Jonathon Niese’s return and other questions surrounding Mets rotation

Jonathon Niese is set to throw in another rehab start on Tuesday in either in Brooklyn or Binghamton, and then if that all goes to plan, Niese will then most likely be activated off the DL and perhaps make a start in the Mets’ upcoming 11-game road trip.

So, what does this mean to the Mets’ rotation going forward? We’re not just talking for the rest of the 2013 season, but beyond that as well.

Certainly Niese, the Mets’ 2013 Opening Day starter, will be plugged back into the rotation, as he has become a rotation mainstay. As long as he is healthy (and with partial tear of his rotator cuff, there’s always that concern), Niese will be a starter for the foreseeable future.

Whether it was injury related—and you have to believe it was—or not, Niese has struggled for most of the year, going 3-6 with a 4.32 ERA and 1.61 WHIP in 14 starts. Niese has to showcase down the stretch that he can prove to be healthy and be the formidable middle-of-the-rotation guy the Mets came to depend on.

So when Niese returns (granted he holds up), he will make an already crowded rotation even more jam-packed. The Mets could conceivably have a seven-man rotation, featuring Niese, Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Dillon Gee, Jeremy Hefner, Jenrry Mejia and Carlos Torres.

However, that clearly is not going to happen, and Torres is all but certain to return to the bullpen when Niese returns.

Considering the injury Niese is coming off of and with Harvey and Wheeler on supposed innings limits, this is a time where having a six-man rotation makes perfect sense—especially with the Mets likely out of playoff contention. With rest being at a premium for guys like Niese, Wheeler and Harvey, this seems like an opportune time to roll with a six-man crew.

With Harvey, Wheeler and Niese all but locks (granted no one is traded) to be part of the 2014 staff, this is where things could get interesting.

This means the rest of the 2013 season could be audition time for Gee, Hefner and Mejia.

And when you combine those three with prospects Rafael Montero, Jacob deGrom and eventually Noah Syndergaard, it could be a race for who becomes the fourth and fifth starters with the Mets next year.  It’s starting to look like survival of the fittest in Queens these days.

Granted, this is where Sandy Alderson’s vision and creativity has to come in handy. With a surplus of this much good pitching, he has to deal from an area of strength to bolster the team’s weakness (namely any offensive punch).

With David Wright going down with a hamstring injury on Friday night, it will (as it has basically been all season) be the pitching that will define how the Mets finish out the 2013 season. And with Niese set to return, the staff should only get better going forward—even if complicates things in the process.

A breakout season from Jon Niese is exactly what the Mets need

As we approach the start of the season, the Mets’ pitching staff has to accomplish a lot in order to win the trust of hopeful fans. If there is to be any glimmer of hope for a respectable season, the staff has to not only meet expectations, but most likely exceed them.

One thing that can foster some belief among fans is for Jonathon Niese to have his breakout year and perhaps become the ace of the Mets this year. Niese certainly has the potential to make his mark on this staff

With injury concerns, inconsistencies and several question marks surrounding the Met’s staff -a staff that is void of a true ace- Niese could be the best they got.

Let’s break it down this way:

  • Johan Santana, despite all the physical tools he has, is coming back from a major shoulder surgery and he can’t be conceivably be trusted to pitch upwards of 200 innings this year. Oh, he will be exciting to watch and is still the most talented pitcher on the staff, but counting on him to be your ace comes with a huge amount of risk
  • R.A. Dickey is one of the most stable and dependable arms to trust on the Mets staff. You know what you’re going to get every fifth day with Dickey. Although Dickey’s knuckleball is very deceptive and is constantly fooling hitters, I don’t think it’s fair to label Dickey an ace. Sure, he’s a middle of the rotation, reliable bulldog. But an ace he is not.
  • As for Mike Pelfrey and Dillon Gee, there are just too many unknown factors facing both. Pelfrey has been terribly inconsistent for years (not to mention terrible this spring) while Gee is coming off a second half in 2011 in which he was exposed as probably a mediocre pitcher at best.

So, as you can see the pitcher with the most upside going into the 2012 season is Niese. Niese is pitching admirably this spring (3.98 ERA in 20.1 innings pitched) and is fresh off a solid outing on Wednesday in which he completed six innings while allowing two runs on five hits and one walk while also striking out six batters. In five spring training starts, Niese has 19 strikeouts in 20 innings.

Niese has always teased us with his talent, but he usually comes unhinged in the second half while also being a victim of the injury bug. But if Niese harnesses his talent and puts in a full season of work, then by the end of the year, Niese can legitimately lay claim to perhaps being the Mets’ ace.

