SYRACUSE — Have you ever seen a minor league team like this?
“No,” manager Tony DeFrancesco said.
“No,” outfielder Gregor Blanco said.
“No,” second baseman Danny Espinosa said.
The oldest Triple-A team in baseball entered the season with an average age of 28.88, a sea of veterans seeking a possible last chance competing in a league overflowing with youngsters desperate for a first opportunity.
Meet the (Syracuse) Mets.
Their three-man outfield when Tim Tebow is designated hitter combined for 32 home runs, 109 steals and 192 runs scored … in 2012. Carlos Gomez (33 years old), Rajai Davis (at 38 the oldest player in the minors) and Blanco (35) are some of the zero-risk, medium-reward fliers the Mets have taken, trying to wring the talent remaining from longtime big leaguers who are convinced they are not finished. In a system bare of outfield prospects, new Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen is banking on experience being more helpful than youth.
It makes for a strange dynamic, players who have fresher memories of playoff runs than bus-ride horrors, all bunched into a locker room that’s more like a waiting room.
“It is [difficult],” Blanco, best known from his time with the Giants from 2012-16 and 2018, said recently. “We just take it day by day. Speaking as myself, I’m just really excited to show I got more to show.”
That’s the challenge around the team, to prove what they had is what they have. The fact Blanco can look to his right and see a two-time All-Star in Gomez and a World Series hero in Davis makes the process easier and builds a sense of camaraderie.
“That’s one of the good things we have as a team,” Blanco said of the collective experience. “We’re going to help each other and have our backs. Try to give a good impression.”
Around the infield you’ll find Espinosa, a fixture with the Nationals from 2010-16, with 98 big league homers to his name. Adeiny Hechavarria, briefly with the Yankees last season, has appeared in more than 800 major league games and is now manning shortstop for the affiliate, in its first year in upstate New York after six seasons in Las Vegas.
Dilson Herrera, once the second baseman of the Mets’ future until they traded him to the Reds in 2016 for Jay Bruce, is back and, at 25, is four months from being the youngest player on the team (pitcher Chris Flexen won’t turn 25 until July 1).
“The way I look at it is, this is where I’m playing, so I just need to play the best I can,” Espinosa, who last played in the majors with the Rays in 2017, told The Post. “I’m here. This is what I have to worry about. I can’t worry about what [the Mets] decide. I just have to play well here.”
It is particularly eerie for Espinosa, who agreed having other former big leaguers surrounding him makes the situation more palatable. He called Syracuse’s NBT Bank Stadium home in 2010, when the city hosted Washington’s Triple-A affiliate.
Nearly a decade and 2,910 major league at-bats later, the 31-year-old is back to where his dreams stalled — until they came true.
“Same field, the field was always nice. It’s a different feel,” he said, adding of returning all these years later, “I wouldn’t have imagined that.”
Charged with turning all of the potential frustrations into positive energy is DeFrancesco, whose first minor league managing gig came in 1994 and who managed the Mets’ affiliate in Las Vegas last season.
Even for a baseball lifer, this is brand-new.
“You always had three or four veteran guys,” the 55-year-old said. “But nobody with 12, 13 years of major league time.”
His task, he said, is less teaching and more head-straightening, ensuring a cast that is used to the big time focuses on returning to the big time and not being bogged down by the small.
“You got 13 years in the big leagues, I think they have a pretty good feel how to play the game,” DeFrancesco said. “They’re fighting to get back. Hopefully they get a chance with the Mets real soon.”
However soon, it won’t be soon enough for players who are no longer used to waiting.
Published at Sat, 13 Apr 2019 08:37:42 +0000