The 2012 First-Half Division Champion: St. Lucie Mets

FSL Title - Is This The Year?

With an overall won-lost record of 44-12 and a winning pct. of: .786, the St. Lucie Mets have once again captured the first-half Southern Division title in the Florida State League (A+), repeating the feat of a year ago. The incredible record has enabled them to clinch the first-half title nearly two weeks early, as the mid-season point in the FSL does not happen until mid-June. The 2012 team, managed by Ryan Ellis has completely dominated the league this year, despite their fair share of injuries, and the lack of star players on the roster. Currently on a four-game winning streak, the PSL Mets have already put together winning streaks of five games, two six-game streaks, a seven-game streak, and an 11-game winning streak this year. Their road record is 21-9, they are 23-3 at home, and are 10-1 in their last 11 games.

Three of their best hitters have been lost to the team for a good part of the season. First, CF Darrell Ceciliani has pulled his hamstring three times this season, and has just gone back onto the disabled list. Ceciliani has only appeared in ten games all year, and was supposed to be looked on as one of the offensive leaders. Now he will be lucky to be back this year at all.

Second-baseman Danny Muno was suspended by MLB 38 games into the season, getting nailed with a 50-game suspension after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. And recently, outfielder Cesar Puello went on the DL, after breaking the hamate bone in his wrist, an injury that requires surgery. He will likely miss the remainder of the season.

The PSL pitching staff has remained fairly intact so far this season although there were promotions for starting pitcher RHP Gonzalez Germen and closer RHP Adrian Rosario to Binghamton (AA). Gonzalez was replaced in the rotation by RHP Erik Goeddel, while LHP Adam Kolarek assumed the full-time closer duties from Rosario.

The back-bone of this team is good pitching and sound defense. The rotation is fronted by last year’s second-round draft pick, RHP Cory Mazzoni (5-0, 3.09), LHP Chase Huchingson (5-4, 3.14), RHP Johan Almonte (5-0, 4.24), LHP Angel Cuan (4-1, 2.40), and Goeddel (2-1, 2.00). The recent promotion of RHP Tyler Pill from Savannah could indicate one of these starters, perhaps Mazzoni, will be dispatched to Binghamton very soon.

The bullpen has received positive contributions from left-handers: Kolarek (1-1, 1.73, 8 SV), Hamilton Bennett (5-0, 3.09), and Jack Leathersich (0-0, 3.38) as well as right-handers: Ryan Fraser (2-2, 2.15, 2 SV), John Church (1-2, 2.75), Jeff Kaplan (2-0, 4.50, 2 SV), and Taylor Whitenton (3-1, 3.05, 1 SV).

This sensational team’s defense begins with it’s tandem of quality back-stops. After three years in which his development was stuck in reverse, C Francisco Pena is finally starting to move forward again. Still only 22-years-old, and age-appropriate for the Florida State League, the right-handed hitter has picked up where his progress halted after a solid 2008 season at low-A Savannah.

Only hitting .257 in 105 AB’s this year, with 3 HR’s and 18 RBI’s, it is Pena’s improved SLG percentage, a career high of .448, that is where his real progress can be seen. He is not a dominating force with the bat by any stretch of the imagination, but he is unquestionably moving in the right direction once again, a fact that has to be looked at with optimism in a system where catching is a premium. In addition he has only committed one error so far this year, giving the club stability behind the plate.

Pena’s partner who shares the catching duties with him is another righty bat, 2010 third-round draft pick, Blake Forsythe. After starting his pro career with two very underwhelming years in which he hit .234 in 2010 and .235 in 2011, Forsythe has shown very nice strides with the bat this year at St. Lucie. For Forsythe, starting out April ice-cold was not as big a surprise as what would happen when the month of May turned the corner.

At the end of April he had a slash of .167/.200/.286 in 42 AB’s with one HR and seven RBI. In 50 May AB’s he would hit .380, with three HR’s and 15 RBI, which would help bring his slash line to it’s current .284/.369/.516. A tireless worker and team-player, Forsythe has made three errors this year but continues to work hard on his defense.

The St. Lucie infield has been productive and very consistent this year no matter who has been playing second-base. Muno was having a solid year when he was put on the shelf. Through 152 AB’s he was hitting .283 with 5 HR’s and 23 RBI, and once he was suspended the Mets first used Robbie Shields at second-base as a temporary fill-in. Although a potent bat as a utility man, Shields was not the answer on an everyday basis so recently they called Luis Nieves up, who was playing shortstop at Savannah.

