If you didn’t know, the Mets are back in the Pacific Coast League this year. The Mets last participated in the PCL five years ago when affiliated with New Orleans. Last autumn, the club and the Las Vegas 51’s entered into a new two year player development contract which takes them through the 2014 season.
The league is comprised of sixteen teams, broken up into two conferences, with two divisions in each, and four teams per division. Las Vegas plays in the Pacific Conference/ Southern Division along with the Sacramento River Cats (OAK), Fresno Grizzlies (S.F.), and the Tuscon Padres (S.D.). Last season while fielding Toronto’s prospects, the 51’s finished in second place with a 79-64 record, 6.5 games behind Sacramento. The Reno Aces are the 2012 defending PCL champs.
The circuit as a whole can be a hitter’s nirvana and a pitcher’s nightmare. Hot air and high altitudes mean elevated offensive numbers and bloated ERA’s. Fly balls can drift and drift, while groundballs scoot on sun baked infields more quickly, as if skidding along old-fashioned astroturf. For Mets fans, the dynamics at Coors Field and the heat of the Mojave have been suggested to be loosely accurate characterizations of the Pacific Coast League.
The (Area) 51’s play at Cashman Field, which opened in 1983, and was named after a local business benefactor. What kind of crowds will Mets prospects be playing for? The park holds just under 10,000 fans. Cashman Field surpassed 300,000 fans in every season since 1983. When you consider how attendance plummeted in Buffalo during their four year affiliation, the Mets have their work cut out for them this time in trying to shake their recent reputation, and maintaining at least Las Vegas’ attendance standards. Last year the 51’s drew 311,516 fans. Over seventy-one dates, that worked out to an average of 4,388 per game. This season, they are set to welcome their ten millionth fan to Cashman Field.
Certainly to start the season, fans in Las Vegas will be treated to what many think will become a formidable battery for years to come. On Thursday, April 4th, Mets top prospect Zack Wheeler, 22, will pitch Las Vegas’ regular season opener in California against the Sacramento River Cats. He is presently showing no lingering effects from an oblique injury suffered while taking batting practice back on February 27th. In his only previous AAA action last season at Buffalo, Wheeler made six appearances, and struck out thirty-one batters in thirty-three innings pitched. His catcher will be Travis d’Arnaud, 24,who played in Las Vegas last season as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays organization. It was playing for the 51’s when d’Arnaud originally injured his knee. Otherwise, he might already be a major leaguer. Leading up to his knee injury last season, Travis was batting .333 and slugging .595 after 279 plate appearances. He had sixteen home runs and fifty-two RBI at the time. Hopefully, Travis can school the incoming Mets prospects on some of the do’s and don’t regarding life in Sin City; Vegas. Both former first round draft picks, Wheeler and d’Arnaud are tentatively scheduled for a bus trip to Queens some time during the summer.
* The following preview is based on who I ultimately believe will be on the team. For a few players, the currently listed Las Vegas roster, posted Mets transactions, and supporting articles conflict.
Landon Powell, 31,who signed as a free agent in January, is a five season PCL veteran. He also will be able to impart some knowledge of the league. Landon will start the season backing-up Travis d’Arnaud. If and when Travis gets called to Citi Field, Anthony Recker; presently John Buck‘s back-up on the big club; could possibly find himself sharing time with Powell later this season. As a new member of the 40-man roster with less than five years in the league (consent rule), the Mets will be able to move Anthony Recker freely.
After pitcher Jenrry Mejia serves his remaining time on the disabled list (a/o March 22, elbow inflammation) he might report to Las Vegas. Although the Mets have used Jenrry out of their bullpen, he has primarily been a starter in the minors.
Tentatively joining Zack Wheeler in the starting rotation will be Chris Schwinden, 26, who is entering his third season of AAA-ball. Collin McHugh, 25, is entering his second AAA campaign. Carlos Torres, 30, who spent the 2011 season in Japan, is entering his fifth AAA season. Left-hander Aaron Laffey, 27, appeared in eleven games last season for Las Vegas. A six year major league veteran, he can both start and pitch out of the pen. He strikes me as the first responder to any S.O.S. out of Flushing.
