Around the Florida State League

May 13, 2004

Well. It does appear that 2004 will be a year of bizarre incidents at St. Lucie. Two nights ago, it seemed like everyone on the field forgot how many outs there were. St. Lucie was playing Prospects R Us, also known as Sarasota. With two down, none on and a run in, the Sarasota batter was called out on strikes. He trudged slowly away from home plate. For about ten seconds, the St. Lucie Mets players remained at their positions; the umps gave no sign that the inning was over; the Sarasota manager remained in the 3rd base coaching box, etc. Then, it suddenly occurred to everyone that the third out had been recorded and the Mets trotted off the field. Just when you think you have Seen it All after some 700 or so minor league games...

Our resident photographer, Larry Mayo, came back from the rest room cackling a day or two earlier. Seems some yuppie had dropped his cell phone in the urinal. Ah, yes! The perils of multitasking!

The St. Lucie Mets are now almost halfway through the 1st half, in a race with the Palm Beach Cards to win the 1st half and qualify for the playoffs. 1st baseman Brett Harper remains very hot. He is batting 369, and his OPS is about 1020. You won’t find him on the BB America’s Mets Top 30 Prospects list. For that matter, none of the St. Lucie Mets are in the Mets Top 30. Harper was a 45th rounder in 2001 out of a community college in Arizona. He will turn 23 in July. In 600 minor league AB’s prior to this year, he had hit just 5 HRs and showed a poor BB/K ratio. He usually goes the other way and tries to be a contact hitter. He has 10 doubles and 3 HRs this season. I think he is pulling the ball a little more often, but most of his hits are still to left and center. His BB/K ratio has improved greatly—22 walks and 29 K’s. Someone told me he was the son of former catcher/outfielder Brian Harper, who had a long career with several teams. Brett is an OK 1st baseman, though yesterday, he made three errors. Most anyone can recall by a 1st baseman in one game.

OF Bobby Malek, another lefthanded hitter that normally goes the other way, has slipped somewhat lately after a hot start. He is starting to turn on those inside pitches more and drive them to right, which is encouraging. He has the raw power to do it—earlier this season, he hit a monster HR in Vero Beach. I was told it landed on the roof of an office building behind the RF fence; estimated distance, 500’. He is a good OF with good speed and decent base running instincts, but he has to dial up the power to make it as a corner OF.

Thus far, two Mets starters have impressed. Mentioned Brian Bannister last month—he is still solid. But the best starter to date has been Orlando Roman, drafted out of Puerto Rico in the 31st round in 1999. Orlando is 25 now. He was a starter for two years and a reliever for 2 1/2. He was with St. Lucie as a reliever last season, but was sent down to Low A and converted back to a starter. He has always been a low hit, fairly high walk, high K type of pitcher; command has been the problem. But this season, he has a 1.88 ERA, and in 29 IP, he has given up just 16 hits and fanned 34, allowing 9 walks. His 6th minor league season, and he is in A ball, at 25.

Since we see Vero and Jupiter so often, I will talk about them piecemeal throughout the year. Joel Guzman is still scuffling a bit for Vero, with a BA of about .230 and an OPS under 700. But he is probably still getting used to his bigger body, and is still very young. C Russ Martin has played like Superman against St. Lucie and like Clark Kent against the rest of the league. He is the Dodgers’ 18th rated prospect, a Canadian that was converted from 3rd base to C two years ago. They say he is raw defensively, but he has a great snap throw to 1st. He’s going to nail some unwary base runners daydreaming about the All You Can Eat Pizza Special after the game. BB America says he gets too pull-conscious, and he is definitely working on going with the pitch. First AB on Opening Day, he whacked one over the RF fence, his opposite field. Overall, he is batting about 240. That’s a little deceptive because his OPS is a respectable 780. He really seems to know the strike zone—walked 19 times and struck out 15. 6 doubles and 5 HRs to date. Lots to like about him.

