Fernando Martinez thrives after being waived by Mets

Still not 25 and an assumed prospect flop, Fernando Martinez was always too hurt to ever achieve the potential that scouts saw in his first four minor league seasons.  Met fans grew accustomed to his name being on the list of their top 10 prospects and began to assume it was inevitable that he’d be patrolling right field by now.

As we all know, that was not the case.  Fernando began to have injury problems (including arthritis) that limited his speed, range and yearly at bats.  2011 was the final straw for the Mets who could no longer spare the room on their 40-man roster to hold onto Fernando as he struggled to find the spark that excited fans earlier in his career.

Martinez left New York and wound up catching on with the Houston Astros.  It is an old baseball adage that sometimes all a player needs is a change of scene… why does that adage have to be true now?

Through 38 HEALTHY games of 2012, Fernando Martinez has contributed to his Oklahoma City team with a .318 AVG, .520 SLG and a .895 OPS.  Those are the type of numbers that you can look at in AAA and start to wonder when he’s going to be given a spot on the major league ball club.  His 7 HRs and 30 RBI put him among the leaders in the PCL and Met fans have to ask themselves… did we give up on Fernando too soon?

When the Mets put Fernando Martinez on waivers, I assumed that they were checking on interest.  See if there were still clubs who wanted him and might consider a pseudo-prospect swap.  Instead… the Mets felt it was more important to protect Brad Holt from being nabbed… I guess.  Martinez went to the Astros for the one-time price of FREE and the Astros can’t be too unhappy with this sort of return.

As a Met fan, who do you blame?  Do you blame Sandy Alderson and company for not giving Fernando another chance?  The Met’s medical staff (which was trained by Joseph Mengele)?  The Wilpons for creating a situation where the savings of a high priced minor leaguer was seen as helping the team’s bottom line?

No.  I blame the New York fan for this one.  We are the reason that Fernando Martinez is gone.  We couldn’t sit idly by while a prospect finally reached the average age for the level of the minors he had reached.  We expected results… years ago.  I saw tons of comments from bloggers and fans calling Fernando a “Never-Was” and that he was “Washed Up” at the age of 23.  I mean… the Pacific Coast League helps too… but still.  We need to be less critical of prospects who don’t immediately display major-league talent.  Or else we might give Brandon Nimmo a drinking problem before he can legally drink.

Will Fernando Martinez make the Mets’ Opening Day roster?

When the 2011 season ended, the Mets seemed to have their outfield for the following season all set. The starters appeared to be Jason Bay, Lucas Duda and Angel Pagan while the reserves figured to be Nick Evans and Jason Pridie.

Evans finally seemed ready to take up a permanent spot on the club, after years of getting jerked around, thanks to a solid second half in which he posted a .738 OPS in 170 PA. Pridie was not as good offensively, but he filled the need for a backup center fielder and the Mets were 20-12 last year in games he started in CF.

But both players were cut loose by the Mets, as the club faced something of a 40-man roster crunch. In order to protect up-and-coming youngsters like Jeurys Familia and Wilmer Flores – and to be fair others like Armando Rodriguez and Josh Stinson – the Mets bid adieu to two players who seemed to have a spot on the 2012 club.

So, who will be the team’s backup outfielders this year?

Once again, let’s look at the 40-man roster. Currently, there are 39 spots filled but the one open position is for free agent pickup Frank Francisco, who has yet to officially sign the contract he agreed to at the Winter Meetings. Once that deal goes through, the Mets are at the limit.

At that point, barring a deal, they essentially have two options. The Mets can either select their backup outfielders from players who are already on the 40-man or they can bring people into Spring Training on minor league contracts and then open up a spot on the 40-man at the latest date possible, hoping that they don’t lose whoever they remove from the roster, as other clubs will also be scrambling for roster positions.

Last year the Mets brought in Scott Hairston and Willie Harris on minor league deals and both made the club out of Spring Training. It’s certainly a possibility they could use that same approach in 2012 and it wouldn’t be a complete surprise to see one or both of those players back in camp, provided they don’t get a more lucrative offer elsewhere.

But if the Mets continue to pinch pennies and look for minimum wage guys to fill out the last few spots, they likely will look for an in-house solution. And there are only four outfielders listed and two of them are not realistic options. Let’s look at these four alphabetically:

Juan Lagares – Opened eyes last year by posting an .873 OPS in the Florida State League and performing even better after a promotion to Binghamton, where he notched a .903 OPS in 170 PA. Lagares is a corner outfielder who can play center in a pinch.

Fernando Martinez – Once considered the crown jewel of the farm system, Martinez has been unable to stay healthy and has yet to put up monster numbers. In 727 PA in Triple-A over parts of three seasons, Martinez has a .265/.326/.465 line.

Kirk Nieuwenhuis – An unheralded prospect, all Nieuwenhuis has done in his time in the minors is hit. Unfortunately, his development hit a detour last year after he was limited to 221 PA by a shoulder injury. Nieuwenhuis is unlikely to make the club out of Spring Training but if all goes well with his recovery he should make his MLB debut at some time in 2012.

Cesar Puello – The Mets hope for big things from Puello in the future, but he did not overwhelm in his first season in Hi-A ball. He’s likely a few years away from the majors.

So, it’s possible that the Mets break camp with Lagares and Martinez as their reserve outfielders. It’s far from ideal, as both players could use consistent at-bats that they would get in the minors. But this is the corner that Sandy Alderson has positioned himself.

And before you declare that they will certainly go with the minor league free agent, consider that there’s not a true backup shortstop on the 40-man roster, either. Justin Turner could play there in a pinch and Jordany Valdespin spent the majority of 2011 as a SS but many view him as a 2B on the major league level.

