Tuesday, March 8, 2022

With the Present on Hold, We Look to the Future

It was good news that negotiations between MLB and the Players Association resumed Sunday, but I fear we're still a considerable distance from playing major league ballgames this season. Still, the only way this will ever resolve is if the two sides continue talking to each other. Meanwhile, the only baseball being played in spring training camps is with minor leaguers who are not on the 40-man roster. Players on the 40-man, even if they haven't played an inning at the major league level, are still part of the MLBPA and are locked out along with major league ballplayers.

The bad news is that the prospects who are already on the 40-man roster are, of course, those closest to the major leagues. For the Mets, this means top position prospects Ronny MauricioMark VientosKhalil Lee, and Nick Plummer can't work with team coaches and trainers until this lockout ends. Their development has basically halted. Ditto with young pitchers Jose ButtoAdam Oller, and Thomas Szapucki. Not to mention very young major leaguers such as Yennsy DíazTylor Megill, and David Peterson, all of whom are far from fully developed. MLB clubs aren't just sticking it to the players and the fans by continuing their lockout. They're also hurting the future potential of some of their young players — the ones that they're counting on to become viable major leaguers soon. And don't forget many of these guys already lost a whole season of minor league baseball two years ago, thanks to the pandemic.

The good news is that the prospects who are in camp are undoubtedly benefitting from the extra attention they are receiving from team personnel who would be focusing primarily on major leaguers if this was an ordinary spring. We're not getting the volume of stories from training camp we see when MLB players are there, but a few items have trickled out. They offer hope for the future of the Mets once baseball returns.

Francisco Álvarez made an impression early on, introducing himself to reporters and finding an interpreter to facilitate interviews. It's cool that he's mature for a 20-year-old and understands that dealing with the media is a significant part of the job description for a New York professional ballplayer. More impressive is the way Francisco's prospect status continues to soar. The Mets' #1 prospect is also high on overall prospect rankings. He's 10th on MLB.com's Top 100 list, 7th on FanGraphs' list, and 8th in Keith Law's Top 100 at The Athletic.

Álvarez debuted in the states as a 17-year-old in 2019, playing 42 games combined in the Gulf Coast League and Appalachian League. His overall slash line was .312/.407/.510 — ridiculous numbers for a catcher who was one of those leagues' youngest players.

Álvarez worked out at the alternate site in Brooklyn in 2020 when the pandemic stopped all minor league baseball. While I'm sure he benefitted from being around some major leaguers and receiving superior coaching, it is important to note that he lost a whole season of playing in minor league games.

The Mets started Francisco off in Low A St Lucie last season. 15 games there with a .417/.567/.646 batting line proved that the 20-year-old needed a bigger challenge than that level could provide. He was promoted to High A Brooklyn. In 333 plate appearances as, again, one of the youngest players in the league, Álvarez slashed a more-than-respectable .247/.351/.538 with 13 doubles, 1 triple, and 22 home runs. 36 extra-base hits in 333 PA, playing home games in an extreme pitcher's park, shows Francisco's potential with his bat.

Álvarez is showing promise as a defender, although, like most very young catchers, he still has much to learn. While it's a shame that James McCann and Tomás Nido aren't in camp to mentor Francisco, he's benefitting from some extra time with big league coaches. Per Anthony DiComo at Mets.com:
If he hits at an elite level as a competent defensive catcher, Álvarez can be a superstar, one of the best players in the game... 
To that end, Mets coaches have worked tirelessly with Álvarez to improve his mobility and athleticism behind the plate. Showalter is eager to have Álvarez link up this spring with new bench coach and catching instructor Glenn Sherlock, who has tutored Jorge Posada, Brad Ausmus, Miguel Montero and many other successful catchers. Piazza might even have a word if he makes his usual spring visit to Port St. Lucie. 
"I'm really working on my setup, my stance, where I can be comfortable blocking," Álvarez said. "Now I'm thinking about that and just working to be another catcher in the big leagues for years."
I hate that major league baseball is in limbo. It rankles me that so many young players on the 40-man roster sit in limbo while MLB owners strain to make a few more dollars profit in coming seasons. The one silver lining in all of this is the opportunity for a prospect like Francisco Álvarez to soak up a little extra development. Álvarez is likely to play in Double-A this season, whether he starts off there or gets a promotion during the year. A healthy and productive 2022 could lead to a big league debut sometime in 2023.

Another Mets farmhand benefiting from the extra attention is second-round pick Calvin Ziegler. Thanks to the Kumar Rocker fiasco, he's the Mets' highest draft pick from last season to sign. The Mets signed Ziegler for $910,000, far below the slot value of $1.62 million allotted for the pick. The idea was supposed to be to use the savings to sign Rocker. While that didn't work out very well, I've read several positive items on Calvin from different sources. Writing for Baseball America, last September, Mike Puma quoted Marc Tramuta, the Mets director of amateur scouting, on the 19-year-old RHP from Canada:
"We really liked (Ziegler's) delivery, he had a lot of athletic movements and he was throwing 95-96 (mph) in the sixth inning when I saw him. He was commanding his fastball."

