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Season in Review: Savannah Sand Gnats

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Let's continue our 'Season in Review' series shall we? Now if I had to ascribe any late-19th century Victorian-style British writer and novelist to this next Mets affiliate (I'm sure I'm not the only one who does that), I'd have to go with none other than the late, great Charles Dickens. Not just because Wilfredo Tovar kind of reminds me of Oliver Twist, but because Savannah had a bit of an identity crisis this year.  And so I give you "A Tale of Two Seasons: The 2010 Savannah Sand Gnats."

Team Spotlight

In his second go with the team, the Gnats were managed by former minor league journeyman catcher Pedro Lopez. And as I alluded to earlier, the Sand Gnats really were two different teams this season, one before the All-Star Break and another one after. Let's start with before: 

It was the best of times...

The first half Gnats disproved the saying that charity begins at home, posting a 24-11 mark at Historic William Grayson Stadium. Powered by a terrific opening month from erstwhile Sand Gnat Wilmer Flores, Savannah pounded their way to an overall mark of 42-28, good for a .600 win percentage and first place coming into the SAL ASB. His sensational performance (.360 AVG, 1000+OPS) as well as a flurry of intentional walks had many calling for Flores' promotion to St. Lucie. But Flores would go on to slump hard as May gave way to June, reminding Mets fans and scouts alike that the kid was still just eighteen. However outfielder Juan Lagares, a former shortstop prospect who perhaps had been rushed earlier in his career, backed Flores up with a stellar first half of his own, recharging his waning prospect status.  

The other big story of the first half was Savannah's incredible pitching. Starters like Mark Cohoon, Brandon Moore & Jim Fuller all sported ERA's at or below the 2's with Armando Rodriguez & Collin McHugh right behind them. Even the bullpen was dominant, with guys like John Church, Darin Gorski & Taylor Whitenton posting great numbers and itching for a shot in the rotation. It seemed like every night the Savannah starter would post at least seven strong innings, they were throwing shutouts left and right, Cohoon even managed an incredible streak of three-straight complete game shutouts to end the first half. In short, the Gnats pitching was the true reason for their first half success and ultimately led them to a SAL First Half Title, clinching a playoff spot come September.

...It was the worst of times

Unfortunately, the second half Gnats were a victim of all this success. They saw a great deal of their top performers promoted during the ASB and the team suffered mightily as a result. The lineup was far less fearsome with early stars, Flores & Lagares, now doing their thing in St. Lucie while other key offensive cogs like Kai Gronauer, Rafael Fernandez & Wilfredo Tovar all got the call at or around that same time. To make matters worse, remaining sluggers Cesar Puello & Jefry Marte both battled injuries for the remainder of the year making late surges from Robbie Shields and newcomer Matt den Dekker too little, too late. 

And, the struggles weren't limited to the offense. The once mighty Gnats pitching staff was just a shadow of its former self with first half stars Cohoon & Moore on their way up and Fuller soon to follow. Even guys like McHugh, Church & Whitenton all faded once moved into the rotation full-time. Before the break the Gnats staff allowed more than three runs just 24 times while the second half staff allowed more than three runs a total of 39 times. Obviously the team was worse and it showed, as they posted a 33-36 mark for the second half and eventually were swept in the SAL best of three Championship Series by Greenville.

...It was the age of foolishness

As for the truly important stuff, ESPN the Magazine recently selected Savannah's August 14th 'Man on Fire' stunt as 2010's Pro Sports Promotion of the Year. Far sweeter a victory than any league title could have ever been.