* TUESDAY MORNING UPDATE – With Shaun Marcum’s announced setback, Aaron Laffey or Collin McHugh might already be on their way.
Both Armando Rodriguez, 25, and Gonzalez Germen, 25, each have exactly one game of AAA experience. They are tentatively listed on the 51’s roster, but I’m not ruling out one, or both start at Binghamton yet.
The 51’s tentatively only have two left-handers in the bullpen – Robert Carson and Justin Hampson. After just ten games at AAA last season, Robert Carson, 24, was pressed into hasty service in Queens. So he probably stands to benefit most from another season in the minors. Justin Hampson, 32, is a long time minor leaguer who was reclaimed from the independent leagues, and spent his last two full seasons in Buffalo. Carson and Hampson could be joined in the bullpen by Greg Peavey and Dylan Owen. Greg Peavey, 24, will be getting his first taste of AAA ball this year. At twenty-six years old, Dylan Owen’s long six year quest to become a major league starter may be coming to an end. He has never been able to replicate the effectiveness he exhibited in 2007 while pitching in Brooklyn. Dylan’s conversion began last season as Wally Backman used him increasingly more out of the pen.
Do you remember Danny Herrera? Well.., you can forget him now. He was released. Herrera, 28, came to the Mets as part of the Francisco Rodriguez deal. In 2011, he pitched eight innings for the Mets, allowing seven hits and one run. He walked two and struck out five. He also pitched another six innings at Buffalo. Although he missed all of 2009, Daniel Herrera, 28, posted very solid AAA seasons as a reliever between 2008 and 2011. Back ailments however have compromised him since. On April 1st, the Mets released the southpaw pitcher.
While Zach Wheeler and Travis d’Arnaud initially dominate all the attention, I believe the next greatest development in Vegas is the promotion of Wilmer Flores. He made his first venture into the AA-Eastern League last season. In sixty-six games and 251 at-bats for Binghamton, Wilmer batted .311 with eighteen doubles, eight homers, and thirty-three RBI. He slugged .494 while keeping his strikeouts limited to an impressive thirty. With little chance of uprooting David Wright from third, or Ike Davis from first base, Wilmer Flores, 21, is now listed as a shortstop.
Wilmer Flores remains on the 40-man roster. However, second baseman Reese Havens, 26, finally lost his 40-man roster protection. Over the last few years, many saw this coming. Reese was the twenty-second overall pick of the 2008 draft. In his defense, a back injury has hampered his progress through the years. Havens just never managed to regain the level of play he exhibited in 2010 during a season split between St. Lucie and Binghamton. His 2012 season at Binghamton resulted in a career low .215 batting average in 325 at-bats. As such, he was exposed to waivers (along with Dan Gorski – assigned to Binghamton), and cleared as of last Friday.
Third baseman Zach Lutz, 26, bears the distinction of being the last cut before the Mets headed north. He is now a three year AAA veteran. Last season for Buffalo, Lutz appeared in seventy-two games. In 244 at-bats, he batted .299 while sporting a nice .410 OBP. He hit ten homers and drove in thirty-five runs.
At first base, Eric Campbell, 25, was the Mets 2008 eighth round pick. He spent his last 2 1/2 seasons at Binghamton where he posted a combined .273 batting average in 978 total at-bats. Drafted in the sixth round of the same year, the more familiar Josh Satin, 28, returns for a third AAA season.
Filling out the infield corp, Brian Bixler, 30, gained a measure attention with his Grapefruit League play. Alas, he did not make the first cut. Omar Quintanilla, 31, started out hot too, then tailed off. They will be joined by Brandon Hicks who is twenty-seven years old.
