Mets minor-league update: Checking in on New York’s top prospects in the final week of the season (2024)

The Mets, bless their hearts, had Thursday off. They had played nearly 24 hours’ worth of emotional baseball over the previous six days — they came up 44 minutes short — and the day off came at a good time for the team and the mental health of its fans.

For my own mental health, I decided to distract myself from a professional football game by instead following along on MILB.tv and radio with the Mets’ four affiliates on Thursday night. This is the final week of the regular season for three of them, as only Triple A will continue past Sunday. Already, it’s late in the calendar to be seeing games in St. Lucie and Brooklyn and Binghamton, where the season typically ends around Labor Day.

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I chatted with Jeremy Barnes, the Mets’ director of player development initiatives, early Thursday afternoon and sprinkled in his insight to a journal of the evening’s action. If this all sounds familiar, consider it a bookend to the story I did with the same formatwhen the minor-league season started. What’s changed since then?

6:11 p.m.

We’re kicking the night off at Clover Park in St. Lucie, where the Low-A Mets are hosting the Jupiter Hammerheads, a Marlins affiliate. There are actual stakes in this game: The Mets are a single game behind Jupiter for first place with four to play against the Hammerheads. (They had been three down with six to play, but they’d won the first two of this six-game series.) A win here, and the Low-A Southeast East Division race would come down to three games between the top two teams. A loss, and St. Lucie would need to sweep the final three to surge ahead.

The other three teams are not in the division hunt. Syracuse and Brooklyn are in last place in their respective divisions, and Binghamton is 10 games under .500. On a positive note, the Rumble Ponies had started the year 4-19, and they’ve been better since then.

It’s been a trying six weeks for St. Lucie, which has had nine postponements or cancellations since Aug. 1 due to rain or wet grounds. Left-hander Luis Rodriguez, 18, is on the hill. He didn’t return for the second inning his last time out, which came against this same Jupiter team. He does better this time.

6:35 p.m.

Alex Sanabia throws the first pitch for Binghamton against the Reading Fightin Phils, and one minute later it’s Jordan Yamamoto starting things for Syracuse against the Worcester Red Sox. Both of these guys have pitched in the majors for the Marlins, though Sanabia’s last big-league experience was in 2013.

Do not correct me in the comments. It is Fightin, with neither an apostrophe nor a -g.

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6:54 p.m.

St. Lucie scored in the first, Binghamton scored in the first, and now Syracuse has scored in the first on three straight hits by Mark Payton, Mark Vientos (whom we’ll get to later) and Khalil Lee.

Acquired in the offseason in a three-team trade with Kansas City and Boston, Lee had a rough introduction to the big leagues this season. It was also a bit premature for someone who’d played all of six games above Double A in his career when injury needs forced New York’s hand in May. The Mets haven’t let Lee’s 11-game, 1-for-18 stint in the majors sap their enthusiasm for what he can still become.

“We always knew that he was an extreme talent. He steps on the field, and he’s one of the most talented guys on the field every single night,” Barnes said. “For Khalil, it’s about putting it all together. He’s at that last little bit of figuring out who he is as a player physically, mentally and emotionally.”

Thanks to some swing refinements, Lee has hit .261/.446/.474/.920 in 89 games for Syracuse entering Thursday. Yes, that’s a wild 18.9 percent walk rate — one-tenth better than Joey Gallo’s in the majors this season. Lee has 29 extra-base hits as well, and Barnes said he believes Lee can be an above-average defensive outfielder in center or right. There’s a big difference between those two, of course, and Lee has spent the bulk of his time this season in right field.

“He’s probably one of the more underrated defenders,” Barnes said. “Every time I watch them play, Khalil makes some ridiculous play in the outfield.”

New York’s outfield situation is in more flux than it would have anticipated coming into the season. Michael Conforto is going to be a free agent, and Brandon Nimmo will be back. But the inconsistency from both Dominic Smith and Jeff McNeil may open the door for Lee to get some time, if not everyday time, in the major-league outfield next season. He looks more ready for it now than he did in May.

