New Orleans was supposed to feature perhaps the minor leagues’ most talented collection of young outfielders, but because of injuries and big league service time, the configuration never came together.
Carlos Gomez and Ben Johnson patrolled the Zephyrs’ outfield on Opening Day, but Lastings Milledge was with the Mets. Milledge was optioned to New Orleans during the second week of April, but by that time Johnson was on the disabled list. When Johnson returned from injury, Gomez was in the bigs and Milledge was on the shelf.
The same turnover had not affected the Zephyrs’ rotation, as an equally young pitching staff had kept the club in contention. Though Zephyr Field has traditionally played as a pitchers’ haven, New Orleans hurlers had surrendered the second-highest total of home runs in the Pacific Coast League to date. And it hasn’t been a statistical fluke.
“I guess you could get a little too comfortable pitching here,” New Orleans pitching coach Mark Brewer said. “Conditions here were not as pitcher-friendly as they are in the summer, when the humidity starts to rise. Early in the year, the wind was blowing out, which you hardly ever see here, and balls were getting out.”
Gomez, the toolsy, 21-year-old center fielder, had received much of the attention early in the year for his season-opening 14-game hitting streak and for his PCL-leading 17 stolen bases, but the New Orleans rotation has quietly boasted four of the organization’s most promising arms. The Mets used top-10 overall draft picks to select righthanders Mike Pelfrey and Philip Humber, and traded a pair of relievers to the Marlins to acquire lefthanders Adam Bostick and Jason Vargas last November.
Pelfrey made the Mets out of spring training, got a warm-up start for high Class A St. Lucie and joined the big club when it needed a fifth starter April 13. Six winless starts later, Pelfrey was optioned to Triple-A with one objective: to gain command of his secondary stuff, which was noticeably lacking in New York. Back on the farm, Pelfrey had allowed just a pair of runs in his first two starts for New Orleans.
“The first time out, the slider was sketchy from a command standpoint,” Brewer said. “But last night I saw the best slider I’ve seen from him in the past few years. Last night he showed an average to a tick above major league average slider. Batters had lots more swings and misses than in the past.”
In the big leagues Pelfrey seemed at times to be preoccupied with the feel for his secondary stuff, to the point where his fastball command suffered. And command of a mid-90s sinker had been the pitch upon which he’d built his reputation.
“In the back of your mind, any pitcher, if you’re having trouble with secondary pitches, you tend to be more careful with No. 1,” Brewer said.
On a side note, Pelfrey suffers from a jaw condition called temporomandibular joint disorder, which causes him to stick out his tongue during his delivery. Observers noted last season that the tongue wagging would sometimes have the effect of tipping his pitches, so he began wearing a blue mouthguard, which has eliminated the problem.
While Pelfrey has made just two starts for the Zephyrs, Humber has been with the club all season long and got the nod on Opening Day. Though he’s been inconsistent, a May 13 start in Las Vegas reinforced Humber’s potential. In that game, he tossed seven one-run innings, striking out six and walking one in the unfriendly environs of Cashman Field.
“His Las Vegas start was best I’ve seen in terms of execution,” Brewer said. “If he can string four or five Las Vegas appearances in a row, he’ll be ready. What was so impressive about that start was that he shut down a pretty good hitting team.
“His focus was just at the highest level, in terms of pitching down in zone. If that focus continues, he’ll be ready to stay at the major league level. And everybody has lapses. For him, he just needs to string a number of those outings together.”
Brewer also noted that Humber has come a long way in upsetting the timing of opposing baserunners. While at Rice, Humber didn’t often deal with runners on base, but with New Orleans he’s shown marked improvement in holding the ball and in speeding up his times to home plate.
When the Mets sought a replacement for Pelfrey at the major league level, Brewer and the New Orleans coaching staff recommended Vargas, whom the Marlins drafted from Long Beach State in the second round of the 2004 draft.
Though technically not a prospect because he’d logged 117 big league innings coming into the season, Vargas, 24, offered the Mets something Pelfrey and Humber could not: experience.
“He was a guy who had what you need at big league level,” Brewer said. “He’s the whole package: he understands the flow of the game, he holds runners, he knows who’s on deck. Not only can he work pitch-by-pitch, but he can also do the other things you need at the top level. He paid attention even when he wasn’t pitching, and that speaks to his focus being on a higher level.”
As with many young lefthanders, Bostick’s biggest challenge has been finding consistency. Though he’s pitching in his seventh professional season, Bostick, a sixth-round pick of the Marlins out of a Pennsylvania high school in 2001, is still just 24 years old. And he has a minor league strikeout title to his name, in the 2004 South Atlantic League. But about those inconsistencies . . . Bostick has walked 271 batters in 531 2/3 minor league innings, a rate that figures at 4.6 per nine.
Bostick’s biggest challenges have been mechanical in nature, Brewer said, as the lefthander often is not straight to the plate, and he gets around his front side too often. But he was careful to point out the upside.
“I’m really excited about what future holds,” Brewer said. “He’s got great arm action and the ability to throw an above-average curveball consistently. The experience he’s gained from pitching at the Triple-A level will tell us whether or not he can pitch at the next level. He’s bettered himself, that’s for sure.
“His fastball is average’"sometimes above’"but what we’ve done is give him a split-finger, which is a swing-and-miss pitch, along with his curveball. He also throws a straight changeup.”
A 10th-round pick by the Braves out of Florida International in 2001, Collazo, 27, pitched for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic and in last summer’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Cuba. He’s served mostly as a reliever in the minors, but he has started as many as 20 games in a season, and he started 18 for Double-A Binghamton last year.
Those days appear to be over, as the Mets have altered Collazo’s arm slot to mimic that of big league reliever Pedro Feliciano, who has used his low sidearm delivery to great effect in each of the past two seasons.
“Collazo has a sweeping breaking ball, lilke Feliciano, and a short breaking ball,” Brewer said. “He also throws a changeup from that slot, and he has the ability to pitch in to lefties and in to righties from that slot.”
The 24-year-old Camacho has made it to Triple-A despite not even being drafted out of Cal State Northridge. The Mets signed him in 2004 and he’s posted a 2.61 minor league ERA with 148-57 strikeouts-walks in 173 innings on the strength of an average 88-90 mph fastball and an outstanding changeup.
“He has maybe one of best changeups I’ve seen over the years from a lefthander,” Brewer said. “It’s a great pitch against lefthanded batters, and he gets lots of swings and misses to righthanded batters, even when they know it’s coming. But he’s just now getting comfortable throwing it to lefthanded batters.
“His slider, right now, is just a little bit below average, though in games, it’s above-average from a command standpoint.”
First baseman Andy Tracy, 33, provides power at an unbeatable price. Twice he’s hit 30 or more home runs in a season, with 37 for Double-A Harrisburg in 1999 and 33 for Triple-A Colorado Springs in 2004. His 11 home runs this season put him right at the cusp of 200 for his minor league career. Coming into the season, his minor league numbers stood at .265/.357/.495 with 186 home runs in 992 games.
The Expos selected the lefthanded-hitting Tracy in the 16th round of the 1996 draft out of Bowling Green and, while he made it to Triple-A with no problem, he’s had a hard time establishing himself in the majors. And that’s despite learning to play third base at Double-A and despite hitting .260/.339/.484 in a 192 at-bat trial with the 2000 Expos.