But even if they do go the minor league free agent route, how likely are they to wind up with options better and cheaper than Evans and Pridie, who were both pre-arbitration players? Last year they spent $1.9 million on Hairston and Harris and they figure to have to spend a similar amount in 2012 if they go this route.

Meanwhile, both Evans and Pridie would have cost less than $1 million combined.

So, this roster set up could be Martinez’ ticket to the majors. It’s not the way that Mets fans pictured it when they signed him as a 16 year old to great fanfare. Back then, we had visions of Martinez putting up 30-30 seasons at this point. Now he could be a defensive caddy for Duda and lefty pinch-hitter.

I would have preferred having Evans and Pridie back, with the extra development time given to Lagares and Martinez in the minors. And if that path led to the loss of Rodriguez and Stinson – I would not have lost one minute of sleep over that.

Besides, how likely was it that either of those pitchers would have been selected and kept all year by the other team? Rodriguez was in A-ball at age 23 last year and was limited to 16 games and 75 IP due to a strained oblique. There are encouraging things in his profile as he has 396 Ks in 381.1 IP in the low minors. But it seems unlikely that he would have been kept an entire year by another club.

We saw Stinson in the majors last year and he was not overly impressive, as he allowed 7 BB and 10 ER in 13 IP. His minor league record is not much more to get excited about, as he has a 4.20 ERA and a 1.422 WHIP in six seasons in the farm system.

Maybe Rodriguez breaks out this year. Perhaps Stinson settles down in a return trip to Triple-A to become a bullpen option in 2013. But we already knew what Evans and Pridie could do in the majors. Evans could play either corner and be a lefty masher. Pridie could provide a necessary CF option in case Andres Torres didn’t pan out.

It’s unlikely Rodriguez and Stinson come close to matching that type of value. And because the Mets chose those two pitchers, we seem likely to have Martinez in the majors, getting 10 PA per week. Oh well, maybe he won’t get hurt this way.

Who replaces Beltran in RF for the Mets?

It’s no fun to contemplate the Mets without Carlos Beltran but as John Wooden once reminded us, “Failure to prepare is preparing to fail.” Plus with the recent revelations that owner Fred Wilpon thinks Beltran is “65 to 70 percent of what he was” when he signed him, there’s really only one conclusion to be drawn.

So, who replaces Beltran?

Lucas Duda has so far failed to build on his 2010 season, so the main two candidates seem to be Fernando Martinez and Kirk Nieuwenhuis. Martinez has come full circle in prospectdom. He started out as a can’t miss, became overrated due to non-stop injuries, is now an afterthought by many and can be accurately described as underrated. Nieuwenhuis was an unheralded prospect from an NAIA school but has done nothing but perform well in his time in the minors to force his way into the team’s plans.

Martinez came to the Mets billed as a five-tool center field prospect. But injuries have robbed his speed and center is no longer a viable option, nor is big SB totals. But Martinez still offers the club some power potential. While injuries have kept him from playing a full season, he essentially has a full year of time at Triple-A under his belt. Here are his career numbers at Buffalo:

.271/.330/.488 in 550 PA

He has 35 2B, 2 3B and 23 HR in 498 ABs at the top minor league level. Martinez is now on his third stint in the majors but for the first time he is actually hitting. Here are his career numbers with the Mets and what he is doing so far this season:

Career – .189/.257/.299 in 141 PA
2011 — .278/.316/.556 in 19 PA

This year Martinez has two doubles and a home run in 18 ABs.

Meanwhile, Nieuwenhuis is putting up strong numbers this year in Buffalo after struggling upon his promotion to Triple-A last year. The Asuza Pacific product is doing a little bit of everything. Here are his 2010 and 2011 numbers at Buffalo:

2010 – .225/.295/.358 in 133 PA
2011 – .303/.410/.527 in 195 PA

Nieuwenhuis has 23 extra-base hits in 165 ABs, including 6 HR. Additionally, he has been successful on five of his six stolen base attempts. The 23-year old is also doing his best to show he would fit in with the Mets by having just a .662 OPS with RISP.

Both Martinez and Nieuwenhuis are LHB. Nieuwenhuis is currently playing CF for Buffalo but is somewhat stretched there and probably profiles defensively as a corner outfielder. There were concerns if his bat would play in a corner position but his performance so far in 2011 is a nice sign that it could.

The wild card in this situation is that we are assuming that these two players will battle for the right field position. But if Angel Pagan does not hit better when he returns, Nieuwenhuis could be a contender for the 2012 starting center field job, as well.

But assuming that Pagan is the team’s center fielder next year, right field will offer a nice choice between two different prospects. Martinez is the tools guy, one who is starting to put it together offensively. Nieuwenhuis is the one who has gotten this far on results. This is not to say that he does not have good tools, but that his main draw has been his actual production.

Great tools will get a prospect multiple chances and free passes in the minors but it’s a different story in the majors. Here the only thing that counts is production. Nieuwenhuis would seem to have a leg up here, but it is Martinez who is in the majors right now.

While that has plenty to do with Martinez being on the 40-man roster while Nieuwenhuis is not, we should not disregard the ability to work with major league coaches as a point in Martinez’ favor right now. Next spring, Terry Collins, Dave Hudgens and others will have a comfort level established with Martinez. Perhaps they will get a chance in September to do the same with Nieuwenhuis.

It’s too soon to tell right now who has the inner track to replace Beltran in RF next year. But the Mets have two viable internal candidates, which is a nice thing for a farm system that is allegedly below average (plus an owner who is allegedly broke) to have.

Top 10 Spring Training stories for Mets

After four months without MLB, Spring Training is always a welcome sight. Even though the teams never have full lineups, the pitchers rarely throw at peak form and managers make moves they never would during the season – we can’t help but to look at the stats and look at things that jump out. There are always going to be people struggling and people exceeding expectations. But sometimes the surprising thing is who is doing what – and to what extent.