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6:59 p.m.

At the same time, for someone with Lee’s speed, his baserunning can stand to improve. He’s 7-for-17 in stolen-base attempts at Triple A, two years after he was 53-for-65 in Double A. Two batters after his RBI single, he only advances one base on a Travis Blankenhorn single off the wall in left-center. (Manager and third-base coach Chad Kreuter looked to have a brief chat with Lee about that during a subsequent mound visit by the opponent.)

(As a little heads up, I plan to be writing about the Mets’ major-league baserunning soon, because it isn’t very good and it costs them runs often. Not all of it can be explained away by the big-league team’s lack of team speed, and the Mets want to emphasize smarter, more aware baserunning throughout the organization moving forward. A guy with Lee’s speed needs to be an asset on the bases for New York.)

7:25 p.m.

In Syracuse, Worcester pulls off the classic Little League double steal on catcher Chance Sisco and shortstop Wilfredo Tovar, stealing second and home on the same pitch. Tovar’s throw home also scooted away, allowing the trail runner to get to third. Tuck this one away. We’ll come back to it.

7:41 p.m.

Yamamoto finishes his night with two strikeouts — his only two for the night — in the fourth, the latter of well-regarded Red Sox prospect Jeter Downs. The right-hander went his scheduled four innings, allowing a run on three hits in his sixth rehab start (second with Syracuse). In the grand scheme of Mets’ 2021 injuries, Yamamoto’s doesn’t stand out, but had he been healthy, he’d have gotten plenty of starts in the middle of the summer, probably in place of his current Syracuse teammate, Jerad Eickhoff.

Yamamoto’s rehab clock is just about up, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he gets a call back to the majors in the last two weeks. If the Mets fall further out of the hunt, they could decide to shut down Tylor Megill and give Yamamoto a start or two entering the offseason. It will be an important spring for Yamamoto next year; he’ll be out of minor-league options.

8:24 p.m.

Fifty-nine minutes after Syracuse, Brooklyn is victimized by a Little League double steal itself. This time, it’s the catcher Francisco Álvarez’s throw that gets away into center field, allowing the trail runner to get to third.

8:25 p.m.

We haven’t checked in on St. Lucie in a while, in part because their game isn’t on MILB.tv. Plus the Mets were cruising, up 5-0 going to the top of the fifth and … oh no. The Hammerheads scored seven times in a half-inning that lasted as long as three of them in Syracuse, with manager Reid Brignac ejected along the way. St. Lucie walked five batters in the frame, but you couldn’t blame the home-plate ump (as some of the fans seemed to on the radio broadcast). The game was using an automated strike zone.

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The good news is Rodriguez was out of the game by then, having tossed four scoreless — the longest outing of his very brief professional career. You may have noticed that there isn’t a lot of focus on the Mets’ pitchers tonight, because well, their best prospects remain position players. Their best pitching prospect entering the season, Matt Allan, underwent Tommy John surgery. Another one, Thomas Szapucki, had his season end in July thanks to a nerve issue in his arm. J.T. Ginn has been a bright spot in his return from Tommy John. So has Megill, of course, who remember started the year in Double A.

Most of the other intrigue on the pitching side is further down the system.

“We’re getting there. If you asked me in May what our area of weakness was, it was pitching,” Barnes said. “We have exciting arms. We’re going to have a lot of exciting arms from High-A down next year. It’s just a matter of continuing to figure out our identity and continuing to let our information catch up. I can’t wait for a good offseason. We’re optimistic and excited about the direction we’re heading.”

8:35 p.m.

In Binghamton, Carlos Rincon makes a nice diving catch in right field. The 23-year-old has had a strong 2021 season split between his time in the Dodgers and Mets organizations. (He was the return in the Billy McKinney trade.) Rincon has 22 homers in 98 games overall and 10 in 35 contests for the Rumble Ponies. No, he’s not cracking any prospect top 10s for New York, but too often the Mets have been the team giving up a player with even the mildest of intrigue for someone recently designated for assignment. This time, they were on the other end of the deal.

