Paul DePodesta loves the month of February, and it’s not just because spring training has been underway for a couple of weeks here in Port St. Lucie.
"This is when it all really heats up. We have the major league team playing a game today. It’s Friday night in February, it’s the second weekend of Division I baseball so I’ll be going to a couple of games today, a couple of different college games, even going to high school games. And at the same time, we’re also ramping up the minor league side. We have STEP camp for pitchers and catchers, which is sort of our early camp for starting pitchers and catchers — they’re all reporting today. On top of that, we’re still doing everything to get ready internationally for July 2," he said standing outside Tradition Field on Friday afternoon.
Despite the incredibly busy schedule — which involves a ton of travel —DePodesta, the Mets’ vice president of player development and scouting, seems to enjoy every part of his busiest time of year. With so many things on his plate, he says it’s fun and crazy at the same time.
"I usually go to the Dominican maybe eight or nine times a year. We’ll have workouts there, we’ll have players from Venezuela, Colombia, Nicaragua, Panama, Mexico, from all over. They generally come to our complex in the Dominican, which is a first-rate complex — it’s spectacular. And we’ll hold workouts there, we’ll also attend showcases."
And even though the international amateur signing period begins on July 2, February is an essential time to prepare for the scouting ahead.
"This is the time of the year when you’re trying to narrow in on what you’re trying to do. And since they instituted the cap last year, there’s a lot of strategy that now goes into it. Now, it’s not just money as the only currency. There’s money and the cap. So you have to manage both accordingly."
With everyone in the front office constantly on the move, they use every resource at their disposal to stay on the same page. Every day, each member of the front office gets a game report with details about what happened the previous day at every level of the team’s system. DePodesta and his colleagues are connected to the same scouting database, too, and development reports.
Like everyone, the members of the front office call, text, and email each other constantly to keep in touch. There are plenty of conference calls, too. He says it would be the same even if everyone in the front office lived in New York full time, but remote communication works seamlessly.
Player Assignments and the Value of Spring Training
When it comes to spring training performances, DePodesta and the Mets front office don’t put a ton of stock into the results here. Instead, most decisions about where to place a player at the beginning of the year — 90 percent of them, he says — are made in September and October of the previous year.
"Sometimes someone will come in, they’ll look great, they’ll look like they’re really taken a step forward, and we’ll still say, ‘you know what, we were going to send him there, let’s send him there,’ even if it’s for three weeks or a month, just to make sure the step forward is actually legitimate. And there’s nothing to say we can’t move him then."
While DePodesta gets emotionally involved in the team’s success — "as much as the fans live and die with our team’s performance, we very much do, as well, maybe even to a greater degree," he says — he and his colleagues in the front office do their best to make rational decisions about the team’s Opening Day roster.
"Don’t get me wrong, I think we understand there’s mystique attached to the Opening Day roster, and you are setting it for the team and there’s a tone that you set with that roster. But it’s not a playoff roster, it’s not set in stone, you can change it, and I think we know we’re going to change it. And especially at the minor league level, you think you’ve got it all planned out, and inevitably, the rosters are completely different two weeks in."
It’s all about discipline and patience, he says, and that gets difficult when balancing the short-, medium-, and long-term needs of the organization.
"We espouse patience, but I’m not sure how naturally patient all of us are. When I talk — me and JP and John and Sandy — we’re sort of accustomed to high expectations, and I think that’s still the case now. So, yeah, it can be — weighing the short term and the long term is always difficult.
"When you can make a move and say, ‘this makes us better today and makes us better tomorrow,’ those are easy, you sleep well at night. It’s the ones that are one or the other that are more challenging. ‘Hey, this one makes us better today, but it’s going to hurt a little in the long run,’ or ‘this one hurts today but is going to make us better in the long run.’"
I mention the connection we here at Amazin’ Avenue had with R.A. Dickey, including our pair of Dickey Face contests, and how it’s been tough to see him go but exciting to see the team bring in a pair of top notch prospects in return. When it comes to getting attached to a player, DePodesta is no stranger.
"Believe me, even for us, when we — we basically compete with these guys, sometimes for a year and sometimes for a lot longer, especially when guys have come up through our system or something like that, it’s impossible not to be emotionally attached to them. You know, Rafael Montero, I was there in January 2011 when we signed him in the Dominican Republic!
"On a very personal level, beyond just a personnel level, absolutely. So there are a lot of those situations, and we certainly feel it, too."
Michael Bourn signed with the Indians, at least partly because the Mets weren’t willing to part with their eleventh overall pick in this year’s amateur draft. I asked DePodesta if that put extra pressure on him and the front office to get it right with their first-round pick this year.
