Sunday, February 14, 2021

At the Gates of Spring

It's hard not to feel the excitement of baseball returning this week, even amidst the still-ongoing concerns about COVID-19. Mets pitchers and catchers will report Wednesday, while the position players will be in camp a week from Monday. While Acting GM Zack Scott has indicated that the Mets are not done improving their roster, it will still be a blast to see the team they've assembled so far over the offseason. A new era of Mets baseball truly began when Steve Cohen took over the team in October and handed the keys to Sandy Alderson, but it will all start to get real this week.

Even without concerns from the pandemic, this would be an interesting year as the Mets try to implement the organizational changes they were working on this winter. The new regime's stated goal is to get more out of their farm system than the club has traditionally done. On top of all of the changes they're attempting to implement, there will be a necessity just to get everything on track following what was mostly a lost season for all but a few prospects. Even the prospects who could take advantage of the opportunity to work on their game at teams' alternate sites had a very non-traditional workload in 2020 and need to prepare for what will be at least closer to a traditional minor league development year.

And, of course, even that will be affected by COVID protocols in place for spring training. Traditionally, the bulk of the minor league players not seeing time in big league camp arrive at the beginning of March for minor league spring training. The players who got some time in big league camp traditionally get sent back to work with their fellow minor leaguers as the season gets closer. None of that is happening quite that way this spring. Minor League spring training won't even begin until the Major League players break camp, which will delay the start of Minor League baseball's season. Most experts expect this to happen around Memorial Day.

Once the Triple-A season gets underway, clubs like the Mets will get reinforcements in the usual way, calling players up from their affiliates. Technically, the Triple-A season is supposed to begin on time, as the 75-player limit for training camp would allow for those players at the highest level of the minors to be ready. However, from what I've read, they could still decide to bump the start of the Triple-A season back and utilize alternate sites in the interim.

As I see it, the Mets Player Development folks face some diverse challenges with their charges, depending on what happened to the individual players last year. As I've said, no kids enjoyed a traditional year of development. A few top prospects enjoyed some work at the alternate site, which could even prove to be a boon for the lucky few able to enjoy quality one-on-one work with coaches and trainers. The Mets also ran an expanded Fall Instructional camp for their prospects after the season ended, but that ended a bit early when a couple of participants tested positive for COVID-19. Indeed, all of the top prospects were able to take advantage of some development opportunities from the season, but other players were on their own.

There was no short-season baseball last year for the 2020 Mets draft picks to get their first taste of pro ball. Top pick OF Pete Crow-Armstrong, third-round pick SS Anthony Walters, fourth-rounder C Matt Dyer, and fifth-rounder RHP Eric Orze were all invitees to the fall camp, as was Isaiah Green — since traded to Cleveland. Second-round pick J.T. Ginn is recovering from Tommy John surgery and won't pitch until sometime this summer. Of that group, Crow-Armstrong will have the opportunity to work in Major League camp this spring; the rest will have to wait until April.

From the 2019 draft, P Matt Allan and 3B Brett Baty enjoyed time at the alternate site and the Fall Instructional camp but are awaiting their first full-season minor league assignments. Both players will join Crow-Armstrong and #1 prospect Francisco Alvarez in big league camp, which will certainly benefit them as they seek to make up for lost time. The full list of non-roster invitees to camp can be found here.

I guess now would be the time to express an opinion on Tim Tebow being invited to camp. I know many Mets fans have strong feelings one way or the other on the man, but I'm Tebow-agnostic. I'm not outraged that he's received an invite to camp, but he's 33 and hasn't displayed the skills that would signal any potential to ever contribute to a major league club. I know he's demonstrated a great attitude and is popular with minor league fans and his teammates, so it's hard for me to hate on him, but I can't help but wonder if that spring training slot might be better used by someone else. But I'm not going to lose any sleep on it.

Beginning in April, after the big leaguers have departed for the still chilly north, the remaining 180 players will begin their own camps. The Mets Player Development people will have to integrate the players mentioned above who enjoyed some development last year with the others who only had zoom meetings and what they could arrange independently. They'll have to figure out how to get these players ready for the season, whenever that will be, and ensure they have the maximum opportunity to develop their talents to the fullest. The training staff will have to work hard to keep young players healthy as they enter into the grind of a minor league season after a year away from it all.

While dealing with all of these challenges, they'll also have to figure out how to best fill out rosters with only two A-ball affiliates instead of the five they utilized previously. Although I admit I could be wrong, I'd assume that the lowest A-ball level will probably feature a somewhat more enhanced level of play as the rawest players see more time in the complex. Still, it's going to be a more significant jump from Low-A to High-A than it was previously, and new strategies will have to be implemented to ensure players are developed properly and not tossed in over their heads.

I hope all of this is adequately covered by those in the media who enjoy access. I believe this will be genuinely fascinating to follow, in at least as much as we're allowed to do so. There's a lot of work to be done for the Mets to develop the type of system to enable them to sustain winning, particularly since sustaining winning would mean drafting much later in the rounds than they have in recent years. While the Dodgers have done this well, the Red Sox have had a more checkered history in sustaining winning, currently suffering through quite a dry patch after their latest World Series title.

I understand everyone is currently following the drama of the Mets attempting to swing a big roster-altering trade. Me too. And, soon enough, we'll be watching real, live games and hoping that this really is a "new" Mets club. However, don't sleep on what's happening with Player Development in this most challenging and pivotal of years. How much the Mets can get things right in charting their new course for developing prospects will very much affect their ability to sustain winning going forward.

Please stay safe, be well and take care. Let's go, Mets! (And Happy Valentine's Day to all ❤)

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos


  1. If it was a better day, I would have waxed poetic on the state of baseball as well. Unfortunately I woke up to the season's second snow. This time it stayed cold so even though it's afternoon now, it's still on the ground. Don't get me wrong. It's not the kind requiring giant plows or creative snowman construction techniques. It's a piddling amount but it was sure enough to foul up the roads and the airport. When I eventually made it there, I bet the driver I would be coming home again today. I was unfortunately right. After several hours of waiting and a two-hour airport closure they announced the flight would arrive too late to make the connecting flight (which would also prevent me from getting the third flight, the prepaid hotel and the prepaid rental car). Many angry phone calls later I sit here in El Paso with new reservations for a Tuesday pair of flights, no hotel and no car. I'm almost afraid to book them :)

  2. We have about a foot of snow on the ground here, and it's shut down me taking my dogs for hikes in the woods for the past couple of weeks. In my younger days I wondered why so many older people moved to warmer places, but as I get older I'm starting to get it. Hope things work out for you, Reese

  3. Geez Reese, you make me feel pretty good about my being cooped up in the house because of COVID and snowbound. There is nothing worse than mucked up travel plans. Good Luck with your flights and connections tomorrow.

    On to baseball. There doesn't seem to be any snow in Port St. Lucie, so good to go. I am very anxious to see the stories about the young guys and the box scores with their names in them for the first time.

    What I am most looking forward to, as you also allude to, is how they are going to assign these guys this year and whether the reduction in the leagues will make them a little more aggressive with their assignments. The Brooklyn roster, in particular, will be interesting.


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