Kirk Nieuwenhuis: What role does he have in 2013?

The Mets need outfield help. You, I and the family pet all know this much. It’s so obviously evident, that the Mets should post a Craigslist ad asking for outfield help!

One current Mets’ outfielder who stands a decent chance of cracking the starting rotation is Kirk Nieuwenhuis.

Scott Hairston and Andres Torres are likely gone (especially Torres), as they are soon to be free agents. We are also in limbo as to what to do with Jason Bay. Will he get cut; will he start (hopefully not) or will he be permanently glued to the bench in the final year of his contract? Mike Baxter is a good reserve and pinch-hitting extraordinaire but nothing more. And lastly, it’s readily apparent that the Mets want nothing to do with Lucas Duda in the outfield anymore.

So, that leaves Nieuwenhuis as perhaps the only capable outfielder in the system who could be of any use to the Mets in 2013. (The Mets have also stated their desire to move Jordany Valdespin to utility infield spot)

However, some questions still arise concerning the future of Nieuwenhuis. Where exactly do you put him in the outfield? Do you take a risk and avoid all trade overtures and free agent possibilities and pencil in Nieuwenhuis as your everyday center fielder? After all, the Mets don’t really have other internal possibilities for center field. Outside of Matt den Dekker, who is still very raw and in need of more seasoning, you may have to put Nieuwenhuis in center by default.

Or do you perhaps put Nieuwenhuis in either left or right field and hope you strike gold in acquiring a legit center fielder before opening day?

Either way, Nieuwenhuis is an enigma and his future role with this squad is murky.

Nieuwenhuis enjoyed a fine start upon being called up in early April and had Mets’ fans excited about how he played the game. Nieuwenhuis is your ultimate gamer. He plays with a balls-to the-wall attitude and that’s something Mets’ fans appreciate.

Is that enough though? While Nieuwenhuis plays the field well and has above-average speed, his batting skills still leave a lot to be desired.

For the first two months of the season, Nieuwenhuis was looking like a capable hitter and as late as June 3 he was batting .301. However, it went all downhill from there. Opposing pitchers caught up with Nieuwenhuis and he was exposed. Nieuwenhuis had trouble catching up with good fastballs and was continuously chasing after too many pitches. After striking out three times and lowering his batting average to .252 in a game at Arizona on July 28, Nieuwenhuis was optioned to Buffalo the next day.

Things did not get much better for Nieuwenhuis in Buffalo, as his season was cut short in late August when he went down with a partially torn plantar fascia in his right foot. The good news is that he did not need surgery. The bad news is that Nieuwenhuis simply can never stay healthy and is too strikeout prone to most fans’ liking.

It’s really doubtful that the Mets will completely overhaul the outfield (meaning replace the whole outfield), so someone on the current Mets roster has to be counted on.

Nieuwenhuis will be given his shot, but he has to work hard in the offseason and have a good spring training in order to restore the faith some have in him. It wasn’t that long along we were singing the praises of this gritty ballplayer, but his flaws are too hard to ignore. Nieuwenhuis has to make a lot of adjustments before he can become a trusted member of the outfield.

Nieuwenhuis is a big wild card for the Mets. What do you they have in him? Is he a starter or a fourth outfielder? This is something the Mets will have to answer and weigh very carefully in the offseason.

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Kirk Nieuwenhuis and the strikeout issue

Coming into the 2012 season, I had Kirk Nieuwenhuis rated as the #5 prospect in the farm system, ahead of both Wilmer Flores and Cesar Puello. I have been a Nieuwenhuis backer long before that, too, having ranked him in 2011 (#5 prospect) and 2010 (#9 prospect). I was excited when he got the call to the majors and thrilled when he did well right off the bat.

But the simple fact is that he has been at best average since mid May. Over his last 38 games, covering 127 PA, Nieuwenhuis has a .252/.291/.412 line. That’s a touch below average production but it comes with a .325 BABIP. Perhaps even more importantly, it comes with Nieuwenhuis enjoying the platoon advantage in the great majority of his trips to the plate.

The lefty has an .821 OPS versus RHP and a .550 OPS versus southpaws. It’s not surprising that he has struggled mightily against lefties. What does come as a shock is how poorly he has done recently since Terry Collins moved to shield him from LHP. In his last eight games, Nieuwenhuis has 23 PA. Without actually going through and counting, my guess is that at least 20 (and perhaps all) of those came against RHP.