The Dodgers’ 21st-rated prospect, 2nd baseman Delwyn Young, is a free swinger. Strikes out about once every three official AB’s. He is walking at better than 10% rate, so he is not totally clueless about the strike zone. But he sure does take some wild swings. Batting a little over .200 at this point, with an OPS of about 680.

Alex Requena, a former Cleveland prospect, is with Vero, after a season in AA at Akron. He’s fast. But you knew that.

Jeremy Hermida, the Marlins’ top prospect, is flourishing at Jupiter. He is batting 320 with an OPS of about 820, with 3 doubles and 2 HRs. His BB-K rate is nice for a young player- 14 walks and 23 K’s. He has good size at 6’4, 200, and I think the power will come. At this stage, he goes with the pitch and tries to hit line drives. He definitely swings within himself, something good to see in a young hitter. At some point, you want to see him begin to turn on pitches and drive them, but he is just 20. He’s the best young player we have seen this season.

In case any statheads get excited about some catcher having 8 HRs in the Florida State League not quite ¼ of the way through the season—that would be Jupiter’s Eliezer Alfonzo. He is now 25. He apparently didn’t play baseball last year, but in 2002, he was at AA Huntsville for Milwaukee. Odd line—1 double, 1 triple, 8 HRs. Batting about .210, with 6 BB and 42 K’s. Somehow, I don’t think he’s a prospect.

Fort Myers came in last week and took four from the Mets, who mustered just four runs the entire series. Fort Myers has two of Minnesota’s Top 30 prospects in their outfield. Alex Romero is rated 13th. He was listed on the Ft. Myers roster as 5’10, 160, but 6’0 170 in BB America’s Prospect Guide. He is off to another modest start, batting about 230 with an OPS of about 550. Two doubles, no triples, no HRs. He isn’t walking much this year, but he isn’t striking out much. He had a bad start in the Midwest League last year, but ended up at .296 with an OPS of 740. I think they are staring to worry about his power, but he is still very young. The first game of the series, he hit the ball sharply three of his 4 AB’s and looked pretty good, but he didn’t get it out of the infield in his next two games and sat out Game 4.

Trent Oeltjen, Minnesota’s 29th-ranked prospect, is an Aussie. He has speed and they see him as a gap hitter, something I don’t particularly like in a corner OF. The Twins have people like Jason Kubel and Mike Restovich in the mix for corner OF slots, so Romero and Oeltjen will have to show more than they have to date.

One other product of the remodeling. Every ballpark has a vertical screen in an arc behind home plate. That screen is almost always attached to a horizontal screen that slants upwards to the press box. About 4 or 5 times a game, a foul ball lands on that horizontal screen and rolls down into the waiting hands of the batboy. If he flubs it, he gets catcalls. Well, for some unexplained reason, with the remodeling, there is no horizontal screen. The same 4 or balls a game soar over the vertical screen, and now drop down on the fans below. Sooner or later, some oldster, snoozing his way through an inning filled with walks, lengthy conferences at the mound, and pitching changes is going to get conked. Baseball. Ya gotta be tough to watch it. Or not watch it.

Next time, Sarasota, a team that paraded the Red Sox’ 1st, 3rd, 5th, 6th, 9th, 11th, 14th and 18th-ranked prospects for us during the four game series. Plus one guy not among the Top 30 that may be the best of all.

Don’t forget to check out Larry Mayo’s site now and then. He has fresh pix a couple of times a week. At my suggestion, he entered one of his pix in Top’s photo contest, and finished 1st out of 27 entries. The picture is posted there, and on his website.

April 20, 2004

Another April has arrived in St. Lucie, and we note with pleasure that most of the regulars seemed to have made it through the winter. The stadium has undergone renovation and is now known as Tradition Field. The name comes from a home builder engaged in the second phase of a sprawling housing complex marked by the construction of a pretentious little tower alongside I-95. Thomas White built the stadium at his own expense, but over the protests of his family, the county removed his name from the stadium and sold the naming rights to the highest bidder. I think they plan to name the concrete area in front of the stadium as Thomas White Plaza. Yippee!!

