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Spring Training Dish: Mets Camp
by Chris Kline
Editor's note: Assistant editor Chris Kline is spending three weeks of spring training coverage in Florida's Grapefruit League. Today's stop: Mets camp. Coming Friday: Dodgertown in Vero Beach.
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.--For as much excitement as there is over at the Mets major league camp for the upcoming season--and there were over 100 fans waiting for autographs waiting outside the big league clubhouse at Tradition Field on a day when the club was on the road--New York's player development system generates minimal buzz. BA ranked the Mets' system last in out talent rankings in the Prospect Handbook--though the rankings did not reflect the presence of righthander Mike Pelfrey, the club's first-round pick who signed in January.
However, a day in Mets camp revealed there are reasons for Mets fans to get excited about the farm system, and that extends well beyond No. 1 prospect Lastings Milledge, who will likely begin the year at Triple-A Norfolk.
Farm director Adam Wogan has only been on the job for a few months since coming over from the Nationals, but thanks to assistant to the GM Tony Bernazard, field coordinator Tony Tijerina and the rest of the field staff, Mets camp is running like a well-oiled machine. And that makes getting Wogan acclimated that much easier.
Both Wogan and Bernazard tend to shun the spotlight, instead directing praise on roving instructors Edgar Alfonzo (infield), Lamar Johnson (hitting), Rick Patterson (baserunning/bunting), Bob Natal (catching), Rick Waits (pitching), and their well-established field staff. That group also now includes Kevin Morgan, previously the farm director and now the coordinator of instruction.
BA sat down with Wogan and Bernazard to talk about the state of the system, how much developing players has changed since general manager Omar Minaya took over and a pair of outfielders that take a back seat to Milledge--for now.
Baseball America: What is the general philosophy for developing players in the system right now? And is there any emphasis on any particular aspect of the game organization-wide or is that more included in player's personal plans?
Tony Bernazard: As an organization, we want our players to play the game the right way--to have everyone fundamentally sound. A lot of people say that, but here we stress doing all the little things the right way. We want our players to focus and learn solid fundamentals and play smart baseball.
This is nothing fancy, nothing new. We want to build a championship-caliber team at the major league level, and it's our job to build players to contribute to that.
Adam Wogan: We definitely want our players to learn to be aggressive in games, but we also want them to all be smart players. Everything we do, we're stressing fundamentals. So if we're doing cut-offs and relays or picks to second base or third base and there's a mistake made, there's no problem. That's why we do those drills. You stop it right there and make sure guys end on a positive with that rep and then do it over again. If there's any one thing that's wrong we want to stop it, re-do it and get to a positive result. We want everything to be done to a level of quality. We're not looking to just check it off the list.
TB: You know, this game has become a different game in some ways. Some people are more into getting fancy on defense, some people fall in love with how hard a guy can throw, some people want to teach more pitches before a guy has true command of what he already has, some people want a guy to hit for power before he really knows how to hit. There's nothing new here, we're just trying to teach our players the right way. The game is simple and we want to keep it simple for them.
BA: OK, let's hit on some players now. We've heard Philip Humber is progressing in his rehab faster than anticipated. What's the update on Humber?
TB: He's ahead of schedule and we're constantly monitoring his progress. But even though he's ahead of schedule, there is absolutely no rush for him to get back. Time and his hard work rehabbing will heal his arm, and his arm is going to tell us where he is. He's a competitor and wants to get back out there, but we're being cautious and nothing will clear him until our medical team says he's ready to go.
BA: Obviously Lastings gets all the attention because he's so close to breaking in, but what about Carlos Gomez and Fernando Martinez?
AW: I've been around for these guys for just a few weeks, so some of it's based on my own eyes and a lot of it's based on reports we have on these guys, but Fernando hasn't even played in a professional game yet. Unless you want to count a major league spring training game; he's already got a hit over there--he's pretty impressive at 17.
He's just very mature, very strong physically. He's ahead of his years in terms of his ability to hit. I'm not talking about power, but his ability to use the whole field.
In terms of his strike zone, obviously I haven't seen him in minor league games yet, but he went with a pitch yesterday and hit it out the other way. He has speed and he has arm strength. He seems to be a guy who has everything you could want out of a center fielder.
With Gomez, there's speed and he's a very good bunter. From what I've seen and heard, everything about his game is very aggressive. You never would, but you'd have to tell him to slow down rather than speed up. He runs every ball out exactly you'd want a guy to. He's very aggressive on the basepaths, but we want him to be more aggressive this year, to improve his basestealing, but to take more chances. He stole 64 bases last year and we feel like he could have stolen quite a few more if he'd taken more opportunities to run. So it's understanding when the right time in the game is to do that, but at the same time there's only a few times in the minor leagues where you wouldn't want a guy to run in game situations.
