There were 75 players taken in the opening two rounds of the 2017 First-Year Player Draft, only seven of which were 17-year-olds. Of that group, no one was younger than Mark Vientos, whose birthdate was Dec. 11, 1999. Born in Connecticut -- a state where the kindergarten cutoff is Jan.
There were 75 players taken in the opening two rounds of the 2017 First-Year Player Draft, only seven of which were 17-year-olds. Of that group, no one was younger than Mark Vientos, whose birthdate was Dec. 11, 1999. Born in Connecticut -- a state where the kindergarten cutoff is Jan. 1 -- Vientos started going to school early relative to his Draft class peers.
The Mets scooped up the American Heritage (Plantation, Florida) infielder with the 59th overall pick and signed him to a $1.5 million bonus, about half a million above the recommendation for the slot. It was a bet that Vientos' raw offensive ability could come through over a longer development path than most high schoolers in the same class, and the player was confident that age wouldn't matter in the long run.
"I had the mindset that I was ready to start my dream career," Vientos said. "If the Mets or any other team gave me the opportunity and were willing to give me the chance, then I was going to show them what I had. If I didn't get that shot, I would have loved to have gone to [the University of Miami]. But everything worked out. I wanted to start my dream."
The early returns on that bet are quite promising, and the teenager will have the chance to build on the developmental work he's put in so far as he figures to get his first assignment to a full-season club in 2019.
After signing him in June 2017, the Mets sent Vientos to the Gulf Coast League. It was clear enough that the 6-foot-4, 185-pound right-handed slugger had some catching up to do in the pros. He hit .259/.316/.398 with four homers in 193 plate appearances in the complex circuit, production that worked out to a nearly league-average 104 wRC+. That was decent production for a player whose value is tied almost exclusively to his bat, but it wasn't quite enough to push the envelope.
New York held him in extended spring camp to begin 2018 and eventually assigned him to Rookie-level Kingston, where he'd made a four-game cameo the previous summer. Vientos still struggled to separate himself from the rest of the pack early on, producing a .250/.319/.381 line with two homers and an 86 wRC+ through July 19 -- one month after the Appalachian League Opening Day. Having entered the season ranked No. 6 among Mets prospects, Vientos admitted that right out of the gate he was trying to be a mega-prospect instead of the still-maturing teenager the Mets knew he was and would be throughout 2018.
"It was more me trying new things, trying to make things happen too quickly when I should have been doing what I was in Spring Training and extended," he said. "I was thinking too much. I came out of Spring Training and instead of being Mark Vientos, the good player, I was trying to do too much to be someone else. I have expectations for myself, and those got to my head. When I started playing for the team, trying to get RBIs, trying to move guys around, that's when I got better."
He hit .309/.429/.554 with nine homers, seven doubles and (yes) 36 RBIs over his final 39 games of the season, from July 20 onward. His .983 OPS after the first month was sixth-best among Appy League qualifiers, and his nine dingers were in a four-way tie for first.
Vientos finished with a .287/.389/.489 line with 11 homers over 60 total contests. His 132 wRC+ for the season ranked ninth among the Appy League's 54 qualified hitters, even after the slow start. He was no longer an offensive project but the genuine article at an age-appropriate level.
It's perhaps no coincidence that at about the same time he turned things around, his plate discipline began to shine through. Over that final 39-game stretch, Vientos walked more times (29) than he struck out (28) in 168 plate appearances. He finished with a season strikeout rate of 16.4 percent in a league where the average was 22.1 percent. That bucks the modern trend of hitters willing to sell out for power, even if it means more K's, and some of that might have to do with one similarity Vientos shares with Joey Votto in terms of his two-strike approach.
"It was mostly trusting my hands," Vientos said. "The Appy League, we like to think, is a big hitter's league, but I was trying too much to drive the ball out every time, instead of letting the ball get to the gaps and getting my hits that way. When I would get two strikes on me, I really don't like striking out. I'd much rather hit the ball hard into play and letting things take over from there. So I'll choke up pretty good with two strikes, and that worked for me. I was still able to get the balls to the gaps, getting those doubles and hitting well when I was short to the ball and trusting my hands. Obviously, my strikeout rate dropped, too."
Other numbers also reflect Vientos' ability to produce when he was down to his last strike. The Florida native hit .255/.372/.422 over 121 plate appearances with two strikes. Put another way, that was 26-for-102 with five homers and two doubles. Only Jeff McNeil (.259) had a higher average in such scenarios among all Mets batters -- Major or Minor Leaguers -- with at least 100 two-strike plate appearances, and no player in the organization produced a better wOBA (weighted on-base average) than Vientos' .355. Everyone else in the top five has at least some Major League experience.
Mets hitters with two strikes in 2018
The combination of power and discipline should be huge for Vientos going forward, especially given the rest of his prospect profile. He was a shortstop at American Heritage -- a program that's also produced the likes of Eric Hosmer and recent first-rounders Zack Collins and Triston Casas -- but the Mets told Vientos last spring that they were officially moving him to third base. That made sense given his size and 30-grade speed, but Vientos admitted it was a process getting used to his new permanent spot. He leaned on No. 14 Mets prospect and Kingsport roommate Shervyen Newton to pick up details on positioning as the Appy League season went on.
"It's totally different," he said. "At shortstop, you've got more time to get to a ball. At third, if you're not ready, that's how balls get by you. That took some time to adjust to, but I've been working a lot on my footwork and fielding this offseason to keep getting better there."
If Vientos can become adequate at third -- and he's got the above-average arm to make that happen -- that could be the next building block in a potential bid to become the next Mets player to be named one of MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects. Vientos is expected to be challenged with an assignment to Class A Columbia to begin 2019, and he's likely to be one of the South Atlantic League's youngest position players (19) come April. Given the way 2018 ended, Vientos thinks he's ready to prove he should be known for more than his youth.
"It's all about being comfortable," he said. "It's all about getting used to good pitching, trusting my ability to adjust and knowing I'm a good hitter. I knew it'd be a matter of time before I showed that to everyone else. Now, it's all about carrying that forward."
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.