The talent has always been there with him. Niese has always had a great strikeout to walk ratio but yet is one of the unluckiest pitchers in baseball if you factor in his FIP (he had a 3.40 FIP last year with a 4.40 ERA).

In 65 career games (64 starts), Niese has compiled a 22 and 23 record to go along with a modest 4.39 ERA. Niese has always dazzled us with his buckling curveball. Now he is working with a full repertoire of pitches (not to mention a new nose) to keeps hitters off balance this year.

Judging from his peripherals, and as long as he stays healthy, Niese is primed for a breakout year. Considering the question marks surrounding the Mets’ rotation, a breakout season by Niese couldn’t come at a more ideal time.

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Dreadful offense dooms July

After a terrific June in which the team went 18-8, the Mets followed up with a brutal July, in which they posted a dismal 9-17 record. Everyone points to the 2-9 road trip that opened up the second half of the season but the bad play started before the break, when the Mets went 2-4 in a six-game homestand. And the road trip could have been a bit more respectable save for a terrible record in one-run games. The Mets went 1-5 in one-run games on their West Coast swing.

The Good

The entire Mets’ staff had a 3.58 ERA in July and deserved a better fate than a .346 winning percentage. Johan Santana was the only pitcher with a Won-Loss record to match his stats. He went 3-0 with a 2.06 ERA in the month. And his ERA was only that high due to a meltdown versus the Cardinals in his last start in July, It appears the new Santana will give the Mets a chance to win nearly every time out, but when he’s off, he will get beat around pretty bad.

R.A. Dickey continued to pitch like an All-Star, as he posted a 1.51 ERA with a 2.67 K/BB ratio in six games covering 41.2 innings. Yet somehow he had a 1-2 record in July. Jonathon Niese fared a little better as his 2.48 ERA and 3.86 K/BB ratio translated into a 2-2 record. Niese is quietly having a terrific rookie season and in a normal year he would be one of the frontrunners for the Rookie of the Year Award.

Only one hitter had an outstanding month for the Mets and few should be surprised it was Angel Pagan. He posted a .337/.402/.594 slash line in July. He also scored 15 runs and was successful on 9 of his 10 SB attempts. Remember when Pagan was not good enough to start on Opening Day? Or how about when people thought that he should go to the bench when Carlos Beltran returned? Do you recall when some thought he should platoon with Jeff Francoeur? Hopefully all of that nonsense has been permanently put to bed.

Ike Davis had 6 HR, 18 RBIs and 13 runs. He also batted .214 with a .287 OBP and struck out a team-leading 28 times. David Wright batted .296 with 14 RBIs and 13 runs. He also had just a .797 OPS. Josh Thole had a .426 OBP and even hit a HR while choking up more than anyone since Felix Millan. Alleged to be a defensive liability, Thole now is the personal catcher for Dickey, the toughest pitcher on the staff to catch.

The Bad

The Mets had a .227/.293/.353 slash line for July. Pretty much every hitter besides Pagan deserves some sort of mention in this section. Beltran got off to a slow start in his return from the DL, as he had a .204/.313/.333 mark in 15 games. At least he seems healthy enough to be on the field and has 2 doubles, a triple, a HR and 9 BB in 64 PA.

Second base was a vortex of suck for the month. Luis Catillo led the way with a .545 OPS in 46 PA. Alex Cora was even worse with a .161/.203/.250 line in 59 PA. And bringing up the rear was Ruben Tejada with a .108/.244/.108 ledger in 47 PA. But at least he can use the defense that he is only 20 years old. When Castillo was 20, he did not fare much better with a .625 OPS in 180 PA with the Marlins. Cora had a .623 OPS in the Hi-A Florida State League at the same age.

Pedro Feliciano gets his name called on a regular basis but has not been good for awhile. In July he was 0-3 with a 5.23 ERA with 7 BB in 10.1 IP. Feliciano wants to be an all-purpose reliever but he is still best utilized as a situational lefty. This year RHB have an .875 OPS against him. But against LHB, Feliciano has a .238/.307/.338 line despite a .322 BABIP.

The Ugly

Jeff Francoeur batted .132 with a .206 slugging mark in 73 PA. He is hitless in his last 15 at-bats and is making the club long for the return of Jason Bay, who posted a .194/.266/.250 line before being sidelined with a concussion.