With that in mind, here are my Top 10 surprises in Spring Training for the Mets.

10. Tim Byrdak with 2 Saves
In 343 games in the majors, Byrdak has 3 Saves and a 4.35 ERA. While it’s surprising that he has yet to give up an earned run this Spring, it’s only 6.1 IP. Last year with the Astros he had an 11.1 scoreless innings streak and a 14.0 streak. But if you had given us five guesses before Spring Training started about who would lead the club in Saves in late March few, if any, would have said Byrdak.

9. Fernando Martinez and his .364/.481/.591 line
When the Mets signed Martinez as a 16-year old, he was a five-tool talent and everybody’s expectations were through the roof. Now after an injury-marred minor league career, most people have written him off as a starter, much less an impact major league player. So, while it was only 22 ABs, it was still very nice to see Martinez put up sparkling slash numbers.

8. Kirk Nieuwenhuis gets 32 ABs despite .094 AVG
One of the most useful things to see in Spring Training is who gets a lot of ABs. Those are the guys that the club wants to see play, usually because they are competing for a roster/starting spot. But when a minor leaguer gets that much time, it’s a clear example that the club thinks highly of him. Nieuwenhuis benefits from being a CF but that doesn’t explain this much playing time with so little production. I had him rated fifth in my top prospects ranking and it’s clear the Mets are high on him, too.

7. Taylor Buchholz approaches 2009-10 innings total
Elbow surgery, along with a back injury that landed him on the DL last year, limited Buchholz to just 12 IP the past two seasons. This Spring, Buchholz has logged 11 IP, the top total of any reliever on the staff. And to make things even better, he has yet to allow a run. Buchholz has been fortunate, as he has allowed 15 baserunners in those 11 innings, but his health and performance have been good to see.

6. Daniel Murphy not locking up 2B job despite .811 OPS
Murphy has picked up right where he left off offensively despite missing most of the 2010 season. With only Jonathon Niese being likely to deliver big ground ball numbers to the right side of the infield, it should be an easy decision to install Murphy as the regular at second base and look to replace him defensively in the late innings with a slim lead. After all, an .811 OPS would tie for the sixth-best mark among second basemen in the majors last year. After scoring just 656 runs last year, which ranked 13th in the 16-team NL, the Mets should look for offense wherever they can get it.

5. Reserve outfield production
Not many people were enthusiastic when the Mets signed Jerry Hairston and Willie Harris for backup outfield spots. Hairston had a .652 OPS in 2010 while Harris was nearly as bad with a .653 mark. But in 78 Spring ABs, the duo has combined for 28 H, 9 2B, 1 3B and 4 HR. They also have 14 R and 11 RBIs.

4. Rule 5 picks struggling
Most people expected that Brad Emaus and Pedro Beato had good shots to make the roster. But Emaus got off to a terrible start before finally getting some hits the past few days. Beato has gone the opposite route, starting off strong but really sputtering later in the Spring. Emaus still has a chance to make the team because of support for his game in the front office. But Beato seems like a long shot. And cynics will point out that the owners will recoup $50,000 if they return both players.

3. Luis Hernandez named front runner by NY Post
Although the line is blurring, mainstream outlets (yes, even the Post) still have stronger editorial standards than independent blogs. So it was a huge deal when Mike Puma’s story broke that Terry Collins wanted Hernandez to be the starter at 2B. While the Mets have termed the story premature, there seems no doubt that Collins was impressed by what he saw from Hernandez last season. It will likely come down to Emaus or Hernandez at second base and it will be interesting to see if the manager wins out over the front office. I’m rooting for the front office.

2. The return of Jason Isringhausen
Another thing no one saw coming was the signing of Isringhausen, who inked a minor league deal on February 15th. After back-to-back years with elbow surgeries, it seemed like his career was over. But Isringhausen is seemingly back at full strength and has survived pitching on back-to-back days. He’s now the leading contender to be the team’s primary setup man and is hands down the feel-good story of the Spring.

1. The domination by Chris Young
I was not in favor of the Young signing. He had pitched just 96 innings the past two years due to shoulder surgery. Even when he was healthy, Young never topped 179.1 IP in a major league season. His last good year came in 2007 and there were serious questions about his velocity. Yet somehow this Spring, Young leads the team’s starters with a 1.33 ERA in a team-high 20.1 IP. He’s been touched by the gopher ball and still has a sub-par strikeout rate (3.98 K/9) but it’s hard to argue with the results, including six shutout innings this weekend.

A make or break year for injured Mets prospects

Perhaps the two hitters in the Mets farm system with the biggest upside are Reese Havens and Fernando Martinez. Unfortunately, those two have been dogged by injury problems. The duo has combined for eight seasons in the minors and the most games played in any year by one of them is the 97 by Havens in 2009.

Havens was a first-round pick out of South Carolina in 2008. He was described as a good hitter with outstanding plate discipline. Defensively, Havens was a shortstop but it was expected that sub-par range would ultimately move him from the position, forcing him to third base or possibly even catcher.

Havens showed that plate discipline that had everyone so excited in his first taste of pro ball, when he drew 11 BB in 97 PA. While he hit just .247 in Brooklyn that summer, he did post a .340 OBP and a .471 SLG mark.

The next year was the 97-game season referenced earlier. He again hit .247 but saw his OBP go up 21 points. While his SLG did go down to a .422 mark, he did deliver 14 HR in the pitching-friendly Florida State League. However, it should be pointed out that in the season where he played the most games, Havens delivered the lowest OPS (.784) of his professional career.

