I was at State Mutual Stadium for the Fireflies win over the Rome Braves on Monday, May 30, and got some great coverage!
Hey all, Astromets here to report and share video from my trip to watch the Columbia Fireflies in Rome just over two weeks ago. I covered the action from this game with MiLB.tv highlights at my blog, but I wanted to share my experience from actually being there here at Amazin’ Avenue.
I live in Atlanta, Georgia, so I don’t get many opportunities to watch the Mets or their affiliates live, but I try to make it to at least one Rome game whenever the Mets' Single-A affiliate is in town. In case you hadn’t heard, the New York Mets A-ball affiliate was moved to Columbia, South Carolina this year and rebranded the Fireflies. The Mets don’t actually own the team—they belong to Hardball Capital—but the franchise seems very excited about the opportunity to bring baseball back to Columbia, and the upgrade of playing in a shiny new home park is a huge plus for Mets prospects.
Rome is about a 75-minute drive for me with no traffic, so it’s not easy to go multiple weeknights in a row. The Fireflies travelled to Rome in April, but the only game I could attend was rained out, and I only got some shots of the pitchers warming up in a rainy outfield. This visit would go much better, and I figured out some things along the way that should help me get better coverage next time.
I made it to State Mutual Stadium at around 3:30 PM, which gave me about 15 minutes to cool off in the press box before the Fireflies warmups started. I was grateful for that AC throughout the day. I took a seat to start taking some photos when the players took the field and was greeted with an "Astro!" from reliever Johnny Magliozzi on the field—that was an awesome way to start my day.
After the players finished warming up it was time for batting practice! I was limited to the first vase side for video because the Rome gameday staff was practicing on the other side. First round was the first half of that night’s lineup: Kevin Kaczmarski, Vinny Siena, J.C. Rodriguez, Patrick Mazeika, and Luis Ortega. The second round featured Milton Ramos, David Thompson, Dash Winningham, and Jeffrey Diehl. The final round featured Ivan Wilson, Joe Tuschak, Tyler Moore, and Jose Garcia.
From Round 1
Kevin Kaczmarski was the Mets' ninth-round selection from the 2015 draft. He spent last year tearing up the Appalachian League but got off to a slow start this April. Kacz turned that around with a .798 OPS in May, and the 24-year-old still has a chance to see the Florida State League in the second half. He has posted a 114 wRC+ through nearly 200 plate appearances, with a better than South Atlantic League average K% (16.8), BB% (10.2), and ISO (.154), and an average .307 BABIP.
The Fireflies had a few rounds of full batting practice and then had two one-swing rounds. Kacz went deep on his swing during the second round—you can hear someone yell "GONE" at the end of the video. You can see that he rotates his hip towards the catcher some as he lifts his leg before unloading on the ball. When everything syncs up, he can really yank the ball to right field, but he hasn’t done much to left field this season.
Kevin Kaczmarski cage:
The Mets made Vinny Siena their 14th round pick last year and signed him quickly. He was red-hot to start the season in Brooklyn last year before cooling off, and has followed the same pattern to date in 2016. After posting a 1.031 OPS and long on base streak in April, Siena dropped to a .735 OPS in May, but he still posted a .415 on-base percentage for the month thanks to a 15.1% BB-rate. He’s been heating up again in June and there’s a ery good chance he ends up as Luis Guillorme’s double play partner in the FSL during the second half. He leads the Fireflies with a 150 wRC+, which is good for 7th best in the SAL, and he’s the SAL on-base percentage (.441) leader by a good margin.
Siena had the loudest BP of the group, if not the day. His swing is simple, but he’s going to wait for his pitch before using it, as evidenced by his 18.2 BB% in 264 plate appearances this year. He’s not going to be a homerun threat, but I thought he showed more raw power behind the swing in BP than I’ve seen displayed in game action this year. He’s yet to hit a homer as a pro, and has only 25 extra-base hits in 562 plate appearances since being drafted, but he looked like someone who would find the gaps for big double totals. He’s also a bit of a prankster.
