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Speedy Stuart out to be MLB's latest Bahamian

Mets OF prospect among game's fastest, but needs to cut down K's
MLB.com @AnthonyDiComo

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Dominic Smith still chuckles when he recalls the story, a favorite from back in 2014 at Class A Savannah. Champ Stuart, the Mets' sixth-round Draft pick the previous summer, walked and stole second base. Smith followed with a fly ball to center field, deep enough for Stuart to tag. But when Stuart noticed no stop sign at third, he simply kept running. And running. And running until he scored.

"It wasn't even a close play," Stuart said.

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PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Dominic Smith still chuckles when he recalls the story, a favorite from back in 2014 at Class A Savannah. Champ Stuart, the Mets' sixth-round Draft pick the previous summer, walked and stole second base. Smith followed with a fly ball to center field, deep enough for Stuart to tag. But when Stuart noticed no stop sign at third, he simply kept running. And running. And running until he scored.

"It wasn't even a close play," Stuart said.

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No tale from Stuart's four years in the Minor Leagues better encapsulates his athleticism. One of the fastest players in professional baseball, Stuart annually receives 80 grades -- top of the scale -- from scouts for his speed. Growing up in the Bahamas, a hotbed for track and field, Stuart insists he was faster than all his friends -- including one, Johnathan Farquharson, who went on to become a decorated collegiate sprinter. Teammates jokingly ask Stuart to race all the time.

"I would love to race Dee Gordon, Billy Hamilton," he said. "I really would."

For now, Stuart will settle for a chance to become their peers. While it's speed that has brought him to this point in his development, Stuart -- who hit his first spring home run in Thursday's 5-5 tie against the Tigers, starting in center field -- knows he must become more than just a burner to play in the big leagues.

Video: HOU@NYM: Stuart plates Conforto with a double to left

"He can absolutely fly, so for him it's just continuing to find ways to take advantage of his speed," Mets director of Minor League operations Ian Levin said.

Though Stuart did participate in track and field as a youth, his father, who spent parts of two seasons in the Orioles' organization, always nudged him toward baseball. Stuart and his friends would trek daily to the lone diamond on Bimini, a tiny strip of a Bahamian island seven miles long and less than half a mile wide. They used tennis balls and mop sticks to play their daily games.

When Stuart was around 10, Bimini established a Little League, allowing its children to compete against nearby islands. He later moved to Freeport, the main city on Grand Bahama, and eventually to North Carolina. There, at the Christ School, Stuart played wide receiver and cornerback well enough for Duke to offer him a football scholarship. But again Stuart's father nudged him toward the baseball diamond, where his speed was also drawing professional notice.

During one pre-Draft workout for the Mariners, Stuart claims he clocked a 6.13-second 60-yard dash. Pat James, his high school coach, estimates that Stuart legged out eight or nine hits his senior year on routine ground balls to shortstop.

"Bless him -- that's what God did," James said. "He blessed him with tremendous speed and a tremendous arm. It was all there. It was just a matter of him getting bigger and stronger, and putting things together."

For Stuart, that means cutting down on strikeouts, the rawest aspect of his game. Though he impressed in the 2016 Arizona Fall League, batting .302 with one home run and 12 stolen bases in 70 at-bats, Stuart also struck out 22 times. This spring, he has 10 strikeouts in 19 at-bats.

Improvement in that area could lift Stuart to Triple-A Las Vegas as soon as this season, making him an intriguing consideration for a Mets postseason roster. His ceiling has little precedent; only six Bahamian-born players have made the big leagues, including just one since 1983.

His plans to become the seventh apparent, Stuart grinned when told about the Statcast™ cameras that measure outfield speed in Major League ballparks.

"Baseball, you can only test your speed to a certain extent," Stuart said. "I still don't know exactly how fast I am to this day. I'd like to test it."

Anthony DiComo has covered the Mets for MLB.com since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo and Facebook, and listen to his podcast.

New York Mets, Champ Stuart