Heading into this season, the book on the New York Mets' No. 9 prospect Luis Mateo was that his fastball and slider each had the makings of plus-plus offerings. His changeup, however, was a few steps behind.
St. Lucie pitching coach Phil Regan got his first in-game look at Mateo on Tuesday when the right-hander threw 6 2/3 shutout innings in his Florida State League debut. His impression: What book was everybody else reading?
The 23-year-old pitcher allowed four hits and two walks while striking out nine before reaching his mid-80s pitch count en route to a 4-0 win over Palm Beach.
"His changeup is outstanding," Regan said. "His fastball is plus. He has three plus pitches. His slider was almost unhittable tonight."
Mateo spent almost all of Spring Training with Double-A Binghamton, though Regan said he had expected the Nizao, Dominican Republic native would be in St. Lucie's rotation to start the year since February. The promotion to Class A Advanced came as a surprise to some outside the Mets organization, as Mateo made just 12 starts for short-season Brooklyn last year.
Regan raved about Mateo's repertoire. He said the right-hander's fastball sat around 93-95 mph and featured heavy sink, and his slider -- which reportedly hit 90 mph last year -- was a go-to offering. Regan, a former Major League pitcher, sees a clear-cut big leaguer in Mateo, noting most of his remaining weaknesses are periphery adjustments.
"He needs to work on some things, like holding runners and getting signs," Regan said. "You have to do the little things that make a winning pitcher if you're going to stay (in the Majors). You can get to the Majors just throwing the ball, but to stay, you have to do the little things."
Getting to the Florida State League was a turbulent process for the Dominican hurler. He initially signed with the Giants for $625,000 in 2008, but that deal was voided when bone chips were found in his elbow. He then signed with the Padres for $300,000, but that deal was also nullified when MLB learned he was two years older than initially believed.
He was suspended for a season for the age discrepancy and finally signed in April 2011 with the Mets for $150,000. He made 13 starts for the Mets' Dominican Summer League team that year, and finally came stateside in 2012. The Mets sent him to Brooklyn, and in 12 starts, he led the New York-Penn League with 85 strikeouts and compiled a 2.45 ERA.
Mateo's fastball-slider combo is formidable. He can push his fastball up to 97 mph, and his slider is one of the best in the Minor Leagues -- a hard-breaking offering that can tick up to 90 mph.
But the rapid development of his changeup also is encouraging news. The organization has also worked to smooth his delivery, encouraging more balance, and as Regan said, "keeping his head over his feet."
"We've got him balanced and a little more forward with his delivery so he can control the ball a little better," the coach said. "Also, instead of dropping under the ball, he's staying a little more on top of the ball. He's not an overhand pitcher, but he doesn't, as I like to say, push the ball anymore. At least he didn't tonight."
Mateo's first FSL inning didn't start well. He allowed consecutive singles to Palm Beach's James Ramsey and Colin Walsh. The right-hander found a quick escape, though, when Stephen Piscotty's line drive to short turned into a 6-4-3 triple play.
"It looked like it was going to be a long inning," Regan said. "Then he got out of the inning with five pitches."
Mateo retired the Cardinals in order in the second and third, then scattered two hits and two walks before being pulled with two outs in the seventh.
"I really felt he threw the ball well," Regan said. "I guess for going into the seventh with a shutout, it was a pretty good performance."