2009 Spring Training Preview - Part I

As InsidePitchMagazine.com kicks off its formal Spring Training coverage, we offer this extended preview of what to watch for in the long season leagues from Savannah to Buffalo. This preview runs down who to watch, prospects in new surroundings and much more.

Each spring training brings about new opportunities and with that the chance for prospects to build momentum after an off-season of Instructional Leagues, Winter Leagues or simply five months away from competitive ball. While many eyes will be fixed on Daniel Murphy, Nick Evans, Jon Niese and others who contributed in New York late last season, there will be plenty of competition and intrigue throughout the minor league complex this March.

2009 has the potential to be the strongest season in years because of very positive growth across the farm system, including the emergence of many pitchers from the 2007 draft class, the 2007 international signing class and the sudden impact of many prospects selected last June. Here is a preview of the possible assignments and the likely competition for playing time across the long-season leagues that begin in April.

BUFFALO BISONS (AAA)

The Mets' Triple-A affiliate returns to the International League in 2009 after a two-year hiatus with New Orleans in the Pacific Coast League. The Bisons will be the third farm team to make its home in New York (Binghamton, Brooklyn) and will be managed by Ken Oberkfell who enters his fifth season leading the Triple-A affiliate. Oberkfell spent the last four months of 2008 as the Mets first base coach.

After two years in Binghamton, pitching coach Ricky Bones moves up to Triple-A where he will ultimately serve a vital role of familiarity. It will only be a matter of time, possibly as soon as Opening Day, when he will once again work with many of the arms he coached in 2008.

SAME FACES, NEW PLACES

For the last two seasons, the Triple-A roster was comprised of minor league free agents with few prospects sprinkled in throughout the season. That trend should change this year as a number of prospects stand to see considerable time in Buffalo before the end of the season.

The biggest question to come out of Spring Training will be the ultimate starting point for top prospect Fernando Martinez. After two seasons in Double-A, will he remain healthy, provide confidence to the front office, and show that he is ready to make the big jump to New York sometime in 2009?

The decision makers could choose to have Martinez start the year in Double-A for the third straight season and move him up later, but after a terrific showing in the Dominican Winter League (.314, 6 HR, 26 RBI, .919 OPS), it will be difficult to keep him down even for a month or two out of the gate.

Nick Evans likely lost his left field platoon role when the Mets re-signed Fernando Tatis to a one-year deal, but with a strong effort this spring the outfielder/first baseman could play his way into a spot on the 25-man roster in a hybrid bench role.

Evans, who last summer proved 75 games in Double-A was sufficient before jumping right to New York, suffered a scare in his Puerto Rican Winter League stint as he strained his right quadriceps just ten games into the season. However, a four-week rehab assignment in December should have him ready to go by camp.

If he does not start with the big league club, Evans will suit up in Triple-A for the first time and return to first base where he has been at his best throughout his career, but he should see additional time in left field as well.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR IN 2009

• Southpaw Jon Niese could be boxed out of a rotation spot by the time camp rolls around, but he is still favorably looked at as a potential fifth starter. Niese, who posted a 7.07 ERA in his first three big league starts in 2008, was excellent in seven Triple-A starts last year as he went 5-1 with a 3.40 ERA in 39 2/3 innings in the more hitter-friendly PCL. If he returns to Triple-A, Niese will surely be the ace of the staff.

• Right-hander Bobby Parnell will battle for a bullpen spot in big league camp, but thanks to off-season maneuvering, it is more likely he goes to Buffalo and holds down a spot in the rotation. There, he can continue to develop his changeup and harness his fastball consistency, two tools that will play significant roles in his ability to remain in New York.

Eddie Kunz' performance in the Arizona Fall League (2-2, 10.93 ERA, 10 BB, 14 IP) did very little to sway critics disappointments after a rough and very brief big league debut last August. The Mets' 2007 top draft pick will likely begin the year in Buffalo and continue to perfect his secondary pitches—the most vital pieces to his success in New York.

