Expectations for the Mets are higher this year than they have been in the past few. With the return of Matt Harvey, last year's emergence of Jacob deGrom, and the promise of Zack Wheeler and several young pitchers who figure to begin the year in the minors, even an average offense might get the Mets into playoff contention this year. And the team's farm system is as highly-rated as it has been in a long time.
Vice president of player development and amateur scouting Paul DePodesta joined the Mets' front office along with general manager Sandy Alderson and has overseen the development of the team's minor leaguers. We had another opportunity to speak to DePodesta about the organization, from players who have graduated to the big leagues already to those who have not played above rookie ball or Brooklyn yet.
A balanced system
Over the past few years, the Mets’ system drew a good amount of praise but was often cited for being heavy on pitching but light on position players. That’s something that DePodesta and the front office has focused on improving, and things look much more balanced now than they did in the past.
"We probably felt a year or two ago that we were better than other people thought we were. There are still ways to improve, but we’re absolutely happy with how far we’ve been able to come," he says. "We’ve graduated some of that pitching to the major league level, but now we still have a lot of pitching. And now you look at our top ten, it’s mainly position players. I think that’s been the biggest change, and we’re happy with that development because it’s certainly something we targeted, even going back to 2011. We knew we needed to add some more position player talent to the system, and fortunately we’ve been able to do that."
Having a strong minor league system is a great asset, but the goal, of course, is to turn those minor league players into major league players. The Mets have had a good amount of success in doing that over the past few years.
"As gratifying as the minor league success is—having the best record in baseball and all those sorts of things—the most gratifying thing is actually seeing some guys starting to make an impact in New York. That is ultimately what we’re here to do. But to see guys like Harvey, deGrom, Familia, Lagares, Mejia, and Flores—they’re not just showing up in the major leagues, they’re really making a difference in the major leagues," says DePodesta.
"The fact that we’ve been able to graduate some guys that have stuck, and not just the highly-touted guys like the Harveys and the Wheelers, guys like Lagares and deGrom were never in our top ten in the minor leagues—in the way everyone else saw our system. So those guys certainly never helped our system get credit kudos or credit or anything like that, yet they’re major league players," he says. "It’s just as important for us to graduate the quote-unquote ‘can’t-miss’ guys as it is to graduate some other guys that are deeper on the list but still very talented."
Not every player’s first promotion to the big leagues goes smoothly, though. Even deGrom, the National League Rookie of the Year last year, struggled a bit in his early starts, as DePodesta recalls fielding a question about his walks after his first few starts. He wasn’t too concerned at the time, as deGrom was just getting adjusted to the big leagues and seemed likely to settle down. At that point in the season, deGrom was in the Mets’ rotation for the foreseeable future, as Dillon Gee was sidelined with an injury.
"The biggest thing is just opportunity, and what I mean by that is consistent opportunity. So you look at Harvey, Wheeler, deGrom—with each of those guys, when we brought them up, we basically told them: ‘Here’s the ball every fifth day. Whether you give up five runs, whether you give up no runs, you’re getting it again five days later.’"
Rafael Montero’s first taste of the big leagues did not go as well as deGrom’s. In total, he threw 44.1 major league innings last year with a 4.06 ERA, 42 strikeouts, and 23 walks. To DePodesta, there was a stark difference between what Montero did in his four-start stint in May, after which he was sent back to Triple-A Las Vegas, and what he did once he was called up for good in mid-August. With improved home run and strikeout-to-walk rates in his second stint, Montero had a 2.96 ERA in his last six appearances of the year.
"The second time, he knew he was on the team for the rest of the year, from the middle of August until the end of the year. He got some turns in the rotation, and I think that has as much to do with it as anything else.
"It does take a while for any player to get their sea legs at the major league level. It’s really, really hard to compete at this level, and I think that sort of added confidence—or added comfort—that comes with knowing that you’re there, as opposed to, ‘boy, if I don’t do well today, I’m back down tomorrow,’ makes a huge, huge difference. And sometimes that takes a year or two, or more, for guys. Guys like Kirk Nieuwenhuis who have been up and down for two or three years, who are still sort of battling that. So it takes them longer to settle in, as opposed to just making a commitment to a guy. I think once you make a commitment to them, you start to see the results."
DePodesta points to another example from last year: Wilmer Flores. The favorite for the job at shortstop to begin the 2015 season, DePodesta says Flores flourished once he knew he was going to play on an everyday basis over the last month-plus of the season.
"It makes a big, big difference for these guys once you let them know that they’re here, and they’re here to stay—and they can sort of settle in, and they can allow their talent and their ability to take over."
