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May 20, 2019

Poor player development is at the heart of the Mets’ issues, and that’s a Sandy Alderson problem

June 26, 2018

Amed Rosario was in the batting cage, an hour before the Mets would take BP on Monday, working on bunting as part of a teaching session that involved three coaches, as well as manager Mickey Callaway.

And much like the baserunning clinic that first-base coach Ruben Amaro conducted last week, as players gathered around him at each base, you couldn’t watch without thinking that players shouldn’t need such basic instruction at the big-league level.

All of which begs the question: what’s going on with the Mets’ player-development system? Aren’t players getting this type of instruction in the minors, particularly in spring training?

Amed Rosario has not turned into the top prospect he was lauded as largely because of the Mets’ poor player development system. (Dustin Bradford / Getty Images)

For an answer I called Wally Backman, who spent seven years managing in the organization before GM Sandy Alderson pushed him out the door after the 2016 season. And Backman was reluctant to criticize, not wanting to sound bitter, but I convinced him I just wanted a sense of what is and isn’t being taught before players reach the big leagues.

“There’s not enough work on fundamentals,” Backman said. “The years I was there, if I saw something that needed correcting with a player, I had to do it myself.”

Backman, who is now managing an independent team, the New Britain Bees in the Atlantic League, previously managed in the minors for the White Sox and Diamondbacks, and said there was a significant difference compared to what he experienced in the Mets’ system.

“Communication was very good in both of those other organizations, from the farm director on down,” Backman said. “They definitely worked harder on fundamentals. I don’t know why but it wasn’t that way with the Mets.

“I always thought there should be more emphasis on the little things. I made players understand that during the season. My most important job was to prepare guys to go to the big leagues, and make sure they understood what they needed to do to stay there.”

Such basics have come into question lately with the Mets, much of it because Rosario has looked so raw. A fast runner, the young shortstop came to the big leagues without knowing how to use his speed, either in bunting for hits or stealing a base.

“There’s not enough work on fundamentals. The years I was there, if I saw something that needed correcting with a player, I had to do it myself.”

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And while his tendency to chase pitches has been the biggest reason Rosario hasn’t lived up to the hype he received from minor-league evaluators as a can’t-miss prospect, the inability to help himself with his speed has exacerbated his lack of strike-zone discipline.

Meanwhile, on Sunday Callaway said he didn’t consider having Dom Smith drop down a bunt in the ninth inning, with the go-ahead run on first and the Dodgers in an over-shift, because the young first baseman had never bunted as a minor-leaguer.

Records show that Smith did bunt once, executing a sacrifice as a Class-A minor leaguer in 2014, and, in truth, with the bunt being de-emphasized as a strategy all around baseball in the last few years, there are surely plenty of former first-round draft picks who haven’t bunted in the minors.

The point, however, is that somebody like Smith should at least be doing bunt drills during spring training as a minor-leaguer, and Backman says he only recalls pitchers being asked to take part in such drills during his years with the Mets.

“It’s still part of the game,” he said. “And I know the numbers say you have a better chance of scoring by not bunting, but there are situations where it can win you a game.”

If the Mets’ season weren’t in flames, of course, such bunting details would be insignificant. And the same could be said if the organization were overflowing with young, dynamic talent.

Wally Backman, who worked in Mets organization, says he saw firsthand the lack of work on fundamentals in the minors.
Wally Backman, who worked in Mets organization, says he saw firsthand the lack of work on fundamentals in the minors. (BEBETO MATTHEWS / AP)

But with everything going wrong on the big-league level and very little help coming from the farm system, you can’t help but look at the player-development system as a problem.

In that case, it’s one more reason to question the job that Alderson has done, as he is now in his eighth season on the job. For while he’s not actually making the draft picks or overseeing bunt drills, obviously the GM is responsible for hiring the people who make those decisions and execute the on-the-field philosophy.

In short, Alderson is coming under more and more scrutiny for the Mets’ failures. Some of it is the inexplicable — and repeated — refusal to be proactive in situations like Jason Vargas’ calf strain, not having a replacement up from the minors to start in his place despite knowing it was an issue days earlier.

And obviously his free-agent signings last winter have backfired on him, yet there’s a bigger-picture problem that is really at the heart of the matter:

Why haven’t the Mets developed more young talent under Alderson? Is it simply poor drafting, or is the player-development process an issue as well?

In addition to Backman, I reached out to another ex-Met who has been close to the minor-league situation in recent years, someone I know has a strong belief the organization has done a poor job of developing players.

However, the ex-player said he wasn’t comfortable sharing his thoughts publicly because of his long-time friendship with owner Fred Wilpon.

“I like Fred too much to say what I really think,” was the way he put it.

Speaking of the owner, Backman recalled sitting in an organizational meeting in spring training several years ago with Wilpon in attendance, when one of the coaches was waxing poetic about The Cardinal Way, referencing the St. Louis organization renowned for being fundamentally sound.

“Fred was sitting there listening to that,” Backman recalled, “and he said, ‘I don’t want to hear about the Cardinal way. I want there to be a Met Way. I want people to talk about the Met Way.’”

Oh, people are talking about it, all right. Just not quite the, ahem, way the owner was hoping.

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