2017 Mets Affiliate Previews: Columbia Fireflies

The Fireflies kicked off their second season in Columbia last week, and it’s a much more prospecty team this year than last—even with Thomas Szapucki on the DL and Justin Dunn skipping the level. The rotation is still pretty interesting, split between young IFA arms and six-figure draft picks, but the lineup is even more intriguing, with three of our Top 20 Mets prospects.
The best prospect on the Fireflies Opening Day roster is 2015 second-round pick Desmond Lindsay (#6). The 20-year-old center fielder has struggled to stay on the field so far in his pro career due to a spate of hamstring issues that date back to his senior season of high school. When Lindsay has played however, he’s looked like the best player on the field despite being younger than the vast majority of his competition. He played the corner infield spots as a prep, but has the straight-line speed and general athleticism to theoretically handle center field. He’s also a more polished hitter than the amateur background and lack of minor league reps would imply. He’s shown an advanced approach, good feel for the barrel, and potentially average pop in my looks at him over the last two years. There’s a potential role 6 center fielder here, if the tools all play up on the grass and at the plate, but the bat might end up a bit light in an outfield corner if the defensive package falls short up the middle. We will know much more about Lindsay after—hopefully—a full South Atlantic League campaign in 2017.
I have been driving the Luis Carpio (#11) bandwagon since I saw him in Kingsport in 2015. I even ranked him over Dom Smith, Desmond Lindsay, and Robert Gsellman on our 2016 Mets Top 10. So that doesn’t look great in hindsight for a variety of reasons, but mostly because he ended up missing almost all of 2016 with a labrum tear in his right shoulder. His arm was already going to be a little stretched at shortstop, so I wasn’t terribly surprised the Mets used him almost entirely at second base when he featured this spring. That dings the projection, but there’s time to remedy that, as he’s still going to be one of the younger players in the South Atlantic League. Carpio brings more polished baseball skills than loud middle infield tools, but I really believe in the bat here, and he’s potentially a plus defender at the keystone. The comp I keep coming back to—admittedly one that will not enthuse Mets fans—is Ruben Tejada, but recall that Tejada looked like an above-average regular before a series of unfortunate injuries sapped him of his similarly limited athletic tools. Carpio won’t move as quickly as Tejada (#OmarsTeam), but I expect him to handle the low minors with sufficient aplomb to maybe even sneak his way back onto the 2018 Mets Top Ten list—I hear the author of it has a bit of a soft spot for him. His ceiling isn’t as high as Lindsay’s, but he’s about as good a bet to have some sort of major league career as you’ll find in a 19-year-old with a modest IFA signing bonus ($300,000).
If you could somehow weld two bandwagons together in some sort of Top Gear-style challenge so I could drive two at once, give me catcher Ali Sanchez’s (#14) as well. When the BP Mets prospect team eventually puts together a house style guide, one of the topline bullets will be: “Catchers are weird, man.” Sanchez clocked in at #10 on our 2016 Mets Prospect List and was in consideration for that spot again, despite only hitting .216/.260/.275 in Brooklyn as a 19-year-old. To be fair, he was dealing with a hand issue last summer, but that’s not the kind of performance that would normally keep you on prospect maven radars. But we don’t scout the statline, and Sanchez is a polished defensive catcher that gets good marks for his receiving and handling of his pitchers. I do think he will hit too; it’s a simple, line drive swing, and he controls the bat well. There will never be a ton of power here, and the arm has consistently popped well-below-average for me despite good caught-stealing numbers in short-season ball—again, don’t scout the statline—so it is a bit of an unusual profile, Or—if you prefer—weird. Because catchers are weird, man. The range of prospect outcomes here is vast, from, say, 2017 Carson Kelly to 2020 backup catcher on the Rumble Ponies, And as long as I am giving Mets fans disappointing comps, the one that keeps jumping to mind for Sanchez is Kevin Plawecki. That seems like damning with…uh…no praise, but there is a universe out there where Kevin Plawecki is a solid everyday backstop with a 55 hit tool, and it actually is spelled “Berenstein” Bears.
Left-handed pitcher Thomas Szapucki (#3) would normally be the lead for this preview, but he is on the shelf with a shoulder impingement. Every shoulder is its own beast, but the same injury cost Logan Verrett about two months of his A-ball season back in 2012. Szapucki was throwing on the minor league side by the end of spring, so he could be back in time for me to see him in Lakewood in the middle of May. That would put him on track for around 100 innings in his first full-season assignment. This isn’t ideal, but if the potential plus stuff is still there come June 1, I don’t think we’ll mind too much. This does make two straight abridged seasons for the young lefty—he missed the last month of 2016 with some back stiffness—and that, combined with his funky delivery, may give him the dreaded “reliever” tag. Now, I generally think almost everyone is a reliever, but I see a potential plus-plus fastball and plus breaker here, and there is already some feel for the change. I’d give him every chance to start, but it would be nice to see him on a mound for a full season at some point soon. None of us are getting any younger, including Szapucki, who was an older prep pick. Anyway, a lot of these concerns can get papered over with another few months of 15 strikeouts per nine. He certainly has the stuff to do that in the South Atlantic League.
With Szapucki on the shelf, the best pitching prospect in Columbia will be Merandy Gonzalez (#20). Gonzalez saw his velocity jump in 2015 in Kingsport, and he maintained it during a strong 2016 Brooklyn campaign. The 21-year-old righty can reach back for 95-96 with the four seamer, and the pitch can show late life at times. The two-seamer is more 91-94 with some weight to it, but both fastballs are a bit straighter than you’d like. On the plus side, he can hit all four quadrants with it and elevate it for a strikeout when he needs to. So there should be more than enough fastball here to handle South Atlantic League hitters. The curveball is his best secondary, and while it is inconsistent at present, it will flash plus. He will slow his arm speed and guide the pitch at times, and that version gets soft and slurvy in the upper-70s. When the armspeed is there and he really breaks it off, it’s a hard 11-5 offering in the low-80s that he can spot, bury, and even backfoot to lefties. The change was pretty crude in my looks last summer, which leaves him a two-pitch guy who lacks ideal size—he’s listed at 6’1,” 195. Add in that he’s already stocky and close to physically maxed, and well…yeah…like I said, I generally think almost everyone is a reliever. Gonzalez could be a major league one though.