Teflon Mike Pelfrey went 0-3 with a 10.02 ERA in the month but continues to get a free ride from most of the faithful. In 20.2 IP, Pelfrey allowed 13 BB and notched just 10 Ks. Last year after the All-Star break, Pelfrey had a 5.67 ERA yet remained in the rotation because he was the only one healthy. Hopefully Manuel will not hesitate to remove him in 2010 if he continues to pitch this poorly. Pat Misch is 10-4 with a 3.24 ERA at Triple-A. Realistically, Misch is not a long-term answer, but he would give the club a better chance to win games right now than Pelfrey.

***

Most fans were disappointed that the Mets stood still at the deadline. It has typically been the M.O. of general manager Omar Minaya to make his big moves in the offseason, so it should not be a surprise. Plus, there continue to be rumors that the Mets were unable to add payroll, further limiting the moves that Minaya might make.

The team is on the fringe of playoff contention, 6.5 games back both in the NL East and the Wild Card standings. Given their position, it would have been questionable at best to acquire a mid-rotation starter at big money for a long-shot playoff berth. The Mets will have to play the guys they have and hope that the offense can bounce back. There are still 22 games left against the Braves and Phillies, so the Mets might have a better shot at the division title than the Wild Card.

Road sweep is latest good thing

The Orioles are not very good.

But it counts when the Yankees and Red Sox beat them and it counts when the Mets do the same. And given the team’s poor road record this year, the three-game sweep in Baltimore was met with open arms. Perhaps most encouraging was how the sweep was a total team effort. The hitters tallied 19 runs in the three games, all three starting pitchers recorded a win and the bullpen usage was both sensible and effective.

Jose Reyes went 6-13 with a double and home run.
David Wright matched Reyes by going 6-13 but had two doubles, two homers and 7 RBIs/
Chris Carter hit two 3-run homers
Jason Bay broke an 0-16 stretch with a 4-4 day Sunday, including a homer to straight away center field.
Alex Cora delivered three hits and two RBIs.
R.A. Dickey ran his record to 4-0 and set a career-high with 8 Ks.
Hisanori Takahashi bounced back from two rough starts to go a season-high 7 IP and allowed just 1 ER.
Mike Pelfrey battled to win his team-high ninth game of the year.
The bullpen allowed just 1 R in 7 IP and had a scoreless inning from both Ryota Igarashi and Raul Valdes, two pitchers who had struggled as of late.

The Mets are now 35-28, a season-high seven games over .500 after going 8-1 in their last nine games. The Mets have outscored their opponents 43-21 in that stretch. The team’s starting pitchers have notched six wins in that span, including two each by Dickey and Jon Niese. Overall the starters have 7 QS in the last nine games and have a 2.25 ERA in that time period.

So many things are going right for the Mets, reminiscent from earlier in the year when they went 10-1. The key going forward is to determine what is merely a hot streak unlikely to last and what moves can the team make to improve.

Reyes and Wright are unlikely to continue to hit .462 with a .923 slugging mark. The offense should look to see where it can improve to pick up the slack. By far the easiest move is to incorporate a platoon in right field where Jeff Francoeur starts against LHP and Carter starts against RHP. Here are their stats this season when they have the platoon advantage:

Francoeur – .370/.426/.481 in 61 PA vs LHP
Carter – .281/.324/.563 in 34 PA vs RHP

Francoeur has a .695 OPS versus righties this year, which is right in line with what he has done in his career against them. Lifetime Francoeur has a .258/.299/.410 line against RHP in 2,269 PA. Perhaps Carter is not really likely to put up an .887 OPS versus righties over an entire season. However, it is quite likely that Francoeur will put up that .695 mark. Even if Carter drops 100 points of OPS from here on out, he is still a better option at the plate than Francoeur against RHP.

There is not a whole lot else to be done offensively. The Mets have to hope that Bay will produce the power that he has every other year in the majors when he has been healthy. They have to hope that the catching tandem of Rod Barajas and Henry Blanco can keep hitting homers. And finally they have to hope that Ike Davis can keep providing a power threat from the left hand site of the plate. Davis is batting just .227 vs RHP but does have 5 of his 7 HR against righties. Overall the Mets are slugging 48 points higher against LHP than RHP, another reason they need Carter’s bat in the lineup.

