Mets' Nieuwenhuis Puts Tools To Good Use With Buffalo

BUFFALO—At one end of the indoor batting cages at Coca-Cola Field, Buffalo's Kirk Nieuwenhuis heard the team's hitting coach Mike Easler call out to him.

"See," a smiling Easler said in his booming voice, "I took care of you before I even had my coffee."

Nieuwenhuis, a 23-year-old center fielder, returned the grin as he finished collecting balls. Easler then remarked the two just had completed one of their "best sessions" of the season, a revelation that can only be bad news for International League pitchers.

The Mets' top position-player prospect in the high minors, Nieuwenhuis entered the final week of May batting .305/.406/.530 with six homers and 15 doubles through 164 at-bats. He ranked second in the IL in extra-base hits (23), third in walks (27)—and also strikeouts (49)—and fourth in on-base percentage.

But to his mind, Nieuwenhuis hasn't done anything special. "(I'm) just coming to work every day and working hard," he said, "trying to keep my head down and see what happens from there."

Nieuwenhuis credits Easler, in his first year in the organization, with dispensing valuable information tailored to each individual. "Just working with Easler, I feel I can get better every day," he said, "and that's what I've been trying to do. Iron out some stuff with my swing, and help the team put some runs on the board.

"(Easler has) done a great job with us. He talks a lot about feeling our swings and that's what I like about him. He doesn't try to cookie-cut you. And if there's nothing that needs to be done, nothing needs to be done. But I feel like I can get better every day."

Always Working

Taken by the Mets in the third round of the 2008 draft, Nieuwenhuis rapidly worked his way up the ladder, going from college to Triple-A in fewer than three years.

In three years at Azusa Pacific (Calif.), he led the Cougars to consecutive NAIA World Series appearances in 2007-08 and established the school's single-season (84) and career (190) records for runs scored.

With high Class A St. Lucie in 2009, Nieuwenhuis led the Florida State League with 56 extra-base hits. He led the Double-A Eastern League in the same category (with 53) at the time of his promotion from Binghamton to Buffalo in August 2010.

Never obsessing over his stats, Nieuwenhuis is mature enough to know how to turn the page from one day to the next. A good game doesn't give him a bulletproof mentality, and a bad game doesn't keep him awake wondering what he did wrong.

Not that Nieuwenhuis, a lefthanded batter, has had many bad games to fret over.

He kicked off the 2011 campaign with a 16-game hitting streak, and he reached base safely in each of the team's first 20 games.

"There's not one standout part of his game. It's the whole package," Bisons first-year skipper Tim Teufel said.

Having also managed Nieuwenhuis in Binghamton and St. Lucie, Teufel said that the young center fielder has learned to make the needed adjustments to improve his game.

"He's been that (type of) player ever since he's come into the organization," Teufel said. "For him to take advice, even at this level, is not beneath him. Some guys turn you off and say, 'I got to this level and I don't need much coaching or teaching.'

"He's not that type of guy. He's a guy who really wants to get better in all facets of the game."

Multiple Dimensions

At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, Nieuwenhuis can hit for power and average—he's a career .281/.353/.467 hitter in 1,660 career plate appearances—but he also can lay down a bunt with the best of them because he's deceptively fast for such a physical player.

With five stolen bases in six attempts this season, he has arguably the club's best breakaway speed out of the batter's box.

Just as reliable with the glove, Nieuwenhuis has authored of some of the Bisons' best defensive gems this season. In a May 10 game against Scranton-Wilkes/Barre, Yankees slugger Jorge Vazquez drove the ball to the deepest part of center field for what looked to by a sure extra-base hit. Nieuwenhuis raced to the warning track and made the leaping grab as he crashed against the wall.

"Thankfully, the wall is padded out there," Nieuwenhuis said. "There's nothing behind it, so it wasn't too bad."

When you mix all of the ingredients together, Nieuwenhuis reminds Easler of a young diamond stud with whom he worked in 2006 as hitting coach for the Dodgers' Double-A Jacksonville affiliate.

"(Nieuwenhuis) has been one of the best kids," Easler said with a smile. "He reminds me of Matt Kemp. Same makeup. The way the ball jumps off the bat. Same athleticism. Use of the whole field, how he can turn the other way. And he listens and retains very well.

"(Nieuwenhuis is) hitting a little bit over .300. He's got an ample amount of home runs, he's driving in runs, he's an excellent center fielder and he runs the bases well. He can steal bases. So you're looking at the whole package.

"To me he's a five-tool player. There's no doubt."

For Nieuwenhuis, everything in life is connected to the strong family bond that his parents, Bob and Joan, have created. He credits his parents with instilling in him the character, dedication and strong work ethic that are the foundation of his game.

"(My father) wasn't a baseball player growing up," Nieuwenhuis, "so he didn't know a lot about the game. But he played catch with me every day.

"When my dad was gone on business, my mom would play catch with me to keep me busy."

Calling Nieuwenhuis everything one could want in a prospect, Easler cautioned that he's still young and improving. But even if the Mets came calling in the near future, Easler believes Nieuwenhuis could handle himself.

"I'll tell you one thing," Easler said. "They won't be embarrassed if they did call him up. I promise you that."

Dave Ricci is a freelance writer based in Buffalo