34-33/30-37 (South Atlantic League Southern Division, 4th place)
When the 2018 season began, the Columbia Fireflies looked like a team that would go places. While the offense was suspect, as was the case in 2017 when the team had a collective .246/.338/.330 batting line, the starting rotation and bullpen was composed of numerous individuals that were players to keep an eye on. Anthony Kay, the Mets; first-round draft pick from 2016, was returning from Tommy John surgery and looking to establish himself as a professional pitcher. High-ceiling right-handers Tony Dibrell and Chris Viall would also be taking the ball every five days. David Peterson, the first-round pick from 2017, would miss the first few weeks because of injury but would also be assigned to Columbia when healthy enough. Leading them all was Pedro Lopez, who took the job after being removed from his position with the Las Vegas 51s. While his tenure with the 51s did not go as planned, Lopez was a proven winner, one the most winning managers in Mets minor league history.
The Columbia Fireflies posting a winning record in the first half, but the team was not particularly in the thick of things. With a 34-33 record, Columbia ended the first half in fourth place in the South Atlantic League Southern division, 5.0 games behind the first place Rome Braves. As had been the case, the Fireflies were at or near the bottom of most offense-related stat categories and their record had been buoyed by their pitching.
Much of that pitching got promoted in the second half, leaving the Fireflies without their strength. While their rotation and bullpen was not all bad, they did not perform, and coupled with Columbia’s anemic offense, the Fireflies had a poor second half.
- April, 12-12
- May, 16-11
- June, 11-14
- July, 11-18
- August, 13-13
- September, 1-2
121 G, 425 AB, .254/.370/.433, 23 2B, 7 3B, 13 HR, 62 BB, 88 K, 21 HBP, 4/7 SB, .286 BABIP
After going undrafted out of high school, Matt Winaker attended Stanford University; as the son of two Stanford alumni, it only made sense. As a freshman, he hit .268/.383/.380, as a sophomore he hit .254/.356/.360, and as a junior he hit .308/.432/.514, giving him a cumulative batting line of .278/.393/.422 in 164 games. The Mets selected him with their fifth-round pick in 2017, and assigned Winaker to the Brooklyn Cyclones, where he hit .268/.402/.282 in 21 games. The left-hander began 2018 with the Columbia Fireflies and had a solid season all around, hitting .254/.370/.433 in 121 games. A South Atlantic League All-Star, his 13 home runs tied him for the franchise record with Dash Winningham and Brandon Brosher, and his 12 multi-RBI games were tied with Scott Manea for most on the team. After hitting .248/.365/.366 with 3 home runs in 57 games in the first half, he hit .260/.375/.493 with 10 home runs in 64 games in the second half, with changes to his launch angle being a major reason for the spike in power.
Coming out of Stanford, Winaker utilized the “Stanford swing”, a quiet, level swing without much plane that puts an emphasis on getting the foot down early and making contact and putting the ball in play- often up the middle or to the opposite field- at the expense of power. He has since added some loft to his swing, almost doubling his flyball rate as compared to 2017; with the Cyclones, he had a 23.2 % flyball rate, and with the Fireflies, he had a 40.1% rate. As we have seen in numerous other players, the increase in launch angle has resulted in more hits and in more home runs, and this was the case with Winaker, who hit 13 home runs this season after combining to hit 9 between Stanford and Brooklyn last season. With his increasing capacity to hit for power coupled with an already well-developed and highly advanced understanding of the strike zone, Winaker may be coming into his own as a hitter.
100 G, 345 AB, .261/.368/.432, 23 2B, 0 3B, 12 HR, 35 BB, 66 K, 24 HBP, 0/0 SB, .291 BABIP
Scott Manea was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 40th round of the 2014 MLB Draft out of St. John’s High School in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, but did not sign with them, instead attending North Carolina State University. He only appeared in 6 games and logged two official at-bats, but he was perfect, hitting 1.000/1.000/1.000 with a walk and run scored. He transferred to St. Petersburg College in 2016 and hit .377/.481/.531 in 50 games, leading the Mets to sign him as a non-drafted free agent in late July. He got into some token games with the GCL and Kingsport Mets that year, but really got his feet wet as a professional in 2017, when he played 37 games with the Brooklyn Cyclones and hit .223/.380/.277. Promoted to the Columbia Fireflies for the 2018 season, Manea was one of the team’s most potent bats, hitting .261/.368/.432 in 100 games. A South Atlantic League All-Star, his 12 multi-RBI games were tied with Matt Winaker for most on the team.
