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: Is Reese Havens back?

Don’t look yet, but Reese Havens may finally be back.

The 22nd overall pick in the 2008 draft is in the midst of his best stretch in nearly two seasons, highlighted by a pinch-hit, 12th-inning walkoff homer Saturday for the Binghamton Mets against Altoona.
Coincidentally, Havens was playing next to rehabbing shortstop Jose Reyes, perhaps a glimpse at the future double-play combination in New York.

“Yeah man, for sure,” Havens told Lynn Worthy of the Binghamton Press. “I definitely think that. I wouldn’t be here doing what I’m doing if I didn’t think that so it’s exciting to think about. It definitely ran through my mind.”

Plagued by injuries just about since the day he was drafted, Havens is batting .366/.452/.620 in August with six doubles, four homers, 15 RBI and 11 walks in 21 games. This stretch has lifted his overall numbers to .298/.380/.468 with six homers and 25 RBI in 52 games.

Havens started the season on the disabled list with soreness in his ribs. Havens also spent three weeks on the disabled list from late June to mid-July after back spasms. He had surgery in December to shave a half inch from one of his ribs on his left side after oblique pain limited Havens to just 32 games last season (14 with Single-A St. Lucie, 18 with Binghamton).

“I’ve felt comfortable the last few weeks,” Havens said. “I think its just repetition that’s made me feel comfortable. I’ve been working with (hitting coach) Luis (Natera) on some minor things. I’m just trying to relax up there and make some things happen at the plate. It’s been a lot of fun coming to the park the last two or three weeks. We’re a little bit too late since the season is almost over, but it has been a lot of fun.”

**************

Jefry Marte hit a home run to lead off the fifth inning for the only run of the game, as the Class A St. Lucie Mets beat Bradenton 1-0 on Saturday.

Four Mets pitchers combined for the shutout. Starter Zack Wheeler gave up three hits and struck out three in five innings for the win. Wheeler is 2-2 with a 2.16 ERA in his first five starts with just five walks and 26 strikeouts in 25 innings. He has tremendously improved his control since the trade with the San Francisco Giants after reportedly returning to his pitching style form his high school days.

Marte, just 20, started the season batting .321 with four homers and a .920 OPS in April but has slumped since. The third baseman, who played in the Futures Game during All-Star Weekend, has posted OPS’s of .674, .653, .451 and .622 in the following months. He has two homers this month after hitting just one from May-July.

AROUND THE MINORS: Binghamton OF Juan Lagares is batting .400 during a current 18-game hitting streak. The 22-year-old is batting .394 with 19 RBI in 31 games since joining the club from Class-A St. Lucie where he hit .338 in 82 games. The native of the Dominican Republic hadn’t hit better than .279 in any of his first five seasons since signing as a 17-year-old. … Buffalo SS Jordany Valdespin is batting .381 with a 1.109 OPS in his last 10 games recovering from a slow start after his promotion from Binghamton. He’s hitting .289 with two homers but 17 strikeouts in 83 at-bats. … Binghamton RHP Matt Harvey, selected the top pitching prospect in the Class A Florida State League by Baseball America, has won five straight starts. The 2010 first-rounder has allowed nine earned runs and 22 hits in 27 innings with nine walks and 24 strikeouts.

It’s time to promote Reese Havens to the Mets

Reese Havens is really good at playing baseball. Unfortunately, Havens is not very good at staying healthy. Since being the 22nd overall pick in the 2008 Draft, Havens has been on the disabled list six times. His injured body parts include: elbow, groin, quadriceps, hand, oblique and back. And prior to this season he had a piece shaved off his rib in an effort to prevent further back and oblique issues.

A college shortstop, Havens has been moved to second base, where if he can stay healthy he has the chance to be a real plus player. He has played 66 games in his career at Double-A and he has a .302/.378/.486 slash line in 278 PA. He’ll take a walk (28 walks in AA) and he can hit the ball out of the park (9 HR, although Binghamton is a good hitter’s park).

But those non-stop injuries have kept Havens from appearing in more than 97 games in a single season. This year, despite two separate trips to the DL, Havens has played in the second-most games in his pro career, with a total of 51 games played.