Short Hops

The other Gonzalez in the rotation, Harol Gonzalez, is a joy to watch, with four pitches he can throw for strikes, and good feel for all three secondaries, the best of which is a slider with late cut. The fastball tops out at 90 though, and he has trouble holding even that velocity later in starts. There is enough pitchability here to beguile A-ball hitters, but it is tough to see a major league arm here without a significant velocity and stamina jump. The mini-Pedro aesthetic is fun though…The Mets tweaked 2016 third-round pick Blake Tiberi’s swing during his first pro summer, and that may have contributed to his short-season struggles. When his swing was right, the Louisville third baseman looked like the best hitter on that Brooklyn team. Expect plenty of Daniel Murphy—pre-Kevin-Long—comps if that happens more often in 2017…Jordan Humphreys is the less-polished version of Merandy Gonzalez, with a tick less velocity and a more inconsistent curve…shortstop Milton Ramos got $750,000 as an overslot third round pick in 2014 on the strength of his shortstop glove, but he struggled at the plate in his first go-round in the South Atlantic League, and may be stuck in a middle infield rotation with Carpio and 2017 fourth rounder Michael Paez…lefty Blake Taylor, who you may remember from the Ike Davis deal, will look to prove he is healthy after a 2015 Tommy John surgery. I liked what I saw in 2014 a bit, and he’s somehow still only 21.
Photo credit: Reinhold Matay – USA Today Sports

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