MiLB.com will be visiting each Spring Training site in the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues this month to report on the most significant stories involving each club's Minor League system as players get ready for the 2008 season. We'll find out who's impressing the organization, who's hot, who's not and sit down for an exclusive Q&A with a top prospect.
Team: New York Mets
Location: Port St. Lucie, Fla.
Date: Feb. 29, 2008
Post-Santana, what's left on the farm?
Tony Bernazard, the Mets vice president of player development, has heard the question in some form or another quite a bit since the trade. Obviously, in his role as the guy who oversees the farm system, he's not going to take kindly to those who claim it's bereft of talent now. It's not necessarily Mets-colored glasses -- he's not completely unrealistic -- but he's quick to point out he thinks there are many future big leaguers working their way up.
"We gave up a lot of talent for Johan Santana," Bernazard said from behind his desk at the Mets complex in Port St. Lucie, adding that they dealt away several other Minor Leaguers last year in trades for Luis Castillo and Jeff Conine. "But we still have plenty of players. Our scouting department did a tremendous job getting us players. We're OK, we're more than OK."
Obviously, everything revolves around Fernando Martinez. He's completely healthy after the hamate problem and Bernazard and Co. are very confident Martinez is going to start turning that ridiculous potential into performance this year. Martinez made a claim that he wanted to get to the big leagues in 2008, something that could seem a little brash coming from a teenager, but it wasn't meant that way. It was just Martinez understanding how good he can be, and from every indication, he's willing to work to get there. The concept of the 19-year-old making it to Shea before the year is out wasn't one Bernazard rejected or even downplayed.
"If he's healthy and produces the way he's capable, then it could happen," Bernazard said matter-of-factly. "He's a once-in-a-generation player."
And if a player like that gets to the big leagues and fulfills his potential, any other system shortcomings will quickly be forgotten.
Other News of the Day
Martinez has certainly gotten off on the right foot in big-league camp. He's already picked up two hits (2-for-4) and made an outstanding diving catch down the left-field line against the Cardinals here on Friday. ... RHP Eddie Kunz, the Mets' top pick in last year's Draft, made his spring debut on Friday, giving up two hits and a run in the ninth inning. There's a good chance he could go straight to Double-A to begin the season.
RHP Brant Rustich continues to work on stretching himself out to be a starter. The one-time UCLA closer has looked good in throwing sessions but has yet to pitch in a game.
Those who were at Tradition Field or watching on TV on Friday saw a blast from the past. RHP Nelson Figueroa will be 34 in May. He last pitched in the big leagues with the Pirates in 2004 and hasn't pitched in the United States since '06, spending last year in the Mexican League. But there he was, the Brooklyn native, who last pitched stateside with New Orleans when it was a Nationals affiliate two years ago, throwing a scoreless fourth against St. Louis.
Five Questions with Eddie Kunz
MiLB.com: What has it been like working with Billy Wagner?
EK: It's been really good. He's taught me a lot about the little things you need to do, how you have to work on everything. It's helped my game just by making me focus on those things. Pitchers are supposed to be perfect, but no one is. You have to keep working on everything, things like picking up bunts, getting off the mound, being quicker to first base. You hear about all the little things you're supposed to do, but being here and seeing how to do it has been very helpful.
MiLB.com: After the Santana trade, you've moved up to the top of the Mets prospects list. Are you OK with that added attention or is it something you'd rather avoid?
EK: Either way, it really doesn't matter. Before the trade, I was kind of middle of the pack, but I guess now I'm right up there. I don't really look at that stuff, things like prospect rankings. I'll just do the best I can and whatever happens happens. People can decide for themselves. It's their choice.
MilB.com: It seems that college closers have been rising in importance/profile the past couple of years. Who's the best college closer you've ever seen?
EK: Probably Huston Street. Then he went really quickly up to the big leagues. In 2006 at Oregon State, our closer, Kevin Gunderson, was very good at what he did. He knew how to get people out. He was the best college closer in the nation that year. It seems that every year, college closers do get better and better.
MilB.com: What's your biggest accomplishment, on or off the field?
EK: The two national championships certainly were big, but I'll say it was my freshman year at Oregon State, when no one knew who I was. I was just the big kid who could throw hard. I showed I could get people out. In our super-regional against USC, it was the seventh inning, the game was tied at 7-7 and the bases were loaded. They brought me into the game and I struck out Jeff Clement, who had homered earlier in the game and was the No. 3 pick in the draft that year. I got a ground ball to get out of the inning. We scored two runs in the next inning, our closer finished the game and that took us to the College World Series in Omaha.
MilB.com: If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?
EK: I'd have to say Randy Johnson. He's been a big idol for me back from when he was in Seattle and I would go and see him pitch. I always liked him because I was always on the bigger end of things. I started throwing a slider because of him. So it would be fun to talk to him about pitching.
A year ago at this time, Mets left-handed pitching prospect Jonathan Niese showed up to camp a touch out of shape. And when we say a touch, we really mean a two-handed shove.
"I was overweight," Niese said. "I'll be the first one to admit it."
Niese said he weighed in at around 240 pounds last year. By comparision, he's at about 210 now and in excellent condition. It wasn't that he didn't work out during the offseason, but the young left-hander had abysmal eating habits.
"I learned a big lesson," Niese said. "Now I'm eating healthier and I'm not eating as much. I was very ignorant about it."
He was educated by his roommate in St. Lucie last year, Nick Abel, who helped him cook and eat appropriately. Niese had what he described as a roller-coaster ride of a season because he dropped the weight, got into shape and then had a hard time understanding his body relative to his mechanics. The guy who had a 2.62 ERA in August and turned in a stellar postseason start last year is more the pitcher he thinks he is than the one who struggled for much of the 2007 season.
And he showed up to camp ready and raring to go. He took care of his body during the offseason and has, according to Bernazard, "looked great right away, with a very good presence." For his part, Niese -- who started the Mets' Grapefruit League game against the Dodgers on Saturday -- is happy to focus on pitching and not conditioning.
"I'm going to keep working on staying healthy," he said. "I know what to do [health-wise] and can focus more on my pitches and the mentality of pitching."
No matter how you slice it, the Mets farm system has taken a huge hit over the past year. The Santana trade alone took away most of the organization's top prospects and the list of Minor Leaguers in big-league camp wasn't exaclty a who's who of elite prospects.
There are two ways of dealing with that fact: You can lament it and bemoan the lack of upper-echelon talent or you can accept it as the way it is in New York. In that market, the farm system is always going to be used for trades like the one that was orchestrated with the Twins. Just remember, every time you see Fernando Martinez set foot on Tradition Field and do things like the catch he made on Friday, that the Mets made out pretty good in that deal. Go check F-Mart out now or in Binghamton when the season starts. He's the type you'll want to be able to brag about seeing when he was just a teen.