BINGHAMTON METS (AA)

Binghamton became a very hot location during the summer months of the 2008 season as many of the organization's top prospects were shuttled in and out throughout the season. The amount of talent that went through NYSEG Stadium helped the club to a 73-69 record and the expected roster appears even stronger with a slew of high-value arms poised to suit for the B-Mets. However, the big question will be where the offense will come from as the departures of Daniel Murphy, Nick Evans, Mike Carp (via trade) and likely Fernando Martinez leave numerous holes in the batting order.

Their graduation also means there will be a large amount of competition for corner infield positions and spots around the outfield. Historically, Double-A has served as the make or break level for many prospects and with the young talent arriving or returning, the 2009 B-Mets will serve as a barometer for many of the higher ranked prospects getting their first shot at the challenging Eastern League.

ARMS, ARMS, ARMS

The 2008 squad saw an infusion of youth during the summer as four of the more highly-touted young arms came up from St. Lucie and filled significant roles as the B-Mets rotation experienced a full turnover from its opening day roster. There is no question the entire pitching staff, not just the rotation, will be the driving force behind the club's success this upcoming season.

No pitcher heads into 2009 hotter than right-hander Dillon Gee. Following an impressive season in which he posted a combined 10-6 ERA and 2.92 ERA (2-0, 1.33 in Double-A), Gee continues to steam ahead following an award-winning stint in the Puerto Rican League. The 2008 Sterling Award winner in St. Lucie earned PWL Pitcher of the Year honors after going 4-0 with a 2.22 ERA in ten starts.

Gee earned a non-roster invitation to big league camp this spring where he will have the opportunity to pitch himself right onto the Triple-A after only four starts in Double-A. The 12th ranked prospect by Inside Pitch could be a real mover this season and will likely end up in Buffalo at some point, it is just a matter of when. A strong spring could get him there outright, or he will return to Binghamton as an anchor of a very talented staff.

Tobi Stoner also received a non-roster invite to big league camp and like Gee could be in a position to pitch himself into the Buffalo rotation. Stoner comes off a fine winter season in which he posted a 2-0 record and 3.66 ERA in 11 relief appearances in the Arizona Fall League. He followed that up with a sharp showing in the Puerto Rican Winter League where he went 2-1 with a 1.50 ERA in 24 innings.

The biggest challenge for Stoner (ranked 9th in by Inside Pitch) will be how he stays ahead of hitters as he continues to move up. His strikeout per nine innings ratio has declined as he has moved up the ladder, but coaches have impressed upon him to keep throwing his heater to set up his excellent secondary pitches. He could be in the running for a big league debut in 2009, but coaches will likely want to see him first clear that last hurdle.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR IN 2009

Dylan Owen was shaky during his first crack at Double-A, posting a 1-1 record and 5.51 ERA in three starts. The third-year right-hander appears locked into a rotation spot for the B-Mets, and though he brings two excellent breaking pitches to the mound, Owen needs greater fastball consistency to excel at this level. Some scouts are concerned Double-A could prove to be a barrier for Owen so a strong start is necessary.

Josh Thole is coming off a career season and will hold down the catching duties in Binghamton. He took over the starting job in St. Lucie last May, but 2009 will be the first time in his career the 22-year-old enters the season atop the depth chart. The two focal points of his season will be how he improves his communication with the pitching staff and if he can repeat his success at the plate after hitting .300 in 111 games last season. He will get a head start on the former as he too received a non-roster invite to big league camp.

• For the first time in years, Shawn Bowman enters the season at full strength after years of back injuries. His talents on both sides of the ball have always been there, but now with the opportunity to play every day and find a rhythm at Double-A, more production is anticipated. Given Bowman's hunger and work ethic, few doubt his ability to meet the task at hand.