After playing shortstop his first two years in the system, the Mets moved Havens to second base last year. But an oblique injury limited him to just 32 games split between two levels. When Havens did play, he hit the cover off the ball. He had a .338/.400/.662 line at Double-A, albeit in just 75 PA.

Meanwhile, the Mets signed Martinez out of the Dominican Republic in 2005, when he was perhaps the top international player available. The following year as a 17-year old, Martinez split time between three different levels, ending up in the Hi-A Florida State League. But he played just 76 games.

In 2008, Martinez found himself in Double-A, but he played just 90 games. He made his major league debut in 2009, after putting up an .877 OPS in 190 PA as a 20-year old in Triple-A. But Martinez had just a .577 OPS in 100 PA with the Mets before hurting his knee, an injury which required surgery.

Martinez struggled last year in Triple-A but finally started to hit in late July which earned him another trip to the majors. However, the Mets did not give him regular playing time and sent him back to the minors after 11 days of sporadic appearances. And to cap things off, Martinez reinjured his right knee and had his season cut short once again.

So, where do Havens and Martinez stand now in 2011? The Mets have at least four people vying for the second base job, but Havens is never mentioned. Neither is Ruben Tejada, but the Mets want him at shortstop for insurance in case Jose Reyes leaves as a free agent following this season. If Reyes re-signs with the Mets, Tejada will be added to the mix of people fighting for playing time at second base.

Martinez is no longer viewed as a five-tool player. Some people no longer consider him a major league regular, instead mentioning Lucas Duda as the next in line for a starting job in the outfield. Some even mentioned that a Duda-Scott Hairston platoon would be an advantageous one for the Mets should an injury or trade occur involving a Mets outfielder.

Injuries have kept everyone from seeing what Havens and Martinez are capable of doing. Some of the injuries are undoubtedly bad luck, but at some point staying healthy becomes a skill. And it is becoming a bigger and bigger question if either of these two players have that particular skill. The 2011 season will be a make or break year for these perennially injured Mets. A healthy year could put them in contention for a starting job in 2012.

But more of the same could leave them out of the major league picture completely.

The Mets' 2005 Draft and FA signings

The 2005 draft has been very kind to the New York Mets. Five players selected that year have reached the major leagues; the seventh most of all National League clubs, but few of those clubs can match the impact of the Mets draftees: Mike Pelfrey (1st round), Jon Niese (2nd round), Bobby Parnell (9th round) and Josh Thole (13th round). In addition, fifth-round pick Drew Butera was dealt to Minnesota for Luis Castillo on July 27, 2007.

The St. Louis Cardinals and Florida Marlins lead the pack with eight draftees appearing in the majors, but the Washington Nationals are the only NL team to put two ’05 picks into the 2010 rotation, but John Lannan and Craig Stammen aren’t close quality-wise to Pelfrey and Niese.

Below is a list of the numbers of 2005 draftees for each NL club to make the majors along with top contributors from that class.

Arizona Diamondbacks – 4 (Justin Upton, Micah Owings)

Atlanta Braves – 6 (Yunel Escobar, Tommy Hanson)

Chicago Cubs – 1

Cincinnati Reds – 7 (Jay Bruce, Travis Wood)

Colorado Rockies – 1 (Troy Tulowitzki)

Florida Marlins – 8 (Chris Volstad, Gaby Sanchez, Logan Morrison)

Houston Astros – 1

Los Angeles Dodgers – 4 (Luke Hochevar)

Milwaukee Brewers – 6 (Ryan Braun, Andrew Bailey)

Philadelphia Phillies – 5

Pittsburgh Pirates – 3 (Andrew McCutchen)

St. Louis Cardinals – 8 (Colby Rasmus, Jaime Garcia)

San Diego Padres – 8 (Chase Headley, Nick Hundley, Will Venable)

San Francisco Giants – 3 (Sergio Romo)

The ninth pick in the 2005 draft, Pelfrey debuted in the big leagues the following season, and he has won 36 games in the last three years. His 41 career wins by the age of 26 ranks eighth all-time on the Mets list and among 2005 draft picks, Pelfrey ranks second to San Francisco righthander Tim Lincecum in wins (51) and has one more than Tampa Bay righthander Matt Garza.

The sinker-balling Pelfrey is 13-7 this season and has been outstanding except for a seven-start stretch that began in late June; he went 0-4 with a 9.00 ERA and 1.124 OPS. The front office hopes in the near future that Pelfrey will consistently become the guy who is 13-3 with a 2.36 ERA in 19 games this season sandwiched around the slump.

Niese was 8-5 with a 3.33 ERA prior to getting blasted in his last two starts, ballooning his ERA to 3.70. The lefthander is just 2-4 since the All-Star break despite allowing less than three runs in six of 10 starts.

Among high school hurlers selected in the ’05 draft, Niese’s 10 career wins rank fourth, behind Volstad (23), Tommy Hunter (20) of the Texas Rangers and Brian Matusz (12) of the Baltimore Orioles.

Niese is the first Met southpaw since Sid Fernandez in 1986 to make 25 starts and win eight games before the age of 24. At 21, Niese was the ninth youngest player to appear in the major leagues in 2008 and the youngest Met to start since Bill Pulsipher in 1995.

Thole was taken five rounds behind Butera and is one of 10 catchers out of 150 drafted that season to appear in the major leagues. In fact, his .783 career OPS is best of all 10 players, albeit an underwhelming list which includes Hundley, Brett Hayes of the Marlins and Taylor Teagarden of the Rangers. Florida’s Gaby Sanchez and Pittsburgh’s Jeff Clement were drafted as catchers but have since moved to first base.

Todd Hundley in 1992 was the last 23-year-old Mets backstop to play more games than Thole has this season. And for what it’s worth, Thole’s 116 OPS+ is third among NL catchers this season among catchers with 100 plate appearances.

