Prospect Pulse: The Relievers

An article by posted on September 14, 2011

When next year’s Spring Training arrives, there will be some fierce competition for spots in the Mets bullpen. At this point, barring trade or injury, the only logical holdovers would be Bobby Parnell, Pedro Beato and Manny Acosta. Otherwise, it’s pretty wide-open. The recent performances of Josh Stinson and Daniel Herrera are promising, and they should be solidly in-the-mix as well.

But where else are The Mets going to find help? The more games Parnell blows, the less of a chance he’ll be the closer. Beato is basically a rookie and despite being “babied,” has pitched too unevenly to be deemed ready to close games. Acosta certainly deserves a long look this month, and he may be able to emerge as an inexpensive solution. But more than likely the team will be forced to bring in a veteran closer, someone who won’t cost an arm-and-a-leg. Somebody like say, Matt Capps, just for the sake of argument.

That should pretty much blow the “bullpen budget for 2012“, and any additional help will likely have to be cultivated from within. Fear not! There does seem to be more than a few intriguing possibilities on the farm. Power-pitchers that can really bring it, and a few of which could be ready to come up and help out in the pen, at some point next year. I have put together a list of six RHP’s and two LHP’s, let’s take a closer look at these eight guys:

RIGHT-HANDERS

Brad Holt – I just wrote a pretty involved spiel on Holt this past week in the Buffalo 2012 Preview piece. Here’s what I said:

“The enigmatic 6’4″ right-hander with the “perfect pitchers body” and the power fastball, has been a real head-scratcher so far. After breaking out of the box like a runaway train for Brooklyn, as a starter, making his professional debut in 2008, Holt ran into a brick wall the following season.

For nine games in 2009 he did fine for St Lucie, but then when called up to Bingo, all-hell-broke-loose. He suddenly couldn’t get anybody out. The remainder of ’09 he pitched to a record of 3-6 with a 6.21 ERA. In 2010, after starting out in AA going 1-5 with an alarming 10.20 ERA, he was demoted to St Lucie where he didn’t do much better, going 2-9, 7.48 ERA.

Holt’s 2011 season wasn’t eye-popping, but he is definitely making progress. His overall numbers this year are average, 8-8 with a 4.71 ERA, but most of the runs he gave up were in the first half when he was being utilized as a starter. Since being converted to a relief pitcher full-time, he has been quietly doing a superb job, going 6-2 with a 4.09 ERA, in one and two inning stints. In his last eleven games out of the pen Holt is: 4-1 with a 4.02 ERA, and opponents are hitting .203 off him.

The biggest improvement Holt has made is in his increased command, which has resulted in fewer walks, and that was crucial for him. As a starter last year, his K/BB ratio was 39/42, that’s right, more walks than strikeouts. As a reliever, his K/BB was 35/15. If he can keep moving forward, and make the necessary adjustments to the higher caliber of play at AAA, he could emerge as a “relief ace” for Buffalo, a real lock down 8th inning guy, which is exactly what the Mets see him as in the bigs. Will he be a help to the Mets at sometime in 2012 as a bullpen option? Why the heck not? He’s got the talent, hopefully his mechanics will fall into line.”

He is the highest ceiling guy on this list, if he can iron out his secondary pitches and fastball command issues. He could factor in very quickly. With all his talent, at age 24, he’s really not that far away.

Jose De La Torre - Probably the closest on this list to the major leagues, in terms of readiness, the 5’9″, 25 year-old right-hander suffered through an injury marred season in 2011. This year, his second at AAA, he spent a lengthy stint on the DL, missing virtually all of May and June, and half of July.

When on the field, De La Torre pitched very well, in 20.1 IP, over 15 games, he went 2-2 with a .089 ERA. His opponents against BA was .194, and he has always been equally effective against RH hitters and LH hitters. When healthy, Jose has proven to be a very reliable reliever at the highest levels of the minors, and should be in the competition for a vacant spot in 2011 ST.

