Mets prepare for 2013 with at least three reasons for hope, one of which is expected starting day pitcher Jonathon Niese
BY MARC MATURO
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Unless the comebacking but inactive Johan Santana is, in reality, Superman and can pitch on memory alone, the Mets’ opening-day starter at Citi Field on April 1 against the San Diego Padres will be fifth-year veteran southpaw Jonathon Niese.
The Mets, for some reason, have yet to put the official stamp on Niese’s selection, although manager Terry Collins was close to tabbing the Ohio native following a solid five-inning stint against the Atlanta Braves at Tradition Field here before a season-high throng of nearly 7,000 supporters on St. Patrick’s Day.
Moments after TV personality Regis Philbin tossed out the ceremonial first pitch, Niese went to work, allowing just one run (a homer) on two hits with one walk and four strikeouts in five innings. This effort did nothing but help his chances to earn the honor held by Santana a year ago.
“They are leaning towards it (opening day); it would be an honor,” Niese told the Rockland Times. “It’s not official yet, but if I get it, I’ll be ready.”
Niese is scheduled for his next start in spring training on March 22 in a night game against the Florida Marlins in Jupiter.
“Whatever happens, happens,” Niese added, referencing the opening-day nod. “It would be great, for them to put that responsibility on me. If I get it, great; if not, I will adjust.”
Al Jackson, a left-handed starter — and a good one — on the original Mets club in 1962, who had the opening-day assignments in 1964-65, has been to spring training with the Mets the last 13 years. He has seen many pitchers come and go, and remembers well the toughness and ability of two other celebrated Mets southpaws of yore — Jerry Koosman and Jon Matlack.
“He (Niese) could be in that class, barring injuries,” said Jackson, who still pitches batting practice, “but less and less,” at the ripe young age of 77. “Jonathon has grown each year, no doubt about that. He keeps getting better, and just needs more seasoning. He’ll be a great left-hand pitcher before he’s done. He’s going to grow a lot more — in experience, and to better know himself.”
Niese, a seventh-round pick in the 2005 amateur draft, went 9-10 with a 4.20 ERA in 2010, followed that with an 11-11 mark in 2011, and went 13-9 with a very-fine 3.40 ERA last season.
“He’s the whole ball of wax, but he’s hasn’t reached the top yet,” offered Jackson. “I love him, I’ve watched him. He’s one of the bright spots.”
ZACK WILL BE BACK: Dick Scott, the Mets’ director of player development following two years as the team’s minor-league field coordinator, expects 22-year-old pitching prospect Zack Wheeler to follow the same path to the big leagues as did Matt Harvey, who might have been this year’s opening-day pitcher were Jonathon Niese not on the staff. (In his latest outing, and another solid one, Harvey allowed two runs on six hits in 5.1 innings against the Cardinals, walking one and striking out six.)
Wheeler, highly touted, was hurt by a rib-cage injury early in spring training, and will start the year pitching for manager Wally Backman at the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate, now based in Las Vegas.
Harvey made 10 starts for the Mets after being called up last season. Wheeler, who started last season at Double-A Binghamton, finished up at Triple-A, going 2-2 with a 3.27 ERA in Buffalo. Although Wheeler wanted to come north with the big club, Scott feels the Dallas, Ga., native will be best served facing tougher over a longer period before coming to New York.
“He’s a great competitor, with plus-plus stuff,” said Scott. “He got by at Double-A even without his best stuff, so he could use more time facing stiffer competition. This year, for sure, he’ll be in the big leagues. He throws 95-96-97 (mph) with good breaking stuff, and commands it.”
Scott, who commended the organization for keeping Harvey at Triple-A until he was ready, said Wheeler will realize his current path is the best one, too.
“Zack will be there (big leagues) this season,” Scott continued. “It was a good decision with Matt, and it helped him more than he knows. It made him more ready to succeed when he was called up. Zack will be the same. The higher level of competition will push him, and he’ll be ready, too, when he’s called up.”
Then Scott issued the one caveat, which applies to any and all top-rated prospects.
“It’s all up to him because nothing’s guaranteed,” said Scott. “But if he does what he’s expected to do, he’ll be in the big leagues soon. He’s easily as competitive as Matt (Harvey), but Matt is more vocal.”
Darin Gorski, 25, in his fifth year with the organization and on the 40-man roster, is a left-handed pitcher who played two seasons with Wheeler at Double-A Binghamton.
Gorski, who has hopes himself of making the big club, had only high praise for Wheeler.
“He’s quiet,” assessed Gorski, echoing a familiar refrain around Mets camp. “He just goes about his business. He’s some competitor, let me tell you, oh yeah. When he goes out there he’s all business, he’s got that game face on. He gets guys out. He’s the whole package, definitely, very mature for a guy his age, and a real competitor. Even when he’s doing drills he’s not playing games out there.”
Another player who knows Wheeler well is 24-year-old right-hander Jared West, who pitched under coach Frank Viola last season at Savannah, Ga. The Houston, Texas, native said this about Wheeler: “I think he has all the tools. One thing, you’ll never see him not working hard. I’ve never heard one bad thing about him. He leads by example, and is always doing the extra things, the extra work. It seems like he’s everywhere — he’s on one field, he’s on another field, he’s everywhere!”
EXTRA INNINGS: Jesus Santana of Venezuela, the father of Johan Santana, was making another visit to Mets camp, but was unable to provide any inside dope on how his son is progressing. “Only Johan knows,” Santana the Elder said in Spanish. “I have no idea.” … Outfielder Lucas Duda was heard but barely seen taking extra batting practice in a hitting cage whose sides were blocked by green screening. A security guard stood by keeping one interested media member (me) at bay, as if Duda were in the witness protection program. Not a good way to build up fan base for a team that has struggled both on the field, and in attendance. The extra BP seemed to pay off, as Duda hit his third homer of the spring in his next game, an opposite-field shot for the powerful left-handed hitter. … Third baseman and team-captain candidate David Wright, nursing an intercostal injury, has not publicly stated whether he will be ready to swing away come opening day, but has assured manager Terry Collins that he will be ready to roll. His replacement, Justin Turner, was last seen walking with a brace on his injured right ankle. Otherwise, the Mets are well-suited at the hot corner, a position that had played like a revolving door until Wright’s arrival. … Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver, known as ‘The Franchise,’ will play some role at the All-Star Game at Citi Field on July 16, but that role has yet to be determined. There had been rumors that Seaver was having some health issues, and that he had turned down the offer to participate. … Matt Harvey said the decision to give Jonathon Niese the opening-day start “is awesome.” Harvey, however, gave the impression that he might have welcomed the assignment himself, which is what any Mets fan would want to hear from a pitcher who is already being compared in some quarters to Seaver. Harvey is nothing if not highly confident, and talented. … A limited number of tickets are available for opening day, and tickets are also on sale for the All-Star Game on July 16, All-Star Sunday on July 14, and a Fan Fest at the Javits Center July 12-16. All-Star Sunday will feature a Futures Games showcasing top prospects in baseball and a Celebrity-Legends Softball Game. Tickets can be purchased at 718-507-8499 or by visiting www.mets.com or www.losmets.com.