PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Mets director of player development Kevin Howard has an official line when it comes to Minor League assignments midway through March.
“Everybody's a candidate for everything,” he said.
That’s understandable when Minor League Opening Day remains three weeks away and Minor League Spring Training games are only just getting started in earnest across the backfields of southeast Florida. But it’s never too early to look at the depth chart and identify where the hard decisions will need to be made by the time the calendar flips to April.
No. 27 overall prospect Brett Baty hit a productive .272/.364/.424 over 176 plate appearances at Double-A Binghamton last season and got in 25 more games in a prospect-stacked Arizona Fall League to wrap up his 2021. It’s conceivable that the 22-year-old third baseman could jump to Triple-A Syracuse come April 5.
The problem: that’s where fellow hot-corner prospect Mark Vientos, who just missed MLB Pipeline’s Top 100, is almost certainly headed as well, barring a torrid Spring Training that sends the 40-man member to New York to begin the season. Vientos played 11 games at the Minors’ top level in 2021 and managed a .281/.352/.581 line with 25 homers over 83 combined contests at Double-A and Triple-A.
So what to do?
“With our guys that play the same position, our biggest priority is to get them as many at-bats and as much playing time as possible,” Howard said. “So we'll see how this shakes out here. But if two guys were supposed to go to the same level and we want them to both play every day, then that might be a reason to start a guy at a lower level just so he can get that experience.”
It isn’t hard to read the tea leaves there. Assuming full health, it would seem that both will open 2022 where they ended 2021 -- Vientos at Syracuse and Baty at Binghamton.
However, the Mets have been here before with these two. Baty joined Double-A in July last year and played together with Vientos for roughly two months, though part of that was interrupted by COVID-19-related cancellations. The duo started to get looks in left field to add some versatility but also to get out of each other’s shadows on the dirt. The early reviews were that Baty, a former three-sport standout in high school, seemed to fit the outfield better than the larger, slower Vientos, but he’s considered a better defender overall as well. A move across the diamond for Vientos would make some sense, if not for the powerful presence of Pete Alonso in Queens.
There’s still some time before either prospect needs to settle on any position as part of their Major League future. The Mets did just sign Eduardo Escobar to a two-year, $20 million deal to be their third baseman of the present, and the club isn’t lacking DH candidates under the new rules with Robinson Canó, Dominic Smith and J.D. Davis likely vying for at-bats on the roster as currently constructed.
It’s a good problem for New York to have, and you can bet both sluggers will be keeping an eye on the other -- for encouragement but maybe a little more than that too.
“The healthy competition has been awesome,” Baty said. “With me and Mark, we really push each other on the field. Just to know that we’re going to be on the same team in the big leagues one day is really, really assuring to us.”
Camp standouts: 2021 Draft pitchers
Look, Kumar Rocker is not here. It's going to be a while until the Mets’ 2021 Draft class is defined by anything other than his absence after the Mets failed to sign the Vanderbilt phenom as the 10th overall pick. But the other 2021 arms are trying to steal the spotlight.
Third-rounder Dominic Hamel, a four-pitch right-hander, was singled out by Howard as someone handling the transition to pro ball well early. Second-rounder Calvin Ziegler is sitting in the mid-90s and showing more of a distinct curveball than he did as an amateur. One name to keep an eye on lower on the Draft list is Clemson southpaw Keyshawn Askew, a 10th-rounder who fires a sidearm delivery out of his 6-foot-4 frame. He was in the high-80s in college, hurting his prospect stock, but has been more comfortably in the 90s since signing. An impressive slider and ability to throw strikes should get him whiffs in the Minors.
“It’s a lot of movement from a funky slot,” Howard said of Askew. “It has good velo, and it looks very uncomfortable to face him. I was a left-handed hitter, and I wouldn't want to face him. There’s a lot there that to be excited about.”
Prospect we’ll be talking about in 2023: Mike Vasil
There was first-round buzz on Vasil going back to his Boston-area high-school days in 2018. An arm issue and a strong commitment to the University of Virginia led him toward the college route, but three years later, he didn’t quite look like the same pitcher with his velocity dipping to the lower-90s with the Cavaliers. MLB Pipeline’s No. 111 Draft prospect fell to the eighth round, where the Mets grabbed him and signed him to a $181,200 bonus.
Less than a year later, Vasil is already showing flashes of his old self. New York instructors worked with the 6-foot-5 right-hander on transitioning to a four-seam heater and away from the two-seamer he used in college. The result: a fastball that’s now in the mid-90s and topping out around 98 mph. An average changeup and two breaking balls round out the starting-worthy arsenal, but the velo and the improved understanding of which fastball works best for Vasil are already making him look like a potential steal.
“It's unbelievable,” Howard said. “The fact that a guy like him fell to us where he did is a credit to our amateur scouting department and a credit to him for making so many strides forward so quickly. He's got electric stuff. We're really excited about him.”
Something to prove: Carlos Cortes
There is no Rule 5 Draft this year. It was canceled after Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations led to a more truncated spring than normal. So barring a trade, outfielder Carlos Cortes isn’t going anywhere. But the fact that the 2018 third-rounder, who spent 2021 at Double-A and finished it in the AFL, was left off the 40-man when he became Rule 5-eligible in November could have served as a wake-up call.
Cortes shows above-average raw power and did a decent job of playing into it last season with 14 homers and a .487 slugging percentage over 79 games with Binghamton. But despite his history as an ambidextrous thrower with some experience at second base, the former South Carolina Gamecock looks like he’ll profile best defensively in left field, despite below-average speed. He could also bump into Baty and/or Vientos in the upper Minors.
Entering his age-25 season, Cortes, a non-roster invite on the Major League side, has to show he can be at least an average overall hitter or at least a better defender from the grass to hold off the charging others and find a way to crack the 40-man at some point in 2022.
“I think the early exposure to the camp before the big league camp was great for him,” Howard said. “He got that experience and that time around a lot of the coaches that he may spend time with during the season. I think he has a good idea of what he wants to work on, and he's been working hard at it.”