Nicholas Carr - As far as Carr’s fastball goes, it has what you can’t teach, major league velocity topping out in the mid to upper-nineties. But his lack of command with his fastball and his mediocre secondary stuff is what’s been holding him back. By this time, the 24 year-old Carr was supposed to have made it at least as far as AA, but arm injuries have stalled his development, and kept him on the sidelines for much of 2011.

When he did pitch this year he logged 30 IP in 22 games for St. Lucie, with a record of 3-0 and an ERA of 2.40. Good enough to be selected for the FSL mid-season all-star team. In six minor league seasons since the Mets made Carr their 41st round pick in the 2005 draft, he has a lifetime K/9 of 8.7, but his BB/9 of 4.5 tells the story of where he needs to go to get that major league cup of coffee.

Rhiner Cruz - Yet another 24 year-old right-hander who throws hard, he has dialed it up as high as 99 MPH. Cruz is slightly more advanced at this point than Carr, having just pitched his first season in AA, with mixed results. Posting a 3-2 record and a 4.14 ERA, he was fairly untouchable at times, however at other times Cruz struggled with his control as his BB/9 of 6.0 indicates. His lifetime minor league BB/9 is at 5.5 over seven seasons and 340 IP. Cruz should open the season at Bingo again, but if he can dial-it-down a little, and cut down on his walks, it’s not inconceivable that he could be a September call-up next year.

Edgar Ramirez - When 2011 ST arrived, Ramirez was in the same boat as Cruz is this year. Having just had
a mixed season the first go-round at AA in 2010, Edgar was looking to start the season at Bingo, make the necessary adjustments, and quickly earn a call-up to Buffalo. He did start the season strong, but then things went downhill. Injuries caused him to spend two significant stints on the DL, the first from the middle of May to the second week of July, and the second wiped out the entire month of August.

He did manage to come back to finish the season with 2 appearances for the B-Mets in September. For the year he went: 1-2 with a 3.48 ERA, he pitched 31 IP with a WHIP of 1.19. The 27 year-old Ramirez is an intimidating figure on the mound, standing 6’4″ and weighing in at 250 lbs. He throws a very heavy sink fastball, which is why in 316 lifetime minor league innings over six seasons, Edgar’s HR/9 ratio is 0.7. If healthy Ramirez should open the season at Buffalo next year, with success there, it could be his time.

Manny Alvarez - This time last year things were looking great for Alvarez. He had just completed an outstanding 2010 season where he opened the year at St. Lucie with 25.2 IP in which he did not give up an earned run. That got him a AA call-up, where he went 3-1 with a 2.87 ERA at Bingo. He pitched so well he capped off his season by earning a promotion to AAA Buffalo. Overall at the three stops his 2010 season totals looked like this: in 56 games he was 6-4 with a 2.17 ERA, 17 Saves, 79 IP, 55 Hits, a .199 BA against, and a K/BB ratio of 84/12. Fearing that someone would take notice in the Rule 5 draft if they didn’t protect him, the Mets added Manny to the 40-man roster last winter.

Going to major league ST for the first time in 2011 had to be awesome, for the 25 year-old from Venezuela. He started the year at Bingo, but only for 2 games, 3 IP, while the Mets juggled their minor league rosters and then he was quickly brought up to Buffalo. But he only lasted 7 IP over 7 games, and by the beginning of May, he was on the DL for the rest of the year, with a bad elbow. There have been no updates on his progress as yet, but if he can come back healthy, there is a chance he can be making his Citifield debut next year.

LEFT-HANDERS

Eric Niesen - When the Mets drafted the 26-year-old left-hander out of Wake Forest, in the 3rd round of the 2007 draft, they knew they were getting a southpaw with a “live” arm, an electric fastball, and a slider with nasty movement, who only needed to harness his command to become a “force” in the big league bullpen. Five roller-coaster seasons later, the Mets are still waiting for Niesen to put it all together. The wait may finally be over.