"I wouldn’t say that we feel any more pressure than we feel every year with that first round pick. You know, the reality is that roughly fifty percent of the first rounders become big leaguers. So it’s not a slam dunk ever year. I think we’re very conscientious of it, and we know we’re going to get some of it wrong. That’s just the reality of it. We’re going to miss sometimes, but hopefully we’re going to get more right than we get wrong, and if we do that, we’re going to be ahead of the game. So I don’t think we look at this one any differently — I don’t think there’s any year where we’re going to be excited about giving up our first-round pick, especially if it’s that part of the draft.
"To be honest with you, we don’t hope we pick up there very often. [laughs] We may feel a lot differently if we’re picking twenty-seventh, but like I said, I don’t think this one’s terribly different. I think there’s some attention on it — you know, when Reyes left, and we got those two picks, there was something written that if we don’t hit home runs with those two picks, it’s a colossal failure. Looking at the odds of hitting on both of those picks, where they were, and thinking, ‘well, in all likelihood, it’s going to a colossal failure.’ [laughter] Because that’s just the reality of the draft.
"And I think the pick, in that particular circumstance, was just part of the overall cost. It wasn’t the only cost. So it wasn’t like we either get Bourn for free or we give up the eleventh pick — there were other costs involved, and the pick was just part of it. And I think given the other elements of the cost, all of the costs together is what added up to our decision. So I think that’s partly why I don’t feel any extra pressure. But I know everyone will be paying attention to it."
Zack Wheeler and Travis d'Arnaud
There’s no doubt that Mets fans will be clamoring for Zack Wheeler and Travis d’Arnaud on the major league roster sooner than later. If Wheeler’s spring goes as well as his start did on Saturday and d’Arnaud at least looks good, at least some fans will want them on the Opening Day roster. But the decision about bringing those two up to the big leagues isn’t quite that simple.
When it comes to making the actual decisions, it’s not just DePodesta or any one person in the front office who makes the call. Minor league field coordinator Dick Scott, the organization’s Triple-A staff, and the front office work together to make decisions about promoting players to the major league roster.
In terms of what it would take for Wheeler and d’Arnaud to join the Mets, assuming they begin the year playing for Triple-A Las Vegas, DePodesta says there’s no metric set in stone that would make for an automatic promotion.
"I don’t think there’s one thing or one benchmark that we’re looking for someone to achieve, but it’s not as though we’re looking at Wheeler and saying, okay he has a sub-3.00 ERA after ten starts, we’re calling him up or something like that. It’s not quite that cut and dry."
"Zack made a lot of progress last year, just with the efficiency of his pitches. He worked a lot deeper into games using the same number of pitches that he had previously. I think we’d like to see that to be able to continue, and it’ll be a challenge in the Pacific Coast League, to be able to do that. I think continued use of his chanegup, those things.
"But I think generally what it is — and I think this would go for Travis, too, — like with any player at any level, what we try to do is put them at a level where they’re challenged but still have a chance to be successful. We don’t want to over-challenge them to the point that we sort of bury them — psychologically or what have you. But we want to challenge them enough that they’re getting better, that they’re actually getting something out of it and improving. So I think when they get to the point where we don’t necessarily feel like they’re being challenge anymore, then that’ll probably be when they’re here.
"And I think that’s really what happened with Matt [Harvey] last year. I mean, his last eight or ten starts in Buffalo were very good, but it got a point that his last couple of starts in Buffalo, he wasn’t even necessarily that sharp, and yet he was still dominating."
I mentioned that Harvey appeared on SNY near the end of his time in Buffalo, and DePodesta thought that start was a perfect example of why Harvey was ready for a promotion.
"There was one on SNY, specifically, right before the All Star game, that I think was a perfect example of that, where he wasn’t that sharp and yet he was one out away from six innings, two runs, or something like that — where we said, ‘we’re not sure he’s getting much out of this anymore.’ And he needs to be challenged at the next level. So it’s not a scientific benchmark or some metric that we’ve created that says, ‘okay, as soon as he surpasses this, we’ll bring him up.’ I think it’s more of, ‘are they now to the point that they can just get by here, without really getting better?’ And if that’s the case, then we need to challenge them at the next level."
Rating the Organization's Prospects
Here at Amazin’ Avenue, we rank prospects before and during each season. It’s something that’s been done by Baseball America and plenty of other baseball outlets, too, for quite some time. But the list format isn’t quite what the Mets use when they rate their minor league players internally.
"I don’t think we ever rank them, like ‘this guy’s our sixth and this guy’s our seventh,’" DePodesta said. "What we do do is we have projections on them in terms of roles — what role we think they can fill at the major league level.
"We have x number of guys who we think are going to be everyday players, y number of guys who we think are going to be role players or middle-of-the-rotation starters. So that’s the way we do it. We group them by what their projected role is going to be, but we don’t really rank them. You could take all of the guys that we think are everyday players, middle- or top-of-the-rotation starters and put them all together and say, ‘these are probably our top guys,’ and some years it might be half a dozen, other years it’s hopefully twelve or fifteen. But we don’t do a specific ranking."