Everyone has a theory on how to keep Havens healthy but nothing seems to work. Here’s my theory: Screw the injuries.

While the common refrain has been that Havens need to stay healthy to get a shot at the starting job in the majors, it’s my belief that the time has come to turn conventional wisdom on its head. The Mets should promote Havens to the majors and install him as their starting second baseman for the rest of the year.

Let’s face it – the 2011 season is shot. The rest of the year should be spent on evaluating players for the 2012 team. We know that Lucas Duda is an acceptable option at first base, where his bat will play and his defense seems passable. But can he play the outfield? He should be in RF or LF every game for the rest of the year.

The same logic applies to Havens. Can he hack it in the majors? What better way to find out than to have him play for the Mets in the final 35 games of the year. He’s relatively healthy at the moment and the Mets should take advantage of that health – and their miserable slide – and give him a shot with the best coaches and best medical personnel available in the organization, which are presumably in Queens.

Havens is no kid – he’ll be 25 in October. He played three years of college ball and has been in pro ball parts of four other years on top of that. He’s the same age as Ike Davis. Few people complained about the results Davis produced in the majors after being promoted following 182 games and 769 PA in the minors. Havens has more minor league experience than that, with 203 games and 883 PA.

This is not to say that Havens will enjoy the success in the majors that Davis has. It’s only to point out that it’s not preposterous to suggest that he can handle it. Yes, Davis had more success in the minors than Havens has had. But how much of that can we attribute to Davis’ health? Maybe some, maybe none, maybe all – I don’t think anybody knows.

The worst-case scenario is that Havens stays healthy and doesn’t hit. And if that turns out to be the case, Alderson and Collins have had a much more up-close and personal look at Havens to determine if he can be a player in the future. Duda didn’t hit last year and it did not seem to hurt him in the long run.

If he gets injured, he gets injured. And with his track record, that’s about what we should expect to happen. And if the Mets call him up to play second base and he gets injured, than they just slide Justin Turner back into the lineup and nothing is lost.

Actually, the existence of Turner is what makes Havens in the majors so appealing. Turner is a legitimate starter for a major league club at second base. He’s not a star, but he does not embarrass the team by being in the starting lineup. Turner is the perfect caddy for Havens. If Havens is indeed a better player (far from a certain thing at this point) when healthy, let’s play him while he’s not injured, knowing that we have the perfect insurance policy in Turner ready on the bench.

It’s time to promote Havens and hand him the starting second base job.

Mets second base options of the future

Who will be playing second base for the New York Mets this season?

Will it be embattled 15-year veteran Luis Castillo, converted outfielder/ first baseman Daniel Murphy, slick glove man Ruben Tejada or utility man Justin Turner?

It’s doubtful that any of these players will be a permanent fixture at second base with New York, so what does the future hold?

There’s Rule 5 acquisition Brad Emaus. And New York has two decent prospects in the upper levels of the minors in former first rounder Reese Havens and Dominican Jordany Valdespin.

Brad Emaus

In Emaus, New York is hoping to find another Dan Uggla.

Emaus will be 25 on Opening Day and has 87 games experience above Class AA since being drafted in the 11th round in 2007 out of Tulane by the Toronto Blue Jays. He was drafted by J.P. Ricciardi, who is now a special assistant with the Mets.

Uggla was a 5-11, 200-pound infielder with pop and decent plate discipline who couldn’t catch a break in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ organization.

He was selected by the Marlins in the Rule 5 draft, turned 26 during spring training and proceeded to slug 154 homers in five years, becoming the first second baseman ever to homer 30 times in four consecutive seasons. He has played in two All-Star games and snagged a five-year, $61 million contract with the Atlanta Braves this past offseason.

The Mets would consider themselves fortunate if they could get anything close out of Emaus, who has a similar profile to Uggla.

He’s a 5-11, 200-pound right-handed hitter who doesn’t stand out tools-wise, but can hit for average, has some pop and has an excellent command of the strike zone. Emaus has 212 walks compared to 220 strikeouts over four seasons, 425 games and 1,559 at-bats. In stops at Class AA and AAA last season, Emaus hit a combined .290/.397/.476 with 32 doubles and 15 homers with 81 walks and 69 strikeouts in 445 at-bats. He’s 1-for-7 thus far this spring with two walks and a strikeout.

