What should the Mets do with Wilmer Flores?

There is no argument that Wilmer Flores possesses one of the most potent bats in the Mets minor league system, earning him a spot in every Mets top 10 prospect list that has been published this offseason.

The 21-year-old Flores made great strides in his game last year, finishing with a .309/.349/.479 slash line splitting time between Hi-A St. Lucie and AA Binghamton, career bests in all three categories.  What’s even more impressive is that Flores hit slightly better at AA, posting a .311/.361/.494 slash; excellent considering the average age in the Eastern League is 24.

At 6’3”, 190 lbs., Flores still is a little lanky and his frame should continue to fill out in the coming years and along with it, even more power should develop, making Flores a potential offensive juggernaut.

The biggest knock on Flores is his lack of a defensive position.  He was originally a shortstop, but his inept fielding at that position forced him to be moved, splitting time at third and second base in 2012, with somewhat better results.  His below-average speed and range coupled with a strong throwing arm profile better at third base, but David Wright has a stranglehold at that position in the majors.  His defense at second base was passable in 2012, but 27 games is hardly a large enough sample size to definitively say that Flores can stick there.

In a perfect world, Flores would be able to play second base competently and be allowed to further develop before being called up to the Mets sometime in late 2014 or early 2015.  After all, if the Mets are going to have a second baseman who can hit but not play particularly good defense, the one with power is a better option.

This would finally settle the Mets’ decade-long quest for a second baseman to competently replace Edgardo Alfonzo[1], and would address their need for more right-handed power in the lineup.

If it turns out that Flores can’t handle second base, the team will have no other choice but to stick him at either third or first base, both of which are currently occupied by Wright and Ike Davis, respectively.  Since moving Flores to the outfield is not an option owing to his poor defense; his role with the Mets would transition from a future regular in the lineup to a trade chip.

When the team is finally looking to buy, Flores could be the centerpiece of the deal.  The market for Flores will be limited, unfortunately, since team picking up Flores would have to be either an American League team, who would use him at DH, or to a team in need of a corner infielder.

Sound off in the comments:  Should the Mets play Wilmer Flores at second base when he’s ready despite how bad the defense may be, or should they look to trade him to address another team need (e.g. outfield)?

 

Follow Joe Vasile on Twitter at @JoeVasilePBP

Maximizing Wilmer Flores’ positional value

Not all positions are created equal.  Many positions have a higher value to a farm system because they are, frankly, harder to play.  For a given position a player must be naturally gifted with 1 of 4 abilities: Arm, Hands, Range and/or Smarts.

Arm: Is pretty straightforward.  Accuracy is good but for positions like Shortstop, Catcher, Third Base and Right Field you need to have a STRONG arm to make throws ahead of potentially fast runners.  OR… you have to have Mike Piazza’s bat.

Hands: Soft hands refers to a few different things but I’m merging them for these purposes to talk about glove work.  You need to be able to catch and make the transition smoothly.  It means different things in the OF and IF and it’s important for EVERY position in differing ways.

Range: Lateral movement in the infield or flat out speed in the outfield.  Taking good routes to the ball is more under smarts.

Smarts: This is really a key for catchers.  Catchers need to call the game and direct the field.  Sure, the managers and coaches help, but the catcher bears most of this burden.  Smarts is a great thing for any player to have but you don’t necessarily need it if your physical gifts make up for mistakes.

Positions:

SS: Range+, Hands, Arm

C: Hands+, Arm, Smarts+

CF: Range++, Hands

2B: Range, Hands

3B: Hands, Arm+

RF: Hands, Arm+

LF: Hands

1B: Hands

DH:

Wilmer Flores is gifted with soft hands and a good arm.  He’s handled 3rd base pretty well… given it’s his first time there.  The issue is that the Mets already have a guy they like in AA at 3rd.  Well… Flores has played second base recently?  Except the B-Mets have a certain player named Reese Havens trying to rediscover his stroke manning 2nd.  There’s also legitimate concern about Flores cutting it at 3rd base.  So… what’s next?

Wilmer at Short: AWFUL idea.  Sending him back to a position it’s clear he cannot handle doesn’t help anyone.  This includes Wilfredo Tovar who has earned the right to play in Binghamton.

Wilmer at Second: Splitting time with Reese Havens might really hurt what little confidence Havens still has.  I fell in love with Reese’s swing when I saw him in 2011 so I don’t want to give up on him.

