Kingsport Mets players engage in running drills at Hunter Wright Stadium Wednesday evening.
KINGSPORT — The Kingsport Mets are back in town — and the New York Mets have brought their briefcases with them.
After 17 years of local management, this summer the Mets organization will directly oversee business and facility operations at Hunter Wright Stadium.
“We saw a good opportunity to do something and we have a lot of time and money invested here. We felt like with us operating it, we could kind of take it to the next level,” said new K-Mets general manager Brian Paupeck, who served 10 years as manager of food and beverage operations at St. Lucie, Fla.
The Appalachian League season opens tonight with the K-Mets taking on the visiting Johnson City Cardinals. First pitch is set for 7 p.m.
The arrival of beer sales at Hunter Wright Stadium may be the first significant change local fans notice. Paupeck said the Mets organization is cultivating a number of new promotions that are expected to encourage larger crowds at the old ballyard.
Appalachian League baseball remains, as always, a family-friendly product.
“We’re going to do a lot of the same stuff we do down in Florida and up in Brooklyn with the Cyclones. We’ll be trying some new things to give it that minor league feel,” Paupeck said.
“We’re starting a Kid’s Club and new mascot — Slider. And there’s a handful of other things we’re doing,” he said.
One variable that should take some of the pressure off Paupeck’s rookie season as a GM is the return of last year’s coaching staff. Manager Jose Leger returns for his second season in Kingsport along with pitching coach Jonathan Hurst and hitting coach Yunir Garcia.
After the Mets cut ties with the Gulf Coast League in late 2011, there was a surplus of young talent funneled through the Model City last year. Leger had his hands full juggling a roster that at one point swelled to 44 players.
Now that the Mets have rejoined the GCL in 2013, things should be a little less hectic around the clubhouse.
“Last year we were overloaded. It was a little hard keeping everybody happy as far as our playing time goes,” said Leger, who is in his fourth year as a manager and fifth as a coach. “This year we broke camp with 32 players. Some of those players are coming back and are very excited to be here and getting more experience.”
Some of last year’s talent is getting experience elsewhere. Outfielder Maikas De La Cruz is playing Low A ball with the Savannah (Ga.) Sand Gnats. Infielder Gavin Cecchini, a 12th overall draft pick, was sent to Brooklyn late last season. He’s still there but could conceivably get bumped up to another rung before summer’s done.
Familiar faces from 2012 include right-handed pitchers Chris Flexen and Corey Oswalt, the latter of whom posted a winning record. Dominican righty Persio Reyes also returns. All three are stronger and sharper.
“Fans should be looking at these guys. They’re more experienced and we’re looking for them to have a better year,” Leger said.
Panamanian catcher Jeyckol De Leon and Rhode Island outfielder Jeffrey Diehl, both of whom had some memorable at-bats with last year’s team, also return to the lineup.
One of the most intriguing of this year’s new arrivals is center fielder Champ Stuart, a sixth-round draft pick who gained some notoriety among area baseball fans as a player for Brevard.
The young Bahamian is extremely fleet of foot, Leger said.
“He’s got a lot of speed and some energy. I can already tell by the way he’s practicing that he’s going to be a very interesting player to watch,” Leger said.
As for the other new K-Mets, sorting them out is all part of the developmental fun that takes place down in the Appalachian League.
“When you get new players, you get very excited about it but you don’t know what you’re going to get, with them being so young,” Leger said. “This year we’ll have more experience. All we know is that we’re going to have a better year than last year.”