Final Standings:  

Augusta 79 59 .572 -
Greenville 77 62 .554 2.5
Savannah 75 64 .540 4.5
Lexington 71 68 .511 8.5
Asheville 69 70 .496 10.5
Charleston 65 74 .468 14.5
Rome 59 80 .424 20.5



The Usual Suspects

 RF Cesar Puello - STOCK UP

SAV SAL .292 109 404 80 118 22 1 1 34 145 32 82 45 10 .375 .359 .734

A lot has been written about Cesar Puello this season (by myself, and others) and justifiably so, not many Mets prospects boosted their stocks more than Puello did in 2010. Now we could probably pore over the details of his 2010 for a week so here's the cliff note version: He opened up the year poorly, overmatched by full season pitching to the tune of a .234 AVG with 0 homers through May. However, coaches rebuilt his stance and swing in early May; basically his old swing was not taking advantage of his size and the raw power he showed in BP. It lent itself more to staying inside the pitch and shooting balls to right which is a good thing but as the saying goes, vices are sometimes only virtues carried to excess and in this case he needed to focus more on hitting for power. So by stepping back from the plate, starting his hands back to get his swing going sooner and bringing his foot down quicker, he found it much easier to react faster and pull balls to left field more. 

Puello went on to bat .336 for the rest of the summer, showing much more power and a better overall offensive approach. He demonstrated even more speed this season (45 sb/55 attempts) and very good defensive ability, including a very strong/accurate arm in right field. Curiously, he's only ever played right but even as a corner guy he's showing the kind of tools to really move up prospect rankings. And if he does make that move to center, look out.


3B Jefry Marte - HOLDING

SAV SAL .264 82 329 40 87 19 4 6 44 132 30 65 4 5 .333 .401 .735

Mixed reviews for Marte in 2010. On the one hand, his problematic plate discipline improved by leaps and bounds this season as he doubled his BB rate, from 4% in '09 up to a much more acceptable 8% this year which in turn boosted his OBP by a tremendous 60 points. At the same time he brought his 24% K rate in '09 down to 19% in 2010 while flashing more signs of some dynamic power down the line. On the down side, Marte continued to struggle quite a bit defensively (see: 18 errors) and suffered from serious hamstring issues that ended his season in late July. What's more, while he continues to flash excellent bat speed and good pull-side power, for a prospect whose star is hinged almost entirely on power potential, I'd like to see him put up better than a .136 ISO. In some ways I think Aderlin Rodriguez is the prospect many thought Marte could be when he put up a .532 SLG as a sixteen year old in the GCL back in '08.

Now Marte is still a teenager and he did show some growth this season. And what's more, he's profiled as a definite second-half player thus far as a pro and was continuing the trend this year before injuries sidelined him so who knows what his final numbers may have looked like. But either way, I'd have liked to see him take the kind of step forward we saw this year from Puello or Aderlin if he wants to stay among the elite hitting prospects of the system. He still has plenty of time to figure things out but for a prospect that is SO rough around the edges, procrastination, by way of injury or stagnation, is the thief of that time.


CF Matt den Dekker - (new to organization)

MTS GCL .278 5 18 2 5 2 0 0 5 7 2 5 0 0 .350 .389 .739
SAV SAL .346 27 104 21 36 13 0 0 15 49 9 28 3 0 .404 .471 .875
Total   .336 32 122 23 41 15 0 0 20 56 11 33 3 0 .396 .459 .855

Following a superb senior season with the Gators, den Dekker was a revelation for the Mets, who selected him late in the fiftth round this June. Many saw the lefty-swinging gloveman as a signability pick who may not have enough bat to play everyday in the majors but anytime you're looking at a true center field prospect putting up nearly a 1.000 OPS (even with a metal bat) it doesn't hurt to give him a shot.  Den Dekker rewarded the organization by flying out of the gates with the Gnats, batting .413 in August with an incredible eleven doubles and immediately becoming one of, if not THE, best defensive center fielders in the system. And though he cooled a bit in September, you really can't complain about a kid with plus speed playing stellar defense at a premium position putting up a .407 wOBA in his pro debut. Ultimately, whether he translates his strong doubles game into homers at the higher levels will likely determine whether or not he'll start in the show but either way, he demonstrated enough in his brief debut to pretty much solidify his floor as an Endy-esque, very strong defensive fourth OF.