I asked DePodesta if there’s a timeline associated with those rankings, too, and he said it most certainly was.
"What we normally do is we would attach a probability to it, also. So not just role, but ultimately what the risk is in him maybe achieving that goal. So some guys might be, hey, maybe he’s only a role player, but we have high confidence that he’s going to get there. There are other guys we say, hey, he’s got a chance to be a number two starter, but with significant risk, or he might not get out of Double-A. I’d say the timeframes are more loose. Sometimes we try not to outsmart ourselves because sometimes they’ll dictate the timeline to us with how they develop, and some guys just develop more quickly than others. But the role and probability, that’s really the framework that we use."
The World Baseball Classic and International Free Agency
Asked if he found the World Baseball Classic helpful in his hunt for international talent, DePodesta said no. The players who are involved in the tournament simply weren't players the Mets might target.
"Most of what we do internationally is with amateur, so they’re not going to be involved in the WBC," he said. But there is one thing about the WBC that he doesn’t get to witness any other time: Cuban players.
"We’ll always be following the Cubans just to be prepared, just in case any of those guys become available at some point. But other than that, most of the other players are already spoken for. They’re already affiliated with some other organization."
With only David Wright and Francisco Pena — who DePodesta says played very well in winter ball — participating in the WBC this year for the Mets, DePodesta also doesn’t think it’s disruptive to Mets camp whatsoever.
"By and large, it’s a great experience for players. In terms of getting ready for a season, they’re playing against great competition, they’re playing in great atmospheres, they’re playing with something on the line, so I think all those things actually help.
"Would it be disruptive if you had five players from your club going? Yeah, then it might be tough because now you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to cover stuff in spring training. For us, I think it’ll be great for David. I’m glad he’s representing the US, and on top of that, that leaves a handful of at-bats at third base for Zach Lutz and Wilmer Flores and guys we’d love to see against top pitching. We know David’s going to be ready, we know what he can do, so in many respects I think it sort of works out both ways for us. I think it’s great for David, but it hopefully gives some of our younger guys an opportunity for a week or two."
Wilmer Flores and Everyday Players vs. Role Players
Speaking of Flores, he’s going to continue to play multiple positions this year. It’s something that DePodesta and the Mets like to do with their prospects since they won’t all become everyday players in big leagues.
"I think we’re going to keep playing [Flores] at second, third, and we’ll see. I think with almost all of our young players, and not just Wilmer, we try to move them around a little bit just so that they have exposure at different positions, because the reality is most of them, when they get here, don’t just walk in as everyday players and get 150 games at one spot."
"So we want our outfielders to be able to play the corners, or even if a guy’s a center fielder, to get some experience in a corner. If he’s a shortstop all through the minor leagues, we want him playing some second base because he might be a utility guy by the time he gets here. And even if guys are second basemen, ideally as they move up into Double- and Triple-A, get them some time at third base, maybe at first, if they’re not shortstops — again because they might end up being role players at the major league level. They may not — hopefully they won’t — but a lot of them will. And Wilmer’s no different. We think he certainly has a chance to be a solid everyday player, but by allowing him to move around a little bit, we’ll not only give him experience at those spots, but we’ll see what happens to be available for him at the major league level, as well, when we feel like his bat’s ready. Hopefully, like with most of these guys, they force their way into your lineup, and you say ‘okay, we have to find a way to get him in there because we can’t afford not to have him in there.’
"And it goes for pitchers, too, in addition to position players. You never like to bring a guy up because you just have a need, you just have a glaring hole. Last year with Nieuwenhuis, it was rushed. He missed the second half of 2011 because of injury. Ideally, he would have started the year at Triple-A and gotten some more time under his belt. He hadn’t played for seven months coming into spring training. So that’s not an ideal scenario. Ideally, he’s just playing so well, this guy’s got to be on our club. He’s going to help us. And you find a way to accommodate his presence. Hopefully there’ll be more of that than the other way going forward."
Winning and Adapting
Above all else, DePodesta’s favorite thing about his job is winning. "Winning is still my favorite part, and whether it’s on the big league side, whether it’s a game in Brooklyn, or whether it’s signing a guy in the Dominican that everybody else was after, it all counts the same. But it’s the competion. And that’s what’s fun.
"But I think constantly trying to figure out a better way to do things. Because we know we haven’t figured it out. Hoepfully we’re a lot better than we were two years ago or five years ago or ten years ago, but we know we haven’t figured it out. So that’s part of the fun. Being surrounded by some of the creativity and the constant learning that goes on, that’s, for me, the most fun part and the most challenging part."
The most difficult part of the job, he says, is being away from his family. "I love being here, I love being with the guys in the Dominican, I love being in New York — I love all those things — but I don’t like being away from my kids and missing things at home. So that’s the worst part. But there aren’t very many days where I’ve woken up and thought, ‘I can’t believe I’ve got to go to the ballpark today.’"