Paul DePodesta, the Mets’ vice president of player development and amateur scouting, is excited about the progress the team’s minor league players have already made, and he’s optimistic that there’s more to come, especially when it comes to those players producing in the big leagues. As the system has gotten better, pitching has been its strength.
As the 2014 season draws closer, many of those pitchers will play at different levels than they did last year. And there will be some new coaches, too, like Frank Viola, who will be the pitching coach in Triple-A Las Vegas after spending the past two years with Single-A Savannah. For the players, a move up to a higher level is certainly a promotion.
For coaches, DePodesta says, "it’s not quite the same as players. It’s not necessarily a promotion when guys move up or a demotion when they move down. It’s really about trying to find the right mix for each of them."
Viola will be working with the team’s pitchers who are on the cusp of making the major league rotation. Assuming health—a big if when it comes to pitchers—some of the 51s’ starting pitchers could become part of the major league bullpen.
"There are going to be more guys this year in Vegas that we deem major-league ready than we’ve had previously, especially out of our younger guys, not just older veteran guys.
"If you look at not only guys in the Triple-A bullpen, but even guys like [Cory] Mazzoni or [Logan] Verrett or [Jacob] deGrom, guys who we definitely see as starters but might be able to help us in the major league pen in the short-term if we don’t have a need in the rotation. It’s a great option to have, to have those extra guys can be very valuable in those roles.
"I hope a few guys grab the opportunity by the throat and take it. That would be ideal. We’ve got a lot of guys that we can go to during the course of the year if we feel like we need to."
Don’t count out minor league relief pitchers, either. Lefty Jack Leathersich has been something of a strikeout king in the minors, though he struggled in Vegas last year.
"Ideally, we like to see guys get both left-handers and right-handers out. The fact that he gets right-handers out so effectively is a bonus. He can always continue to work the other side of it because that’s the more natural side for him, it should be easier for him. He actually has a very good breaking ball, so there’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to be just as effective against lefties.
"We’ve pushed him really aggressively. As a 2011 draft pick to be in Triple-A in the middle of 2013 was aggressive, but we felt like he needed the challenge. He really hadn’t missed a beat all the way through Double-A. We knew there were some things he was going to have to do better to be successful at the major-league level. Fortunately, he met some of those challenges in Triple-A. Now, this year he is going to have to overcome some of those challenges.
"I don’t think it was a matter of him being worried about being in such a good hitter’s environment. It was just that he was doing what he’s always done, but the hitters were better."
DePodesta credits former Vegas pitching coach Randy St. Claire with helping pitchers adjust once they got to the unfriendly confines of Vegas. Rafael Montero was one such pitcher last year.
"His first four or five starts there, he actually walked some guys. For him that may only mean two or three in five or six innings, but for him that’s a lot. But then his last five or six starts he was back to the old Montero, he was walking either none or one every game and being much more aggressive in the strike zone. That’s a pretty quick adjustment."
The near-ready talent is just part of what has the Mets looking forward to the future. DePodesta sees a logjam of pitching at the lowest levels of the minor league organization.
"We typically go with six-man rotations, but in the two A-ball clubs we have close to 20 guys that we think are legitimately capable of pitching at those two levels. We’re not going to have starting spots for all of them, at least not at the very beginning. It’s a good problem to have."
He mentions young pitchers—Robert Gsellman, John Gant, Robert Whalen, and Chris Flexen—who deserve to go to a full-season affiliate, but with only a set amount of rotation spots, some young pitchers might not make a rotation. DePodesta says the Mets have built that depth with pitchers who fly under the radar.
"We’ve done it largely with guys who don’t necessarily have a lot of fanfare," he says. "We have a lot of guys who weren’t necessarily really high draft picks or big bonus guys internationally but are really good guys."
Montero and Gabriel Ynoa are examples of such players.
"[Montero] was never hyped, until he goes 90 innings in Vegas and gives up two or three homers and people start realizing that he’s pretty good.
"When [Ynoa] first came over to the states he was a very good strike thrower and was [throwing] 88, 89 miles per hour. Two years later, he’s our pitcher of the year and he’s routinely 91-to-94 with the same command, and now his secondary stuff continues to get better. Those guys are going to continue to move up, and they’re going to fill in for the guys who graduate, hopefully. Though they may not have the hype, they certainly are very good prospects nonetheless.
"Both guys are very good athletes and probably repeat their deliveries as well or better than anyone in our entire system. And Ynoa has been like that since the beginning. You don’t hear the term ‘projectable righthander’ very often, it’s usually associated with the left-handers, but I think Ynoa is exactly that. Each year, as he continues to fill out, the velocity continues to come. I think he’s going to continue to have success. When you’re that aggressive in the strike zone, with good stuff like he has, success is going to follow."
Montero are Ynoa are not alone, either. Marcos Molina, an 18-year-old right-handed pitcher, raised some eyebrows when he was included on Jason Parks’ list of the Mets’ top ten prospects this winter.
"We signed [Molina] in January 2012, down in the Dominican Republic, another guy who’s a super-good athlete, also repeats his delivery well. At the time, he had a nice little sinker, showed some feel for the baseball. But it wasn’t big power or anything like that. Since then, he’s continued to grow. Last year in the Gulf Coast League he was up to 96 miles per hour, typically pitching at 92, 94, has a feel for three pitches."
Molina’s stat line from 2013—a 4.39 ERA in 53.1 innings with 7.3 strikeouts, 2.4 walks, and 0.5 home runs per nine innings—might not look like much, but DePodesta says that’s because he often suffered one terrible inning in otherwise good starts.
