Fresh Kauffy: Kirk Nieuwenhuis


When a team is struggling, as the Mets have already been often early this season, fans often look towards the younger players in the organization for help, either soon or in the future.  If the Mets become sellers at the trading deadline, some of those young players will certainly see big league action in August and September.  One of those players will most likely be Buffalo Bisons center fielder, Kirk Nieuwenhuis.

Drafted in 2008, the now 23 year old lefty outfielder (who happens to share the same exact birthday as me) has been steadily climbing his way up the ladder since he arrived on the scene, and is currently the fifth best organizational prospect, according to Baseball America.  After signing in ’08 and playing at Brooklyn, Nieuwenhuis tore up the Florida St. League in ’09 at St. Lucie, hitting .274/.357/.467 with 16 homers and 16 stolen bases before being promoted to double A Binghamton to finish the year.  He then hit well enough there in 2010 (.289/.337.510 with 16 long balls and 13 steals) before being called up to Buffalo, where he finally cooled down as the season came to a close (he hit just .225/.295/.358 with two dingers in 133 PA at triple A).  This season, however, Nieuwenhuis has been on a tear from the get-go.

Otherwise known as Captain Kirk, Nieuwenhuis is batting .316/.430/.568 with four homers in 114 plate appearances.  He also sports a wOBA of .438 and a wRC+ of 177 while at one point hitting in sixteen straight games. Further encouraging is his walks total, which stands at 18, or 15.8%, thus far a significant increase over his 7.2% walk rate last season.  His 27 strikeouts (a 23.7% clip) is still a little high, but that’s OK if he can maintain his current walk rate.  The other hole in Nieuwenhuis’s offensive game is his pronounced split against southpaws-Kirk is just six for twenty-eight so far this season against lefties with nine strikeouts, although he has also managed six walks.

Playing center field helps Nieuwenhuis’s overall value, but the question is if he can play there at the major league level.  Buffalo manager Tim Teufel, who also managed Nieuwenhuis at Binghamton last season, was quoted as saying “He’s deceptive.  He gets to balls you didn’t think he could get to…he picks up speed as he goes.”  There is a ton of ground to cover at Citi Field, so it would be interesting to see how Nieuwenhuis would patrol center field.

While Captain Kirk will almost certainly see action later this season, his long term future is not quite as clear.  He’s shown the ability to improve his game and adjust at every level, traits which will serve him well in the majors.  If he were to maintain a slash line similar to his career minor line of .281/.353/.467 and hit 15-20 homers while playing solid defense, he’d be a great asset for the team.  Citi Field might take away some of his homers, but he could certainly still post a strong slugging percentage by smacking doubles to the gap.

Part of the problem Nieuwenhuis will face is the logjam of Mets outfielders, both ahead of him and behind him.  With Carlos Beltran on the way out and Jason Bay seemingly locked into left field, that leaves one corner spot up for grabs.  Angel Pagan, who was struggling mightily (.159/.259/.246) before landing on the disabled list, is arbitration eligible for the final time this coming offseason after earning $3.5 million this year.  It is possible that Sandy Alderson might try to deal him, hoping to cash in on his success from last season, but if he stays, Nieuwenhuis might have to move to right field, where his offensive numbers wouldn’t contain as much value.

Furthermore, Nieuwenhuis might have to compete with Fernando Martinez, who has been playing right field at triple A, for playing time this year (if Beltran is dealt before the deadline) and next year.  There are also lower level prospects, such as Cesar Puello (rated the Mets third best prospect by BA), Darrell Ceciliani, Matt den Dekker and Cory Vaughn who might prove to be better defensive center fielders, while there has been talk of moving shortstop Wilmer Flores to the outfield as well (although he’d probably wind up in left).  None of the aforementioned prospects will be in the majors before 2013 at the earliest, in all likelihood, but if Pagan stays, there will be a lot competition, both now and in the future for the Captain.

In any case, Nieuwenhuis should make his major league debut this year as a September call-up, if not before.  If for some reason Pagan’s injury were to keep him out for an extended period of time, it would be tempting to stick Kirk in center instead of Jason Pridie.  For now though, Nieuwenhuis will hopefully continue to swing a hot bat at triple A and make his case for a spot on the major league roster.