Minor league promotions
In Michael Conforto, last year’s first-round pick in the draft for the Mets, the team has a player who many fans would like to see move quickly through the system, especially after he spent his first year in Brooklyn. Talking to DePodesta, is certainly doesn’t sound unreasonable to expect relatively quick movement for the corner outfielder this year, assuming everything goes well. Generally speaking, the Mets leave position players at a level for at least the first half of a minor league season, but DePodesta says the team isn’t wed to that.
"Especially with a first-year player, where you’re still sort of trying to figure out: ‘Where’s the right place to start?’ And you may make a pretty quick evaluation after—you know, one month is basically 100 plate appearances—you may make an evaluation at that point and say, ‘okay, he needs to move.’ But generally that means we’ll start him in a conservative spot because we’re not going to give him too much to handle because there’s no rush. There’s no need to.
Michael Conforto (Photo: Chris McShane)
"Now, again, in Conforto’s case, we can look at him and say: He’s certainly an advanced college player, a two-time player of the year in the PAC-12. He was born in the same month as Brandon Nimmo—they’re the same age. Brandon has played up through Double-A, he’s played in the Arizona Fall League, he’s been in two major league spring trainings—he’s got a lot more experience than Conforto, but they’re the same age, and Brandon’s right on the cusp of Triple-A. We’re certainly not going to start Conforto at Triple-A, but at least it gives us a frame of reference of what’s fair and reasonable, in terms of not only where we start this guy but where maybe we give him a chance to finish, which is probably more important than where he starts."
Finding innings in a pitching-rich system
While the Mets’ system is more balanced between pitchers and position players than it was in the past, that doesn’t mean the well has dried up in terms of minor league arms. Even with teams in Las Vegas, Binghamton, Port St. Lucie, Savannah, Brooklyn, Kingsport, it can be tough to find places for all of the team’s pitchers to get work.
"We really try to coordinate it, not only throughout the player development system, but in the draft and international. As we bring guys over, as we sign guys from the draft, it’s sort of a multi-year plan. Often times when we take college starters in the draft, that summer they’ll pitch out of the bullpen—in Brooklyn or in Kingsport or what have you—and then we funnel them back into rotations. A guy like Brad Wieck or Josh Prevost comes to mind.
Josh Prevost (Photo: Chris McShane)
"Those guys will probably transition back into being starters, and then we’ll make a determination later on as to what we think their ultimate role may be. But that’s just an example of, we start a guy a certain way and then we have an idea for probably the next couple of years, what to expect.
"Now, we have to make adjustments every month—if not every week—to that long-term plan and how all the pieces fit together. But so far, we’ve been able to do it. There are lot of guys who are starters in the minor leagues because they really need the mound time, development time, but ultimately they may play best as relievers in the big leagues. And it can be tricky in terms of figuring out: ‘When’s the best time to make that transition?’ And it’s different for different guys."
Once a pitcher works his way to the top of the team’s minor league organization, the major league rotation is full, too. With five starters in place and a sixth, Dillon Gee, likely to pitch out of the bullpen to begin the year, even Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz, the team’s most promising pitching prospects, are waiting for an opportunity to get regular starts in the big leagues. Other pitchers who might very well get a shot at doing so in a rotation with more vacancies might simply get bumped to the bullpen.
"A guy like Cory Mazzoni, we think he can start in the major leagues," says DePodesta. "But his quicker path at this point to the major leagues is probably the bullpen. So he’s being used as a bullpen guy here in major league camp. If he goes back to Triple-A, he’s probably going to be in the rotation."
"Now another guy, like Hansel Robles, he moved to the bullpen toward the second half of the season at Double-A, and it went very well. Guys like Erik Goeddel or Gonzalez Germen were starters up through Double-A, and then when they made the transition to Triple-A, they went to the bullpen. We have those things in our minds, too. We think maybe long-term this guy’s a pen guy, when’s the best time to do it? And that certainly helps with some of the innings and trying to figure out how they’re going to keep developing as rapidly as they could. But it is a big puzzle—but we’re very excited about the next wave."
A couple of Mets minor league pitchers who have caught the eye of prospect-watchers over the past year are 21-year-old Gabriel Ynoa and 20-year-old Marcos Molina.
"Ynoa’s a real guy, he’s still very young and already pitched at Double-A. Gant, Gsellman had great years last year. Marcos Molina was absolutely dominant.
Marcos Molina (Photo: Chris McShane)
"Going back to 2013 when he first came over to the United States and was in the Gulf Coast League, you’d see him for an inning, actually as one of our national cross-checkers did, and say, ‘this guy would have been a first-round pick had he been in the United States.’ He was that good. Up to 95 miles an hour, a slider, strikes, presence—everything. But he was just inconsistent in his performance, not necessarily in terms of his stuff, but he would have one inning that would just sort of get away from him, where he’d give up a couple runs.