Nieuwenhuis did not start against lefties Brian Matusz, Andy Pettitte, C.C. Sabathia and Travis Wood. And when the Orioles brought in lefty Dana Eveland as a reliever, Collins pinch-hit for his young center fielder.

So, without having the torture of facing LHP, Nieuwenhuis has a .130/.130/.261 mark. It’s a slump and every hitter has them throughout a long season. But what makes this slump stand out even more is that in 23 PA, Nieuwenhuis has struck out 13 times. That’s a 57 percent strikeout rate.

That type of whiff percentage would be understandable if Nieuwenhuis went through a stretch where he faced Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Gio Gonzalez. But not only did he not face those lefties with a high strikeout rate – he essentially did not face any lefties at all.

Up to a point, strikeouts are no worse than any other out and for power hitters they can be the cost of doing business. But once a batter’s K% reaches 25 percent, red flags should be going off that they are an issue.

Of the 25 players with a 25 percent or greater K rate, Dan Uggla has the highest fWAR with a 2.4 mark. WAR is a type of counting stat, so 2.4 before the All-Star break is a pretty good total. However, 30 batters have exceeded that mark so far in 2012. David Wright is second in MLB with a 4.4 fWAR.

Wright has really cut down on his strikeouts from a season ago. Last year, Wright had a 1.9 fWAR in 447 PA, as he had a 21.7 K%. This year, in 144 fewer PA, Wright’s fWAR is 2.5 wins higher, due in no small part to his K% dropping to 12.9 percent. Now, Wright has improved greatly in his fielding, too, so we cannot attribute all of his success to his drop in strikeouts. But Wright was an MVP candidate the years his K% was in the mid teens. The past three years when his strikeout rate was over 20 percent each year, he was not one of the elite players in the game.

Nieuwenhuis has the fifth-worst strikeout rate in the majors, with a 29.3 K%. He’s been remarkably productive given his K rate, as only four players with a strikeout rate of 25% or greater have a higher fWAR than Nieuwenhuis’ 1.4 here in 2012. But the Mets’ rookie has posted that mark with a .382 BABIP, which is an unsustainable rate.

When the hits stop falling in at such a high rate, the crash is going to be ugly. What we’ve seen in the last eight games is already not pretty. You can live with a 10-day slump like what Nieuwenhuis is going through now. What I fear is that instead of breaking out of it in the immediate future that instead we may be in store for a slump of Ike Davis-like proportions.

The Mets called up Nieuwenhuis earlier than they wanted this year when Andres Torres hit the DL. Torres is back now but has not hit enough to unseat Nieuwenhuis and reclaim his starter’s job. But he might inherit the starter’s job by default if Nieuwenhuis continues to strike out in more than half of his at-bats.

Andres Torres versus Kirk Nieuwenhuis

Well the Mets certainly had an interesting series in Denver this weekend. They got smoked in the first game losing 18-9, they were down twice in the second game but won 7-5, and today after blowing a 4-0 lead for Johan Santana, they won in extra innings 6-5 in spite of the bullpen’s worst efforts. As a typical series at Coors Field, the offense enjoyed the visit, and the pitching did not (except for Johan).

Now the Mets will had to Houston to take on one of the worst teams in baseball. If you’re the Mets the goal has to be to sweep, but they need to win at least two out of three. And as interesting as the series in Denver was, the series in Houston will be interesting for a different reason.

After the game today the Mets optioned Zach Lutz back down to the minors in order to make room for Andres Torres. He’s been on the DL since April 6th with a strained right calf, an injury he dealt with during Spring Training, and re-injured on Opening Day.

When Torres went down it was definitely a blow for the Mets, but Kirk Niewenhuis made the situation much better. He came in and immediately had a positive impacted on the club. Now Torres, who was suppose to be the center fielder and lead-off hitter for this team, comes back to see a guy who is thieving in the role he left.

The Mets need to decided three things now between Torres and Kirk: 1) who will play center field 2) who will hit lead-off and 3) where will the other player hit in the line-up. The whole situation is made easier by the fact that Jason Bay is not in the picture. If he was, then Terry Collins would have a much bigger bag of problems. He will have to deal with it eventually, but for now he can put it off.