Starting pitching-wise, the Mets have to assume that Pelfrey is for real at this point. Now they have to determine what they can realistically expect from Niese, Dickey and Takahashi going forward. Can the Mets go .500 when those three guys are on the mound? Here’s how it has broken down so far:

Niese – 10 starts, 6-4
Dickey – 5 starts, 4-1
Takahashi – 5 starts, 3-2

So far, so good, as the Mets have gone 13-7 in games started by these three pitchers at the end of the rotation. At this point, the Mets are committed to Niese, so the question becomes should they have the same commitment to Dickey and Takahashi? Should John Maine go back into the rotation when he comes back and should the team actively pursue a SP on the trade market?

Personally, I believe both pitchers have done enough to keep getting the ball every five days. I am not thrilled with the idea of John Maine, reliever, but that is where I would pitch him when he came back. I would not pursue a trade for a SP until Maine got a chance in the rotation, and perhaps not even then, if Maine came back and was effective.

If nothing else this week, we learned that Kevin Millwood is not an upgrade and that the club should not pursue him in any way, shape or form. A true upgrade like Cliff Lee or Roy Oswalt probably costs more than the Mets are willing to commit at this point. I would be thrilled to see either pitcher on the team, but here in mid-June, neither seems like a realistic option. A month from now we could be singing a different tune.

And finally we have the bullpen. Jerry Manuel seems to have lost his obsession with pitching Fernando Nieve in every game. Francisco Rodriguez has been solid as the closer and Pedro Feliciano has been good against LHB and tolerable against RHB. Hopefully Igarashi and Valdes are back on the right track and Elmer Dessens can continue to give quality innings.

Are the 2010 Mets still best served having Nieve and Jenrry Mejia in the bullpen at this point? I like having a pitcher who can come in and throw gas. Now that Nieve is not pitching every day, he can still dial it up to the mid-90s and Mejia can go even faster than that. I still say that both of these guys should have been in the minors as SP this season. But at this point, one of them is needed in the pen. Pick one, make him the designated gas thrower and send the other back to the minors to be a SP. Manny Acosta or Bobby Parnell or Pat Misch can come up and throw the lowest-leverage innings in the pen in their place.

The Mets are on pace to win 90 games right now. When you factor in the banishment of Oliver Perez (Mets were 1-6 in his starts), the potential return of Carlos Beltran and a few easy moves at the major league level, the Mets could even squeak out a few more wins if everything breaks right.

This is a team that should score runs, has starting pitchers who give the team a chance to win every night and a bullpen that can be effective if the manager does not decide to overwork guys for no reason. Obviously they have a huge home field advantage and if they can win a few games on the road, this could be a playoff team.

The Phillies are finding out that it is no fun when your catalyst is on the disabled list. While the Mets scuffled without Reyes last year, the Phillies are 23-26 when Jimmy Rollins does not play. Last year Philadelphia got a huge boost when three pitchers not in its rotation on Opening Day (Happ, Lee, Martinez) combined to go 24-9 (.727). This year it is the Mets who are healthier and it is the Mets getting the unexpected SP boost. Dickey and Takahashi are 9-2 (.818).

The last three seasons, the expectations were for the Mets to make the playoffs and each time they fell short in excruciating fashion. This year there was virtually no talk of the playoffs. So, this is payback time for the fans. Now we get to sit back and enjoy things. This is a team that has had its share of bad breaks yet still finds itself in the playoff hunt.

It is time to get on the bandwagon.

Niese rewards Minaya's faith

This offseason everyone criticized Omar Minaya for not picking up at least one starting pitcher. I advocated for the club to sign John Lackey, and after he inked a deal with the Red Sox, I suggested the club pick up Jon Garland. Some people thought that the Mets needed to add two starting pitchers but no one, other than Minaya, thought the Mets should stand pat with their starting rotation.

Through the first 28 games, Minaya appears to have made the right call. Now, it is very early and things could easily look different by the end of the month, but if you are going to criticize an individual when you think he is wrong, you better be ready to congratulate him if he is right. According to Baseball-Reference.com Mets starting pitchers are allowing 3.79 R/G, the fourth-best mark in the National League. They are tied for sixth in the league with a 46% Quality Start percentage. The team’s starters have posted nine wins (exactly league average) despite having below-average run support. The NL average is 4.7 rpg and the Mets’ starters have received 3.9 rpg.

If the Mets did add a pitcher via free agency this year, he likely would have replaced Jon Niese in the rotation. While many fans wanted Oliver Perez out, his contract made it unlikely that he would not start the season as one of the Mets’ five starters. So, let’s take a look at Niese and some of the free agent pitchers available to the Mets this offseason and see how they stack up a month into the year.