Check back tomorrow for Part Two's preview of St. Lucie and Savannah


Amazin Clubhouse Top Stories

\r\n \r\n\r\nEach spring training brings about new opportunities and with that the chance for prospects to build momentum after an off-season of Instructional Leagues, Winter Leagues or simply five months away from competitive ball. While many eyes will be fixed on Daniel Murphy, Nick Evans, Jon Niese and others who contributed in New York late last season, there will be plenty of competition and intrigue throughout the minor league complex this March.
\r\n
\r\n2009 has the potential to be the strongest season in years because of very positive growth across the farm system, including the emergence of many pitchers from the 2007 draft class, the 2007 international signing class and the sudden impact of many prospects selected last June. Here is a preview of the possible assignments and the likely competition for playing time across the long-season leagues that begin in April.
\r\n
\r\nBUFFALO BISONS (AAA)
\r\n
\r\nThe Mets' Triple-A affiliate returns to the International League in 2009 after a two-year hiatus with New Orleans in the Pacific Coast League. The Bisons will be the third farm team to make its home in New York (Binghamton, Brooklyn) and will be managed by Ken Oberkfell who enters his fifth season leading the Triple-A affiliate. Oberkfell spent the last four months of 2008 as the Mets first base coach.
\r\n
\r\nAfter two years in Binghamton, pitching coach Ricky Bones moves up to Triple-A where he will ultimately serve a vital role of familiarity. It will only be a matter of time, possibly as soon as Opening Day, when he will once again work with many of the arms he coached in 2008.
\r\n
\r\nSAME FACES, NEW PLACES
\r\n
\r\nFor the last two seasons, the Triple-A roster was comprised of minor league free agents with few prospects sprinkled in throughout the season. That trend should change this year as a number of prospects stand to see considerable time in Buffalo before the end of the season.
\r\n
\r\nThe biggest question to come out of Spring Training will be the ultimate starting point for top prospect Fernando Martinez. After two seasons in Double-A, will he remain healthy, provide confidence to the front office, and show that he is ready to make the big jump to New York sometime in 2009?
\r\n
\r\nThe decision makers could choose to have Martinez start the year in Double-A for the third straight season and move him up later, but after a terrific showing in the Dominican Winter League (.314, 6 HR, 26 RBI, .919 OPS), it will be difficult to keep him down even for a month or two out of the gate.
\r\n
\r\nNick Evans likely lost his left field platoon role when the Mets re-signed Fernando Tatis to a one-year deal, but with a strong effort this spring the outfielder/first baseman could play his way into a spot on the 25-man roster in a hybrid bench role.
\r\n
\r\nEvans, who last summer proved 75 games in Double-A was sufficient before jumping right to New York, suffered a scare in his Puerto Rican Winter League stint as he strained his right quadriceps just ten games into the season. However, a four-week rehab assignment in December should have him ready to go by camp.
\r\n
\r\nIf he does not start with the big league club, Evans will suit up in Triple-A for the first time and return to first base where he has been at his best throughout his career, but he should see additional time in left field as well.
\r\n
\r\nWHAT TO WATCH FOR IN 2009
\r\n
\r\n•\tSouthpaw Jon Niese could be boxed out of a rotation spot by the time camp rolls around, but he is still favorably looked at as a potential fifth starter. Niese, who posted a 7.07 ERA in his first three big league starts in 2008, was excellent in seven Triple-A starts last year as he went 5-1 with a 3.40 ERA in 39 2/3 innings in the more hitter-friendly PCL. If he returns to Triple-A, Niese will surely be the ace of the staff.
\r\n
\r\n•\tRight-hander Bobby Parnell will battle for a bullpen spot in big league camp, but thanks to off-season maneuvering, it is more likely he goes to Buffalo and holds down a spot in the rotation. There, he can continue to develop his changeup and harness his fastball consistency, two tools that will play significant roles in his ability to remain in New York.
\r\n
\r\n•\tEddie Kunz' performance in the Arizona Fall League (2-2, 10.93 ERA, 10 BB, 14 IP) did very little to sway critics disappointments after a rough and very brief big league debut last August. The Mets' 2007 top draft pick will likely begin the year in Buffalo and continue to perfect his secondary pitches—the most vital pieces to his success in New York.
\r\n