So let’s address the questions now. My vote is for Kirk in center. Now I don’t think he is a better fielder then Torres, they are both very, very, good. The reason I go with Kirk is that Torres is coming off the injury, and in left field he wouldn’t have to cover as much ground, thus easing him back into action. Torres should reclaim his position as the team’s lead-off hitter though. Now there is the question of where to bat Kirk. There is really no easy answer. The line-up will probably look something like this for tomorrow:

Torres (S) – Tejada (R) – Murphy (L) – Wright (R) – Duda (L) – Davis (L) – Niewenhuis (L) – Thole (L)

The problem is that there are four lefties at the end of the line-up. Also, Kirk has to adjust from being a run manufacture to a run producer in that number seven hole.

The thing I don’t understand is hearing people not wanting Torres to come back into the line-up and that he is a fourth outfielder. First off, he hasn’t even really played this year so you have to give him a shot. Second, these people clearly didn’t watch Spring Training, and forgot all the great things he was doing down in the Florida. I know if doesn’t count, but you have to give him some credit. I even read somewhere that they should play Mike Baxter in favor of Torres.

It’s weird to see all his negativity towards Torres’ return when he will bring three things to the table that the Mets have been lacking; speed,  a right-hand bat, and defense. Anyway you look at it Torres returning to the Mets line-up is a good thing. The real question will be what to do when Bay comes back. I’m sure at this point most Mets fans would rather have Baxter than Bay.

Kirk Nieuwenhuis is Mets’ best option for leading off

Terry Collins moved Captain Kirk to the leadoff spot on Wednesday against the Braves.  Kirk went 3 for 4 with 3 runs scored, an RBI and a stolen base.  Those dividends and Kirk’s blistering .375 batting average are not things that we can expect day in and day out from him, but lacking a natural leadoff hitter, he might be the best option the Mets have on the roster.  I would venture that, at least, when the starter is a righty Kirk Nieuwenhuis is the best option the Mets have for the top of their order.

Andres Torres – He is certainly the fastest option the Mets have readily at their disposal.  He’s a switch hitter and he has a little power and he’ll score runs but there is a fatal flaw in Torres’ game that keeps him from slotting in as a natural leadoff candidate, On Base Percentage.  His Career OBP in the majors is .318 and though that isn’t helped by a career .243 BA neither is the argument for him leading off.  A leadoff hitter needs to be on base as closed to 40% of the time as possible… or better.  Andres is never going to be that guy.  In fact, his power and switch hitting lend himself slightly better to the later order than others.

Ruben Tejada – The young shortstop is winning me over game by game and I’ll concede that he can be a leadoff hitter or a number two hitter in the Met lineup.  However, he’s not there yet.  The other issue is that Tejada really isn’t fast.  He can run and steal the occasional base but it’s not like I’d bank on him reaching double digits in the majors.  You want the player leading off to be able to move himself along the bases on occasion and I’m not sure that is really in Ruben’s arsenal.

Kirk Nieuwenhuis – 2011 was the breakout year for Kirk Nieuwenhuis’ OBP.  He jumped from sitting around .350 to a .400 OBP and while that jump was sudden it was helped in most ways by a healthy jump in BA.  On average his OBP has rested approximately 70 points higher than his BA and that isn’t too shabby.  In terms of speed and power I really think where he hits will factor in.  Leading off, I could see Nieuwenhuis stealing 20 bases, especially with Murphy, Tejada or Wright hitting after him.  Hitting later in the order the speed takes a hit and the power gets a boost but the important thing with Kirk is that he has good At Bats and works the count.

You can talk about Jordany Valdespin a little but unless Tejada is hurt, he’s not really an option and he needs to continue (He’s on his way) to improve his plate discipline before I’d want him leading off.  With this in mind I think that Terry Collins would be wise to leave Captain Kirk at the front of the Met lineup… even when Torres comes back.

What should we expect out of Kirk Nieuwenhuis?

Well, that didn’t take long.

It took only seven innings into the 2012 season for the Mets to suffer the injury bug, as centerfielder Andres Torres strained his calf-the same calf that bothered him all spring-in the seventh inning of Thursday’s opener vs. the Braves. As a result, Torres is now headed to the 15-day DL.

Torres has long been victimized by injuries, so I guess this was his initiation to the Mets, who themselves (as well know) have been snake bit by injuries.

