Down on the Farm with the GCL Mets

They reported to the Mets' training facilities in Port St. Lucie, Fla., a group of young men bonded only by their skills in the game of baseball - dulled somewhat by weeks of relative inactivity, since the close of high school and collegiate seasons in April and May.

As Bobby Floyd, the first-year Gulf Coast Mets manager and a 21-year veteran of the Mets organization, greeted this arrangement of young players, he sent one message - a credo that would become a familiar refrain over the weeks to come.

"I've told them repeatedly," Floyd said, "‘When you first came in here, you were a group of athletes that played baseball. What we're starting to slowly get is a group of baseball players who are good athletes.'"

After a 4-14 start to open the season, Floyd's Gulf Coast Mets rebounded to run off a 15-9 mark through their next 24 games. Such rustiness was to be expected, however, as the roster rounded into shape.

"A lot of the kids had been off for such a long period of time, and it took them a little while to get involved in the everyday aspect of baseball," Floyd said. "Some of them had never played that kind of length of time - going out, working out and playing everyday."

As at-bats and innings were compiled, Floyd said he found the Mets' draft of 2006 -- plucking young talent from dozens of different high schools and colleges and hand - delivering them to St. Lucie -- not only acquired good ballplayers. It had also found great character.

"It takes a while to get to know the guys you're playing with, and it's been neat to see them come together as a group of guys, pulling for each other," Floyd said. At the beginning, you're just an isolated person trying to fit into a large group of people.

"At this level, you never know how they're going to respond. I think the group of guys has grown together and have started to pick up some of the baseball ways; how we do things. In some cases, it happens fairly quickly. In others, it can be a slow process and takes two or three years down the road. But it's taking effect."

Credit is due to the intensive GCL program, which takes place on the back fields of the Tradition Field complex, often overlooked by fans and beginning sharply each morning at 8 a.m.

Players are served breakfast at a ballpark cafeteria and perform early work for the first 30 minutes of the day, running and stretching before infield and batting cage drills begin at 8:45. With roughly 75 percent of the team assigned to work on the fields, the remainder are scheduled for conditioning and weight-lifting depending on the day, split into morning and afternoon sessions.

In the remaining 40 minutes leading up to the 12 p.m. games - often played out in the heat of the Florida sun, before no more than a few assorted spectators, family members and scouts - players focus on defensive fundamentals and batting practice before eating, changing and suiting up for their afternoon contests.

Those are scheduled against the GCL Dodgers, Marlins or Nationals -- all of whom train at complexes within a short driving distance.

"It's so hot down here, you have to be careful," Floyd said. "It's hot, humid, and some of these guys are from the Northwest. It's kind of a different climate for them. But at the end of the day, they‘ve put a good day‘s work in."

Floyd said the games serve as an evaluation to see where the ‘building blocks' drilled through the mornings have come along.

"It structures itself," Floyd said. "If an individual ballplayer fails to get a runner over on a sacrifice bunt, the next morning you have them back out for early work on that particular fundamental."

Floyd said he feels the GCL Mets have particularly shown some strong arms on the mound, and that the team's pitching has come along after a slow start.

"We've got quite a group of arms," Floyd said. "I'd say any one of the guys could become a guy who, three years from now, people are talking about as being someone who could fit into the rotation or bullpen someday in New York."

One well-regarded pitcher is 6-foot-8 right-hander John Holdzkom, who went to the Mets in the fourth round of this year's draft out of Salt Lake (Utah) Community College.

Featuring a fastball that has been clocked as high as 98 MPH and what Floyd characterized as a "nasty" slider, Holdzkom battled control problems in college and had his troubles in the early going with the GCL Mets.

After failing to make it out of the first inning in his second pro start, Holdzkom turned his season around, showing a commitment to fitness with strength and conditioning coach Jason Craig. He had racked up six consecutive outings with three saves, a win and no earned runs as of Aug. 11.

"This is a kid who's worked hard and really made an effort to turn himself into a more fit person and a better pitcher," Floyd said. "It's paying off. He's done a tremendous job, and I've been very impressed."

Other standout hurlers have included Nathan Hedrick, an eighth-round pick who has shown a very good sinker; Josh Stinson, a 37th round pick who came out of high school and had a 1.23 ERA through eight appearances, and converted infielder Yury Santana, who allowed just one unearned run and three hits in 14 2/3 innings before being promoted to higher levels.

"The pitching has taken its time, but … I think we have some pretty good arms," Floyd said. "The guys were pretty raw in the beginning, but I think they're starting to stand up and let their ability perform on an individual basis."

Among Gulf Coast's batters, first baseman Ben Saylor and infielder Joaquin Rodriguez have been arguably the team's most consistent performers.

Saylor, a star at Brigham Young University, went undrafted in June but signed with the Mets as a free agent in July. An older presence on the team at 24, Saylor batted .315 with two homers and 20 RBI through his first 111 at-bats for the GCL Mets, and Floyd said he had become a stabilizing presence for a GCL roster finding its way.

Rodriguez, a 22-year-old native of Miami and a standout at Jackson State (Miss.) University, had batted .296 through 81 at-bats, mostly playing third base and shortstop.

"When you have guys that are 17, 18 years old, you need guys that are older with a little bit of experience," Floyd said. "They can take some of the load off. When there's somebody there to take the pressure off the kids, they start to perform a little more relaxed and things start happening for them."

Floyd has also seen positive signs from some of the team's younger talent, like outfielders Daniel Stegall - a seventh-round pick out of high school who turned down a football scholarship to the University of Miami - and Richard Pena, both 18.

The left-handed batting Stegall has shown flashes of a "take-charge" attitude in the outfield and a mature approach at the plate, taking pitches and keeping a solid walk-to-strikeout ratio, while Pena has shown a plus arm, good speed and some power.

"Good athletes playing baseball," Floyd said. "Our job is to make them into good baseball players. That process is taking effect now."

This story is scheduled to appear in the October 2006 issue of Inside Pitch Magazine, set for release on or around Sept. 1.

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