8:42 p.m.

Piggybacking with Yamamoto, Zack Godley strikes out the side in the seventh for Syracuse against the Red Sox — one of his more recent former teams. Godley is one of a few veterans the Mets have brought in during the course of the season to help fill out their rotations in the upper minors, alongside guys like Vance Worley and Sanabia (who until recently was with Syracuse).

None of them have lit the world on fire, but they’ve eaten innings competently, and that’s not something the Mets have always had at the Triple-A level. Ironically, Worley couldn’t do that for them in Las Vegas in 2018, when “51s” was the name of the team and oh-so-close to the number of pitchers it used (only 47).

8:51 p.m.

Mets minor-league update: Checking in on New York’s top prospects in the final week of the season (1)

Mark Vientos. (Sam Navarro / USA Today)

Vientos picks up his second hit of the night, driving in a run of his own to push Syracuse’s lead to 3-1 over Worcester. It’s a nice Triple-A debut for the 21-year-old, who hadn’t played in 18 days. When a COVID-19 outbreak caused cancellations across Double-A Northeast, Binghamton went 10 days without a game. Vientos was called up to Triple A during that time, but he had to undergo intake testing (Binghamton is not part of the Tier 1 bubble the way Syracuse is), and the Mets cautiously had him go through some baseball activities before putting him back in a game because of the extended layoff. They’re doing the same thing currently with Brett Baty, who hasn’t played since Aug. 29 but may return before the season ends this week.

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Vientos and Baty are the Mets’ two third basem*n of the future, and Vientos has pretty clearly had the better season of the two offensively. His 22 home runs were tied for fourth in the Double-A Northeast. Entering Thursday, he’d homered once every 12.45 at-bats this season; that’s better than Pete Alonso’s career home-run rate. (The only Mets’ minor leaguers to better it this year? J.D. Davis on a rehab assignment, Jake Hager early in the year, and — how about it? — Eickhoff, who homered once in 10 at-bats.)

“He’s had a fantastic year,” said Barnes. “The amount of damage that he’s done in a short period of time has been pretty extraordinary.”

Baty is the other guy in the system known for his prodigious power, but it just hasn’t played out that way this year. The lefty swinger has a dozen long balls this season between Brooklyn and Binghamton. It isn’t a bad season for Baty by any stretch of the imagination. It just doesn’t look as good when Vientos, Álvarez and Ronny Mauricio were all right around 20 homers for the year.

“(Baty) is still behind Vientos by hundreds of at-bats,” said Barnes while noting that Baty is actually a month older. “There are some things we have to clean up with his swing a little bit. But we’re talking about a guy with elite tools … Truly, I’m not concerned. He’s going to be right in the mix with all those guys, and he still has tremendous upside.”

It’s important to note here — and again further down when discussing the Mets’ other potential third baseman of the future, Mauricio — that these players shouldn’t be viewed in direct competition. Defensive positions are malleable, even at this point, and how the Mets feel as an organization about any of these guys shouldn’t have a huge influence on how they feel about their current major leaguers. For instance, the Mets should not rush to trade McNeil because they have Vientos at Triple A now.

On the other hand, having three high-ranking minor-leaguers at Double A or above who could be major-league third basem*n by 2023 may make the Mets less likely this winter to pursue a seven-year contract with someone to play third. But New York has already experimented with Vientos and Baty in the corner outfield, and Vientos has some work to do.

“It’s no secret he needs to get better at that,” Barnes said. “He’s a young athletic kid who needs to work on some of the nuance of defense — some first-step quickness and things like that. He has the potential to be much better at defense. Right now, that’s an area of focus for him.”

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By virtue of coming up as a shortstop, Mauricio can move to several different spots depending on need. You also don’t trade a guy like Mauricio just because his specific position in the majors is filled for the foreseeable future.

On a sidenote, I really hope we can go back to calling these leagues real names next year.

8:56 p.m.