He also has the ability to drive the ball--the ball comes off his bat well. He takes good routes defensively and has good range. My experience with these guys has been limited, but I've been incredibly impressed. They have a chance to be as talented as I imagine any young outfielders out there.
BA: Getting back to the mound for a second, righthander Deolis Guerra seems to have a lot of upside. He was the other high-dollar player the Mets signed on the international front last summer. What is there to like about Guerra?
AW: The changeup is the key, although the total package is phenomenal. Physically looking at him as a 17-year-old kid is impressive. And he has a chance to get bigger and stronger as his body fills out. But the changeup really is a plus pitch at this point. Obviously he still has a lot to learn in every phase, but another very mature guy.
BA: It seems like maturity is a running theme here among guys that were born the same year I graduated high school. What does 2005 fourth-rounder Hector Pellot bring to the organization?
AW: He's the guy who came into our Step Camp (a sort of mini-camp for prospects the organization holds every year) who comes in at 19 years old and you could just see his focus was there. Mistakes he makes he doesn't make twice. He's the guy translating, he's the guy bringing up issues to his teammates trying to help them out--English speakers and Spanish speakers. But his abilities are there too. It's just not a guy with great makeup who steps up to help his teammates whenever he can, the ability is there too.
BA: Henry Owens is an intriguing guy you took as a Rule 5 draft in the minor league phase who's been building on success since the Arizona Fall League. What has his velocity been like and how much has his breaking ball progressed since last season?
TB: A very good arm who's come along exceptionally well. His fastball is mid-90s plus and he's really worked hard on his breaking ball. His slider has been sharp and a lot more consistent than it was late last year. But that's the main reason he was sent to the Fall League and then to winter ball--to work on his slider. And it started getting better back in instructs.
BA: Tony, I know the organization has worked very hard to set up a development system that not only builds players on the field, but people as well. What do players gain from having access to programs like cooking classes, finance classes, nutrition classes, etc.?
TB: Well, we care about what these kids are going to do while they're playing baseball and when they're done playing baseball from ownership all the way through the organization. It's very important to us that if and when they should leave the organization that they have the life skills to be able to move on from there and become the best person they can be.
• Outfielder Carlos Gomez made his presence known in an intrasquad game on Tuesday, putting down two bunt singles--after which he turned on the afterburners with a 3.8 time (both times) to first from the right side of the plate. Gomez, who signed as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican, also hit an inside-the-park home run in the game.
• Andy Wilson is trying to improve his versatility this spring. Wilson, a nondrafted free agent out of Stetson in 2003, went to the Fall League to get some work in behind the plate and has been working with high Class A St. Lucie manager Gary Carter early in camp. But he was splitting time yesterday, taking ground balls at first and then catching bullpens. "We're looking at (him as) primarily catcher for us right now," Wogan said. "We know he can hit; people who have been with him really rave about his offensive ability. We know that he can catch, but we feel like spending more time behind the plate can only improve his versatility and eventually establish one position for him if he can do what we've seen him do back there." Wilson hit .284/.370/.532 with 28 home runs last season at high Class A St. Lucie, then went 0-for-7 at Triple-A Norfolk.
• Keep an eye on: Righthander Jacobo Neguilis and first baseman Junior Contreras. Neguilis is out for a few days after oral surgery, but has a power arm with good command and should make his debut in the States this season after spending three years in the Dominican Summer League. The 21-year-old went 0-1, 1.94 in 42 innings in the DSL last season.
Contreras, 20, is especially intriguing--a first baseman with plus raw power, he also has especially soft hands at his position and moves well for a 6-foot-6, 250-pounder. He hit .291/.401/.500 with eight homers in 148 at-bats in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League last season and will likely begin the year at low Class A Hagerstown.
• It seems like the Mets have a system for everything in every camp. They have made nutrition a priority among their players, recently adding a full-service cafeteria to the minor league complex at Tradition Field. The menu on Wednesday was lasagna, steamed vegetables and bread over the hour break at lunch. And for players, uniform assignments are split up by position players, pitchers and catchers. "Pitchers wear all white, catchers wear their road grays, rehab guys wear orange shirts and everybody else? Those guys are the position players," veteran righthander David Manning said.
• Speaking of systems, the Mets have rules that have little to do with baseball as well. Here are a few of the Mets' official rules for minor league players during spring training: "One chain is allowed on the field, but it cannot be visible," . . . "No paraphernalia (hats, jerseys, etc.) from other clubs is to be worn at any time," . . . "No Oakleys or other sunglasses are permitted to be worn on top of baseball caps at any time," . . . "No alcohol is allowed in the hotel room. The hotel bar is off limits," . . . "No tobacco is to be used in or around the hotel."