SS Wilfredo Tovar - STOCK UP

STL FSL .246 30 118 14 29 5 1 0 6 36 3 22 4 3 .276 .305 .582
SAV SAL .281 44 160 12 45 10 0 0 17 55 8 12 4 5 .327 .344 .671
BRK NYP .265 18 68 11 18 2 1 0 6 22 2 9 4 3 .311 .324 .634
Total   .266 92 346 37 92 17 2 0 29 113 13 43 12 11 .307 .327 .634

With nearly all of the attention on another teenage shortstop out of Venezuela, Tovar quietly proved that a young boy's story can be the best of all by emerging out of virtual anonymity to star for three separate Mets affiliates in 2010 and put his name on the map in a big way. Five days younger than Flores, Tovar actually played up at St. Lucie first as he made the jump all the way from extended spring training to start the season there. And while that proved a bit of a hasty assignment (necessitated by injuries) one thing that never waivered regardless of the level was his sterling defense at short. Tovar's profile is almost like a bizarro Wilmer Flores:  More than enough glove to stay at short long term thanks to excellent instincts and speed but it's the bat that may not play at the highest levels.  However, even with a total lack of power (he posted a Pelfrey-esque .060 ISO in 2010), Tovar showed very solid contact ability for someone matched up against far older competition for much of the season.  Now the kid will never be a slugger down the line (hell, he might not even be Ruben Tejada) but his incredibly advanced feel for the shortstop position may have us looking at Rey Ordonez part II.


SS Robbie Shields - HOLDING

MTS GCL .244 23 82 11 20 5 0 1 7 28 11 10 3 1 .330 .341 .671
STL FSL .286 2 7 0 2 0 0 0 1 2 1 0 1 0 .375 .286 .661
SAV SAL .290 39 162 26 47 10 1 5 26 74 10 34 4 0 .331 .457 .788
Total   .275 64 251 37 69 15 1 6 34 104 22 44 8 1 .332 .414 .746

After an underwhelming debut in '09 cut short by Tommy John surgery, Shields managed to rush back to the field about mid-way through the 2010 campaign and at least show signs of why he was the Mets third round selection in 2009. Shields finally put his strong power/speed mix on display at the plate tallying five longballs and four stolen bases in just under forty games with Savannah. As a position player, the requisite rehab time from TJ is cut down significantly however, a lack of arm strength/accuracy was apparent from day one as he racked up the throwing errors in bunches (which is why he was also featured at DH for most of the year). He looks like he might have enough athletic ability/quickness to hang at shortstop long term however, this year should be thrown out when making that determination. Assuming full health, the 2011 season will go a long way in determing whether or not he'll need to make the move to second. However, his biggest hurdle to future success will be his unrefined approach at the plate; for the second year in a row Shields struck out twice as many time as he walked and racked up nearly a strikeout/game with the Gnats.


3B Brian Harrison - (new to organization)

MTS GCL .296 8 27 3 8 3 1 1 3 16 2 5 0 0 .367 .593 .959
BRK NYP .286 35 126 24 36 10 1 7 22 69 10 18 2 0 .352 .548 .900
SAV SAL .250 5 16 2 4 2 0 0 0 6 0 3 0 0 .250 .375 .625
Total   .284 48 169 29 48 15 2 8 25 91 12 26 2 0 .346 .538 .884

Harrison was an interesting pick this June for the Mets, taken in the thirteenth round out of Furman U. Scouts touted his tools as comparable with corner infielders in the upper rounds but Harrison dropped due to the inability to stay on the field with the Palladins. But when he did play, he was impressive:  In his only 200+ ab campaign Harrison racked up twelve bombs with a nearly 1:1 K-to-BB ratio. As a pro, it was more of the same for Harrison. Posting most of his ab's for the Cyclones, he knocked seven homers with a 900 OPS in 35 games before getting the call to replace the injured Jefry Marte for Savannah's playoff run. However, it wasn't long before Harrison too was sidelined (with a shoulder strain) that subsequently ended his season. Harrison certainly has interesting physical tools and enough offensive ability to make some noise as he climbs the organizational ladder but the most important thing for him right now is to stay healthy long enough to use and refine those tools.