In Brooklyn, Álvarez grounds into a double play in the fifth, and the Cyclones still don’t have a hit. This will be a rare unremarkable night for the 19-year-old Álvarez, who will finish 0-for-3. His 23 home runs between St. Lucie and Brooklyn lead all Mets minor-leaguers. He entered Thursday with an .886 OPS for the Cyclones, where he’s nearly four years younger than the average player.

“Anytime you hit more home runs than your age, it’s a good thing,” Barnes said. “In my experience in baseball, you hear of these super high prospects and you put them on a pedestal, and you go watch them play and realize they’re pretty human. He’s been the opposite. He’s just blown through any expectations that anyone had for him.”

What’s impressed Barnes most about the catcher?

“Beyond his offensive capabilities and his prospect status, he’s a joy to be around. He comes to the park every day with a smile on his face,” he said. “You feel confident that as a 19-year-old kid with that talent and that personality, he’s going to be able to reach his ceiling.”

8:58 p.m.

Mauricio reaches on a walk, which may not sound exciting but is.

Strike-zone discipline has been the top priority for the Mets with the switch-hitting Mauricio this summer. His added muscle since 2019 has developed into more game power, as he’s gone from four homers two seasons ago to 19 this year. But he has still struck out four times for every walk this year, and his walk rate was 5.7 percent entering Thursday.

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“One thing we’ve talked to him about is working on controlling the zone better and making sure he’s not chasing,” Barnes said. “He’s a swing-first guy, and I don’t know if we’ll ever take that way from him fully. But if he can control the zone a little bit better, we feel like we can catch lightning in a bottle.”

Mauricio had 13 walks in his first 286 plate appearances this season, through the end of July, a walk rate of 4.5 percent. He’s got 13 walks in 155 plate appearances since, a rate of 8.4 percent. It’s a step in the right direction.

Two minutes later, Mauricio swipes third base, his second theft of the night. Those are his first two since being promoted to Double A, and he’s got 11 steals on the season in 18 attempts.

9:19 p.m.

A pair of Godley wild pitches scores the tying runs for Worcester in a demoralizing top of the ninth. (He’d thrown four scoreless frames until that point.)

9:28 p.m.

But, Mark Payton redeems Syracuse with a base hit to score Drew Jackson; it’s the S-Mets’ third walk-off win of the season.

MARK PAYTON WALKS IT OFF!

SYRACUSE WINS IT!!!💥 pic.twitter.com/trHuz6zt0O

— Syracuse Mets (@SyracuseMets) September 17, 2021

St. Lucie, which started its game a half-hour before this one, is only in the middle of the seventh, by the way.

9:32 p.m.

Binghamton closes out Reading, 6-2. This is going so much better than last time.

10:10 p.m.

A three-run eighth propels Brooklyn to a 5-4 lead on Jersey Shore. The key play came thanks to a missed catch error on the infield. Sometimes you’re reminded it’s A-ball.

10:31 p.m.

But as in Syracuse, a wild pitch in the top of the ninth ties the score. Unlike the Triple-A team, the Cyclones can’t stop the bleeding. The top of the ninth goes largely off the rails: First baseman Wilmer Reyes is ejected while his catcher is making a mound visit. Moments later, the umpire engages with a fan, who is ejected; the fan is wearing a jersey with the No. 1 below a nameplate reading “AMENDMENT.” This feels like performance art.

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The BlueClaws score four times for an 8-5 lead.

11:00 p.m.

You thought the Mets played long games this week? St. Lucie’s contest with Jupiter mercifully comes to an end four hours and 49 minutes after it started. The Hammerheads held on for a 12-8 win. The Mets have to sweep the last three to claim the division.

11:08 p.m.

We didn’t quite get a full five hours of baseball in, as Brooklyn’s own ninth-inning rally comes up two runs shy in an 8-6 loss. This allows me time to catch up on what’s going on at FedEx Field!

11:40 p.m.

I wish St. Lucie were still playing.

(Photo of Khalil Lee: Jim McIsaac / Getty Images)

Mets minor-league update: Checking in on New York’s top prospects in the final week of the season (2024)
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