Now the Mets will call on Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who perhaps not so coincidentally has his own issues with staying healthy (recently battling an oblique injury this spring), to take over Torres role as the team’s center fielder. Is “Captain Kirk” ready for the spotlight?

First off, Nieuwenhuis is no savior or that highly touted of a prospect. What he is though is the Mets most logical choice to take over center field. Nieuwenhuis has the athleticism and strength to make up for the loss of Torres.

Nieuwenhuis, who was taken in the third round of the 2008 draft, is a former running back in high school and a player Mets’ fans have been clamoring for a while. You know that Nieuwenhuis is going to give a full-out effort. Admittedly, I don’t know a whole lot about him, but he certainly sounds like he has the intangibles to make an impact and an impression amongst fans. You know, in the same way Mookie Wilson and Lenny Dykstra did in the mid-80’s. Nieuwenhuis is a jack-of-all-trades type player; one who is solid in most aspects of the game, but not great.

While not blessed with great power, Nieuwenhuis is said to have good gap power and uses all parts of the field. Most scouts claim him as a player with average to just above average speed but  one who knows how to run the bases well.

To ease him into the lineup, Terry Collins will likely bat Nieuwenhuis seventh or eighth, which could be conducive for him to succeed right off the bat.

Nieuwenhuis, though, definitely needs to get routine playing time as to not stunt his growth as a player. Collins has said he may platoon Nieuwenhuis, a lefty, with veteran Scott Hairston. That could be a bad idea since we should all see what Nieuwenhuis can do up here.

The Mets should give Torres all the time in the world to recover this time while giving Nieuwenhuis an extended look. Considering many project him as the center fielder of the future, Nieuwenhuis needs as many at-bat as possible.

So, while you should expect some growing pains from Nieuwenhuis, he should at least pump some enthusiasm into the fanbase. Nieuwenhuis will be your prototypical bulldog who will hustle and scrap his way into Mets’ fans hearts. Think of him as a better, vastly more-productive and seasoned Chris Carter. A good comparison could be Aaron Rowand.

Let the “Captain Kirk” era begin!

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Prospect profile: Kirk Nieuwenhuis

Full Name: Kirk Robert Nieuwenhuis

Born: 08/07/1987

Birthplace: Santa Monica, CA

College: Azusa Pacific

Height: 6′ 3″

Weight: 215

Bats: L

Throws: R

Drafted by the New York Mets in the 3rd round of the 2008 MLB June Amateur Draft.  The Mets are expected to recall Kirk Nieuwenhuis today to replace the injured Andres Torres (calf) on the active roster.

What’s To Like:  There are lots of things to like about Captain Kirk.  One is that he’s a big guy with some power who still generates enough speed and range to hold his own in center field.  He might not ever hit more than 20 HRs or steal over 20 bases but the combination is plenty to feel good about.  The other two key positives are his contact which has been a steady feather in his cap since 2008 (his first year in the Met system) and his eye which is solid and contributes to above average OBP numbers.

What’s Not To Like:  Scouts point to his body and question his longevity in center.  When you compare him to players like Matt Den Dekker and Darrell Ceciliani, there is no question he’s the weakest defensively.  That isn’t to say he can’t cut muster at the position and provide more than enough pop to survive in the bigs… at least until someone else were ready.  He was on a roll in 2011 and has picked up with 2 walks in 2012 but his history does give you pause in relation to his swing and miss numbers.  He could easily right that ship and get his numbers back up where they belong.  The last chink in the armor is health.  He was injured for a lot of 2011 and spent time on the shelf this spring as well so we need to be cautious with a player who might be a little on the fragile side.

2012: This is Kirk’s year.  Andres Torres has the starting job but Kirk can do a lot to earn a place as a Met regular in the next two weeks.  Mets could look to platoon him with Bay or even install him as the everyday guy in center with Torres being the super-sub in the OF.  While he doesn’t project as a leadoff hitter long-term, I think he’s equipped for the role in the short-term.

Mets Minors: End of season wrap-up

The regular season for Mets minor leaguers ended on Labor Day and the Class A St. Lucie Mets were eliminated in the championship series of the Florida State League playoffs and Savannah is one win away from a low Class A title in the South Atlantic League. With the offseason quickly approaching, now is a good time to take a snap shot of the prospects the Mets will be counting on in coming seasons.