Parnell has power stuff, including a 97 mph fastball and good slider, but he hasn’t really solidified his role as a late-inning reliever.

He started well in that role, and if we take away two outings where he yielded seven runs without getting an out, the 25-year old has allowed two earned runs and 24 hits in 28 1/3 innings. However, he was passed over for closer duties by manager Jerry Manuel after Francisco Rodriguez was shelved for the season with an injury.

Butera, the son of former major league catcher Sal Butera, is backing up Joe Mauer in Minnesota right now and headed toward the postseason.

In addition to the draftees, GM Omar Minaya signed a couple of Latin bonus babies in 2005.

Fernando Martinez has been a perennial top Mets prospect after signing out of the Dominican Republic for $1.4 million in 2005. The oft-injured outfielder, who was ranked as high as No. 20 by Baseball America, went 3-for-18 during a seven-game stint in early August. He was sent back to Class AAA a few weeks ago, suffered a knee injury shortly thereafter and hasn’t played since.

The Mets signed Deolis Guerra to a $700,000 bonus as a 16-year-old from Venezuela, and he was ranked ahead of Niese by Baseball America in its annual Mets top prospect lists that season. Guerra peaked at No. 35 among all prospects after the 2007 season and was part of the Johan Santana deal that offseason.

Despite a 6-5 frame, Guerra’s fastball has never surfaced, and he has had a terrible 2010 campaign. The 21-year-old is 2-13 with a 6.36 ERA and a 1.626 WHIP in 24 games between Class AA and AAA.

Guerra is the only player remaining with Minnesota from the Santana trade.

The Twins dealt outfielder Carlos Gomez to the Milwaukee Brewers for shortstop J.J. Hardy and sent Kevin Mulvey to the Arizona Diamondbacks for fellow righthander Jon Rauch. Another righthander, 2004 first-rounder Philip Humber, never developed in Minnesota and since has left as a six-year minor league free agent and is now with the Kansas City Royals.

Fight to the end

The Mets find themselves in a precarious situation.

After a stellar pitching performance from Mike Pelfrey on Tuesday in which the Mets won 1-0 over the Colorado Rockies, they are again at .500 with a 56-56 record and eight and a half games out of first in the NL East, while seven games out of the wild card.

While the Mets have not instilled a lot of confidence in their fans (especially after coming back home from the Atlanta/Philadelphia road trip only winning two games), there is still no reason to throw in the towel.

While Jim Keller made a compelling argument on Mets360.com Monday, I am not ready to just give in to the youth movement and may go against popular opinion with this post.

Yes, the Mets have grossly underwhelmed the masses and the chances of catching the Braves and the Phillies will be yeomen’s work. However, as a franchise you should not tank the season and should always try to win every game like it’s your last game.

With that said, I want to end the season with dignity and want to go down fighting. The Mets will likely fall short of expectations, but as a fan base, let’s not just give up.

As the once great Met legend Tug McGraw said, “Ya gotta believe!”

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So, while I like the youthful injection that a guy like Ruben Tejada and Fernando Martinez can give the team, I am not yet to write off the season and brush off a possible return of Jason Bay and have Jeff Francoeur just languish on the bench.

I realize that Bay and Francoeur have been terrible for the better part of the year, but it’s not like the Mets can get anything off the trade market of much value for any of their disappointing veterans (including Luis Castillo). So, just run them out there and roll the dice.

Anything can happen. Just look at the 2007 Colorado Rockies for inspiration. On Sept 1, 2007 the Rockies were six games out, and behind two teams in the NL West standings, and made a run all the way to the World Series.

If you examine the Mets roster closely, you’ll notice they have a nice mix of promising youth( Ike Davis, Jon Niese, Josh Thole, Tejada, etc.) and veterans in their prime (David Wright, Jose Reyes, Jason Bay, Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey, Angel Pagan, etc.). With the exception of Castillo and Barajas (both 35), the Mets really don’t have many players whom you can consider over-the-hill and on the downside oft their careers.

Perhaps injuries are taking a toll on Carlos Beltran at age 33, and he can possibly be lumped in with this group , but the only other members on the team over the age of 32 on the team are R.A Dickey (who we can discount for the purposes of this post), Hisanori Takahashi, Henry Blanco, Elmer Dessens and Pedro Feliciano.

These are not a bunch of wounded dogs who need to be put down, but a bunch that needs to be given a new lease on their baseball life.

I know they have burned you before, but if the Mets can get Bay healthy (and who knows when you can expect that) and play up to their capabilities against a slightly less daunting schedule, anything can happen between now and October.

While trying to be optimistic, I do realize the harsh realities of the Mets franchise (shoddy coaching and a bumbling front office), but since when going down fighting ever hurt?

Should Mets throw in the towel?

The New York Mets are taking some serious body blows. Could the towel be coming next?

Only an outstanding effort by Johan Santana prevented the Mets from being swept by the Philadelphia Phillies this weekend.

After failing to win the rubber game on Sunday, New York limps back to Flushing to start a six-game homestand against Colorado and Philadelphia with a 55-56 record, nine games behind Atlanta and 7 ½ back of San Francisco in the wild card. The Mets are under .500 for the first time since May 23 and have played 12 games under .500 since June 27. The homestand begins against 17-2 Ubaldo Jimenez.

The Mets team in Philadelphia this weekend was the same tired and beaten bunch we’ve seen the last six or seven weeks. New York managed just one run through eight innings Friday. Mike Hessman’s meaningless homer in the ninth occurred after eighth-inning men Bobby Parnell and Pedro Feliciano allowed five runs.

The Mets went several innings in each game this weekend without any baserunners and couldn’t get a big hit – both continuous trends. New York didn’t get a hit with runners in scoring position in the 1-0 win on Saturday. After getting four hits Sunday with runners in scoring position to pull within 6-5, the Mets finished 0-for-4 in those situations in the last three frames with Jose Reyes stranding the tying run on third.