In five minor league seasons, Niesen’s numbers aren’t pretty to look at, but you can throw that out the window. It’s all about development with this guy, he has been a “project” all along, and the Mets knew that when they drafted him. His lifetime record stands at 20-40. He pitched in 147 minor league games, 74 of which were GS, compiling a 4.51 ERA in 433 IP. The most glaring issues are his BB/9 of 4.7, and H/9 of 9.1. Both are a direct result of his command being off. He would always be behind in the count, so he would have to throw a cookie, and the batter normally would eat it.

In 2010 Niesen made around a dozen starts for Bingo when a freak accident put him on the DL for half-a-season. He had just delivered a pitch to catcher Mike Nickeas, with the runner on first taking off. Nickeas’ throw to second struck Niesen right in the back of the head. It was a horrific play, but fortunately Niesen made a full recovery, although it was to further delay his development.

2011 started at Bingo again for Niesen with plenty of hope and promise. This time he was to be used strictly as a reliever, in order to bring his game into focus. Unfortunately, the command problems were still there, and he struggled mightily, going 0-5, 7.94 ERA in 28 IP. His K/9 was at an all-time low 7.0, his BB/9 was the worst of his career, ballooning to 9.8! His H/9 was also a putrid 9.8. This earned him a ticket down to St. Lucie around mid-season, to basically start over from scratch. This was where he was to turn things around. He began working with pitching coach Phil Regan on quickening and tightening his delivery to the plate.

“He helped me shorten my step and get my hip turned a little bit. Once that happened, everything clicked for me and I’m right there. Now I have video and written instructions to help me,” said Niesen. ”Phil’s really done a great job with me. He really knows what he’s doing. He sees things, gives you a minor suggestion and fixes them quickly. He’s probably one of the best pitching coaches, if not the best, that I’ve ever seen.”

And guess what? It seems to be working, and working pretty well. He threw 36 IP for St. Lucie, nearly the same as at Bingo in the first half. Where his Bingo ERA had been 7.94 he reduced it at St. Lucie to 3.00, while posting a record of 3-3. More telling were his vast improvements in command. His H/9 dropped to 7.5, but his BB/9 went all the way down to 1.5, from 9.8. I know it’s only high A ball, but control is control, and walks are walks no matter what league you’re playing in. And let’s face it, the guy has been down for so long, he really needed this boost to his confidence. If Niesen has truly turned a corner and can maintain that kind of control, he could easily make the Buffalo roster in the spring. Then he’s just a phone call away, and it may not be long before we have a homegrown, lefty power-arm, coming out of the bullpen at Citi.

Justin Hampson - The only one on this list, that isn’t a prospect. The former big-leaguer, who has been battling his way back from injury, is a free agent now and not even a sure-thing to resign with the club for 2012. But if I were the Mets, I’d give him a minor league deal with an invite to ST, because he struck fear into the hearts of lefty hitters in AAA this year and has a track record of success in the big leagues.

Finally healthy again, the left-hander emerged as a workhorse out of the Buffalo pen this year. He threw 58 IP for the Herd, finishing the year 3-3 with a 3.41 ERA. Last week he was named the AAA Comeback Player of the Year, as well as receiving an award for community service. He was second on the club in appearances with 52, 1st in Holds with 8, 1st batter out proficiency: 71%, 21 out of 27 Inherited Runners stranded, for a success rate of: 78%. For the year left-handed hitters batted only .216 against Hampson, with a total of 6 extra base hits, including just one HR. His major league totals are 79 games over three seasons. In 96 IP he went 5-4 with a 3.38 ERA, for the Colorado Rockies and the San Diego Padres in the 2006-8 seasons.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The first seven guys on this list, the prospects, are “Omar” guys. Like with any player, there are question marks, mostly injury questions, as well as some command issues with the five or six hard-throwers on the list. How many out of the seven would need to pan out, to help put a little more luster back into Omar’s legacy? If two of these guys end up helping the Mets one day, I would call that a success, if more than two contribute…even better. This list shows how far we have come since the days when “Fast” Eddie Kunz was considered our most advanced and talented reliever prospect. The talent is there, now a little luck would go a long way with each of these players.

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