BROOKLYN -- Triple-A is where players are closest to the Majors. Double-A is where they can begin to feel their dreams becoming a reality. Low-A is where they get their first tastes of full-season ball.
So what does that make High-A -- the level that is typically defined as the one that is, well, higher than the other one in A-ball?
“In my mind, it's a weird little in-between place,” said Mets director of player development Jeremy Barnes. “But I feel like it’s really the first level that starts to expose some guys. I feel like really talented people kind of muscle their way through Low-A. But if there are significant holes in your game, that starts to really show up at High-A.”
Seen through that prism, the ways Francisco Álvarez, Ronny Mauricio and Brett Baty – three of New York’s top four prospects in MLB Pipeline’s rankings -- have taken off together in their first tastes of High-A with Brooklyn are some of the most promising developments of the early 2021 season.
Ranked No. 78 overall, Baty entered Sunday with a .327/.425/.554 line through 29 games. All five of his home runs on the young season have come in June, an indication that he might just be getting warmed up in the power category. Speaking of homers, Mauricio (No. 53) has hit six in 2021, already exceeding his 2019 total of four with Class A Columbia in 380 fewer plate appearances.
Álvarez (No. 37) joined his fellow Top 100 prospects on May 24, following a fiery start to the year at Low-A St. Lucie. The 19-year-old catcher hit .417/.567/.646 with 15 walks and seven strikeouts in 15 games in Florida before the Mets had seen enough and moved him to Brooklyn to hit next to Baty and Mauricio as the 3-4-5 hitters in the Cyclones' lineup. Álvarez took some time to find his bearings in Brooklyn, going 12-for-48 (.250) in his first 15 games, but hitting the ball hard has not been an issue. He crushed his first High-A homer Saturday, and a double earlier in the game came off the bat at 112 mph; Pete Alonso, Jonathan Villar and Francisco Lindor are the only Mets Major Leaguers with higher max exit velocities in 2021.
“These young men are not far off,” said Brooklyn manager Ed Blankmeyer. “The more at-bats they get, the better they're going to be. Obviously handling situational baseball and the speed of the game at each level takes a little time to grasp. But playing the game, it looks easy to them right now.”
Though this is the first time they’ve been Minor League teammates, this is a trio that had familiarity with each other and Brooklyn’s Maimonides Park entering 2021. All three were participants at the Mets’ alternate training site, held in Coney Island last year as New York tried to get its top prospects some work despite the canceled Minor League season. Baty’s experience in the shadow of the Wonder Wheel extends back to 2019 when he helped Brooklyn win a New York-Penn League title as a Class A Short-Season team. They continued to get to know each other this spring in Major League camp as non-roster invitees, where they received a combined 28 plate appearances in Grapefruit League play despite none of the three playing above A-ball yet.
Álvarez admitted knowing that Baty and Mauricio would be waiting for him in Brooklyn made the transition to his highest level yet all the easier.
“Coming up to a different team, I thought it was going to be a little bit different,” he said through a Brooklyn team interpreter. “But having these two guys and knowing how much chemistry we have, it's going to set us up for a great season.”
When asked of the dynamic between them, all three Top 100 prospects used the same word: competition. But they also wanted to make it clear that it’s only of the healthy variety.
“It’s not a competition of numbers or who’s where in the rankings,” Mauricio said through an interpreter. “It’s a competition of just getting better and how can I help my teammates and help myself – who can do that the best.”
That desire to improve upon what they’re seeing in themselves and each other has led each member of the group to pick up pointers from the other two.
Baty takes detailed mental notes on what both of his teammates do in batting practice and particularly picked up flat-foot drills from Mauricio. On the flipside, Mauricio credits a talkative and encouraging Baty with helping him become an even better teammate. Álvarez, for his part, is always trying to emulate Mauricio’s work ethic and says Baty is still giving him tips on best practices to throw around the infield.
“The two things that stood out to me going back to this spring were just how close they all were and how well they all seem to get along,” said Barnes.
“I can only go back to when I first met these guys, and since then, I think Brett Baty and Ronny Mauricio in particular created a nice bond, almost like David Wright and José Reyes,” Blankmeyer said. “I think that’s a pretty good comp there as far as the way they feed off each other and the relationship they’ve developed as teammates.”
One thing that is for sure – this is a group that knows how talented it can be. The Mets haven’t been shy about pushing the 21-year-old Baty, 20-year-old Mauricio and 19-year-old Álvarez to big stages, including the proving ground that is High-A because of the way they represent the future of the team in Queens. Their grouping now is enough to make anyone think they could be Brooklyn’s Second Big Three, mirroring a group of Nets that plays only a short Q train ride north at Barclays Center.
“Anytime you're getting compared to Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, I mean I'd love that because I love watching basketball,” Baty said. “But no, we're up here just trying to have fun, trying to better ourselves in the game of baseball. I love playing with these two guys, so we have a great core group ourselves over here.”
That’s part of the draw of the Mets moving their High-A affiliate to Brooklyn as part of Minor League restructuring. Sure, it’s easier for the front office to keep tabs on full-season players that are a manageable drive away from Citi Field, but it also gives players a small taste of what it’s like to play on the outer edges of New York City before heading elsewhere in the state to Double-A Binghamton and Triple-A Syracuse. Baty, for example, is still getting a kick out of the easy-to-find bodegas and delis that dot the five boroughs while Mauricio and Álvarez say these latest trips to the city are the closest they’ve felt yet to being true Mets.
Blankmeyer has a history of trying to keep players shaded from the big lights of the Big Apple. He joined the Mets' organization in January 2020 after spending 24 years as the head coach at St. John’s, and he worked with all three players that Spring Training before the shutdown. Now that he’s their everyday manager overseeing their development, his advice is the same it’s been to any players that have come through NYC.
“Show me something that you've done to get better,” said the Brooklyn skipper. “That can be really running out a ball or doing something smart on the basepaths or smartly going about your work when you're tired. Every day there's something they can learn to get better at it, and it gets them closer to the next step.”
As good as they’ve been in 2021, all three players will happily provide a list of needed improvements as they get deeper into the summer. Álvarez has highlighted his running ability (a 40 grade per MLB Pipeline) and his throws down to second base as skills he continues to work on at High-A. Baty places an emphasis on his defense -- particularly his footwork and throwing -- in his attempt to stay locked in as a third baseman. Mauricio believes he still hasn’t reached his offensive potential.
That underlines the situation all three prospects face as they take the field each day next to the beach, roller coasters and carnival-like atmosphere of South Brooklyn. They’re New Yorkers right now. But they’re not New York Mets, at least in a Major League sense. They’re still navigating the in-between place that is High-A.
“We still have a long way to go,” Baty said, “and we all understand that.”