With runners in scoring position on Saturday and Sunday, Carlos Beltran went 0-for-5 and David Wright struck out four times with runners in scoring position.

When New York needed a big start Sunday from reliable R.A. Dickey, the knuckleballer got pounded over three innings, and he wasn’t helped by his defense. Beltran misjudged a deep fly ball in the second, resulting in a home run by Jayson Werth. During a five-run third, Beltran went back on a ball before letting it drop in front of him for a single. Reyes booted a routine grounder and Dickey also made a poor throw on a swinging bunt in the deciding frame.

The Mets are bloodied and battered, and it’s finally time to start making some changes, either to revive a punchless club for one last surge or to start preparing for the next battle in 2011.

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The most obvious place to start would be with a new GM and manager. But that doesn’t appear to be on the horizon – at least until season’s end.

The shakeup began instead with Alex Cora. Despite all the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on these prima donnas, Minaya released the one stabilizing influence in the clubhouse, saving the Mets $2 million, Cora’s vesting option for 2011.

Minaya did however start the youth movement, calling up outfielder Fernando Martinez and infielder Ruben Tejada from Class AAA Buffalo.

It’s time to find out if perennial top prospect Martinez is a stud or a dud. The 21-year-old hasn’t lived up to expectations, but should be able to fit into an outfield rotation with Jason Bay, Carlos Beltran, Jeff Francoeur and Angel Pagan. Martinez heated up the past week at Buffalo after recently enduring a 3-for-33 rut. He was hitting .255 with 12 homers and 33 RBI in 68 games this season. He went 1-for-4 on Sunday.

Although he didn’t hit in his first trial, Tejada replaced Luis Castillo at second base this weekend and made four spectacular defensive plays. With the Mets falling out of it, the 20-year-old should be able to relax more with every series and could prove to be a decent hitter. He was hitting .280 with one homer and 16 RBI in the minors.

With Barajas likely one-and-done, New York needs to see if Josh Thole can handle the rigors of catching on an everyday basis? Can he handle the staff, throw out baserunners and hit lefthanders. He did single twice on Sunday off Phils ace Roy Halladay and once off Brad Lidge.

Sure, Hessman has provided five RBI in 13 at-bats, but he’s 32 and won’t be a factor next season – or the rest of this season. Outfielder Jason Pridie is 27 and infielder Chris Turner, 25, are taking up space on the 40-man roster. In addition, righthanded pitching prospects Eddie Kunz and Tobi Stoner, with combined ERAs approaching 6.00, are taking up 40-man rosters spots. So the Mets have some room, but unfortunately not many prospects. However, Class AA third baseman Zach Lutz and outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis have earned September at-bats.

Changes and additions need to be made to the pitching staff. Mike Pelfrey doesn’t look like he’s going to break out of his funk, and Jon Niese should start having his innings cut, so it could be Jenrry Mejia time. We may even have an Oliver Perez spotting. The lefthander hasn’t done it on the mound and has ticked off his teammates, but the Mets are into him for another two years and $24 million so why not try to salvage something.

The 20-year-old Mejia, a victim of a woeful decision by New York to start him in the bullpen, has been stretching out his arm in the minors and is due for a start in the big leagues in the next month.

Martinez, Tejada, Mejia, Nieuwenhuis, injured Class AA second baseman Reese Havens and super 19-year-old shortstop Wilmer Flores represent the new young stable of battlers for the Mets, who can cover up for only so long.

A good trainer knows when to throw in the towel, rethink the game plan and live to fight another day.

Do the Mets?

Platooning Martinez a mistake

With no return date imminent for Jason Bay, the Mets decided to promote Fernando Martinez from Triple-A to help fill Bay’s spot in the lineup. The lefty-hitting Martinez, originally out of the lineup as the Phillies started southpaw Cole Hamels, entered Saturday’s game as part of a double-switch in the eighth inning. Sunday Martinez drew the start and batted sixth against righty Roy Halladay, going 1-for-4.

While it is up for debate if promoting Martinez is a good move, it is a mistake to have him in the majors as a platoon player. Martinez, long the club’s top prospect, has been rushed through the system. Further hindering his development have been constant injuries which have kept him sidelined. Since beginning his professional career in 2006, Martinez has never topped 366 ABs in a season.

This year a hamstring injury sidelined Martinez. His overall numbers at Triple-A Buffalo were underwhelming at .255/.321/.466 but he had been performing much better recently, especially in the power department. Since the All-Star break Martinez had a .547 SLG mark with 5 HR in 64 ABs. In his last 10 games before the promotion, he had a .324/.425/.588 line.

No one doubts Martinez’ tools. Last year he finally started turning those tools into production at Buffalo, where as a 20-year old he had a .290/.337/.540 line in 190 PA. Injuries to the parent club forced a call-up and Martinez again looked overmatched before going on the DL himself, keeping alive his streak of getting injured every season.

Martinez needs to play. While a gifted athlete, Martinez still has many things to work on, ranging from improving his OBP to handling LHP, against whom he batted just .238 this season in Buffalo. In 354 lifetime ABs in the minors against southpaws, Martinez has a .234 AVG and a .689 OPS.

How is Martinez going to improve against lefties if he is sitting against them in the majors? As ill-advised as it was to turn Jenrry Mejia, the club’s top pitching prospect, into a reliever, it is equally head scratching to see the Mets turn Martinez, their top hitting prospect, into a platoon player. And now comes word that manager Jerry Manuel says that it is not a strict platoon, that Jeff Francoeur will play against some RHP instead of Martinez.