As most know by now, outfielder Matthew den Dekker, 25, broke his wrist during a Grapefruit League game on March 24th, attempting a catch against the Detroit Tigers. He will not require surgery, and stands to miss games through mid-May.
Andrew Brown, 28, is yet another Sandy Alderson January free agent signing who will roam the Vegas outfield. He is also no stranger to the Pacific Coast League. While Andrew has 134 combined major league at-bats with St. Louis and Colorado, he spent the majority of the past two seasons playing in AAA. In 390 at-bast last season playing for Colorado Springs, Andrew Brown posted a .308 batting average, and a .597 slugging average. He hit twenty-four home runs, and drove in ninety-eight runs. Colorado claimed him off waivers from St. Louis in 2011, and granted him free agency a year later. Coming from the PCL and playing in Colorado seemed like a natural fit. So what gives? Maybe the fact he struck out one hundred times in one hundred games last season factors in? The progress of Andrew Brown definitely warrants a mindful eye.
Brown could be joined by Juan Lagares and Jamie Hoffman. Juan, 24, hails from the Dominican Republic, and was signed by the Mets in 2006 as a free agent out of high school. He spent the last 2 1/2 seasons at Binghamton. He batted a respectable .283 last season. A season at AAA will serve him well. Jamie Hoffmann, 28, was granted free agency last November by the Orioles, and promptly signed by Alderson fifteen days later. His first taste of the bigs came with the Dodgers. Before Baltimore, he was a three year product of the PCL when with the Dodgers organization. His best minor league season came in 2011, when he batted .297 in 475 at-bats, with twenty-two home runs and eighty-four runs batted in.
Corey Patterson was released.
The question I’m asking is – if Terry Collins‘ contract had been extended last year, would Wally Backman have agreed to manage the Mets AAA affiliate for a second straight season this year? Was Wally Backman effectively given the inside track in the next race to become Mets manager?
Wally started his Mets managerial career in 2010 with the Brooklyn Cyclones, in which he led the Brooks to the New York-Penn League title round. Wally moved up to manage the Binghamton Mets in 2011, then AAA Buffalo in 2012. He was one of a few candidates who interviewed for the vacant job after Jerry Manuel‘s firing, when Sandy Alderson eventually settled on Terry Collins. Terry was an in-house hire met with general approval. However, at the moment, Flushing’s field manager might be the biggest lame duck manager in baseball. Unsigned beyond this season, Sandy Alderson has refused to open negotiations on a new pact. That coincides with the Mets having only two players under contract beyond the 2014 season.
Wally Backman’s previous employment before rejoining the Mets was a rocky road through the White Sox system, and more famously in Arizona’s system, where he won a Manager of the Year award, and was then fired from the D-Backs job before ever managing a game. After a stint managing Independent baseball, Wally Backman returned to the Mets fold and has found favor within the organization again. A bad start may doom Terry Collins this season. A mid-season firing is never out of the question. There are no (none) indications yet, but there is every chance Wally Backman can possibly join Zack Wheeler and Travis d’Arnaud when their services are summoned to Queens. I’d suspect, Wally’s first venture beyond the top step of the dugout as manager of the Mets would be met with thunderous applause.
For now, that’s all entertainingly hypothetical. This however, is sure – heading into the 2013 regular season, the Las Vegas 51’s, in my opinion, have a very good manager on their hands. I also believe this team is very well stocked with quality players. I think the fans of Las Vegas baseball are in for a pleasant surprise. Of course, injuries can always ruin the best laid plans for the 51’s, the Mets, or both.
Robert Carson – Gonzalez Germen – Collin McHugh – Zack Wheeler
Travis d’Arnaud – Wilmer Flores – Zach Lutz – Juan Lagares.
FREE AGENT ACQUISITIONS
Brian Bixler – Jamie Hoffmann – Andrew Brown – Carlos Torres
Aaron Laffey – Landon Powell – Omar Quintanilla – Brandon Hicks (purchased from A’s)