There’s a ton of candidates for the second base job and Emaus, who must either stay with the team or be offered back to the Jays, is no gazelle nor star with the glove. However, if the Mets can look past how he looks in a uniform and can see what he can do in the uniform, they might have a decent offensive option.

Reese Havens

The second of two first-round picks by the Mets in 2008, Havens was selected with the 22nd pick, four slots after first baseman Ike Davis. While Davis skyrocketed to the majors in less then two years, Havens spent most of his first three years on the sidelines watching.

The 24-year-old has been limited to 152 games in three years due to a laundry list of injuries, with oblique and back problems his latest. Havens says he’s ready to go this year, and 2011 could be considered his make-or-break season.

Havens likely will take his potent left-handed bat to either high Class A St. Lucie, where he began last season and played 14 games, or Class AA Binghamton, where he suited up 18 times and hit .338 with six homers and 12 RBI.

Havens is a hitter first, defender second. A college shortstop at South Carolina, Havens made the move to second base last season and still has a long way to go defensively. An excellent chance to gain experience at the new position last season was ruined due to all of the injuries.

Statistically, Havens has the rare combination analysts like; he can hit for average, has some pop and works the count. He has 60 extra-base hits in 570 at-bats with 80 walks – both excellent markers. However, if Havens can’t stay on the field the Mets will never get a chance to see if he could be a possible solution at the unsettled position in 2012.

Jordany Valdespin

The enigmatic Valdespin has had several clashes with coaches, twice resulting in suspensions, but his performance in the Arizona Fall League and raw tools landed him a spot on the Mets’ 40-man roster this November.

The 23-year-old has taken a tour of the lower-level Mets affiliates over the past two seasons, playing at six stops from the Dominican Summer League to the Eastern League.

The lefthanded hitter has hit .277/.328/.406 in his four years and prior to last season had shown very little extra-base potential. His had 25 extra-base hits (16 doubles, 3 triples, 6 homers) in 270 at-bats in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League last season and chipped in 13 steals.

Valdespin followed that by hitting .355 with a .848 on-base percentage in the Arizona Fall League with five extra-base hits and four walks in 76 at-bats. He was 7-for-7 in stolen base attempts.

However, take away his FSL power numbers and Valdespin has demonstrated limited pop, no ability to command the strike zone – he had just 10 walks in 382 at-bats last season – and mediocre stolen base ability.

He’s split time between shortstop and second base but looks like he’ll settle on the right side of the bag.
The 6-foot, 180-pounder profiles as a utility infielder unless he can follow up on his 2010 power numbers and draw more walks in 2011. He’ll likely start at St. Lucie or Binghamton, depending upon where New York decides to put Havens.

Valdespin is 2-for-11 so far this spring with a double, RBI, walk and three strikeouts.

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.

Mets 2011 Top 10 Prospects

One of the reasons cited for getting rid of Omar Minaya was that he did not build a strong farm system. Last year, six players who made my top prospect list contributed to the Mets and no longer have rookie eligibility. This includes Jenrry Mejia and Fernando Martinez, both who lost their rookie status because they accumulated more than 45 days on the active roster.

So, it is actually surprising the overall shape of the system. There’s not much at the very top, but there is a lot of depth, a lot of players who could eventually reach the majors. At this time last year, few would have guessed that Mejia, Ike Davis and Ruben Tejada would have used up their eligibility. If those three were still rookies and had turned in strong 2010 seasons in the minors (not an unreasonable assumption), the outlook of the Mets’ farm system would be completely different right now.

As is, there are some hitters who may top out as reserves but who still have time to develop into useful regulars. The top pitchers now in the system are Matt Harvey and Steven Matz; unfortunately, neither one of them has thrown a pitch in professional baseball and ranking them is extremely problematic.

Only four players return from last year’s list. There may only be four people from the 2011 list who show up on the 2012 list, too. But unlike last year, when everyone graduated to the Mets or lost their eligibility, next year’s list might have a lot of turnover just because there are 15-17 people who can make an argument to be on the list right now. With another year of data and scouting reports, people who missed the list this time could easily take a step forward.