The top storyline in the Mets farm system this season has to be Matt Harvey, the 2010 first-rounder who got off to a great start at St. Lucie and ended the season at Class AA Binghamton. He looks on pace to join the Mets late next season and perhaps the rotation full-time by 2013.

Easily the biggest surprise in the organization is 23-year-old shortstop Jordany Valdespin, who hit a combined .294/.333/.460 at Class AA and AAA with 32 doubles, three triples, 17 homers and 37 stolen bases. While the lefthanded hitter played shortstop this season, making 32 errors, he has a lot of experience at second base and could fill the long-lasting void at that position.

However, no matter how pleased the front office could be over Harvey and Valdespin, frustrations must continue to grow over its top pitching and hitting prospect entering the season. The elbow injury suffered by Jenrry Mejia was a huge blow to the organization, stunting the growth of the 21-year-old flamethrower for a second straight season. Now, the Dominican’s estimated return to Citi Park is probably 2013. Top hitting prospect Wilmer Flores had a baffling season at St. Lucie, hitting just .269/.309/.380 – showing no significant improvement over his half season there in ‘10.

But back to the positive – for now.

Harvey wasn’t the only minor leaguer to live up to expectations. Zack Wheeler, acquired from the Giants in the Carlos Beltran deal, looked impressive in the FSL with a mid-90s fastball and improved command, albeit a short sample size. Righthander Jeurys Familia, another 21-year-old with a plus arm and stuff, quickly passed his re-test at St. Lucie and averaged over a strikeout per frame at Binghamton, splitting eight decisions with a 3.49 ERA in 17 starts.

Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Reese Havens and Zach Lutz, three upper-level hitting talents, produced good results but battled injuries in 2011 – nothing new for Havens and Lutz.

Nieuwenhuis was well on his way to a second-half callup when he went down with a shoulder injury two months into the season. The 23-year-old hit .298/.403/.505 at Class AAA Buffalo. Havens finished strong at Binghamton, batting .289/372/.455, and even better, stayed healthy the second half of the season. Lutz continued to crush the ball, hitting .295/.380/.500 at Buffalo, and could be an option at either infield corner spot down the road.

Among pitching surprises, Class AAA hurlers Josh Stinson, 23 and Chris Schwinden, 24, neither of whom possess the stuff to be prime prospects, had solid seasons, and now the Mets hope they’ve found another Dillon Gee.

Lower down the ladder, lefthander Darin Gorski had a breakout season at St. Lucie, joining the rotation a month in and ending as the staff ace. He was the FSL’s Pitcher of the Year after going 11-3 with a 2.08 ERA. Greg Peavey pitched well at two Class A spots and Armando Rodriguez fanned 74 batters in 75 innings at St. Luice. Lefthanded closer Josh Edgin, who possesses a 92-95-plus mph heater and a good slider, dominated at both Class A stops, posting 27 saves, a WHIP just over 1 and 76 strikeouts in 66 frames.

At Savannah, 23-year-old Taylor Whittenton rode a 1.63 ERA in 12 starts after the All-Star break to a South Atlantic League ERA title. The righthander posted a 2.49 ERA, finished 5-5 in 26 games, including 22 starts, and parlayed his repeat season into an Arizona Fall League invite. He’ll be joined there by another marginal prospect, Collin McHugh, who went 7-0, 1.45 ERA in 10 games after the break at Binghamton.

Among surprising position players was center fielder Matt den Dekker, who continued to impress defensively, and although he struck out 156 times, the 23-year-old showed power with 32 doubles, 11 triples and 17 homers to go along with 24 steals. He hit just .265 between Class A and AA but posted a .797 OPS, and more importantly, demonstrated to the brass that he’s more than just a defensive stalwart.

Twenty-two year-old outfielder Juan Lagares made the organization take note when he hit .349 at Class A and AA. And former Padres first-rounder Allan Dykstra hit .267/.389/.474 with a Binghamton-team best 19 homers after joining the organization in March.

At the Class A level, St. Lucie third baseman Jefry Marte hit .248 and played in the Futures Game but slumped badly after a hot start. Aderlin Rodriguez hit 17 homers as a 19-year-old third baseman in the SAL but hit just .221 with a .265 on-base percentage. Nineteen-year-old catcher Gilbert Gomez showed improved hitting skills to go with his plus defensive skills at a position the Mets sorely lack quality prospects. Short-season Class A shortstop Daniel Muno will get some attention after batting .355/.466/.514 at Brooklyn.