"So though he would look terrific in any one inning, you’d look at the line at the end of the day, and it’d be: five innings, four hits, two runs, a couple walks, three or four strikeouts. And you woudn’t say, ‘wow, what a dominant outing.’ And that’s sort of the way his year went.
"The biggest step he made in 2014 was just being more consistent inning-to-inning, and when he did give up a baserunner early in an inning, he was able to limit the damage. So when you looked up at the end of the game, it was no longer five innings and two or three runs, it was six innings and one run, or something like that, more consistently.
"I don’t think it was much a matter of stuff, it was just more consistent focus and more consistent performance. A lot of that has to do with just age, comfort of being in the United States. And I think the most encouraging thing was that he was doing it in Brooklyn in front of seven thousand fans and under the lights and on a real stage, which is a lot different than pitching in the Gulf Coast League in front of 200 people at noon on a Tuesday."
In a strong year for the Mets’ farm system, Cesar Puello’s season was vexing. After an excellent 2013 season in Double-A as a 22-year-old that ended early because of a Biogenesis-related suspension, Puello struggled to find playing time in Triple-A—and to produce when he did play. Entering the season, he is out of options, which means he will have to clear waivers if he does not make the major league roster and is sent to the minors to begin the year. With John Mayberry Jr. on the roster and Eric Campbell seemingly in line for a spot on the bench, it would not be a shock if the Mets end up doing that.
In terms of those struggles, the most significant thing that DePodesta saw with Puello was his significant platoon split.
"One of the things last year for Cesar, not only had he missed time, but then he goes to Triple-A and starts facing some real experienced pitchers—especially experienced right-handed pitchers. And that caused him to go through an adjustment period. He still hit left-handers extremely well, and in the second half, he started hitting right-handers better and better. So to Cesar’s credit, he was making a lot of adjustment through the course of the season and was productive again in the second half—as an offensive player."
As DePodesta mentions, Puello’s defense—particularly his arm—has always been an asset, and there were no questions about that during his time in Vegas last year.
"It’s not unlike a lot of young players who go to Triple-A. But this coming year, it will be those veteran pitchers who really know how to change speeds and really know how to locate. He’s going to have to continue to prove against those guys just like he did in the second half of last year. If he continues to build on that, he’ll be fine. Like you said, he’s out of options, so he’s in our camp right now trying to make this big league team. And if not, we’ll have to see what happens at the end of spring."
For the first time since DePodesta has been with the Mets, the team will not have a first-round pick in the amateur draft in June, as it surrendered that pick to sign Michael Cuddyer. So the Mets’ first pick is the 53rd overall. For the Mets’ scouting staff, that does not mean completely ignoring players projected to go very early in the draft, but it does give the organization an opportunity to tweak things a bit as they prepare.
"There won’t be any player that we ignore this year because you never know," DePodesta says. "Especially early in the scouting season, you may think a guy is going in the top ten, but he gets hurt or has a bad spring, you just never know. So we’re going to scout everybody.
"That being said, guys that we think are likely to go in the top ten or fifteen picks, we won’t spend a lot of time and resources on. Those types of guys, typically if we’re picking that area, not only does the area scout see them constantly, but every single one of our cross-checkers will see him, guys from the office will see them. We’ll get eight or ten reports but probably fifteen or twenty looks. This year, we’ll probably get two or three. We’re prepared in case something were to happen, but we’re not going to waste valuable resources on scouting those guys extensively."
The silver lining for the team is that they can concentrate their efforts more heavily on the players who are likely to be available at the point in the draft that the Mets will start making picks.
"That frees us up to actually get more looks at guys that we think are going to go later. And more looks than we would traditionally get. So that’s what we’re trying to focus on, realizing that we can know picks 50 to 200 even better than we’ve been able to in the past—maybe get an extra look or two at most of those players than we otherwise would have in past years."
Of course, losing the early pick also means the Mets lose the slot money assigned to that pick, and with Major League Baseball’s current rules, teams can’t exceed their their draft pool—essentially a salary cap for the amateur draft—without facing significant penalties. This year, the Mets are limited to spending $3,587,800, according to Baseball America, down from the $5,308,300 to which they were limited last year. But that is not too worrisome to DePodesta.
"It won’t be dramatically different because there’s no case in the last three years where we’ve taken a first round pick and we’ve taken a guy just so we could save a bunch under the cap so we can spend it elsewhere. We’ve taken the guy we wanted to take, and we’ve cut the best deal we could. In some instances, we’ve saved a little, in other instances we haven’t," says DePodesta. "I think we’ll still be creative in how we deploy that resource."