RHP Armando Rodriguez - STOCK UP

SAV SAL 8 9 3.08 27 27 0 0 0 146.0 116 61 50 5 46 152 0.72 .214

Rodriguez was undeniably superb for the Sand Gnats in 2010 as their most consistent starter from day one to the very last game in the SAL championship. Overshadowed in the first half by a wave of dominant Savannah starters, Rodriguez kept chugging away all year, producing very strong and very consistent results in start after start. He overpowered SAL hitters all season with his low 90's heater and developing slurve and kept the ball in the park exceptionally well allowing just five dingers all season, including just one in 73 IP after the break. In fact, statistically-speaking Rodriguez had a very good season, posting a K/9 over nine and a BB/9 under three with a FIP of 2.73 all while holding hitters to a .214 average against.  

However, the issue with Rodriguez is that he was already 22 years old and posted these numbers against mostly younger competition. Omar famously referred to him as "another Mejia" yet think about that statement -- Mejia just turned twenty and spent a large chunk of the season in the majors while Rodriguez will turn 23 before he even thinks of advancing past A-ball. That's not to say that he isn't impressive or won't make it (as he did get into pro ball late, signing as a 19 year old) but on his delayed timetable with his still somewhat raw secondary offerings there is reason to temper our enthusiasm when looking at his numbers. With his good velocity and strong fb command I think it's a lot more likely we'll see him contribute in the majors as a power reliever, which is not a bad thing.

PS - Vote for Armando for MiLB'S 'Best Starter of Class A' award here


LHP Jim Fuller - STOCK UP

SAV SAL 8 3 1.93 19 19 0 0 0 107.1 92 36 23 1 29 99 0.86 .229
STL FSL 3 2 3.38 5 5 0 0 0 24.0 26 10 9 2 9 25 1.14 .274
Total   11 5 2.19 24 24 0 0 0 131.1 118 46 32 3 38 124 0.90 .238

Fuller was the somewhat forgotten third musketeer in Savannah's three-headed starting pitching monster in the first half of the 2010 season. Overshadowed by Mark Cohoon and Brandon Moore, Fuller really shined once he was left behind following the mass promotions at the ASB. And while he might not blow anyone away with his stuff, all the diminutive lefty does is go out there and produce strong results, this season pushing as high as St. Lucie by summer's end. Working in the 88-90 mph range, Fuller used spot-on command and a rolling slider to keep SAL hitters off balance in 2010 to the tune of a .229 average against and just one(!) home run allowed with Savannah.

Fuller is the kind of 'max out at 90 mph', bulldog-type pitcher that is going to have to keep proving it at every rung of the organizational ladder.  And though he doesn't have the stuff or the ceiling of Rodriguez or even someone like Cohoon, his continuing success certainly allows one to envision Fuller as a solid lefty out of the Mets 'pen.


More Names to Watch For

One Savannah prospect whose status tumbled during the 2010 season is 2B Alonzo Harris. The toolsy 20 year old followed a very intriguing '09 campaign with Kingsport by batting just .224/.270/.342 as a Gnat and also had a penchant for the error. He looked so overmatched this year that he's a longshot to even remain in the prospect discussion going into 2011; we need never be ashamed of our tears, Alonzo...'09 tenth rounder OF Nick Santomauro was another unmitigated disaster in 2010, failing to break the Mendoza Line or get into the homer column in nearly 300 ab's. After starting the season late due to injury, the once interesting-looking player out of Dartmouth could never get things going, ultimately posting a K:BB rate of worse than 3-to-1...Providing a solid second wave of starting pitching following the promotions, RHP John Church, RHP Collin McHugh & LHP Darin Gorski all looked very strong at times, though all faded with more exposure and probably all profile best in relief.