The Mets' electric prospect arm few saw coming

May 7th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Anthony DiComo’s Mets Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ST. LOUIS -- During one of Jonah Tong’s final starts for Single-A St. Lucie, Mets director of player development Andrew Christie was taking in the game when he received a text from Tommy Tanous, a top Mets decisionmaker and well-regarded scout who was also watching live.

“Too good for this league,” was all the text read.

Sure enough, within days, the Mets had promoted the 20-year-old Tong to High-A Brooklyn. He debuted there on Thursday with five sharp innings, striking out seven while increasing his stock as one of the most intriguing lower-level arms in the Minor Leagues.

“His stuff is outlier stuff,” Christie said. “When he gets in the strike zone, as you can obviously tell from his line over the first number of starts, it’s electric. Guys can’t touch it.”

That line: Five games, 23 2/3 innings, 43 strikeouts, eight walks, nine hits and two runs (zero earned) allowed.

At least outside the organization, few saw this coming. At this time last year, even the most ardent Mets Minor League acolytes had little knowledge of Tong.

The right-hander had struggled in Major League Baseball’s 2022 Draft League, a showcase for eligible prospects that was in its second season, but he showed enough promise for the Mets to select him in the seventh round. Even then, team decisionmakers didn’t consider him ready for the rigors of full-season ball. The organization declined to pitch him down the stretch in '22. The following summer, Tong produced a 6.00 ERA during limited time in the Rookie-level Florida Complex League and a cameo for St. Lucie, walking 22 batters in 21 innings.

When MLB Pipeline released its Top 30 Mets Prospect list in March, Tong was not included. That was largely the case throughout the industry.

Then, something clicked. Working with player development staffers Miguel Bonilla, Garrett Baker, Luis Alvarado and others, Tong began improving rapidly while throwing “live sides,” a concept that Mets coaches use with many younger arms. The idea is for pitchers to toss live BP at less than max intensity while still trying to get hitters out. A pitcher like Tong -- who throws in the mid-90s, for example -- aims to be competitive while purposely topping out in the high-80s instead.

Another offseason passed, and when Tong reported to Spring Training this year, he was a different pitcher. Working with a four-pitch mix that includes a riding fastball, a sharp curveball, a hard slider and a changeup, Tong began throwing strikes with regularity -- delivering it all from what multiple scouts describe as a “funky” over-the-top release point.

The result was absolute domination at St. Lucie, where Tong struck out 36 and allowed just one unearned run over 18 2/3 innings before his promotion.

“He’s a guy for sure,” said one scout who watched Tong multiple times at St. Lucie in April. “He’s an interesting one.”

To continue his development, Tong will need to refine his changeup, which isn’t quite the same caliber of offering as his other three pitches. Otherwise, he already looks and acts the part. A native of Markham, Ont., Tong has a likeable "aw-shucks" demeanor away from the field, according to Christie. On it, however, Tong can be a different person -- so much so that Christie and Mets vice president of pitching Eric Jagers have developed a running joke about his personality.

When Tong is pitching, he’s no longer Jonah Tong. He instead becomes his alter ego, “J.T.”

Following a recent game at St. Lucie, Tong was conducting an on-field interview in front of fans when he accidentally dropped a colorful four-letter word into one of his responses. As Tong sheepishly apologized, Christie and Jagers joked that “J.T. hasn’t left the building yet.”

“He’s found that gear on the mound to be able to ratchet it up a little bit and obviously to perform the way he has so far,” Christie said. “It’s exciting to see that.”

Elsewhere on the farm …

Triple-A Syracuse: Luke Ritter certainly appears recovered from the oblique strain that cost him the final month of last season. The versatile infielder has an .866 OPS with five home runs over his last 24 games for Syracuse. He’s also played four defensive positions, starting most frequently at first base.

Double-A Binghamton: Few Minor League pitchers are as hot as Blade Tidwell (Mets' No. 10 prospect), who fired eight scoreless innings last Saturday on just 94 pitches. Over five appearances (three starts), Tidwell has a 1.23 ERA.

High-A Brooklyn: Nolan McLean (No. 19 prospect) has been everything the Mets hoped when they selected him in the third round of last year’s Draft and allowed him to continue being a two-way player. As a DH, McLean has three home runs and an .834 OPS in 16 games. As a pitcher, he’s started five games with a 2.84 ERA.