Wilmer at Third: He’s managed things at 3rd pretty honorably… considering he’s not played there before.  We know the bigger issue is that if the Mets bring Wright back on a long-term deal he can’t play for them.  The flip side of this is that Wilmer Flores could have huge trade value as a solid hitting and fielding 3B.  I don’t think this front office likes thinking of prospects purely as trade chips.

Wilmer in Right Field: Not absurd!  He’s got a good arm and would make the catches.  At least he’d be better in the field than Duda.  He’ll never be a “Plus” defender in the outfield.

Wilmer in Left Field: Like Right but using less of his skill set.  Wilmer’s arm is an asset.

Wilmer at First: Sure… he could play first.  Between Davis and potentially Duda (if Davis is a lost cause) the Mets don’t need him there.

Wilmer the Catcher: People who have followed me for a while are going to groan when they see this.  Yes!  I am still on this kick to have Flores try his hand as a catcher.  Think about the fact that he has the arm and the hands to make it, ignore the fact he’s never played there and remember that the Mets have no catching prospects remotely ready… let alone one with an impact bat.  Here’s the issue:  If you switch Wilmer to a position like catcher you can tack on 2 years to his stay in the minors.  Right now he’s a candidate for a 2013 mid-season call-up.

If I had to guess where Wilmer would be coming up I’d look at the corner outfield spots or second base.  Right now, my 2013 outfield has Nieuwenhuis/Bay, Den Dekker and Duda with Baxter as the 5th OF.  That’s a lot of lefty bats in the outfield and leaves only Wright, Tejada and Bay as the right-handed starters (Bay only starts against lefties).  This means the Mets will need a right-handed bat and my bet is that the opportunity comes for Wilmer to cover in one of the corners.  In terms of second the road would be through Murphy converting into a super-sub or being traded and Wilmer hitting his way past lefties, Jordany Valdespin and Reese Havens.

Meanwhile I’ll keep dreaming of Wilmer as the future Met back-stop.

 

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: Wilmer Flores the next David Wright or Fernando Martinez

Although I’m sure the New York Mets’ brain trust won’t admit it, there must be a little concern over Class A shortstop Wilmer Flores, who entered 2010 as the Mets’ finest young hitting prospect and one of the best youngsters in the lower levels.

Flores hit .269/.309/.380, not bad for a kid who just turned 20 in August, especially since he’s playing against players two to three years older on a nightly basis.

His career up to this point has somewhat followed that of two other top Mets hitting prospects in terms of being highly regarded and being challenged at a young age: David Wright and Fernando Martinez.

In 2003 as a 20-year-old at St. Lucie in the Florida State League, Wright hit .270/.369/.459 with 39 doubles, two triples, 15 homers with 72 walks, 19 steals and 98 strikeouts in 133 games and 549 at-bats.

Martinez actually made it to St. Lucie for 119 at-bats in 2006 as a 17-year-old, batting .193, and started the ’07 campaign at Class AA Binghamton, a campaign that kick-started a career of injuries, lack of development and inconsistency.

Wright buzzed through the two highest levels the following season before starting what has turned out to be a very productive major league career. Martinez, who may have been a little older than listed, has never hit .300, has reached 10 homers just once and never had a season with an OPS of .800. Furthermore, he never walked showed a propensity to work the count, showing no improvement over his career.

So where does Flores fit?

Flores, a shortstop who most scouts feel will outgrow his spot and move to the hot corner where Wright played, split the ’10 season between Class A Savannah and St. Lucie, hitting .289/.333/.424 with 36 doubles, 11 homers and 84 RBI with 32 walks and 77 strikeouts in 133 games and 554 at-bats.

It’s a little unsettling that after Flores spent the last 67 games at St. Lucie in ’10, New York felt the Venezuela native wasn’t equipped to make the jump to AA Binghamton at all this summer. And his numbers fell across the board.

The problem with Flores is that it appears he may have plateaued. One thing scouts and front-office people look at is an ability for hitters to make adjustments. Flores had a .688 OPS in the second half this season, after posting a .690 OPS in the first half. And his numbers fell across the board from 2010 even though he had the comfort of returning to a league he spent half of last season..

The 6-3 righthander hit just nine bombs this season after 11 last year – his most over his four years of professional ball. However more concerting to scouts and analysts has been Flores’ inability to command the strike zone. He had just 27 walks over 516 at-bats this year and has just 92 in four years and over 2,000 at-bats.

