People in and around baseball are taking notice of the Mets' aggressiveness in placing young prospects at very high Minor League levels relative to their age and professional experience.
"They push their guys ahead very quickly," says John Sickels, Minor League baseball analyst for RotoWire and author of The Baseball Prospect annual.
"It's definitely indicative of an organizational philosophy," says Baseball America's Jim Callis. "They believe in advancing players quickly if they have the makeup to handle it."
This year, the Mets have, by all accounts, the youngest player in Class A in catcher Francisco Pena (who turns 18 in October), High A in pitcher Deolis Guerra (who turned 18 last week), Double-A in center fielder Fernando Martinez (who turned 18 in January) and the second youngest in the Pacific Coast League (Triple-A) in center fielder Carlos Gomez (who turned 21 last December).
Guerra is perhaps the most intriguing at the moment to outside observers like Sickels and Callis, as his stock has risen dramatically in the last few months into the class of Gomez and Martinez as top big-league prospects.
Guerra was signed by the Mets at the age of 16 as an international free agent.
Prior to this spring, he was viewed as a finesse pitcher whose upside in terms of velocity was low 90s and at least a year or two away. Last year, Guerra's fastball mostly sat in the high 80s. But this spring, the now 6-foot-6 Guerra refined his mechanics to the point where his fastball popped the catcher's mitt at 96 mph, according to Mets vice president of player development Tony Bernazard.
"That moves him up to at least a B-plus prospect," says Sickels. "And, depending on his final numbers and health, he could be in store for an A-minus grade in my next book, making him possibly one of the top 10 pitching prospects in baseball."
Adds Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus on his blog, "(Guerra) is no longer about projection now. I woefully under-ranked him in the Mets top 10 prospects."
Baseball America already ranked Guerra's changeup as the best in the organization. While Bernazard says Guerra's velocity in games has settled in the 92-mph range, he believes he will consistently throw in the mid-90s in the near future.
"Deolis is still growing. Remember, he would be, what, a senior in high school now? That arm speed he showed this spring at 96 miles per hour opened eyes but it is something we will not be at all surprised to see consistently displayed as he continues to develop."
Guerra is developing against players three and four years older than him. Bernazard, who played 10 big league seasons, says this is by design.
"It is a philosophy that we've implemented. Players with a lot of talent need challenges. As a competitor through the years, I learned that when you play with people with more talent, you get better. We feel our best players need that challenge."
Sickels questions the Mets' aggressiveness and fears it could backfire if players struggle, lose confidence and ultimately need to be sent back to a lower level.
Bernazard counters that coping with failure is a skill that a professional needs to master and the Mets want players to experience these growing pains as part of the development process.
"We don't want to find out how you're going to handle a tough situation in the big leagues," Bernazard says. "What's the worst that can happen? A kid struggles and goes back? Last year, Carlos Gomez struggled the first few months of the season (in Double-A), but he ended up hitting .280-something in a strong pitching league. He made the adjustments and he's going to end up being a better player for having done so."
Guerra wowed in his first start but has subsequently struggled. "His mechanics are pretty good," Bernazard says. "He works hard at it. But his coordination has some ways to go, which doesn't surprise us considering his size and continued (physical) growth. So he's going to have days where he's not finding (his rhythm)."
Gomez started 2007 very strong in New Orleans. Lately, he's ebbed a little and his average after the games on Sunday sat at .294, but his strikeout rate was down and walk rate up slightly from those levels at Double-A. He's continued to flash big league defensive ability in center field and is making the comparisons to Jose Reyes seem prescient by stealing nine bags in his first 18 games. Unlike Reyes, Gomez is 6-foot-4.
Mets fans need to get used to their Triple-A affiliate playing in the PCL, which has traditionally been a hitter's league (in stark contrast to the International League, where the Mets Triple-A affiliate has always resided). But Bernazard cautions those who want to discount any offensive numbers Gomez and the rest of the Zephyrs produce.
"Our guys in Triple-A travel more than any of the other teams. There are a lot of 4 a.m. flights. So, the first one or two games of every series, these kids are going to be in adjusting mode."
Martinez has also started slowly in Double-A, hitting .231 through Sunday. But he has a decent 5-to-8 walk-to-strikeout ratio in 39 at-bats.
Both Gomez and Martinez are batting third and playing center field even though Bernazard doubts those will be their eventual roles on the Mets, given Carlos Beltran and the strength of the Mets lineup.
"We want them to learn to deal with the pressure and get used to hitting with men on base. As for the position they're playing, we're very fortunate to have Beltran and three top prospects who project as big-league center fielders when you include Lastings Milledge (who is just four months older than Gomez). Fortunately, all have the arm strength to play right and, of course, could easily play left, too."
Baseball America says Gomez not only has the best outfield arm in the organization, but one of the best in all of the Minors.
All of the these precocious Mets prospects can call Pena junior. Pena was the catcher on the infamous Bronx Little League team that won the World Series before being disqualified due to the age of pitcher Danny Almonte. Unlike Almonte, Pena was actually legally eligible to play at 11 years of age during that 2001 championship quest.
The son of former big league catcher and manager (and current Yankees coach) Tony Pena, Francisco has filled out and up from those Little League days, now carrying 200 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame. Last year, the Mets beat 10 teams that were reportedly vying for the services of Pena, generally regarded as one of the handful of top catching prospects in the history of the Dominican Republic.
Pena has yet to flash power for the Savannah Sand Gnats of the South Atlantic league, but ended the weekend with a .313 average with one walk and nine strikeouts in 48 at-bats.