It is bad enough that injuries have kept Martinez from getting a full season’s worth of at-bats as a professional. The last thing the Mets need to do is artificially restrict his playing time. If Martinez is not going to play every day, send him back to the minors so he can receive much-needed playing time and experience.

But as bad as limiting Martinez’ playing time is, the idea that the club needs to create more playing time for Francoeur is even worse. I have talked over and over and over again why playing Francoeur is a bad idea. But it keeps being necessary to repeat, as both Manuel and the media continue their respective desires to keep the myth alive that Francoeur is worthy of additional playing time.

Yes, Francoeur has delivered game-winning homers in the last two victories for the Mets. He also has just 11 HR in 348 ABs and a .679 OPS. Omir Santos had some big clutch hits for the Mets last year but they signed every catcher they could in the offseason rather than suffer his .688 OPS again this year. Mets fans were up in arms when the club traded for Gary Matthews Jr. this offseason. He had a .697 OPS for the Angels in 2009. If an outfielder is giving worse production than Santos and Matthews, he really is not good.

The Mets need to commit to playing Martinez full time if he is going to be on the major league roster. Even the most optimistic fan has written off the team’s playoff chances after the 2-9 road trip to start the second half and this past week’s 2-4 showing against the Braves and Phillies. It is better to suffer the growing pains with Martinez rather than the “He’s just not that good” pains they get with Francoeur.

2010 Top Prospects

General manager Omar Minaya has come under a lot of fire for not having more prospects in the farm system ready to step in and contribute when the Mets were hit by all of the injuries last year. There is some validity to that criticism. However, given the condition of the Mets farm system when Minaya took over, the trades of prospects to acquire Johan Santana and J.J. Putz and the team frequently forfeiting its top draft choices to sign Type A free agents, the Mets’ system is in surprisingly good shape.

There are a couple of impact-type players, people with a chance to contribute on a good team and prospects whose main value may come as trade chits. Also, there is more organizational depth than in years. While it is still not one of the top systems in the game, it is in the top half and might even sneak into the bottom of the top third of all farm systems in the majors.

Recently, the Mets had an organizational philosophy of aggressively challenging their top prospects, to see how they would handle failure. This ended up with players at levels way above where their age and talent would normally dictate. The results have not been especially impressive (Ruben Tejada last year a noticeable exception) and it will be interesting to see if this continues now that Tony Bernazard is no longer with the organization.

We should find out right away if there is any change in philosophy. Where will Wilmer Flores and Jefry Marte, two youngsters who struggled in their first exposure to full-season ball, start the year? Ordinarily, we might expect both of them to be in the Hi-A Florida State League, given the team’s aggressive nature. However, they both should repeat the Low-A South Atlantic League, where they still will be young for the league.

Here is how I view the top prospects in the system. The ranking is based primarily on long-term potential impact but a player who has reached Double-A or higher does receive an extra bit of credit. Ranking prospects is as much of an art as it is a science. Everybody has to decide for themselves where they place a player like Flores, who has a world of talent but is several levels away from the majors, compared to a Josh Thole, who has a much lower ceiling, but one who has already played in the majors.

10. Dillon Gee, RHP, International League, 1-3, 4.10 ERA, 42 Ks, 48.1 IP.

Gee would have been in line for a promotion last year but his season ended early with a shoulder injury. The numbers do not look overly impressive but Gee did have a Quality Start in three of his last four games before the injury. He’s not overpowering but he has good control, gets his fair share of grounders and keeps the ball in the park. Gee also holds his own versus LHB. Lefties hit .256 against him last year and have a lifetime .262 AVG against the soon-to-be 24-year old. Both Brad Holt and Jeurys Familia have higher ceilings than Gee but Gee is on the cusp of the majors and may make it as a starter. This time next year it may seem silly to think Gee as more valuable than Holt and Familia. It’s a minority opinion right now. But Holt had a 6.12 ERA in Double-A and Familia needs to prove his stuff will work above Low-A.

9. Kirk Nieuwenhuis, OF, Florida State League/Eastern League, .274/.357/.467

He had 51 XBH in 482 ABs in the FSL and his ISO of .193 tied for the league lead in the pitching-heavy loop. Nieuwenhuis went to an NAIA school so he did not receive the hype of a typical Division I prospect. But he has good power, he can run and he is a good defensive outfielder, capable of playing CF although he may spot better in a corner. If he continues to develop and everything falls right, Nieuwenhuis could be a .250/.350/.450 guy in the majors with 20-HR, 20-SB potential. That’s pretty much the definition of Nate McLouth.

8. Reese Havens, SS, Florida State League, .247/.361/.422

Unlike Nieuwenhuis, Havens went to South Carolina and therefore is considered a better prospect. He definitely has a position advantage, although he will not play SS in the majors. Another hallmark of the Bernazard-era Mets was to leave guys at a premium defensive position as long as possible, even if everyone agreed his future home was elsewhere. David Wright was a high school SS but everyone knew he would become a 3B and the Mets quickly moved him so he could get familiar with his new position. Havens is really a 2B. He has not hit for AVG yet but has showed good on-base and power skills. The other problem has been injuries. Havens needs a healthy season where he hits over .250 or else he will fall off this list completely.

7. Ruben Tejada, SS, Eastern League, .289/.351/.381

As an 18-year old in the FSL, Tejada had a .589 OPS. A year later in Double-A he had a .732 OPS which is just a tremendous improvement. He is never going to hit for power but if he can continue to hone his OBP skills he is going to be a regular in the majors. Assuming the Mets retain Reyes, he will battle Havens for the right to be the starter at 2B. But even if Havens reaches his ceiling and wins the job, Tejada will make a good utility player. Tejada simply has a higher floor than Havens and his upside is 2002-05 era Luis Castillo, who was a 3.5 WAR player.

