Sunday, the Mets reassigned Zack Wheeler and nine other guys to minor league camp in the first cuts of the spring. Usually, these are cuts for guys who have zero chance of making the team, and nine of the 10 guys fit this profile.
There was player sent to the backfields who was moderately surprising (like in a very mild way) Collin McHugh. Why surprising? Well, he has big league experience. The 25-year old made four starts and four relief appearances in August and September 2012. He was hit hard in those appearances, yielding a 7.59 ERA on 27 hits, five homers and 21 runs in 21.1 innings. His strikeout to walk rate was a solid 2.13 (17 K/8 BB). I
n 4.2 innings this spring… Scratch that last sentence, nothing useful can come of it.
I thought McHugh had an outside chance to make the big league roster out of spring training if there was an injury to one of the five rotation regulars and he outperformed Jeremy Hefner. The first part of the last sentence is sort of happening. The second part has not. While Johan Santana is not hurt, but he’s not exactly a healthy pitcher, and seems “likely” ticketed for the disabled list to start the season. Ted Berg tells everyone to shut up, stop worrying and appreciate the man. The Mets will need a fifth starter for the first time on Sunday, April 7th at the latest. I had figured that the Mets would want to keep multiple options in camp for that spot. Now, McHugh’s demotion more or less clears the way for Hefner if Santana cannot go.
Zack Wheeler thought that his minor oblique injury had something to do with the fact that he was sent down to minor league camp. That’s kinda cute, but the reality is that he had no chance to break camp with the Mets in 2013. None. Do not forget that last year in AAA, he averaged 5.5 innings per start over his six starts and walked 12% of the batters he faced (MLB average is 8%). These facts are related. He was walking too many batters, and throwing too many batters to succeed in the big leagues. Sure, the stuff, the fastball, the slider, and the curveball all are potentially plus Major League pitches. He just must harness them better.
Now, the other eight:
Hansel Robles – I touched on Robles last week. The bottom line is that he was in short-season Brooklyn last year. He was four levels from the big leagues.
Gonzalez Germen – The 25-year old was a below average starter in AA last year putting up a 4.59 ERA and a 5.4 R/9 where the Eastern League average was 3.91 and 4.30 respectively.
Elvin Ramirez – Three walks in 3.2 innings in spring training after 20 walks in 21.1 innings in the big leagues last year. He’s in mid-season form.
Darin Gorski – An average year at AA, earned Gorski a ticket to Las Vegas, not the big leagues.
Reese Havens – Oh boy. Coming off a .215/.340/.351 season as a 25-year old, Havens put together a 1-for-11 start in big league spring training while playing statuesque defense.
Juan Legares – An OK 2012 in AA earned him a nod to AAA Las Vegas, not the big leagues. As a right-handed hitting outfielder, keep Lagares in mind if he can figure out his approach. He can play all three outfield positions, although he’s better in a corner. I have a sneaking suspicion he will make his big league debut in 2013.
Wilfredo Tovar – The defensive specialist heads back to the minors after hitting .254/.308/.332 in half a season in double-A where he will probably begin 2013 playing everyday.
Cesar Puello – A .260/.328/.423 performance in 66 games in advanced-A in his age 20/21 season makes a weak case for a promotion to AA, but no kind of argument for a big league gig. He’s on the line between AA and a repeat of advanced-A this year.
So, the bad news Wednesday was that Zack Wheeler came up with a mild oblique strain and could not make his scheduled start. Wheeler hurt himself in the batting cage, doing a drill that manager Terry Collins said the team has done “everyday.”
The Mets emphasized that they were being cautious with their prized pitching prospect. Collins explained post-game, “There’s no sense in pushing it…We gotta be very, very careful.”
In the minors, pitchers only bat at double-A and above, and only when two National League teams play each other. Wheeler did not bat until 2012, when he had 16 plate appearances for AA Binghamton and five for AAA Buffalo. If you’re curious, he was 1-for-17 with three sacrifices, a double, a walk and 11 strikeouts for a .059 combined average between the two levels.
I was curious what kind of swing Zack Wheeler owns. Terry Collins did not appear to like the question, responding, “What do you want me to say, Toby, he’s a National League pitcher, he’s gotta hit…. He’s not going to hit fourth.”
So there you have it: Zack Wheeler, great pitching prospect, but no Matt Harvey at the plate.
My plan was to drive from Savannah to Port St. Lucie on Saturday morning. As I pulled onto the highway, at 8:20, with about 370 miles to go, I thought, I was doing alright. Sure, I might miss a few Shawn Marcum pitches, but I’d be right in line for the Zack Wheeler show. Nope, Saturday’s game was a 12:10 start, which I realized sometime around 10 am somewhere on I-95. Instead of watching Wheeler perched 10 rows behind home plate, I had the SNY feed on my phone on my car dashboard at 80 miles an hour. Oh well. Planning!
