Kirk Nieuwenhuis: What’s His Timetable/Window?

Andrew Keh wrote a great piece the other day about Kirk Nieuwenhuis‘s window with the Mets organization. He talks about the veteran stop gaps blocking Nieuwenhuis at the moment and other prospects, such as Matt Den Dekker and Brandon Nimmo, who will be right on his tail.

Personally I think very highly of Nieuwenhuis and have him rated as the Mets No. 6 prospect. I’ve said numerous times I feel if he had not gotten hurt last year, he would be already be penciled in as the starter of this team for 2012. This makes for the perfect opportunity to take a closer look at his window of opening and timetable with the Mets.
The Andres Torres Threat

Torres is widely considered the “throw in” in the Angel Pagan/Ramon Ramirez deal, but I am not entirely convinced that was Sandy Alderson’s full ideology on the deal.

Two things were evident about the two center fielders included in the deal. Pagan looked lost in the outfield of Citi Field and Torres’s defensive prowess is no secret. Out of all the players to log at least 450 innings (50 games) in center field last year, Torres ranked fourth in UZR/150 at 17.3. For his career his UZR/150 in center field is 12.8 and to put these numbers into perspective, a UZR/150 over 15 is considered “gold glove” and a UZR/150 over 10 is considered “great”.

For those who like more conventional stats, he has committed just six errors in 783 chances (.993 fielding%) and has 20 outfield assists including 13 over the last two years. Not too shabby.

It is easy to see this guy can field his position very, very well and I think that was a large motivation for Sandy. He wanted to try and solidify a weak defensive outfield by acquiring an elite defender for the position that is supposed to be the commanding general of the outfield.

That doesn’t bode well for Nieuwenhuis’s window for two reasons.

The first reason is of his own abilities. At a solid 6’3″, 215 lbs. the reasons for the question marks about his defense are obvious. I’ve seen Nieuwenhuis make some sensational plays, he has a good arm, and his defensive numbers in the minors, like range factor, are pretty good. It wouldn’t shock me if he could play a respectable center field at the next level, but the track record for guys his size isn’t necessarily a ringing endorsement.

The list of center fielders from last year who have a comparable build to Nieuwenhuis is not a good one, defensively that is. Last year Alex Rios (6’5, 205 lbs.) had a -7.4 UZR/150, Matt Kemp (6’3, 220 lbs.) had a -4.7 UZR/150, Colby Rasmus (6’2, 220lbs.) -10.7, and Marlon Byrd (6’0, 245 lbs.) was the lone exception with a 3.0 UZR/150.

Add in the fact that at least two, if not three, of those guys are more athletic than Nieuwenhuis and the odds of him being even an average defender in center look slim.

The reason I am mentioning all of this in the Torres section is that if Sandy brought in Torres to help cover up Lucas Duda‘s defensive woes, he might not want to entertain the idea of throwing Nieuwenhuis in an outfield that already has two below-average fielders.

The second reason is this guy…

The Matt Den Dekker Threat

The one question no one has about Den Dekker is how well he will able to field. Questions about is ability to make contact? Sure. Questions about his ability to get on base consistently? Sure. Questions about how well he can use his speed on the base paths? Sure. But he is going to be able to contribute to a team a near Gold Glove caliber defense, or at the very least well above-average defense, in center field. A very valuable trait and one working against Nieuwenhuis.

Den Dekker is just three days younger than Nieuwenhuis so while he may be a full level behind, Kirk will not have a large window to show his value if and when the Mets do give him a shot. The odds are once Nieunwehuis is promoted to the big league club then Den Dekker will take his spot and join Buffalo, unless he shows no improvement on the 29% strikeout rate he had in Binghamton last year.

And when it comes to comparisons, I am not sure Den Dekker’s skill set is all that different than Torres’s. So if Torres was a little more than just a throw in for Alderson then having a younger, cheaper, slightly better defensive Torres waiting in the wings will put a lot of pressure on Nieuwenhuis to produce quickly.

The Brandon Nimmo Threat

I fail to see how he is a threat at all to Nieuwenhuis so I’m not sure why Keh mentions him. Nimmo is so far away and no guarantee to stick in center field himself so he really won’t have any effect on Nieunwehuis’s window with the Mets.

The Whole Picture

Nieuwenhuis’s timetable to reach the bigs will depend on (1) how his spring goes and (2) the first month and a half of the season. Kirk is going to have to show over that time that his shoulder is fully healed and if Torres is putting up numbers closer to his 2011 level instead of his 2010 level there will definitely be a clamoring for change.

His window, however, is only narrowly open. I think Captain Kirk is capable of putting up numbers offensively equivalent to, if not better than, the ones Torres will put up this year, but if the defensive configuration of three question marks is going poorly he may only have until September when the Mets choose to give Den Dekker a cup of coffee and at the latest early-to-mid 2013. It is a tough situation for an underrated prospect like Nieuwenhuis to be in, but I love what he had to say about the situation.

“The more pressure you put on yourself, the smaller the window becomes, performance-wise,” Nieuwenhuis said. “I think just playing my game is the best way for me to extend that window.”

I for one will be cheering that he shows his defense can play in a stadium like Citi Field.