Mejia and Flores weren’t the only disappointments.

Class AAA outfielder Fernando Martinez had another injury-plagued, underwhelming season and toolsy St. Lucie outfielder Cesar Puello, much like Flores, failed to break out. The 20-year-old hit .259 with a .710 OPS and 19 steals. Outfielder Cory Vaughn, 22, got off to blazing starts at both Savannah and St. Lucie but slumped tremendously at both, finishing a combined .255/.362/.402 with 13 homers. Shortstop Robbie Shields also played at both spots and did nothing to help his future utility infield prospect status.

Darrell Ceciliani, who won a New York Penn batting title a season ago, hit just .259 at Savannah, and catcher Blake Forsythe never heated up until blasting two homers in a playoff game. He batted .235 with nine bombs during the regular season. Brandon Nimmo, the first-round pick this summer who never played high school baseball in his Wyoming High School, went 8-for-38 with two homers in his rookie-level pro debut.

Soft-tossing lefthander Mark Cohoon, the Mets’ Pitcher f the Year in 2010, was 5-14, 5.29 ERA at AA and AAA, squashing any hopes Mets fans had of the 23-year-old booming onto the major league scene. Class AA hurlers Brad Holt and Robert Carson solidified themselves as non-prospects with extremely underwhelming seasons at Class AA. Juan Urbina, just 18 and considered the top teen arm, was 4-6 with a 5.95 ERA and a 1.571 WHIP in 12 starts at rookie-level Kingsport.

The offseason top-10
1. Matt Harvey
2. Zack Wheeler
3. Jordany Valdespin
4. Kirk Nieuwenhuis
5. Jeurys Familia
6. Jenrry Mejia
7. Cesar Puello
8. Reese Havens
9. Wilmer Flores
10. Brandon Nimmo

Mets Minors: Lost year for Gibson-like Nieuwenhuis

Injuries continue to pile up for the New York Mets with Daniel Murphy lost for the season yesterday with a knee injury and Jose Reyes suffering his second hamstring injury.

Unfortunately 2011 will go do down as a lost season of development for Class AAA center fielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis, the player New York manager Terry Collins compared to former National League MVP Kirk Gibson.

The fourth-year pro could be playing right or center field every day for the Mets. However, due to a non-throwing, left shoulder injury suffered back in May that turned out to be more serious than first expected, the just-turned 24-year-old is out for the season, wasting a year of development.

Nieuwenhuis went on the disabled list after a June 9 injury which was thought to be a minor problem and hasn’t been able to hit the field since. He now joins the likes of righthander Jennry Mejia (elbow surgery), second baseman Reese Havens (various), third baseman Zach Lutz (various) and lefthander Eddie Matz (elbow) among those prospects who have suffered through wasted seasons.

It’s too bad for the youngster and the organization. Had the lefthanded hitter been able to stay healthy, four months at AAA would have given him plenty of seasoning to take over full-time for Carlos Beltran and get a two-month trial heading into 2012 for a team that is looking toward the future.

So, instead of having a full year of development, Nieuwenhuis, who has climbed swiftly through the organization and succeeded at every stop, will likely have to head back to Buffalo next spring to start fine-tuning his game all over.

What do we know about Nieuwenhuis?

1) Collins compared him to Kirk Gibson this spring because of his all-out but balls-to-the-walls approach.
2) The NAIA star has average-to-plus skills across the board and has posted a .906 OPS in his career, two years resulting in mid-season All-Star Game appearances and one postseason selection. He can hold his own in center field or slide to a corner spot and have arm enough
3) The top outfield prospect in the organization – at least in the upper levels – had shown the offensive skills rising swiftly through the minor leagues. He got off to a great start at Buffalo, hitting in 16 straight games and batting .298/.505/.908 in 53 games with 17 doubles, six homers and five steals. He also had a healthy dose of 32 walks. However, he does have an unrealistic .407 BAIP this season and well over .300 for his career.
4) Cutting down strikeouts and hitting fellow lefthanders is a concern: he had 59 punchouts in 53 games at Buffalo and has fanned in over 30 percent of his plate appearances over his career; he’s improved his swings against southpaws during his career, hitting them at a .254/.373/.381 clip in ‘11. At AA last season he hit .294/.348/.518 but went 4-for-32 with a .356 OPS after a second-half promotion to Buffalo.