\r\nBINGHAMTON METS (AA)
\r\n
\r\nBinghamton became a very hot location during the summer months of the 2008 season as many of the organization's top prospects were shuttled in and out throughout the season. The amount of talent that went through NYSEG Stadium helped the club to a 73-69 record and the expected roster appears even stronger with a slew of high-value arms poised to suit for the B-Mets. However, the big question will be where the offense will come from as the departures of Daniel Murphy, Nick Evans, Mike Carp (via trade) and likely Fernando Martinez leave numerous holes in the batting order.
\r\n
\r\nTheir graduation also means there will be a large amount of competition for corner infield positions and spots around the outfield. Historically, Double-A has served as the make or break level for many prospects and with the young talent arriving or returning, the 2009 B-Mets will serve as a barometer for many of the higher ranked prospects getting their first shot at the challenging Eastern League.
\r\n
\r\nARMS, ARMS, ARMS
\r\n
\r\nThe 2008 squad saw an infusion of youth during the summer as four of the more highly-touted young arms came up from St. Lucie and filled significant roles as the B-Mets rotation experienced a full turnover from its opening day roster. There is no question the entire pitching staff, not just the rotation, will be the driving force behind the club's success this upcoming season.
\r\n
\r\nNo pitcher heads into 2009 hotter than right-hander Dillon Gee. Following an impressive season in which he posted a combined 10-6 ERA and 2.92 ERA (2-0, 1.33 in Double-A), Gee continues to steam ahead following an award-winning stint in the Puerto Rican League. The 2008 Sterling Award winner in St. Lucie earned PWL Pitcher of the Year honors after going 4-0 with a 2.22 ERA in ten starts.
\r\n
\r\nGee earned a non-roster invitation to big league camp this spring where he will have the opportunity to pitch himself right onto the Triple-A after only four starts in Double-A. The 12th ranked prospect by Inside Pitch could be a real mover this season and will likely end up in Buffalo at some point, it is just a matter of when. A strong spring could get him there outright, or he will return to Binghamton as an anchor of a very talented staff.
\r\n
\r\nTobi Stoner also received a non-roster invite to big league camp and like Gee could be in a position to pitch himself into the Buffalo rotation. Stoner comes off a fine winter season in which he posted a 2-0 record and 3.66 ERA in 11 relief appearances in the Arizona Fall League. He followed that up with a sharp showing in the Puerto Rican Winter League where he went 2-1 with a 1.50 ERA in 24 innings.
\r\n
\r\nThe biggest challenge for Stoner (ranked 9th in by Inside Pitch) will be how he stays ahead of hitters as he continues to move up. His strikeout per nine innings ratio has declined as he has moved up the ladder, but coaches have impressed upon him to keep throwing his heater to set up his excellent secondary pitches. He could be in the running for a big league debut in 2009, but coaches will likely want to see him first clear that last hurdle.
\r\n
\r\nWHAT TO WATCH FOR IN 2009
\r\n
\r\n•\tDylan Owen was shaky during his first crack at Double-A, posting a 1-1 record and 5.51 ERA in three starts. The third-year right-hander appears locked into a rotation spot for the B-Mets, and though he brings two excellent breaking pitches to the mound, Owen needs greater fastball consistency to excel at this level. Some scouts are concerned Double-A could prove to be a barrier for Owen so a strong start is necessary.
\r\n
\r\n•\tJosh Thole is coming off a career season and will hold down the catching duties in Binghamton. He took over the starting job in St. Lucie last May, but 2009 will be the first time in his career the 22-year-old enters the season atop the depth chart. The two focal points of his season will be how he improves his communication with the pitching staff and if he can repeat his success at the plate after hitting .300 in 111 games last season. He will get a head start on the former as he too received a non-roster invite to big league camp.
\r\n
\r\n•\tFor the first time in years, Shawn Bowman enters the season at full strength after years of back injuries. His talents on both sides of the ball have always been there, but now with the opportunity to play every day and find a rhythm at Double-A, more production is anticipated. Given Bowman's hunger and work ethic, few doubt his ability to meet the task at hand.
\r\n
\r\nCheck back tomorrow for Part Two's preview of St. Lucie and Savannah
\r\n
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