23 G (23 GS), 131.0 IP, 112 H, 60 R, 51 ER (3.50 ERA), 54 BB, 147 K, 9 HBP, 1 BLK, 12 WP, .300 BABIP
Tony Dibrell didn’t exactly impress in his first year at Kennesaw State, had a bit more success in his sophomore season, but then broke out at the Cape and as a junior. Playing for the Bourne Braves and the Chatham Anglers, Dibrell posted a 1.66 ERA in 38.0 innings pitched, allowing 28 hits, walking 18, and striking out 36, and back with the Owls, he posted a 2.45 ERA in 95.2 innings, allowing 77 hits, walking 39, and striking out 103 batters. The Mets drafted him in the fourth round in the 2017 MLB Draft, and he finished out the year with the Brooklyn Cyclones, posting a 5.03 ERA in 19.2 innings pitched, allowing 19 hits, walking 8, and striking out 28. He began the 2018 season with the Columbia Fireflies and ended up staying there for the entire season, a brow-raising decision given the fact that he was a polished college pitcher with advanced stuff. In 131.0 innings, the 22-year-old posted a 3.50 ERA, allowing 112 hits, walking 54, and striking out 147. His 147 strikeouts set a new franchise high, beating Joe Shaw’s 2016 record of 134, and were tied for most in the South Atlantic League with Lakewood BlueClaws right-hander Spencer Howard and Greenville Drive southpaw Jhonathan Diaz.
Dibrell has top 10 stuff- an average-to-above-average fastball, an above-average slider, an above-average changeup, and a developing curveball- but his inability to command those pitches with regularity has stunted his value as a pitcher. There are various reasons for the control problems- the natural movement of his pitches and the mechanics of his delivery- but in 2018 Dibrell showed improvements. Keeping the right-hander in Columbia for the entire season seemed a bit puzzling at first, but intended or unintended, Dibrell’s control improved in the second half. In 61.1 innings in the first half, he walked 33 batters. In 69.2 innings in the second half, he walked 21 batters.
24 G (0 GS), 33.1 IP, 33 H, 21 18 ER (4.86 ERA), 5 BB, 54 K, 2 HBP, 0 BLK, 3 WP, .413 BABIP
After receiving no interest from MLB teams and not getting a single scholarship offer from a Division I NCAA school, Stephen Villines all but finalized arrangements to enroll at Saddleback College, a community college in Mission Viejo, California. By chance, a friend of a friend happened to know Coach Ritch Price from the University of Kansas and put the two in contact. Price liked what he saw of Villines, and offered him a baseball scholarship to attend. Villines agreed, and the right-hander would go on to become one of the best relief pitchers in Jayhawks history. In his four years there, he posted a cumulative 2.45 ERA in 194.1 innings split over 114 games. He allowed 179 hits, walked 40, and struck out 180 en route to saving 40 games, the most in program history and one-shy of Huston Street’s Big-12 record of 41. The Mets were both looking for a bargain and saw promise in the Jayhawks reliever when they drafted him in the 10th round of the 2017 MLB Draft. Villines signed for just a $10,000 bonus and has since become one of the Mets’ top relief prospects. In 2017, he posted a 1.65 ERA split between the Kingsport Mets and Brooklyn Cyclones and was named the Mets 23rd top prospect for the 2018 season. He did not miss a beat in 2018, posting a 3.11 ERA split between the Columbia Fireflies, St. Lucie Mets, and Binghamton Rumble Ponies.
The lanky right-hander throws from a low, almost sidearm arm slot, which gives his pitches plenty of movement, and makes them much harder for batters to pick up. His fastball has well below-average velocity for a right-hander, sitting in the mid-to-upper-80s, but it gets significant arm-side run thanks to his arm slot. His slider, which sits in the low-to-mid-70s, has sharp bite, and his change-up fades down and in to right-handed hitters, which elicits plenty of swings and misses. Villines’ atypical profile works because is able to command all of his pitches and can throw them in any count for strikes with pinpoint precision.