Anyway, Wheeler was impressive. He’s a damn good pitching prospect, and he’ll be a very good pitcher for the Mets very soon. Saturday, he worked two scoreless innings, allowed a hit and a walk, struck out two and induced four groundouts. He threw 11 of his 16 pitches for strikes. His fastball was a lively 94-96 mph, and he showed a few nice sliders and a curve, although he missed with others. He did not throw a changeup. Wheeler made some impressive pitches, blowing gas by Tyler Moore and Chad Tracy with Steve Lombardozzi at third in his first inning. He then induced three grounders in the fourth.
Other stories from Wheeler’s outing.
Adam Rubin (ESPNNY) began with the fact that Wheeler was “amped up” to start the outing until John Buck and David Wright calmed him down. The best part here was quote from Matt Harvey, who was watching Wheeler in a game for the first time, ““The ball explodes out of his hand,… Obviously you can tell the timing is a little off. It’s only, what, Feb. 23? The sky’s the limit for him, for sure.”
Marc Carig (Newsday) focuses on Wheeler’s quiet, confident demeanor in the clubhouse and gets quotes from outfielder/pitching coach Marlon Byrd about Wheeler’s composure.
In the New York Post, Mike Puma takes the angle of Wheeler’s quest to make the big league team. Look, I get that a month and a half in Port St. Lucie is a long time and the writers need to create some drama. However, Wheeler is not going to break camp with the Mets. Manager Terry Collins said as much in Puma’s own story. “Is it etched in stone?” manager Terry Collins said about the decision to have Wheeler at Triple-A Las Vegas starting the season. “No, but it’s close.”
Also in the Post, Kevin Kernan also takes the “put Wheeler in the big leagues now” angle.
Why is Zack Wheeler going to start 2013 in Las Vegas and not New York: 1. Walks, 2. Player Control/Money.
Wheeler walked 11.9% of the batters he faced in his six starts in AAA with Buffalo in 2012. MLB average is a little over 8%. He walked 9% of his opponents at double-A. He can live at 9%, because he’s otherwise hard to hit, but 12% is too much.
If Wheeler breaks camp with the Mets, and stays on the roster all year, he will burn a full year of service time and become eligible for free agency after 2018. If he stays in AAA for a month, he will not pick up his sixth year of service until after the 2019 season. If he’s anywhere between an average starting pitcher and a All-Star, that extra year of control at the cost of a month in 2013, is more than worth it. Moreover, were he to start the year in the big leagues, he would be eligible for arbitration a year early as a Super Two.
So enjoy Zack Wheeler on SNY in February and March, but do not expect him on the same station come April. He should be back by June.
How good will Zack Wheeler be? According to Carson Cistulli, who combed through Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections, Wheeler owns the best projection of any pitcher with rookie eligibility.
ZiPS forecasts Wheeler at: 141.2 IP, 8.6 K/9, 4.4 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9, 1.9 WAR.
This is a fun contrast to yesterday’s Keith Law post leaving Wheeler out of his 20 top impact rookies. However, the question here is one of opportunity again. Is Wheeler likely to get as many as 141.2 innings in the big leagues? I’d doubt that. Starting pitching appears to be a strength of the 2013 Mets. But pitchers get hurt. That’s what they do. At some point, there will be a rotation opening for Wheeler. And if no one gets hurt, someone will get traded (hint: for an outfielder).
There’s also the case from last year. Matt Harvey threw 59.1 innings in the big leagues in 2012 after 110 in AAA. However, Wheeler, with six starts and 33 innings at AAA at the end of 2012, is at least a little ahead of Harvey’s progress through the system at this time last year. Also, Wheeler is coming off a 2012 in which he threw 149 innings total.
Given how cautious the Mets are about increasing the innings pitched by their young hurlers, it’s hard to see Wheeler throwing about 185 innings in 2013. He averaged 6.1 innings per start in AA last year and 5.5 in AAA. Lets split the difference and give him 5.8 innings per start over 10 AAA starts taking him to 58 innings before the Mets would call him up, at the earliest. That gives him a max of about 120 innings in the big leagues in 2013, depending of course on his own performance and health, and that of the rotation in front of him.
So that leaves Wheeler as likely to throw between 70 and 120 Major League innings in 2013, which is certainly something for Mets fans to look forward to.
My first post of 2013, will be basically my final look back at 2012. Yeah, I’ll finally get around to finishing my review of my 2012 Top 41 prospects. This is 1 through 5 and names you know. Next steps? The 2013 list. Oh yeah. Time to get back to work.
Oh, man, the second to last entry in this series was back in October on guys I had ranked 6-10. Then, apparently I got distracted. As far as the Top Prospect review pieces, part six, on players #11-15 is here, part five, on players 16-20 is here, part four, on players 21-25 is here, part three, on players 26-30 is here, part two on players 31-35 is here, part one, on players #36-41 is here.
