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After a year in the dark, minor league baseball is here. The Mets’ four full-season affiliates will finally get their seasons off the ground on Tuesday.
This year won’t look like what most fans are accustomed to, with six-game series, new playing rules, and a new alignment of leagues.
The Mets’ Triple-A and Double-A affiliates in Syracuse and Binghamton remain the same, but Brooklyn -- formerly a short-season club -- has jumped to the High-A level. That bumps St. Lucie down to Low-A, the spot previously held by Columbia (now a Kansas City Royals affiliate).
Short-season and rookie-level leagues, aside from the complex teams in Florida and the Dominican Republic, are a thing of the past.
In the end, it’s still baseball, and that’s a welcome sight for the 250-plus minor leaguers in the organization who had their 2020 season wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here are five storylines that we’re keeping an eye on as the season gets underway...
NEW REGIME IN PLACE
For the second time in three seasons, the Mets have new decision makers in their minor league system.
At the top, Sandy Alderson hired Kevin Howard, the former Cleveland Indians minor league hitting coordinator, as the new director of player development. Howard, who was promoted to the big league staff on Monday after the firings of Chili Davis and Tom Slater, replaced Jared Banner, who was let go along with Brodie Van Wagenen and is now with the Chicago Cubs.
Kevin Boles, who was promoted to field coordinator after serving as Binghamton’s manager in 2019, will help to oversee the entire minor league system.
There were more hires this offseason, too. Hugh Quattlebaum, formerly of the Seattle Mariners, was added as the new director of hitting development before he was promoted to hitting coach in the wake of Davis' firing.
A new subdivision within the minor league operations — Player Development Initiatives — will be headed by former Astros hitting coordinator Jeremy Barnes. Former major league reliever Carter Capps and Mariners bullpen coach Brian DeLunas are two of the more progressive hires made by the Mets in recent memory.
What matters is how this top-down shift under Steve Cohen will translate to on-field improvements. With coaches who are better-equipped to implement cutting edge data in place, to what extent will players be better suited to make adjustments over the long season?
Coming off the lost year in 2020, adaptability is of the utmost importance. How soon these new hires can solidify the new structure of the player development department will go a long way in establishing the long term health of the organization.
TOP PROSPECTS' DEVELOPMENT
Unlike the overwhelming majority of players in the organization, the Mets’ top prospects received the best possible instruction during the COVID season last summer. Francisco Alvarez, Ronny Mauricio, Brett Baty, Mark Vientos, and Matt Allan all spent at least a couple of weeks at the Alternate Site in Brooklyn, where they worked hands-on with coaches, as opposed to communicating virtually.
In theory, those guys should be ahead of the players who reported for spring training in March after a year at home. But there’s a lot we don’t know, like if those extra repetitions will be evident when the games begin.
With the exception of Mauricio and Vientos, none of the Mets’ top prospects have full-season experience. It’s hard to grapple with that fact given how long names like Allan and Alvarez have been tossed around. But assuming that all of these players are going to step in and zoom up to the upper minors this season would be misguided.
Not unlike any highly-regarded prospects, this Mets crop has plenty to prove. Whether that be Vientos maintaining his power while raising his walk-to-strikeout ratio, Mauricio increasing his in-game power, or Allan being able to deploy his changeup against a different colored uniform, there is plenty to keep tabs on as the summer unfolds.
2020 DRAFT PICK DEBUTS
I can’t imagine there’s a group of minor leaguers across the game more excited to start playing this week than the 2020 draft class.
It will have been 328 days since Pete Crow-Armstrong was selected by the Mets with the 19th overall pick last summer when he gets penciled into St. Lucie’s opening day lineup on Tuesday. The toolsy center fielder is still just 19 years old, so expect some growing pains but plenty of reminders of what he could one day become.
Second-round pick J.T. Ginn is about 14 months removed from Tommy John surgery, so while he won’t be placed on an opening day roster, he isn’t too far off. The Mississippi State product is expected to join Brooklyn when he’s ready to return to game action.
Shortstop Anthony Walters (third round) and catcher Matthew Dyer (fourth round), will open with Brooklyn and St. Lucie, respectively. Both are experienced college bats who could hit their way to prospect status, but given the delayed starts to their careers, are older than is typically preferable.
Fifth-round right-hander Eric Orze will pitch out of the Brooklyn bullpen, offering an interesting fastball-splitter combo.
EMERGING MLB CONTRIBUTORS
It’s no secret that the upper levels of the Mets' system is devoid of potential impact talent.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t some interesting names who could take the leap and reach the major leagues later this year or in 2022. Start with Thomas Szapucki, who now holds a post-hype sleeper label. After some disappointing reports from the Alternate Site last year, he was back up to 95 mph this spring and could succeed in a bullpen role if the rotation doesn’t work out for him.
Khalil Lee likely isn’t in consideration for a major league role for the rest of this season, but a strong showing in his Triple-A debut would put him in the Mets’ 2022 plans. Sam McWilliams and Yennsy Diaz have big league velocity but they’ll need innings in Syracuse to build up to the point where the team would feel comfortable throwing them into a major league bullpen.
All four of those players are currently on the 40-man roster, meaning the Mets could be inclined to dip into that depth pool at any time.
KEEPING TABS ON RULE 5
While it won’t get publicity until after the season, it’s worth keeping track of the players in the organization who will be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft in December.
With a strong year, a player on the bubble could move himself into the conversation for being added to the 40-man roster in November. This year’s class of eligibles includes international signings and high school draftees from 2017 and college picks from 2018.
That means the Mets will have to decide how many of the following group to add to the roster: Jose Butto, Carlos Cortes, Ryley Gilliam, Adrian Hernandez, Tylor Megill, Junior Santos, Mauricio and Vientos. That isn’t a comprehensive list, and the names that seem obvious now might not be come November (and vice versa).