10. Reese Havens, 2B, Hi-A/Double-A, .338/.400/.662 in 75 PA

This is Havens’ line in Double-A, where he actually played more than he did in Single-A. And this illustrates both the potential and the problem with Havens. He has an impact bat at second base. But he can’t stay healthy. As Mets fans have seen with Martinez, staying healthy is at least partially a skill. Havens has been injured in each of his three years with the Mets. Most people have Havens ranked higher than this in the system. He’s this low here because until he stays healthy he’s more suspect than prospect. He could be number one on this list next year. Or he could fall off completely.

9. Lucas Duda, OF/1B, Double-A/Triple-A/Majors, .314/.389/.610 in 298 PA

This is Duda’s line in Triple-A, when he had 42 XBH, including 17 HR. Duda saw extensive playing time with the Mets in September. He couldn’t buy a base hit his first two weeks in the majors. But in his final 55 PA, he put up a .314/.345/.647 line with 9 XBH and 4 HR. Duda has big-time power. The issue is: Where is he going to play? He played LF with the Mets in September, but that position is manned by Jason Bay. His best position is 1B, but Davis has a leg up there. Potentially, RF could be his home, but Duda was already stretched defensively in LF. In his brief action in the majors, he was below average in both range and arm. Again, Duda is a player that most others rank higher. My problem is that I just don’t see where he fits on the Mets.

8. Dillon Gee, SP, Triple-A, Majors, 13-8, 4.96 ERA, 165 Ks in 161.1 IP

Last year Gee made my list ahead of Brad Holt and Jeurys Familia. The rationale was that he had less upside but was more likely to pitch in the majors. Right now, Gee is the Mets’ fourth starter. Whether he’s in the rotation on Opening Day or not, Gee is likely to pitch again in the majors in 2011. His stuff is not good enough to be a guy to make 30 starts a year. But he could make it as a swing man or a bullpen arm.

7. Matt Harvey, SP, UNC, 8-3, 3.09 ERA, 102 Ks in 96 IP

The seventh overall pick in the 2010 Draft, Harvey had one of the best fastballs in the draft. The question is if he has anything else. Some compare him to Mike Pelfrey, but Pelfrey had better control than Harvey in college. In an ordinary year, Harvey would probably not make this list. But he clearly has upside, and unlike Matz, is not coming off surgery. We should get a better reading on Harvey after this year and I expect he’ll move up on the list.

6. Darrell Ceciliani, OF, New York-Penn League, .351/.410/.531 in 303 PA

A fourth-round pick in the 2009 Draft out of a Junior College in Washington, Ceciliani rebounded from a poor year in his professional debut in the APPY to put up a very fine last year, especially for a center fielder. In addition to winning the batting title, Ceciliani had 33 XBH in 271 ABs, which broke down to 19 doubles, 12 triples and 2 homers. If he can stay in center field, Ceciliani has a chance. He has little power and not much arm, so he needs to stay in center in order to be a starter. He’s a long way from the majors but he has legitimate tools. We’ll find out how legitimate when he plays in full-season ball this year.

5. Kirk Nieuwenhuis, OF, Double-A/Triple-A, .289/.337/.510 in 433 PA

This is Nieuwenhuis’ line in Double-A. He struggled in 30 games in Triple-A but it was still a successful season for the former small college star. Nieuwenhuis was leading the Eastern League with 53 XBH when he was promoted. The big issue is if, like Ceciliani, he can stay in center. Last year I compared him to Nate McLouth, a guy stretched to play CF, but one capable of putting up a 20-20 line. There are doubts about Nieuwenhuis because of his NAIA pedigree. But he’s gotten better as he’s moved up the ladder and I’m going to believe in him until he gives me a reason not to.

