KIRK NIEUWENHUIS, OF
PRESEASON EXPECTATIONS: Our player review series concludes today with a look at the bench, which wasn’t without questions. With Ruben Tejada and Lucas Duda starting, that thinned the bench. Mike Nickeas was behind the plate; Justin Turner a capable reserve in the infield; and Scott Hairston and Mike Baxter were in the outfield. Kirk Nieuwenhuis opened the season in the minor leagues. The Mets liked Jordany Valdespin’s speed and ability to make things happen on the bases. In Nickeas, the Mets had a capable receiver, but not much offense; Turner had success as a pinch-hitter; and Hairston and Baxter showed occasional power. Of the two, Baxter is the better defensive player.
2012 SEASON REVIEW: Hairston proved capable – perhaps too capable – in the outfield as he ended up starting when Duda was optioned and Jason Bay alternatively struggled and was hurt and hit 20 homers. Baxter saved Johan Santana’s no-hitter with a spectacular catch in left field and also provided some pop. Nieuwenhuis got an early opportunity when Andres Torres pulled up lame (calf) the first week of the season and played very well for about two months before major league pitching caught up with him (you’ll keep getting breaking balls off the plate until you prove you can hit them). Kelly Shoppach was brought in late in the season to back-up Josh Thole and hit for sporadic power. Speaking of power, Valdespin provided a long-ball spark as a pinch-hitter.
LOOKING AT 2013: Hairston was so good he’ll command a multi-year deal in the free-agent market, something the Mets don’t want to do. Say good-bye, although with what they have returning in the outfield they should think twice. With Bay gone and Torres not expected to be tendered, Nieuwenhuis will get a chance to earn a spot during spring training. He can handle the job defensively, but needs to cut down on his strikeouts and increase his on-base percentage considering he’s not expected to hit for power. Valdespin played some second base in the fall league, which should enhance his value. Valdespin could also benefit by Bay’s departure. Turner could be brought back, and if not, there will be plenty of alternatives on the market. Shoppach had his moments, but the Mets won’t pay over $1 million for a back-up when the starter makes half that amount. GM Sandy Alderson said there won’t be any big-ticket free agents, but inexpensive reserve outfielders and a catcher could be found.