So where does Flores fall?

It’s fairly obvious now that Flores isn’t tracking like Wright, but will he be a bust like Martinez? On the positive side, Flores has proven to be extremely durable over four seasons, therefore there’s little concern he will be stunted by a plethora of injuries. However, his productivity closely resembles that of Martinez, who has been indifferent statistically in the minors and a disaster in a few major league auditions.

Flores needs to show he gets it as far as his approach at the plate. His bat could play in the major leagues if he can remain at shortstop – he did commit just 20 errors this season – but it won’t play at a corner infield or corner outfield spot.

There have been too many young hitting prospects with physical tools, a projectable body and bat speed that couldn’t master the mental aspect of the craft and fizzle out. Flores won’t fizzle out, but he won’t be anything more than a bit player for the Mets.

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

LHP Darin Gorski (11-3, 2.08 ERA), the Florida State League Pitcher of the Year, will start Game One of the playoffs for St. Lucie against Bradenton. “I couldn’t have imagined this, not (during spring training),” Gorski told Bill Whitehead of the TCPalm.com. “I started out in the bullpen, and just to get a chance to start was so exciting for me. One thing led to another, and things went great. It’s been a fun season.” Following Gorski will be Zack Wheeler (2-2, 2.00 ERA) and Greg Peavey (5-4, 3.97 ERA). … In the opening round of the low Class A South Atlantic League playoffs, Savannah plays Augusta in a best-of-three series starting Wednesday. …

AROUND THE MINORS: Binghamton RHP Matt Harvey led the organization with 13 wins. He had his five consecutive winning-starts streak snapped Saturday against Reading, allowing four runs, three hits and four walks in three innings. The 2010 first-rounder finished with a combined record of 13-5 and a 3.19 ERA in 25 starts. He allowed 123 hits in 132 2/3 innings, while striking out 154 batters and walking 43.… RHP Collin McHugh, promoted on May 29 from St. Lucie, won his last seven starts of the season to finish with a record of 8-2 at Binghamton. … OF Juan Lagares, who split the season between St. Lucie and Binghamton, hit .349 – fifth best in the minor leagues. The 22-year-old hit .370 in 38 games at AA.

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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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

Untouchable prospect Wilmer Flores

When the Mets had discussions with the Seattle Mariners about lefthander Cliff Lee, talks stopped when the Mariners inquired about Wilmer Flores.

Why, at first glance, Flores’ numbers don’t blow anybody away. The shortstop had an ugly .637 OPS in the low Class-A South Atlantic League in 2009 and was batting .306 with eight homers and 59 RBI split between that club and high Class-A St. Lucie this season. Good numbers, but certainly nothing that would make you turn away from Lee.

But here’s the kicker. Flores doesn’t turn 19 until August and he’s played in two pitchers’ leagues against players much older. His 35 extra-base hits in 379 at-bats against just 49 strikeouts are big indications of continued success and increased power as the righthanded hitter rises through the minors. He’s already walked 25 times this season – three more than the entire ’09 campaign.

Flores was batting .278/.342/.443 and leading the Savannah club this season with 44 RBI when summoned to the FSL. He garnered more votes than any other player in Sally All-Star game voting, and is likely to be named that league’s Most Outstanding Prospect when year-end awards are announced.

In his first 102 at-bats for St. Lucie, Flores has hit .382/.394/.480. If he isn’t the youngest player in the FSL – a league normally housed with 20-23-year olds – he’s among the youngest.

Comparisons to Miguel Cabrera have been made in the past, and it’s a pretty good comparison this season. Cabrera, also a shortstop back in his teen years, posted a .709 OPS in the low Class-A Midwest League at age 18 and a .754 OPS the next year in the FSL. He hit only 28 homers during his three-year stint in the minors and his BB and SO rates were similar to Flores. So those crazy comparisons, while still a bit of a stretch, aren’t that bad.

Pushing 200 pounds on his 6-4 frame, Flores will definitely outgrow shortstop, but he should be fine at the hot corner. He has very good hands; he made just 13 errors in 2009 in a league where many shortstops surpass 50.

Don’t expect GM Omar Minaya to include Flores in any trade deadline deals, especially for a rent-a-player. If the Mets were one player away from seriously challenging for a World Series, Minaya might consider it, but this Mets team has too many question marks to risk dealing a potential impact player like Flores.

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.