Manager Mike DiFelice works with the 2010 Mets team at Hunter Wright Stadium. Photo by Erica Yoon.
KINGSPORT — Development remains the primary objective of the coaching staffs in the Appalachian League. Staying competitive on the field is an arms race.
Quality pitching, specifically pitching depth, is the key to fielding a winning team in the rookie level of the minor leagues.
The opening-day roster for the Kingsport Mets includes seven of the 29 pitchers drafted by the Mets organization earlier this month. Of those seven, five went in the first 12 rounds.
“Early last year our biggest struggles were just getting the ball over the plate,” second-year manager Mike DiFelice said, who added: “It looks like we have a little more freedom with the bullpen right away.”
DiFelice also feels the return of the entire staff from last season, which includes hitting coach Bobby Malek, will benefit this year’s team.
“A big part of it’s really about how the pitching’s going to do and to have good communication with your pitching coach, that’s a key for any manager,” DiFelice said.
Three of the hurlers who went through extended spring training — Gonzalez Germen, Michael Hebert and Lachlan Hodge — will start the first three games of the season. Germen gets the call tonight against the Johnson City Cardinals in their mutual 2010 Appy opener.
“They’ve got some stuff to get people out,” DiFelice said.
One of the draftees, Jacob deGrom, has experience pitching at Cardinal Park. DeGrom emerged as the No. 1 starter for Stetson, which plays East Tennessee State in the Atlantic Sun Conference, after beginning the 2010 season doing double duty as shortstop and relief pitcher.
However, he’s not expected to see the mound until Saturday.
“As it gets closer, I’ll start feeling some nerves,” said deGrom, a ninth-round selection.
“I’ve had that before every start I’ve had. I’m kind of used to it. I guess it happens to everybody.”
It’s up to pitching coach Jonathan Hurst to try to keep fatigue from striking the draftees on the Kingsport roster. Hurst probably will use a piggyback system whenever one of the first- year hurlers starts.
“Otherwise it’s going to be interesting,” Hurst said. “We’re going to let some guys go.”
One of the likely candidates for longer stints is Hodge, an Australia native, led the team in innings pitched (53 2-3), while logging a 1:2 walks/strikeouts ratio with 28 free passes and 56 Ks.
Several of the position players also cut their teeth in the Gulf Coast League. Second baseman Ray Van Gurp led the GCL Mets in RBIs last season with 21. Javier Rodriguez, a second-round pick in the ’08 draft, tallied two homers and 19 RBIs against a .230 average.
ZeErika McQueen, who’s changed his name from ZeErika Hall, had a team-high .418 on- base percentage among the regulars on the GCL roster.
Of the other K-Mets who played in the GCL, Chase Greene looks to get reps in the outfield. Aderlin Rodriguez will play third and hit in the middle of the time behind the plate.
First baseman Eddie Lora was one of the players to be named later in the deal that sent Billy Wagner to the Mets from the Red Sox. Lora got shipped to the Mets in October, completing the trade.
And pitching is key to success in the Appy League.