The best player on the team this year is newly minted third-baseman Wilmer Flores, who is among the offensive league-leaders in most major offensive categories, and one of the biggest positive surprises in the entire Mets farm system in 2012. He has been playing a decent third-base (8 errors) while driving in runs and tying for the league lead in HR’s. His numbers for the year read 10 HR’s, 34 RBI’s and a slash line of .317/.360/.518 in 199 AB’s.

Another key player and defensive anchor of the St. Lucie infield who is quietly having a very good year is shortstop Wilfredo Tovar. Tovar has committed eight errors at short so far in 52 games, but has been showing some real progress as a hitter against Florida State League opposition.

After four mediocre seasons with the bat in the lower levels of the minors prior to this one, and a career season-best batting average of .266, Tovar has spent most of this year hitting above .300, until recently when he dipped down to .293. His OBP is tied for eighth in the league at .377, and his SLG percentage also represents career highs for him this season. Continued success this year could elevate Tovar squarely into the prospect conversation for the Mets at shortstop heading into 2013, when he will likely be the starter at AA. A Ruben Tejada comparison at this point might not be too far-fetched.

The last regular in the infield is long-time Met farmhand Richard Lucas, who has been holding down first-base for St. Lucie this year. A fourth-round draft pick from way back in 2007, Lucas is now in his sixth season as a New York Met farmhand. A third-baseman by trade, the move of Flores to 3B this year necessitated a cross-corner move for Lucas to fill in at first-base. Not your typical first-sacker, Lucas doesn’t hit many home runs or drive in runs.

He is more of an OBP guy who draws a ton of walks, which I guess is better than striking out, and can help a winning team win. But to expect a power contribution from the power-spot of first base is not going to be in the cards for these 2012 St. Lucie Mets. At least not until they bring up Aderlin Rodriguez from Savannah to play first-base at Lucie.

Lucas has a slash line this year of .232/.377/.327 in 168 AB’s with three HR’s and 18 RBI’s. He strikes out a lot, and he walks a lot, with a ratio of 55/34. For the season, he is tied for the league lead in walks, tied for eighth in OBP with a .377, and tied for seventh in runs scored with 32.

The revolving door outfield at St. Lucie this year is a testament to the quality outfield depth the Mets have at this level of the minors. Not counting the minor league rehab stints of Jason Bay and Andres Torres, St. Lucie has had to employ a total of nine other outfielders this year. With Ceciliani and Puello out, the one starter remaining from the beginning of the year is RF Cory Vaughn. Although in a three-way tie with Flores and another player for the league lead in HR’s, it has otherwise been a very difficult year for Vaughn.

In 194 AB’s this year he has a disappointing slash line of .237/.333/.443 with 10 2B’s, 10 HR’s, and 26 RBI’s. Since a mid-season call-up to St. Lucie in 2011, he has had a total of 404 AB’s, with 92 hits for a batting average of .228, with 19 HR’s and 55 RBI’s. Those numbers still leave Vaughn with a lot more work to do as he approaches his first full year at this level. It could still be a long time before he can be deemed ready to move on with his professional career and head up to AA.

The most valuable player as far as glueing together the outfield defense has been Alonzo Harris. A super-utility guy, Harris became the starting LF after Ceciliani went down. After the loss of Puello, he has been filling in admirably in CF as of late. Now that CF Rafael Fernandez has returned from the DL, he should be seeing more action there as Harris slides back over to left.

Also seeing time in LF these days is 2009 29th round draft-pick ZeErika McQueen, a righty-hitting, speedy outfielder with a top of the order skill set, who has gone 4-for-12 since being activated a week ago from extended spring training. McQueen who turns 24 later this month, has not played since 2010 when he spent the majority of the season at Kingsport and hit .264 with 42 runs, 67 hits, 14 2B’s, 2 HR’s, 20 RBI, and 14 SB’s, in 254 AB’s. With Harris and McQueen the Mets have two outfielders they can refer to as Zo and Zee.

Well there are your 2012 first-half division champion St. Lucie Mets. They won’t blow you away with star talent, but they might slowly suffocate the life outta-ya with good pitching, good defense, and sound fundamentals. That’s an effective way to win too. Hopefully these guys won’t wake up until this dream of a ride is over and the Mets organization has a Florida State League championship in 2012, one they can put right alongside the big league one. Let’s Go Mets!