4. Cesar Puello, OF, South Atlantic League, .292/.375/.359 in 469 PA

The Dominican native was signed by the Mets in 2007. Last year was his third season playing in this country but he was only 19, one of just five teenagers in the SAL. Unlike many Latin players, Puello is willing to take a walk, with 32 BB in 404 AB,. Puello also had 22 HBP, following up on a season where he was hit 14 times in short-season ball. He also has plus speed, as he stole 45 bases in 55 attempts. Puello hit just 1 HR last year, but he draws praise for his approach at the plate and scouts predict he will hit 20 HR by the time he matures.

Despite his speed, Puello is a right fielder. On production, Nieuwenhuis is the better prospect right now. But Puello has a higher ceiling. It is a coin flip for me which one to rank higher and I am tempted to flip the coin again and put Nieuwenhuis in this spot. Ultimately, Puello gets the nod. He should advance to the Florida State League next year, a tough league for youngsters to hit home runs. Puello may not show much improvement in power next season but let’s see if his plate discipline holds at the higher level.

3. Aderlin Rodriguez, 3B, Rookie/Low-A, .312/.352/.556 in 267 PA

This is Rodriguez’ line in the Appalachian League. He got a late call-up to the SAL, where he played in eight games. While he is a year behind Puello, and with only eight games of full-season ball to his credit, Rodriguez is ranked higher due to greater power production and potential, along with his chance to stick in the infield. Rodriguez bounced back from a wrist injury in 2009 to put up 13 HR in 250 ABs in the APPY, which ranked third in the league.

The Dominican native shows a strong arm at the hot corner, but scouts worry about every other defensive tool for Rodriguez. He may have to move to first base but should have the bat for the position. There have been whispers about his work ethic, which is a concern, but let’s see if they follow him to full-season ball before we give them too much weight.

2. Cory Vaughn, OF, New York-Penn League, .307/.396/.557 in 313 PA.

The Mets’ fourth-round pick in the 2010 Draft out of San Diego State, Vaughn is the son of former MLB star Greg Vaughn. The younger Vaughn had a big year in the NYP, hitting for both average and power (14 HR) while also showing the speed to steal 12 bases. While a rookie league, the NYP is the natural spot for many college players and first-round picks. Under the old Mets regime, Vaughn would likely have opened 2011 in Double-A. Now, he’s likely headed to the Hi-A Florida State League, instead.

Vaughn has Type I juvenile diabetes, a condition he has had since he was 11. He tests himself multiple times during a game. So far the condition has not been a hindrance in any way in his baseball development. Vaughn has benefitted from being around the game his entire life. He was in the clubhouse when was his father was in San Diego and a teammate of current SDSU coach Tony Gwynn. He was also a bat boy later on when his father was in Tampa Bay.

Some doubt Vaughn as he did not impress in the Cape Cod League and never hit a lot of HR at SDSU, either. But Vaughn’s showing in the NYP should silence some of the critics. If he again hits for average and power in 2011, expect to see Vaughn’s name on MLB top prospect lists this time next year. But right now this is probably the highest ranking you will see for Vaughn anywhere.

1. Wilmer Flores, SS, Low-A/Hi-A, .278/.342/.433 in 307 PA

These are the numbers for Flores in the South Atlantic League, where he played the first half of 2010. He hit for a better average (.300) in the Florida State League, but with less OBP and SLG. Flores improved upon 2009’s dismal numbers in the SAL but his top prospect status is still built more upon age, as he was 18 for most of last season, than on production.

While listed as a SS, few expect he will play that position in the majors. Flores has good hands, but does not have the range of an MLB-quality shortstop. His likely home is third base. But wherever he winds up defensively, Flores’ value will come from his bat. The Venezuelan native makes good contact (77 Ks in 554 ABs in 2010) and hits the ball to all fields.

Flores is likely to start the year in the FSL, with a mid-year promotion to Double-A. Not many people are capable of playing in the high minors while still a teenager. It is easy to get down on Flores, as his production has yet to match his hype. But no one should be surprised once he starts to put up big numbers. Nor should they be shocked if that happens in 2011.

Honorable Mention/Names to Remember

Holt, Familia, Matz, Jordany Valdespin, Mark Cohoon, Zach Lutz, Robert Carson, Matt den Dekker, Jefry Marte, Juan Urbina, Vicente Lupo, Elvis Sanchez.

2010 Top Prospects
2009 Top Prospects

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.