Vinny Siena cage:
DR native J.C. Rodriguez is playing in the SAL for a second straight season and is 23, so he’s an org. guy, but he plays a key role on this team. He’s in the lineup most days, giving the Fireflies good spot defense at second base, third base, and shortstop, and he’s even started at DH a few times. Despite a 40-point drop in BABIP from last season, J.C. has seen his production at the plate improve across the board in 2016, and is up to a 99 wRC+. That’s because after a cold April, J.C. was the Fireflies top hitter in May.
He’s a switch-hitter, but I’ve almost exclusively seen him from the left side, which is his much better side. He’s a pull hitter from the left side, and he’s a very good bunter, although he doesn’t have the plus speed to really take advantage of that skill.
J.C. Rodriguez cage:
Catcher Patrick Mazeika was the Mets eighth-round pick last season. He was held back to start 2016 due to minor injuries, but has been getting on base at a great clip since returning. He’s only managed five doubles to date, but he hasn’t looked overmatched at the plate, and the extra base hits should start falling in soon.
Warning: someone distracted me during the last round for Mazeika and the camera drifted down a bit. You can see that he uses a leg kick as he strides forward, which looks fine in a BP video, but leaves his body out in front too often against live pitching—see the video at the bottom. Fortunately he has very quick hands, and he keeps them back, so he’s able to adjust and foul stuff off or slap it the other way when that happens.
Patrick Mazeika cage:
Luis Ortega is a 23-year-old from Venezuela making his full season debut this year. He’s mostly played first base and third base with Columbia, but also has pro experience at catcher, second base, and left field in his career. He hasn’t walked much, but he has hit a pair of Moon shots to left field, including one in this game.
Luis Ortega cage:
From Round 2
The Mets selected Milton Ramos in the 3rd round of the 2014 draft and the 20-year-old is making his full season debut. He hasn’t posted a statline that screams great season—he has an 81 wRC+—but he has looked really good in the field at shortstop, and he’s looked better at the plate than the numbers suggest. He’s doubled his previous career walk rate, and he has hit three wall doubles that I’ve seen on MiLB.tv—two to center field in Greenville and one to left field in Columbia.
Almost everything he hit in BP was sent back up the middle, which is where most of his hits have gone this season. You can see that he gets that front foot down and is direct to the ball, so he should post good contact numbers. His 20% K-rate would appear to disagree with that last statement, but he’s taking called strike three at a high rate right now and his swinging-strike-three rate is better than average. Given the apparent devotion to taking walks more often this year, it’s not surprising he’s also taking more called strike threes.
Milton Ramos cage:
After a big season with the University of Miami last year, the Mets made David Thompson their 4th round pick in 2015. Although he put up big power numbers in his final season, there were questions about whether he could stick at third base, which is one of the reasons why he wasn’t taken sooner. So far he’s looked good in the field, and while his arm isn’t plus, it’s enough that he shouldn’t have to move across the diamond. Former Amazin' Avenue draft guru Alex Nelson mentioned that, "he bounces more than his fair share of throws across the diamond," but I haven’t seen too much of that this season. He’s farther away from the surgery now, so maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that his arm strength is returning some.
At the plate, Thompson makes a lot of loud contact and he’s tops on the Fireflies in ISO and 15th in the SAL. He’s shown power to all fields this season, but has done most of his damage on balls hit into the left field corner. He was still on the DL when I went to see the Fireflies in Rome, but had a good BP that day and was cleared to play the next game. It’s easy to see how he generates a lot of power, as he rotates those hips back a little before exploding forward with his big frame.
David Thompson cage:
Dash Winningham was the Mets 8th round pick from the 2014 draft. Still just 20, the slugger was in a slump when Columbia reached Rome, which led to Dash being dropped to the eight-spot in the lineup for this game. Dash has been on a tear since this game (.302/.348/.488 over 46 plate appearances), so I guess you could say he responded nicely to the drop. After hitting 12 homers in 290 plate appearances with Kingsport last season, Dash has just two homers through his first 216 plate appearances in 2016, but he’s made big improvements to his walk and strikeout rates: K% dropped from 21.7% to 13.4%, BB% increased from 5.2% to 8.8%.
He has occasionally showed some of that big power this season, but given the power-to-contact tradeoff, it’s likely the Mets want him to work on being a better hitter, similar to what they did with Dominic Smith. He’s hit the ball to all fields in the air, but he’s been an extreme pull hitter on groundballs.
