In 1903, the Pacific Coast League was an independent circuit. In 1904, they joined baseball’s National Agreement, and have been in operation since.
Prior to the 1950’s, the PCL was the preeminent baseball circuit of the west coast, that is, until Major League Baseball arrived. Much about the league has changed since those days, and this season, more changes are on the way.
The Tuscon Padres relocated to Texas, and will play as the newly minted El Paso Chihuahuas. The move also required a slight realignment of the league’s divisions. El Paso will join the Las Vegas 51’s in the Pacific South Division, along with the Albuquerque Isotopes, and the Salt Lake Bees. Gone from the division are the Fresno Grizzlies, and the Sacramento River Cats.
The Las Vegas franchise has played its home games at Cashman Field since the 1983 season. In 2001, the Las Vegas Stars reformed to become the Las Vegas 51’s.
In 2012, their player development contract with the Toronto Blue Jays expired, as did the PDC between the Mets and Buffalo Bisons. During the September open period, the Mets and Blue Jays effectively swapped affiliates.
With New York Mets prospects on board, the 2013 Las Vegas 51’s posted the league’s second best record, an 81-63 (.563) mark, that fell just a game below the Oklahoma City RedHawk’s circuit leading 82-66 (.569) final record.
Las Vegas capped off the regular season with their first division flag since 2002, and the franchise’s ninth division title overall, but were upset in the first round of last year’s playoffs by the Salt Lake Bees. Salt Lake eventually bowed to the Omaha Storm Chasers in the championship series.
Clearly then, this year’s mission entails taking those necessary extra steps forward towards a title. The 51’s technically have never won a championship, but the franchise has, when the Las Vegas Stars captured titles in 1986 and 1988.
Wally Backman is back for his second season in Las Vegas, and his third season as skipper of the Mets AAA affiliate. Success seems to follow him around. That said, Wally has a tremendous following back in Flushing that wish he will one day pilot the Mets. Despite getting bypassed by Sandy Alderson before, there’s a belief Terry Collins is signed to a very precarious two year extension, and that Wally will have his day in Flushing yet.
Sweet Music, Frank Viola, was hired to be the Las Vegas 51’s pitching coach this season, but in a medical examination during spring training, the Mets issued a statement last week reporting team physicians had detected a condition in Frank Viola’s heart that required immediate attention. He is scheduled for open heart surgery today, April 2nd.
At this moment, I think I speak for a great many, when I say our thoughts, concern, and empathy are with Frank Viola and his family through this delicate and unsettling time. We all maintain the utmost hope for a successful procedure, and speedy recovery.
Several of this year’s Las Vegas pitchers were already very familiar with Frank Viola and his teachings. In fact, many pitchers in the Mets system know Frank Viola well. He served as pitching coach for the Brooklyn Cyclones in 2011, then moved up to the Savannah Sand Gnats for two seasons, where he won Coach of the Year honors in 2013.
Thanks in part to Frank Viola’s work, the Las Vegas 51’s will begin the season rich in pitching. They’ll be featuring some of the Mets most highly touted young arms. Noah Syndergaard, Rafael Montero, Jacob deGrom, Logan Verrett, and Erik Goeddel form a potentially very fearsome five. Daisuke Matsuzaka, who is obviously on 24-hour call, will certainly be in Wally Backman’s rotation.
The bullpen will be led by 26-year old closer Jeff Walters, who saved 38 games for Binghamton last season, and posted a 2.09 ERA in a rather dominant season long performance against Eastern League hitters.
Walters will be joined by Josh Edgin and Vic Black, who may find themselves back in Flushing yet. Edgin was demoted in the first round of spring training cuts, in order to recover a touch of lost velocity. Vic Black was one of the final, if not more surprising spring training demotions. He struggled with his command throughout Grapefruit League play, but is being counted on make quick corrections.
Ryan Ried, who is on the Mets 40-man roster, and Joel Carreno stand to receive all the innings they can handle. But, of course, who Wally will have available at any time throughout the season is transient in nature, as the Mets have already been forced into recall two reserves (Kyle Farnsworth, Wilmer Flores) to account for Daniel Murphy and Bobby Parnell.
Behind the plate, Juan Centeno will likely be the primary catcher. He’s not a slugging backstop, however, he batted .305 in 213 at-bats for Las Vegas last season. Defensively, he posted a .993 fielding percentage.
Allan Dykstra is coming back from a broken fibula suffered playing winter ball. Allan will turn 27-years old in May, which apparently gets held against him. Naysayers are quick to label him as a career minor league player. I, however, have championed his cause numerous times, albeit with resistance. Before his injury, I held out hope Dykstra could factor into the Mets first base situation. He now just needs to worry about reestablishing himself.
Zach Lutz had a monster spring training, batting .333 in 33 at-bats, with 3 home runs, and 7 RBI. In 20 at-bats during his call-up with the Mets last season, he batted .300, and posted a .462 OBP. He otherwise had 399 at-bats for Las Vegas last season, batted .293, and posted a .377 OBP. He finished third on the team behind Wilmer Flores and Kirk Nieuwenhuis, with 13 home runs, and his 80 RBI were second only to Flores.
Last year, Wilmer Flores was the 51’s leader with 15 home runs and 86 RBI. He is temporarily in Flushing subbing for Daniel Murphy, but for the foreseeable future, the Mets intend to have Wilmer Flores gain more experience at second base and shortstop with Las Vegas.
Second baseman Daniel Muno is entering his 4th season in the Mets system. After spending a season each in Brooklyn and Port St. Lucie, he exceeded 100 games played in a season last year for the first time with AA-Binghamton. He batted .249 in 449 at-bats, with a nifty .384 OBP, and also hit 9 home runs, and drove in 67 runs.
Anthony Seratelli, 31, offers Coach Backman versatility and experience. He played for last year’s Pacific Coast League champion – 84 games in the outfield, and a total of 37 games at all four infield positions. He’s a product of the Kansas City Royals system, whose best season came in 2012 for Omaha. This will be his third AAA season.
The starting outfield will be manned by Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Cesar Puello, and Matt den Dekker. Once the Mets activate pitcher Jon Niese, Andrew Brown may have to yield his roster spot, and join Las Vegas until further notice.
All eyes will be on Cesar Puello. 23, who returns to official duty this year after serving a 50-game suspension last year related to Biogenesis. The timing of the suspension effectively ended his 2012 season. Puello then went on to struggle in the Arizona Fall League, and marginally improved while playing winter ball. He did not survive the first round of spring training cuts, and was directed to minor league camp.
Last year, Cesar Puello was having a magnificent season for Binghamton right up until things short circuited. In 91 games and 331 official at-bats, he posted a quadruple slash of .326/.403/.547/.950, with 21 doubles, 24 stolen bases, 16 home runs, and 73 RBI. This will be his first experience at the AAA level. Playing for Wally Backman strikes me as a fascinating dynamic. If anyone is going to reestablish Puello’s confidence, Wally Backman will.
Matt den Dekker did everything needed to improve his club standing with a fine Grapefruit League performance. He batted .350 in 40 at-bats, and posted a .426 OBP, and an .876 OPS. The hope for Matt is that injuries are long behind him. His overall 2013 season was limited to 94 games.
Kirk Nieuwenhuis was second on the club last season with 14 home runs, but managed just 37 RBI, and only batted .248 in 282 at-bats. He fared no better in 47 games with the Mets.
The Las Vegas 51’s home opener is Thursday evening, against the Fresno Grizzlies.