"His numbers weren’t off the charts last year. There was some inconsistency. There would be times that he would have one rough inning and then cruise through the rest of the outing. So his outing might look like five innings, three runs, four strikeouts, but most of it was done in one inning. And at other times he was dominant. We had some scouts who saw him during the course of the summer—amateur scouts—who told us that if he had been a high school player he would have been a first-round pick in 2013.
"He’s still a long way off, obviously. He’s only pitched in the Gulf Coast League, but the foundation is there for a pretty good prospect."
Of course, not every pitcher in the system made progress last year. Domingo Tapia, for example, put up a 4.62 ERA in Port St. Lucie and struggled mightily with walks.
"We had so many guys take steps forward last year. He was one of the very few who didn’t. I think it was a matter of arm slot. His arm continued to drop a little lower, and I think he lost some command. He didn’t throw nearly as many strikes as he did the year before. A lot of it was losing that consistent release point. Fortunately, so far this spring he’s got his arm back up a little bit and he looks terrific. I think he really struggled with that at times last year. There were times where he’d go two or three innings and he was just electric. And there were other times where he’d go out in the first inning and he couldn’t get out of it. He couldn’t find his slot, he couldn’t throw strikes.
"So hopefully he’ll get that turned around this year, because there was certainly no backup in stuff. He was still pitching in the mid-to-high 90s with heavy, heavy sink. His breaking ball has gotten remarkably better over the last two years. He’s always had a pretty good feel for the changeup. If we get him back to throwing more consistent strikes like he did in 2012, he’ll be shooting back up on some of these lists this time next year."
Not just pitching
The Mets’ minor league system doesn’t appear to be nearly as lopsided as it once was. In addition to a stable of highly-rated young arms, the team has a group of minor league position players who, at some point, are expected to contribute in the big leagues. DePodesta points out that the prospect rankings done by outside parties include seven or eight position players in the Mets’ top ten.
"A lot of things went well for us, position player-wise," he says.
One player who helped changed that perception last year was Cesar Puello, though he might not be included on every top-ten list. DePodesta sounds very high on him.
"He’s always run, he’s always had power, he could always throw, but he finally started hitting. He just had a much better approach at the plate. We’re anxious to see that happen again in 2014 because if he does continue to do that again, he has all the tools to be a very productive player, even at the highest level."
DePodesta mentions shortstop Ahmed Rosario, who, like Marcos Molina, has a long way to go before he’s a major league player but drew rave reviews this year.
"We didn’t put him in the Dominican Summer League, we didn’t put him in the Gulf Coast [League], we sent him straight to the Appy League as a 17-year-old. He was rated as the top prospect in the league."
On August 29, 2013, the Mets traded Marlon Byrd and John Buck to the Pirates, who were in the midst of a playoff push, and acquired hard-throwing relief pitcher Vic Black and second baseman Dilson Herrera.
"Black pitched well for us in September and certainly factors for us here in 2014. Herrera is a little further away than that but we think he has a chance to be an offensive player in the middle of the field, so we always like to get those kind of guys."
Brandon Nimmo, the team’s first-round pick in the 2011 amateur draft, posted an impressive .397 on-base percentage last year in Single-A Savannah, but he slugged just .359. Since Savannah is a pitcher’s park and Nimmo dealt with a wrist injury last year, though, DePodesta doesn’t sound too concerned about the lack of power.
"At the very beginning of the season, he was gangbusters, before he got hurt," he says. "One of the difficult things in the minor leagues is that when guys get hurt, they don’t really have rehab assignments. They come back and play right away. The same thing [happened] with Cecchini in Brooklyn. They get thrown right into the fire, and it takes them a while to get their sea legs again.
"With Nimmo, I think the combination of the wrist and the ballpark really took away from some of his power. I was really pleased with the progress he made against left-handed pitching. As a high school player, especially coming from where he came from, he didn’t see a lot of quality lefties. In Brooklyn, his first year, I think that was a struggle for him. He was very successful against righties but lefties gave him a hard time. And last year, he was still very, very good against righties, but made a lot of progress against lefties, which was really encouraging.
"Very few guys put up the type of on-base percentage he did in Savannah. We went back and looked since they’ve been our affiliate, and the only guy we could find that was similar was Josh Satin. And Josh Satin did it as basically a 23- or 24-year-old, and that was after playing four years at Cal, not a 20-year-old. So we’re really, really pleased with what he did. I think we’ll continue to see more power out of him. Some, maybe here at St. Lucie, but we’ll really see it begin to emerge when he gets to Double-A or Triple-A."
The future of the system
To DePodesta, the system looks like it will be in excellent shape a year from now as some of the minor league players graduate to the Mets.
"We tend to look at our system not just as the players in the minor leagues but also at guys contributing in the major leagues, that are not yet arbitration-eligible, zero-to-two type players. The reality is, that’s what we’re trying to create. The whole idea of a system is to have young players in the major leagues who are contributing at the major league level. I’d just as soon have a system that’s rated lower but has a lot of 25-year-olds in the big leagues.
"But I think we’ll have a share of both. I think we have a lot of depth. I think some of our most highly-touted position players, like Smith and Rosario, as those guys get into full season, and Gavin Cecchini gets into full season, I think there’s going to be a lot more attention on those guys. Certainly we feel like we have steady waves of arms coming through. Some will continue to progress. History tells us some of them won’t, but I think a lot of them will. But I think we’re going to be in very good shape a year from now. Organizationally, as a whole, I think even better. If you were to look at our system as all players 25 and younger, as opposed to those just who are still in the minor leagues, I think it’ll still be very strong."
Will that strength lead to trades that involve giving up young talent to improve the big league team’s odds of winning?
"We love them all like they’re our own kids. But at the same time, we want to be in that position. We haven’t been in that position in a while. We certainly feel, at this point, like we have the assets to do that, to be aggressive in that market, when that time comes. Hopefully that time is upon us very soon."