"Had teams more time to scout him—because he was on a screwy type of schedule—I think he got better, which a lot of high school kids do. He gained momentum throughout the spring."

"I felt very strongly about taking him in the second round."

The Mets undoubtedly blew it with the Rocker pick. It wasn't because the physical went so poorly that they chose not to sign their first-rounder. The Mets failed to have a backup later in the draft that they could have taken some of that money they saved to sign Rocker to an over-slot deal and had something to show for it. But for all of that, they did pick up some interesting arms, and Calvin Ziegler is one of the most promising.

Joe DeMayo has an excellent "deep dive" on Ziegler, well worth checking out in full. Joe is bullish on the young pitcher and thinks he will benefit from the investments Steve Cohen has made to bring the Mets' development into the modern era:

The Mets have focused on expanding their analytics team to potentially as many as 30 people for the 2022 season, including an analyst being assigned to each minor league affiliate.

With Ziegler's stuff, spin rate, and efficiency and movement profile, I think he will benefit a lot from the analytical presence that will be in place throughout the minor league system this coming season.

While there are a wide range of outcomes with the young, raw right-hander, the Mets believe they drafted a future big league starter in Ziegler.

As heartening as it undoubtedly is that young prospects such as Francisco Álvarez and Calvin Ziegler will get something positive out of this dreary lockout, it is still quite dispiriting that other good prospects are being hurt by this. In The Athletic, Tim Britton offers up a fine piece on Mark Vientos, the Mets' #6 prospect at MLB.com.

Vientos is a true power-hitting prospect, hitting 18 doubles and 25 home runs combined in stops at Double-A and Triple-A last season. These numbers were achieved in only 349 plate appearances. Mark Vientos' combined slash line at both levels was .281/.352/.581. What makes that even more impressive is that Vientos, drafted as a 17-year-old in 2017, had only played as high as Low-A before last season. While he spent time in the alternate site during 2020, it was still an aggressive push by the Mets to start Mark in Double-A last year.

Vientos understandingly struggled for his first month at Binghamton but then really took off. He earned a 10-game promotion to Triple-A Syracuse in September and continued to hit. If there was no lockout, Mark would have started the season in Syracuse. Had he continued to hit, it's not inconceivable that Vientos would get a callup to New York if the Mets needed an injury replacement.

Britton summarizes the difficult spot Vientos finds himself:
And yet right now, in the second week of March when Vientos should be getting a bunch of intriguing reps in Grapefruit League games, when he could be staking a claim to a major-league roster spot as soon as possible, he's waiting. Protracted anticipation has been a theme of the last few years — for Vientos, for the Mets, for all of us.

"I feel like I'm repeating 2020 in a way," said Vientos, somehow without terror in his voice. "A lot of us baseball players right now, the guys on the 40-man major-league rosters, are losing their minds ready to get out there and go play. … You’ve just got to deal with it."

As he suggested, Vientos in particular is in an awkward spot because of the lockout: Promoted to the 40-man roster last November, he's now a part of the union, which means he can't work out at team facilities or play in minor-league games while the lockout is ongoing. So while players like Álvarez and Baty have been at a minor-league camp in Port St. Lucie, Fla., preparing for the start of a minor-league season come the second week of April, Vientos is on his own.

He’s been working out in Miami, spending time at the same facility as Giancarlo Stanton, J.D. Martinez and Miguel Cabrera.
In a perfect, non-locked-out major league world, Mark Vientos would be working hard with team coaches right now preparing — not only for a season at Triple-A but also for a potential MLB debut. Instead, he's doing what he can on his own, waiting for the lockout to end and his season to get underway. While his natural position is 3B, the Mets had Mark playing some outfield last year, trying to develop some positional versatility. That's on hold.

Also, Vientos struck out 100 times in those 349 PAs last season. While he cut down on the Ks after his rough first month, he'll need to work on making more contact or be overwhelmed at the MLB level as Khalil Lee was last season. While I'm sure Mark is working on his hitting there in Miami, I only wish it was in Port St. Lucie with the Mets' development staff.

As pessimistic as I am about a resolution to this walkout, it still seems unlikely to linger on deeply into the summer. However, it would no longer shock me if both sides allowed their positions to become intractable and things dragged on for a while. The longer it lasts, the more challenging the tasks become for the New York Mets organization.

Not only will the Mets have to rush to get ready for whatever MLB season is left. They will also have to try to get these 40-man prospects like Mark Vientos prepared to join a minor league season already in progress without them. The Mets development people have to do their best to figure out how to help these young players get the most out of whatever is left of their 2022 season.

It will be interesting to watch what the Mets do with Vientos, Lee, Ronny Mauricio, Nick Plummer, and all of those young pitchers who are not currently benefitting from working out with the team. The idea will be to avoid injury and further lost development. It's not going to be easy. Getting it right has implications for the Mets' ability to compete for a playoff spot this season, even more so for the future beyond 2022.

Please be well and take care.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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