Niese – 1-1, 3.60 ERA, 29 Ks, 12 BB in 35 IP, 4.06 xFIP
Davis – 1-3, 8.13 ERA, 28 Ks, 12 BB in 27.2 IP, 4.00 xFIP
Garland – 3-2, 2.06 ERA, 23 Ks, 20 BB in 35 IP, 4.68 xFIP
Harden – 2-1, 3.52 ERA, 31 Ks, 23 BB in 30.2 IP, 5.70 xFIP
Lackey – 3-1, 3.89 ERA, 21 Ks, 14 BB in 37 IP, 4.78 xFIP
Marquis – 0-3, 20.52 ERA, 3 Ks, 6 BB in 8.1 IP, 6.58 xFIP
Myers – 1-2, 3.60 ERA, 29 Ks, 11 BB in 40 IP, 3.64 xFIP
Padilla – 1-1, 7.06 ERA, 23 Ks, 6 BB in 21.1 IP, 3.90 xFIP
Penny – 3-2, 1.99 ERA, 24 Ks, 8 BB in 40.2 IP, 3.86 xFIP
Pineiro – 2-4, 5.30 ERA, 21 Ks, 8 BB in 35.2 IP, 3.88 xFIP
Sheets – 1-3, 7.12 ERA, 16 Ks, 16 BB in 30.1 IP, 5.63 xFIP
Wolf – 2-2, 3.86 ERA, 27 Ks, 16 BB in 37.1 IP, 4.48 xFIP

There is not one pitcher on that list head and shoulders above Niese, and when you add in that Niese is making considerably less than any other pitcher mentioned above, it looks in early May like a win for Minaya.

I take particular delight in the head-to-head comparison with Pineiro. Many people wanted the Mets to sign Pineiro and considered him the top pitcher available once Lackey went off the board. Pineiro ended up signing a two-year, $16 million deal with the Angels. Niese is making minimum wage ($402,000) with the Mets this year.

After Pineiro had an impressive outing against the Yankees early this season, writers were up in arms over the Mets’ failure to bring him aboard. As an example, Justin Terranova of the New York Post wrote on April 15th, “The Mets would have a legitimate No. 2 starter — and Pineiro looked pretty good in The Bronx yesterday, didn’t he? Why is he with the Angels and not the Mets?” Another example is a post on Bleacher Report about Pineiro on April 16th which concluded, “Bottom line, whoever was at fault for not getting a deal done, it was a mistake on the Mets’ end.”

In the offseason, I wrote about Pineiro, “While the research done by R.J. Anderson indicates that Pineiro is likely to maintain his increase in ground balls, there is virtually no chance that he will keep a 6.5 percent HR/FB rate over an entire season. When he struggled the final two months of the season, Pineiro had a 12.5 percent HR/FB mark in August and an 11.6 percent mark in September, neither one an outrageous number. And Pineiro still had outstanding control in those two months, with a 1.39 BB/9 ratio. He is unlikely to allow such few walks next year and combined with the greater HR rate, it has the potential for disaster.”

Pineiro currently has a 15.6 HR/FB rate, which is on the high side, but no more so than his 6.5 rate last year was on the low side. His BB rate of 2.02 per nine innings is outstanding, yet up from his 1.14 mark in 2009.

We are roughly 1/6 of the way through the season so it is too soon to declare winners or losers. I do not think anyone expects Brett Myers to have the lowest xFIP of the 12 pitches listed by the end of the year. But since the Minaya bashers were out in full force not even two weeks into the season, it seems only fair to throw both Minaya and Niese a little support today.

2010 Predictions

As I write this Opening Day is already underway. However, I have the MLB.tv DVR ready and I have yet to watch any of the action. So, here are my predictions for the 2010 New York Mets:

Josh Thole comes up before September to be the everyday catcher.

Daniel Murphy comes back to post an OPS of .825 or above.

Luis Castillo suffers very little or no falloff from 2009, again posting a wOBA of .330 or above.

David Wright tops 25 HR

Jose Reyes plays in 140 games

Jason Bay gets 110 RBIs

Carlos Beltran comes back by May 15th

Jeff Francoeur reaches 20 HR for the first time since 2006

Johan Santana makes the All-Star team

John Maine pitches over 175 IP

Mike Pelfrey gets sent to the bullpen

Jon Niese wins the second most games on the staff.

Oliver Perez has an ERA under 4.50

Francisco Rodriguez saves 40 games

Jenrry Mejia gets sent back to the minors and goes back to being a SP

What are your predictions for the 2010 season?

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.