The link in the player’s name leads back to last year’s scouting report.
#1 – RHP Matt Harvey
What I Thought: He was the kind of pitcher who could pitch at the top of the rotation of a playoff team. He was armed plus to plus-plus fastball, a slider that had made a ton of progress in his brief professional career, a curveball that could be plus, and a changeup that had become at worst usable. I predicted an MLB debut of August, 2012. Harvey debuted for the Mets on July 26.
Reality: Pretty much all of it. Actually, he got off to a rough start in Buffalo, but settled in, and by July, was pretty clearly the best option for the big league team (sorry, Miguel Batista). Actually, Harvey was a better pitcher in the big leagues than he had been in AAA Buffalo as his strikeout rate rose from 23.7% of opponents all the way up to 28.6% of big leaguers. That’s extremely unusual. Based on his AAA starts that I saw online, it certainly appeared as though he was throwing harder, more consistently in the big leagues than he did for the Bisons. It was not just his fastball either, he was throwing his slider harder in the big leagues. Want another oddity? His strike percentage ticked upward from 62% in AAA to 63% in the big leagues against better, more disciplined hitters. Harvey’s MLB ERA – 2.73, was significantly better than his FIP of 3.30, in large part due to the fact that he did not give up many hits on balls in play – a .262 BABIP. Expect some BABIP regression, which will in turn drive his ERA up. He could counteract that be lowering his walk rate, which at 10..6% was a little high for a true pitching star.
On the Next Top 41? Nope, he pitched enough innings to graduate.
#2 – RHP Jeurys Familia
What I Thought: I loved his fastball, the movement on his breaking ball, his size, his improved delivery in 2011, the fact that he had improved his control and that he had conquered double-A.
Reality: Familia just did not locate well enough. His release point was inconsistent.
Stock: Usually, when a guy gets to the big leagues, it’s up. However, in Familia’s case, it’s down a little. The problems that he had throwing strikes and the fact that his changeup is still crude, suggest to me that he will be destined for the bullpen.
On the Next Top 41? Yeah.
#3 – RHP Zack Wheeler
What I Thought: He had big-time stuff, with a plus fastball and the potential for two above average breaking balls. He just needed time.
Reality: He had a very, very good 2012, blowing through double-A on the way to triple-A at the end of the year. He missed bats, lots of them. The only hiccup statistically was that his walk rate rose, a symptom of the fact that his command wavered. His command (and a few months in lovely Las Vegas) could be the only thing keeping from the top of a big league rotation.
On the Next Top 41? Yeah, like top two.
#4 – CF Kirk Nieuwenhuis
What I Thought: He would spend most of the second half in Queens and his secondary skills and ability to cover center would make him a valuable contributor.
Reality: I had some of that right. Andres Torres hurt himself on Opening Day, so Nieuwenhuis spend one day in April with the Buffalo Bisons before he was called up to the big leagues. The 25-year old played an ok centerfield (-1.2 UZR and -2 DRS, for what that’s worth), but his secondary skills disappeared and the strikeouts ate his batting average. He fanned in 31% of his MLB plate appearances. Moreover, his extra-base hit rate dropped from 11.3 in AAA in 2011 to just 6.3 in 2012 while his walk rate plummeted from 14.5 in AAA in 2011 to 8% in the big leagues in 2012. He did not hit lefties at all (.180/.286/.230 in 73 PA) while doing ok against righties (.271/.324/.416 in 241 PA).
Stock: Man, I almost always say up when a guy makes his MLB debut, but I expected better from Nieuwenhuis. Regardless, he should get another chance to prove he belongs in the big leagues in 2013.
On the Next Top 41? No. Graduated.
#5 – Brandon Nimmo
What I Thought: The 2011 first rounder had plus tool in his speed, and star potential in centerfield if he developed to his maximum potential.
Reality: Nimmo took the first step with a very nice season for short-season Brooklyn in the New York-Penn League. The 19-year old finished fifth in doubles (20), third in extra-base hits (28), third in strikeouts (78) and second in walks (46) in his 69 games played for Brooklyn as part of a .248/.372/.406 line. That adds up to 24% strikeout rate, an 8.7% extra-base hit rate, and a .158 ISO to go along with a 14.3% walk rate. The in-game power and the patience at such a young age are very, very exciting. However, some caution is in order. He’s a plus runner now. If he gets bigger and stronger he might no longer boast such speed. In 2012, he was just 1-for-6 stealing bases. The Mets are pleased with his development in centerfield, but were he to become much slower, he would be forced to a corner, where of course, the offensive requirements for impact bats rise. I do want to point out that while he ripped righties at a .279/.410/.465 rate overall in 112 PA, hie hit .191/.296/.298 against lefties in 109 PA. Whether or not he learns to hit lefties is just one more thing to watch in his development in the coming years.
