon Gee -- not the highest praise but certainly no curse either. He wasn't as strong in his second big league trial, but that was just three games after all. Ultimately, Schwinden entered the year with a ceiling at the back-end of a big league rotation and a floor as a Taxi Squad spot starter and both parameters remain true today.
RHP Zack Wheeler - STOCK UP
Put simply, Zack Wheeler ended any debate about the fact that he is the Mets best prospect and perhaps the most important piece for the future success of a team clearly looking to build with internal youth. In his first full season since the trade that brought him east, the 22-year old showcased the kind of stuff that makes scouts drool. Blessed with a top shelf, 12-to-6 curve, Wheeler possesses the kind of consistently plus, swing-and-miss secondary offering that most pitching prospects only dream of. Further, his easy, mid-90's fastball has the kind of natural movement that just can't be taught, allowing Wheeler to dominate hitters 2-3 years his senior. His change-up is still a work in progress but shows good fade and should be at least an average pitch. With a slender, 6'4" frame I've often compared him to another Georgia prep product, Adam Wainwright.
Now despite all that it's also clear that Wheeler is still not a finished product. More than anything he's still got to work on his command; specifically, that of his secondary offerings. After posting a so-so 3.34 walks per nine mark in Double-A Binghamton to start the year, he regressed to 4.36 in six starts against the more advanced hitters of the Triple-A International League. Interestingly, this was the first level that Wheeler couldn't dominate on days when his fastball was his only reliable pitch. Now obviously the results clearly weren't bad -- speaking to the quality of his heater -- but he's going to have to throw the curveball for strike one more effectively and bring those walks down before he's ready for the show.
Despite that, there's only so long that you can hold back this kind of stuff. An 8.45 strikeouts per nine coupled with a .205 opponent average in Triple-A tells you that he could get major league hitters out right now. I'd try to give Wheeler as much of the 2013 season in Triple-A as possible; yes, Las Vegas is a hitters environment but for a pitcher like Wheeler that doesn't matter much. Have him work out the command, work on the change-up. Theoretically, the big club shouldn't really need him; starting depth is good with guys like Mejia, Familia, McHugh and even Schwinden all likely awaiting a rotation spot. However, it's going to be tough to hold him back when he goes on his first run of dominance against PCL hitters. And to a degree that's ok as pitchers with this kind of stuff warrant some degree of learning on the job. I expect we'll see him around the same time we saw Harvey in 2012, around late July to early August.
More Name to Watch For
25-year old RHP Gonzalez Germen doesn't blow anyone away with tremendous stuff but a solid fastball complemented with good command (2.48 walks per nine) has moved him up the chain. The 2012 ERA doesn't look great but pay more attention to the 3.70 FIP in Double-A. His versatility could serve him well as potential bullpen filler at the highest levels, as evidenced by his addition to the 40-man in November...So it's come to this. Coming off his third straight season with a five-plus walks per nine mark, it's hard to even project RHP Brad Holt as a middle relief piece at this point. He can still pop a decent fastball and the full-time move to the bullpen produced a spike in effectiveness at first, but a rising .262 opponent average in 2012 is not a good sign.