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2018 Minor League Preview: Las Vegas 51s

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How will the Las Vegas 51s fare this season?

MLB: Spring Training-Washington Nationals at New York Mets
Zack Wheeler
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

In 2016, the Las Vegas 51s under-performed and ended the season with 70-74 record, the first time since 2011 that the team ended the season with a sub-.500 record. In 2017, that 70-74 record would have been a major improvement, as the 51s managed only a 56-86 record, the worst in franchise history. The catastrophic season was a black mark on newly promoted manager Pedro Lopez’s record, and him his job after just a single year. Frank Viola and Jack Voight, longtime pitching and hitting coaches, also lost their jobs after the terrible season.

The Las Vegas 51s will open the 2018 season on Thursday, April 5th against the El Paso Chihuahuas, the Triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres.

THE MANAGERS

Replacing Lopez as the manager of the Las Vegas 51s is Tony DeFrancesco, a baseball lifer who has been involved in professional baseball in some capacity for 33 seasons, 23 of which have been as a manager. A native New Yorker, born in Rockland County, DeFrancesco attended Suffern High School and was drafted by the California Angels in the 30th round of the 1981 MLB Draft. He elected to go to Seton Hall University instead, and after posting a cumulative .343/.417/.508 batting line in the two years he played there, was selected in the 9th round of the 1984 draft by the Boston Red Sox. Over the next nine seasons, he played in the minor league systems of the Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds, hitting a cumulative .232/.321/.306 in 567 games. DeFrancesco retired as a player in 1992 and got his first opportunity to coach two years later, in 1994. In the years since, he has compiled a strong managerial record, posting a .534 record with 1632 wins and losing 1416 losses. In addition to his 14 years of experience managing at the Triple-A level, DeFrancesco has experience at the major league level: he served as the third base coach for the Oakland A’s in 2009, and in August 2012, was named the interim manager of the Houston Astros following Brad Mills’ dismissal.

Flanking DeFrancesco will be Glenn Abbott and Joel Chimelis, who will be serving as pitching and hitting coach, respectively. Abbott will be entering his eighth season overall within the organization. He made his coaching debut back in 1985 with the Little Falls Mets and stayed with the organization through the 1989 season. After spending 13 seasons as a coach in the Oakland A’s system from 1990-2002, three as a coach in the Texas Rangers system from 2003-2005, and five as a coach in the San Diego Padres system from 2006-2010, he returned to the Mets in 2011, where he served as pitching coach for the Savannah Sand Gnats, the Mets’ Low-A affiliate. From 2012 until 2017, he served as pitching coach for the Binghamton Mets and the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, the Mets’ Double-A affiliate. The 2018 season will be Chimelis’ first in the New York Mets organization. He began his coaching career in 2004 with the Savannah Sand Gnats, when they were an affiliate for the Montreal Expos. After spending a second year there in 2005, when they were an affiliate for the Washington Nationals, he was hired to coach in the Houston Astros system, where he would spend the next 11 years. From 2006-2010, he served as hitting coach for the Tri-City ValleyCats, the Astros’ Short-A affiliate. In 2011, he served as hitting coach for the Lexington Legends, the Astros’ Low-A affiliate. In 2012, he served as hitting coach for the Corpus Christi Hooks, the Astros’ Double-A affiliate. From 2013-2016, he served as hitting coach for the Quad Cities River Bandits, the Astros’ Low-A affiliate, and in 2017, he reprised his role as hitting coach for the Corpus Christi Hooks.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

THE HITTERS

Over the past few seasons, the 51s were primarily an offense-driven ballclub. The team led the Pacific Coast League in OPS in 2013, 2014, and 2016, and was second in 2015. The 2018 51s may be breaking the mold, as the team does not boast the number of power hitting position players as compared to past years.

Third baseman David Thompson, who set a career high with 16 home runs last season in Binghamton, and outfielder Zach Borenstein, who has averaged 16 home runs over the last two seasons while playing in the PCL, may be the closest things the 51s have to true sluggers. A major wild card will be Bryce Brentz, who the Mets recently claimed from the Pittsburgh Pirates and outrighted to the minor leagues. The outfielder had a standout season with the Pawtucket Red Sox last season, hitting .271/.334/.529 with 31 home runs in 494 plate appearances. If his newfound power can continue in 2018- and there is reason to think he will be able to- the former first-round pick may be a major offensive contributor.

The 2018 Las Vegas 51s may also break the mold in another way: defense. The team will be rostering numerous players that are known for their excellent defense. Luis Guillorme is second-to-none at both shortstop and second base, and outfielders Patrick Biondi and Matt den Dekker both are capable of playing gold glove-level defense in center field. While not as an elite defender in his 30s as he was in his prime, Jose Lobaton is still a positive defensive catcher, as is Colton Plaia.

THE PITCHERS

Pitching has been an issue for the 51s over the last few seasons, but that may change this year. The 2018 club will have one of their most talent-rich rotations during the Mets era, the best since 2013, when the pitching staff was composed of Chris Schwinden, Matt Fox, Rafael Montero, Jacob deGrom, D.J. Mitchell, and Zack Wheeler. That same Zack Wheeler will be anchoring the rotation and joining him in pitching every five days will be Chris Flexen, Corey Oswalt, P.J. Conlon, and Mickey Jannis. The rotation may be able to flummox the Pacific Coast League if their individual skills and talents are able to manifest themselves fully in the hitter-friendly environment. Of course, the PCL could rob each of these pitchers of their strengths, leading to inflated numbers.