Dash Winningham cage:
The Mets selected big Jeffrey Diehl in the 23rd round of the 2011 draft and the 6’4 righty is making his full season debut this year. Diehl is 22 and has some pop in his bat, but he has had too much whiff in it this year. He rotates between first base and right field for the Fireflies.
Jeffrey Diehl cage:
From Round 3
The Mets third-round pick from 2013, Ivan Wilson just recently turned 21 and has loud tools. Unfortunately he’s had trouble with pitch recognition thus far in his career, which has led to some insanely high strikeout rates. His strikeout rate is at a more reasonable 33.2% so far in 2016 (reasonable compared to the 47% strikeout rate he posted in 2014), and he’s posted a nice 9.9% walk rate with a big .154 ISO (average ISO in the SAL is .119 so far in 2016).
Ivan Wilson cage:
Joe Tuschak was taken in the sixth round way back in 2011 and he has a .615 OPS so far in 2016.
Joe Tuschak cage:
Tyler Moore was the Mets' sixth-round pick from 2014 and he been in and out of the crowded Columbia catching rotation.
Tyler Moore cage:
Jose Garcia has been taking those backup catcher plate appearances away from Moore because he’s a really good defensive catcher. He has since been moved to the DL after being removed mid-game in early June.
Jose Garcia cage:
After batting practice, I went back to the press box to cool off for a little. While the players were getting ready for the game, I was learning about the Trackman system they use at State Mutual. It tracks a bunch of data points, including pitch location, pitch velocity, exit velocity, and launch distance, among others. During games, the Trackman operator and the MiLB gameday reporter are set up right next to each other—wouldn’t it be awesome if they just combined those two systems. Have to give a shoutout here to the Rome Braves staff. They do a good job covering the game on MiLB.tv, they keep the fans entertained between innings, and they are always extremely friendly.
At this point, the players were taking the field again and fans were filing in, so it was time to go back down and get more pictures. My camera still had some charge to it, but I would later realize that I had missed a key opportunity to charge the battery. The Rome Braves dugout was along the third base side, which I’m guessing the locals know, because that side was full of Braves fans. I think these Fireflies jerseys look nice, but my favorite one is that bright yellow jersey they sometimes wear. I watched them warming up again from the third base line for a few minutes, but then I saw Andrew Church heading to the pen and chose to head in that direction.
Before the Church pen started, the players lined up along the baseline for some sprints.
The visitor’s pen is beyond the outfield wall in right center field, and you can just barely peer in from the grassy seating area. I was able to get some good footage of Church warming up, but before you check that out, a little background.
Andrew Church was the Mets second-round pick in 2013 out of Basic High School in Las Vegas. Due to eligibility issues, Church wasn’t able to play with his high school during his final two seasons, which limited him to travel ball. While that limited his experience and the looks teams were able to give him, the Mets still saw enough upside in the righties arm to sign him for $850K. Church split his first three seasons between the Mets' three short-season affiliates: he was with the GCL Mets in 2013, the Kingsport Mets in 2014, and spent most of his season with the Brooklyn Cyclones in 2015. He throws a fastball, slider, and changeup, with the slider his more advanced secondary right now. People with radar guns at this game told me he was 92-94 MPH with his fastball throughout the start, and that matches up with what I've heard from his other starts.
This start in Rome was his second of the 2016 season, and he’d finish the day with a 15:0 strikeout-to-walk ratio and only nine hits allowed over his first 12.2 innings over the season. In a surprise twist, Church was promoted to St. Lucie for his next start, but that came on nine days rest, and he had no command (seven walks in 5.1 innings). He was back to zero walks in his next start with St. Lucie, with a ton of strikes thrown. He's definitely an arm to keep an eye on, and will definitely see a huge bump on top prospect lists this offseason.
Andrew Church warming in the pen:
With the pen over, it was finally game-time! The game itself was a pitcher’s duel until the Fireflies busted out with a five-run seventh. With that in mind, I’ll keep the focus on Church for now and return to the offense later. I sat along the first base side in the first inning and got the following coverage:
Andrew Church warming up (first base view):
The first batter hit a weak ground out to Dash Winningham at first base and Dash beat him to the bag by a step. Sadly, this wasn’t the only time my boneheaded self was too caught up in the action to try and catch it with the camera.