The renovations included the creation of three loges behind the screen-available only during Spring Training. Guess the Mets owner, Wilpon, wanted a loge for his visits to Spring Training so that he didn't have to mingle with the fans. They might tell him what they think of his clueless stewardship of the Mets. There is now a large grassy area behind the fence in center field with its own concession stand. Again, the area is only open during Spring Training. Sources tell me it cost 6 bucks to sit on the grass out there during Spring Training.

Kirkwood and I went back and forth over the winter about whether to transfer primary operations to Vero, but decided in the end to renew at St. Lucie with frequent trips to Vero and Jupiter/Palm Beach. We remain, for the umpteenth consecutive year, four rows behind the Mets dugout. In front of us are our buddies, Linda and Larry Mayo. Larry is the legally blind guy that takes great digital pix and posts them on his website. He has a great new lens this year, and has gotten some nice shots. Nice pictures from Spring Training, and he will update the site throughout the season.

New season, new between-inning games. This season, the Mascot Race and the Dizzy Bat Race are gone. We now have a game in which the two contestants attempt to throw miniature plumber's helpers into a toilet. As one of my favorite columnists, Dave Barry says, I am not making this up! The miniature plungers are about a foot long, and they try to toss them into a real toilet. Naturally, the game is sponsored by a local plumbing supply company. The Lame Games have reached new height (or depths??) with this game.

We saw Vero Beach for the two opening games of the season. We will see a lot of Vero, and I will talk about them in a future update. One thing worthy of note: Joel Guzman is back at Vero. He has now spent parts of three seasons there; on the other hand, he is just 19. But he continues to grow. Two years ago, he was listed at 6'4, 190. Last year, it was 6'4, 198. Now, he is listed at 6'6, 225. At 19, you can't be sure he has stopped growing and filling out, and you have to wonder if the OF or 1B is more suitable. Has there ever been a SS in the majors that was 6'6, 225?

The first four-game home series was with the Daytona Cubs. We didn't see Justin Jones, the lefty pitcher that is scheduled to pitch at Daytona this year. He may not be ready to pitch until the end of April, at least. There were a lot of returnees from last season on the Daytona roster, including Luis Montanez, who has seemingly stalled in A ball. He is still just 22 but no longer young for the league. Felix Pie may be Daytona's only position prospect. The first two games of the series left me wondering what the fuss was about. He is not a power hitter, but his swing was more that of a classic power hitting, contact-challenged lefty 1st baseman. A long, sweeping swing. He struck out six times in the first two games, frequently swinging at really bad pitches. The third game, he was a different player. His swing was shorter and quicker, and he went 3 for 4, all singles, one of those a bunt. He is a gap hitter that goes to left or center, and shouldn't try to pull everything. Lots of speed. He scored easily from 1st on a double to left. I like him, and at 6'2 175, he may yet grow into more power. But at this stage, he has to hit with discipline and remember to slash at the ball and keep that swing short and quick. Plus lay off bad balls. But he is only 19. In the field, he plays shallower than most CF's, and there were a couple of balls driven over his head that he might have caught had he been playing at more normal depth. He did take away at least one hit I can recall by playing shallow, but you tend to remember balls whacked over a centerfielder's head more. He did a good job of catching up to the balls hit over his head and getting the ball back to the infield. Looks like a good fielder with a decent arm.

The only other Cubbie of any note is Rich Hill, a lefty pitcher taken in the 4th round in 2002 from the University of Michigan. He is BB America's 27th-ranked Cub prospect, and comes with a reputation of being a high K, high BB pitcher. He faced only 20 batters before being relieved with two outs in the 5th, apparently reaching his pitch count. He went deep in the count with lots of batters, although he "only" walked three in 4 2/3 IP. Gave up 2 runs, one earned, and fanned 8. He supposedly throws in the low 90's, and though I didn't check with the radar guns people, that sounds right. He also has a good breaking ball. Only a couple of balls were hit hard against him, but as with so many pitchers with good movement, he has to develop his command.