6. Josh Thole, C, Eastern League/Majors, .321/.356/.396

No one wants to admit the obvious – Thole is going to be a major league catcher, and the sooner that happens the better. People focus on what he (allegedly) cannot do rather than what he brings to the table. A catcher who can hit .300 with a .350 OBP and throw out 20 percent of runners is an asset. No, he is not going to hit for any power. No, he is not going to win Gold Gloves.

But let’s say Thole hits .318, has a .355 OBP and throws out 24% of opposing baserunners. Would you find that acceptable from a catcher? Well, that’s what Paul Lo Duca did in 2006 for the Mets and he made the All-Star team. We saw Thole match those numbers last year in Double-A (he threw out 30% of runners). In his brief time in the majors he hit .321 with a .356 OBP and threw out 33% of runners who tried to steal.

Thole may not hit a HR in 500 ABs (Lo Duca hit a grand total of 5 in his 2006 All-Star season). Let’s say that Thole matches his .396 SLG in the majors last year over a full season of ABs. So, we have a .318/.355/.396 catcher who throws out 33% of his opposing baserunners. Just how bad does his defense have to be to negate that? I would say it would have to be much worse than Mike Piazza at first base, much worse than Castillo at second base, much worse than Shawn Green in right field.

But because rumors of his bad defense far exceed the actual results, the Mets are going to give up 70 points of OBP in the catching spot this season. In 11 years in the majors, Rod Barajas has a .284 OBP. He had a .258 OBP last year, which was the 12th-worst mark of anyone in the majors the last 20 years who had 400 or more PAs. And it’s not like Barajas makes it up in SLG. His .403 mark was hardly better than what Thole did.

The Mets once played Mackey Sasser behind the plate, and he couldn’t even throw the ball back to the pitcher. How bad does Thole’s defense have to be to compete with that? So, before you downgrade Thole because he’s “weak” on defense, take a broader look at the subject. Yes, he gives up some passed balls. Well Bengie Molina gave up 16 passed balls in 2007 but that didn’t stop the Mets from thinking he would be a good defensive catcher.

And the kicker is that Barajas is going to stink up the joint and the Mets are going to call Thole up in the middle of the year. And Thole’s defense is going to be acceptable and his offense is going to be pretty good and people are going to say with a straight face that 75 games of “seasoning” at Triple-A is what turned his defense around.

5. Jon Niese, LHP, International League/Majors, 5-6, 3.82 ERA, 82 Ks in 94.1 IP

Niese got off to a horrible start last year in Buffalo. But in his last eight starts he was 5-1 with a 0.96 ERA with 46 Ks and 13 BB in 56.1 IP. Niese is not overpowering but he throws hard enough (89.5) for a lefty with his type of big curveball. With his lack of dominating stuff, he needs good command to succeed in the majors. In 23 games at Triple-A over parts of two seasons, Niese had a 2.7 BB/9 so he is certainly capable of that. Right now the big concern is how well he returns from last year’s gruesome hamstring injury. Early results are encouraging and he’s a much better candidate for the 5th SP job than Fernando Nieve.

4. Ike Davis, 1B, Florida State League/Eastern League, .309/.386/.565

When showing the numbers for a person who played with multiple teams, I normally pick the squad he played more with and use that one. But for Davis, the above line is from Double-A, because it was so impressive and was very close in PA (255-233) with what he had in Single-A. Davis followed that up with a .341/.394/.565 line in the Arizona Fall League. There is an awful lot to like about Davis but he is not ready for a job in the majors yet. He had a .381 BABIP in the Eastern League last year and he struck out 29% of the time. The MLE calculator at minorleaguesplits.com translates his fine hitting at Double-A to a .233/.294/.403 line in the majors. But he made tremendous progress last season and could certainly become an above-average first baseman, he is supposed to be a good fielder, if everything breaks right.

3. Wilmer Flores, SS, South Atlantic League, .264/.305/.332

Those are some ugly numbers, especially for a guy ranked this high. But they were put up in a full-season league by a 17-year old. Expectations for Flores were through the roof after his .310/.352/.490 in the rookie-level Appalachian League in 2008. He really needs to repeat this level or at least start out the season back in the Sally. This time last year he was being compared to Miguel Cabrera. Not many people are still making that comparison, although it remains his upside. It’s way too soon to panic or give up on Flores. Davis, who had three seasons of college ball under his belt, hit .256/.326/.326 in rookie ball in 2008 and turned it around last year. No one should be surprised when Flores does that in 2010.

2. Jenrry Mejia, RHP, Florida State League/Eastern League, 4-1, 1.97 ERA, 44 Ks in 50.1 IP

This is the player who most consider to be the Mets’ top prospect. Mejia has electric stuff but he was roughed up in both Double-A and the Arizona Fall League last year. There’s talk about having Mejia open the season in the bullpen for New York but that would be a mistake. True, it’s not a bad place to break in a young starter, but Mejia needs innings and it would be nice to see at least one win in Double-A on his resume before he joins the Mets.

1. Fernando Martinez, OF, International League/Majors, .290/.337/.540

For years, Martinez has rated as the club’s top prospect due to his tools and his age. Then last year he finally has some performance to match his reputation and most analysts drop him beneath Mejia. Martinez hit for power and he hit for average. He hit well both at home and on the road. Martinez K/% was just 18.8 percent. But he did poorly in a brief stint with the Mets and got hurt again. Certainly it is alarming the number of times he has been injured and I do believe that there is at least some skill to remaining healthy. But anybody who posts a .250 ISO in Triple-A as a 20-year old is someone special.

Honorable Mention/Names to Remember

Brad Holt, Jeurys Familia, Kyle Allen, Juan Urbina, Steve Matz, Zach Dotson, Jefry Marte, Tobi Stoner.