It’s too bad for the Mets and Nieuwenhuis since Beltran is gone and Jason Bay is about to perhaps be kicked to the curb after the season. New York may have to unwind its tightly-wrapped money belt to bring in a veteran hitter next season instead of using the precious payroll on pitching.


Zack Wheeler’s second Mets start was much better than his first. The 21-year-old tossed six scoreless innings, allowing four hits and no walks with seven strikeouts Sunday for Class A St. Lucie in a 5-2 win against Charlotte.

Wheeler allowed a leadoff triple to start the game but struck out the next three hitters and struck out another batter with a runner on third and one out in the second to help escape that mess.

In his first Florida State League start, the righthander lasted four innings Monday night against Dunedin. He yielded three first-inning runs and four in all on seven hits. The erratic flamethrower did not walk a batter after issuing 45 in 76 games at Class A San Jose.

AROUND THE MINORS: 3B Zach Lutz suffered a second concussion this season after again getting hit in the head with a pitch. He is batting .297/.378/.462 but he has only played in 41 games. … The Mets claimed 1B-OF Mike Baxter off waivers from San Diego. The 25-year-old from Queens is a career .289/.370/.471 hitter in three AAA seasons. He hit .301/.382/.517 with 18 homers last year and was 1-for-8 with the Padres. He has missed most of the season with a thumb injury.

Mets Minors: Updated Top 10 list

With the Mets seemingly on the verge of a salary purge over the next few months and going to have to rely on the farm system more over the next several years, let’s look at an updated top-10 prospect list for the embattled organization.

The farm system lacks top-end talent and depth. Injuries this season have thwarted the progress of top pitcher Jenrry Mejia, infielders Zach Lutz and Reese Havens and outfielders Darrell Ceciliani and Fernando Martinez, who hasn’t been able to stay healthy or reach his potential. Havens has just returned from his latest injury, but he has to be considered more suspect than prospect at this point.

Slow starts have also impacted outfielders Cesar Puello and Lucas Duda, third baseman Aderlin Rodriguez and pitchers Brad Holt, Robert Carson and Kyle Allen. The Mets don’t have a legitimate catching prospect in the system, and, if Wilmer Flores moves from shortstop, the organization doesn’t have a legit everyday prospect in the middle of the infield, just several utility types: Havens, Justin Turner, Michael Fisher, Josh Satin, Jordany Valdespin and Robbie Shields.

On the positive side, Matt Harvey and Jeurys Familia have established themselves as top prospects, Kirk Nieuwenhuis has shown he’s an everyday player in the big leagues and youngster Cory Vaughn continues to hit. Class AA first baseman Allan Dykstra has been a pleasant surprise along with Class A center fielder Matt den Dekker.

“Sleeper” pitchers include AAA hurlers Chris Schwinden and recently-promoted Dale Thayer, high Class A lefthander Darin Gorski and low Class A righthander Gregory Peavey.

Below are the top-10 prospects in the Mets’ organization. Qualifications: Fewer than 100 plate appearances or 50 innings pitched in the major leagues prior to this season.

1. Matt Harvey

Other than two shaky outings, Harvey has been sensational in his pro debut season, and with the injury to Mejia, he has taken over the top spot on the mound.

The 2010 first-round pick from North Carolina is 6-2, with a 2.50 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in his first 10 starts. He’s allowed 45 hits and 18 walks in 54 innings with 62 strikeouts. The righthander has allowed no earned runs in seven of his 10 outings.

Harvey’s got the heat, command, pedigree, projectable body and offspeed stuff to be a staff ace.

2. Kirk Nieuwenhuis

There is very little doubt Nieuwenhuis will find himself playing regularly in New York once the financially strapped Mets start dumping salary.

Nieuwenhuis began the season with a 16-game hitting streak and has showed signs of making adjustments. The 23-year-old is batting .302/.407/.521 after a .225 average in 30 games for Buffalo last season. He has 15 doubles, two triples, six homers, 14 RBI, 29 walks and five steals in 47 games.

Nieuwenhuis is making strides against fellow lefthanders – .235 but 11 walks in 51 AB – but still needs to cut down on his strikeouts – 51 in 169 at-bats – and is batting just .182 with runners in scoring position. The center fielder is the only player in the International League to play in every game, and he is getting time in right field as well.