The Mets have several back from last year's team. Scott Kazmir and Justin Huber are here temporarily. Scott will move up to Binghamton when the weather warms up; Huber is rehabbing a bad shoulder, and will probably go up to Binghamton when the shoulder is healthy. After DHing for 9 games, he has caught the last two, so we may not have him much longer. Bobby Malek is still here. He should be completely recovered from the elbow surgery he had two years ago, and I had hoped to see him start to drive the ball this year. He did that for a short stretch late last season, really hitting the ball with authority. But this season, he is again going primarily to left and center, and not turning on inside pitches. He is a decent hitter and a decent outfielder with a fine arm. He is not slow, but not speedy, either. He will be a corner OF, and if you don't have superior speed, you better have some power if you want to be a corner OF.

Tim Teufel is the new Mets manager, replacing Kenny Oberkfell, who moved up to Binghamton with his coaching staff. Tim appears to be as committed to the kamikaze running game as Oberkfell, so we will probably yell at him a time or two during the season.

Aaron Baldiris is the best prospect on the Mets, not counting the transients, Kazmir and Huber. He is a couple of months younger than David Wright and a year behind him. He actually had a better OPS last year in the South Atlantic League than Wright had posted a year earlier. But that was because he hit 50 points higher. They are comparable size, but Wright has considerably more power. Baldiris is more of a line drive hitter that hits the ball to all fields. Baldiris is a good fielder with good range. Maybe even a little better than Wright, a good fielder himself. Very adept at picking up the ball on the short hop, and making plays in back of the bag. He seems to have a little rangier build than Wright and has some speed, so they could always move him to 2nd base.

The 1st baseman is Brett Harper, who had some 30 AB's for St. Lucie last season but played most of the year in Low A. Before the season, Tim Teufel raved about his power, comparing him to Craig Brazell. I put that down to Managerspeak, remembering Brett as rather punchless last season. But in his 1st AB of the season, he turned on a pitch and drove it far over the RF fence. He homered to dead center a couple of games later, so maybe Tim Teufel is right. The other offensive player worthy of immediate note is the maturity-challenged Alhaji Turay. He had dropped off Baseball America's Top 30 Mets prospect list entirely after a modest season in Low A. The Mets sent him home early two years ago for various infractions such as cussing at a fan, destroying a water cooler and signing Tom Hanks' name for autograph seekers. He hit 3 HRs in his 1st six games, missed the Daytona series with a minor injury, and returned last night to whack an RBI double. He has shown some legitimate pop. Not much of an OF, not much of an arm.

Brian Bannister, son of Floyd, has looked good early. He was signed out of USC in the 7th round, so you know scouts didn't rate him all that highly. He was inconsistent in college. They say he works at 88-90, which is marginal for a RHP. Next time he works in St. Lucie, will try and check with the radar guns people. But last year he was an NYP League All-star, and on BB America's short season team because in 46 IP, he gave up 27 H and 18 W. The Mets moved him up to St. Lucie, and last night, he was excellent. Six shutout innings, two hits, one a scratch single back to the mound, 1 W, 9 K's. Retired 14 in a row at one point. Looking forward to seeing him again.

Early returns tell me this could be another wild and crazy year at St. Lucie. We have already had a freak DP. In a game against Vero, with a runner on 1st and none out, the batter hit a ball to SS. It glanced off the glove of the SS right into the hands of the 2nd baseman, who fired to 1st to complete the DP. During the Daytona series, a meteor streaked overhead, startling the crowd. And the following day, a small black cat streaked from LF to center, spooking Daytona CF Felix Pie. The cat climbed some 20 feet up the backdrop in CF and dropped down. Twice. It was really looking for a place to hide. After 5 minutes in which the Cubbie OF's played search and avoid, somebody from the Mets bullpen tossed a jacket over the cat and carried it off the field to sustained applause. A black cat on Friday, but it wasn't Friday the 13th.

Stories from the 2003 season.