Andrew Church vs. Ray-Patrick Didder #1:
The next batter hit a ground out to smooth fielding Milton Ramos at shortstop.
Andrew Church vs. Luke Dykstra #1:
The final batter of the first inning popped out to Vinny Siena.
Andrew Church vs. Austin Riley #1:
Unfortunately, my camera’s battery finally gave out with the Fireflies batting as it lightly rained in the top of the second inning. Fortunately I had planned for this after my fail trip in April, and simply returned to the press box to let it charge for a few innings. This also gave me a chance to re-charge, aka eat some tasty chicken fingers and fries.
The Braves scored their only run as soon as I got up there, so maybe I should stay out of the box during the game in future visits! Justin Ellison flared a double just fair down the right field line for the games first hit, and he’d score on a Wigberto Nevarez double with two outs. The next two innings flew by and so I decided my camera had been charged enough and went down to find my next seat.
I settled in behind home plate as the fifth inning was starting, so I was in a good position for a third angle of Andrew Church warming up:
The following also happened in the fifth inning:
Wigberto Nevarez struck out swinging:
Bradley Keller hit a ground out to Milton Ramos:
Alejandro Salazar reached on a bunt single fielded by Luis Ortega:
After Salazar stole second and went to third on an E4 (missed catched), Ray-Patrick Didder hit a ground out fielded by Church:
I stayed behind the plate for one more frame, and the following happened in the 6th inning:
Luke Dykstra led off with a single lined into left field:
Austin Riley then blooped a single into center field to put two runners on with nobody out in the frame:
With Rome threatening, Church buckled down and retired the next three quickly, starting with Jonathan Morales on a fly out to center field:
Justin Ellison was up next and he popped out to Patrick Mazeika in foul territory:
Church ended the threat by striking out catch1b viewer Lucas Herbert:
My camera only had enough charge left for one last half-inning at this point—the five-run seventh—so now’s a good time to recap what the Fireflies offense had been doing before we get into that. The first seven batters were retired in a row before Dash Winningham worked a walk, and Rome starter Oriel L. Caicedo struck out four through the first three innings. Luis Ortega and Milton Ramos picked up the Fireflies first hits while I was behind home plate.
In the seventh, Vinny Siena got things started for Columbia with a single grounded back through the middle. Kevin Kaczmarski dropped down a beauty of a drag bunt with the goal of at least advancing Siena, but Kaczmarski beat out the hit, and Siena advanced to third when Wigberto Nevarez flipped the ball to first with nobody covering the bag. Patrick Mazeika pulled a ground out on the right side in both of his first two at-bats, but then knocked in Siena for Columbia’s first run of the game his third time up.
Patrick Mazeika Ground out #1:
Ground out #2:
The Braves chose to bring in a new pitcher after Mazeika’s single tied the game up at one, and Luis Ortega approved of the change. Ortega was up next and he launched a 3R blast to left field off reliever Josh Graham. The Rome Braves staff didn’t write down an exact number, but they later told me the ball went about 370 feet:
They had already taken control of the game, but the Fireflies bats weren’t done just yet. Milton Ramos worked a two out walk in the seventh inning, stole second, and then scored on a double off the bat of Dash Winningham:
This is when my camera’s battery juice ran out again since it hadn’t full recharged, as I mentioned above. I left it to charge again, but there were only about 20 minutes left in the game, so that’s everything I got from it. Andrew Church worked a perfect seventh inning and then came out with a runner on first base and two outs in the eighth. He probably could’ve gone all nine with a normal pitch limit given how easily he was cruising, but he was still on a mid-80s pitch limit for the start. Reliever Craig Missigman was called on for the final four outs and he retired four straight Braves batters to finish off the win.
Anyway, that was how I spent my Memorial Day. I hope you enjoyed reading about my experience and all the video and pictures of these future Mets. I’ve never done a post quite like this before, but I do cover all Mets minor league action available daily on MiLB.tv with GIFs over at http://www.AstrometsMind.com, so check it out if you want to actually see what the Mets' future holds!