3. Wilmer Flores
Although Flores will probably outgrow shortstop, the 6-foot-3 righthanded batter is a potential hitting machine.

A recent slump has dropped his average to .267/.305/.381with 11 doubles, four homers and 35 RBI in the pitcher-friendly Class A Florida State League, but he has just 10 walks in 202 at-bats. But Flores won’t turn 20 until August and is playing against players 22 to 24 years of age.

His range is suspect at shortstop, so third base or a corner outfield spot probably awaits, but Flores has committed just six errors in 50 games.

4. Cory Vaughn

Vaughn is looking like the complete offensive package at low Class-A Savannah, batting .335/.466/.483 in 50 games with 14 doubles, four homers and 26 RBI.

The just turned 22-year-old also has 31 walks and 43 strikeouts in 176 at-bats, and he has stolen eight bases. Vaughn was a New York- Penn League All-Star last season and posted a .953 OPS so look for the righthanded hitter to move on to St. Lucie for the second half of the season.

5. Jenrry Mejia

Mejia unquestionably has the biggest upside of any Mets hurler with a “plus-plus” fastball that could either front a rotation or close out a game at the back. But the 21-year-old has just lost a second straight year of development when he blew out his elbow in late April after going 1-2 with a 2.86 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in five starts.

After undergoing Tommy John surgery, Mejia now faces a long rehabilitation stint – nine to 12 months. Prior to the season, Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen questioned whether Mejia and his all-out delivery would hold up as a starter.

6. Jeurys Familia

Along with Harvey, the 21-year-old Familia has been the best pitcher in the organization this season.

Familia is 0-1 with a 2.25 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in four starts for offensively-challenged Binghamton after going 1-1 with a 1.49 ERA and a 0.80 WHIP at St. Lucie.

The 6-foot-3 righthander with a mid-90s heater is no doubt the best one-win hurler in the minors, allowing 39 hits and 17 walks with 57 strikeouts in 60 1/3 innings. An off-the-charts improvement in command is the biggest reason Familia has been able to bounce back from 5.58 ERA at St. Lucie a season ago.

7. Pedro Beato

The 24-year-old has been a pleasant surprise in the middle of the bullpen.

Beato began the season without allowing an earned run in his first 12 outings covering 18 2/3 innings. Only Oakland reliever Brad Ziegler’s career-opening streak of 38 innings in 2008 is longer to start a career than Beato’s since 2000. The Brooklyn product yielded just nine hits, three walks and four unearned runs during that span with 11 strikeouts.

A bout with elbow tendinitis landed the Rule V pick from the Baltimore Orioles on the DL the first three weeks of May, and the righthander has been tagged for seven runs and eight hits in four innings over his last four outings.

The 6-6 Beato was a mediocre starter his first four years in the minors before switching to the pen, posting a 2.11 ERA and 16 saves at Class AA Bowie last season, walking 19 and striking out 50 in 60 innings. He doesn’t have overpowering heat and his offspeed pitches are still developing.

8. Matt Den Dekker

Already a major league-ready center fielder, Den Dekker has impressed the brass with a .315/.359/.502 out of the leadoff spot for St. Lucie.

The 23-year-old can run as his 16 doubles, eight triples and nine steals would indicate, and he’s added two homers and 27 RBI in 49 games. The 2010 fifth-rounder from the Univeristy of Florida is batting .328 against fellow lefthanders but will need to improve upon his 13/46 BB/SO ratio over 203 at-bats to play every day.

9. Dillon Gee

Does anybody believe in Dillon Gee yet?

Nobody did after the velocity-challenged righthander went 2-2 with a 2.18 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in five major league starts last season, but Gee is 5-0 with 3.83 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in 10 games – seven starts – for New York this season.

His lack of velocity and past results suggest the 25-year-old may be using smoke and mirrors, but its time Gee gets the props he deserves.

10. Cesar Puello

The 20-year-old is a “tools” player who is more potential than productivity at this point, but scouts can’t ignore his 6-3, 200-pound athletic frame, outstanding speed and power potential.

The Dominican is struggling against more-seasoned players in the Florida State League, batting .234/.288/.328 with two homers, 11 RBI and 10 steals in 46 games. His nine walks and 43 strikeouts in 192 at-bats will have to improve.


Here is our preseason Top 10

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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.

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.

How many games will the Mets win 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?