On the Next Top 41? Yup – top 5.
At Baseball America, Matt Eddy has named RHP Zack Wheeler the #2 prospect in the double-A Eastern League, trailing only Manny Machado.
On Wheeler, how about this comment?
“He’s possibly the best pitching prospect I’ve ever seen,” Erie manager Chris Cron said. “He has all the pitches and a free and easy delivery. He can go 98, 88, then 78 at will. For a kid, he really looks like he knows how to pitch because he changes speeds really well.”
Binghamton manager Pedro Lopez, who has managed Flores in four of his five pro seasons, said the 21-year-old benefited this season from the more patient approach stressed by Mets instructors.
Does the Vegas deal change Alderson’s and DePodesto’s strategy in regards to Wheeler?
In theory I agree with you that it doesn’t matter that Vegas is a hitters park, but doesn’t it say something that both the Dodgers and Blue Jays kept their top pitching prospects out of there.
Even though I might actually go to a game in Vegas, I think it stinks for the Mets. In fact in some ways it’s worse than New Orleans. I don’t understand why the Mets don’t get an East Coast AAA team. The Wilpons need to find a way to make this happen. I have read all your columns, but at the end of the day do you really believe that it’s good for the Mets to be in Vegas (and by the way, I don’t think it was that great for the Mets to be in Buffalo.)
Toby Hyde, Mets Minor League Blog:
Ben’s question first.
No, the Mets’ AAA team moving to Las Vegas should have no effect on the team’s strategy in regards to Wheeler. Remember that the team has all but promised that Wheeler will start 2013 in AAA.
First of all, there does not appear to be a whole lot of room in the starting rotation to start 2013. The Mets should have the following pitchers penciled into the 2013 rotation: Jon Niese, Matt Harvey, Johan Santana, R.A. Dickey (as long as his option is picked up and of course it will be), and Dillon Gee (as long as he’s healthy). Mike Pelfrey is arbitration eligible, Jenrry Mejia has another chance to impress the brass this year. Starting Wheeler in AAA for a month and a half would avoid potential super-two arbitration status after his second big league season, and potentially save the Mets $10 million or more over the course of his arbitration cases.
Second, there is Wheeler’s big league readiness. Yes, he is the Mets’ best prospect, and one of the best pitching prospects in baseball. His fastball is electric. Both his slider and his curveball have plus potential. However, his command is not major league ready yet. He is the precise kind of prospect who needs AAA. He succeeded in AA (3.26 ERA) despite a walk rate of 9.1% (NL average is 8.1%) because AA hitters could not lay off his stuff out of the zone, nor do damage against him when he was in the strike zone. In AAA, these command issues manifested themselves with a walk rate that climbed to 12% and two homers allowed in six starts, compared to two homers allowed in 19 AA starts. His command might never be great, but it is the primary thing standing between Wheeler and not just big league success, but big league excellence right now.
Peter’s question second. No, I don’t think it’s good for the Mets to be in Vegas. It will be a logistical headache. Moving players from the mountain time zone or the west coast to the east coast where the Mets play the majority of their games will be a real pain in the ass. Moving players from AA to AAA will also be a pain. It will be difficult to move players from AA to AAA to make spot starts as the Mets were able to do with Buffalo and Binghamton a drive apart. It will be a lot of extra travel for the Mets’ player development staff.
As far as moving their AAA back into the Eastern Time Zone, sure, the Mets would prefer to be in the International League, but they need a partner. That helps explain why the Mets only signed a two year PDC with the 51s. There will be more options after the 2014 season, when AAA teams in Charlotte (Chicago – AL), Durham (TB), Indianapolis (Pit), Louisville (Cin), Norfolk (Bal), Rochester (Min) and Syracuse (Was) all have expiring PDCs. Now, to be clear, there are some very strong relationships in that list, including Durham and Indianapolis and teams that presumably would not be interested in the Mets like Norfolk.
Buying a AAA franchise outright costs in the range of $22-25 million dollars, a number the Mets seem unlikely to spend to secure an International League affiliate. The Mets could take a minority stake in one of the International League teams, but none, to my knowledge, are itching to sell at the moment.
Earlier this week, Jim Callis in his “Ask BA” at Baseball America was asked to list his Top 10 prospects (excluding all guys currently in the big leagues) and he slotted in Zack Wheeler in at #9, behind #8 RHP Jose Fernandez (MIA) and in front of #10 OF Byron Buxton (MIN).
Then in a question in his chat later in the week, he responded to a Wheeler question in part by saying, “… But you’ll see him next season, probably in the Opening Day rotation.”
The Mets have more or less promised that Wheeler will not be in the 2013 Opening Day rotation. So just wait a little longer on him.