When center fielder Kirk Niewenhuis steps to the plate to lead off, the former Big 12 football recruit, who stands 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, gets some quizzical looks.
“I get some comments from catchers like, ‘What’s going on here? You’re a leadoff hitter?’” Nieuwenhuis said.
Sure enough, Nieuwenhuis can move despite his big build -- even if he had not been placed in the leadoff spot until he turned pro.
Niewenhuis stole 17 bases while playing for manager Tim Teufel last season at Class A St. Lucie. He also led the Florida State League in doubles (35), slugging percentage (.467), extra-base hits (56) and runs (91) while finishing third in homers (16).
Niewenhuis and Teufel have moved to Double-A Binghamton this year, where the skipper has continued to use Niewenhuis as a leadoff men, partly to maximize his at-bats.
A third-round pick in 2008, the 22-year-old Nieuwenhuis could emerge as a 20-homer, 20-steal threat. He’s hitting .313 with two homers, 11 RBIs and three steals in 80 at-bats with the B-Mets. A scout who watched Nieuwenhuis last season and this week suggested Nieuwenhuis has improved the “quietness” of his hands as he begins to swing as compared with the “slight hitch” he used to have.
“He’s shown opposite-field power last year in St. Lucie at the big fields,” Teufel said. “He can be a guy that you can project out with some big-league power. To be able to hit the ball out the other way, you’ve got to be real strong -- especially at the ballparks we played at in the Florida State League. He’s got a lot of strength, man. He’s just a strong, strong kid. He’s learned how to turn on pitches.”
Nieuwenhuis rushed for 267 yards in a snowstorm in the Colorado Class 2A football championship game his senior year of high school in Denver. He was recruited by Colorado and Colorado State as a wide receiver, as well as by Air Force as a wingback.
“I love football to death, but I wasn’t sure how big I was going to get,” Nieuwenhuis said. “I went on a recruiting trip to Colorado and saw Mason Crosby and I was like, ‘Wow, this guy is huge.’ And it turns out he was the kicker. That was a little bit of a wakeup call.”
Regardless, Nieuwenhuis noted: “My heart was in baseball, for sure.”
His only Division I baseball offers came from Bradley and Dallas Baptist, so Nieuwenhuis decided to attend Azusa Pacific (Calif.) University, where he led the school to consecutive NAIA World Series.
“I really didn’t have a lot of baseball offers from big schools,” Nieuwenhuis said.
As for what areas he needs to make strides, Nieuwenhuis said: “Just the little things -- moving guys over, getting bunts down, stuff like that -- is something I need to work on. Just learning the game situations, all the baseball-savvy stuff I can learn from older guys like we have on this team.”
Average: Jesus Feliciano, Buffalo, .370; Wilmer Flores, Savannah, .338; Rafael Fernandez, Savannah, .328; Kai Gronaeur, Savannah, .321; Nick Evans, Binghamton, .318; Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Binghamton, .313; Jason Pridie, Buffalo, .313; Stefan Welch, St. Lucie, .309; Josh Satin, St. Lucie, .306; Jordany Valdespin, St. Lucie, .300.
Homers: Mike Hessman, Buffalo, 6; Zach Lutz, Binghamton, 5; Lucas Duda, Binghamton, 4; Nick Evans, Binghamton, 4.
RBIs: Lucas Duda, Binghamton, 18; Mike Hessman, Buffalo, 18; Wilmer Flores, Savannah, 17; Nick Evans, Binghamton, 16; Juan Lagares, Savannah, 16.
Steals: Pedro Zapata, Savannah, 7; Jason Pridie, Buffalo, 6; Emmanuel Garcia, St. Lucie, 5; Cesar Puello, Savannah, 5; Brahiam Maldonado, Binghamton, 4.
ERA: Jimmy Fuller, Savannah, 1.26; Mark Cohoon, Savannah, 1.90; Josh Stinson, Binghamton, 2.70; Dillon Gee, Buffalo, 2.78; Darin Gorski, Savannah, 2.84; R.A. Dickey, Buffalo, 3.03; Pat Misch, Buffalo, 3.09; Dylan Owen, Binghamton, 3.43; Kyle Allen, St. Lucie, 3.60; Bobby Livingston, Buffalo, 4.96.
Wins: Mark Cohoon, Savannah, 3; Elmer Dessens, Buffalo, 3; Jimmy Fuller, Savannah, 3; Dillon Gee, Buffalo, 3; Scott Shaw, Binghamton, 3.
Saves: Manuel Alvarez, St. Lucie, 6; John Lujan, Buffalo, 4.
Strikeouts: Jimmy Fuller, Savannah, 27; Dillon Gee, Buffalo, 22; Jeurys Familia, St. Lucie, 21; Armando Rodriguez, Savannah, 21; Mark Cohoon, Savannah, 20.
Savannah shortstop Wilmer Flores, who does not turn 19 until Aug. 6, is the talk of the South Atlantic League. The Sand Gnats infielder took a 10-game hitting streak and .361 average into Sunday’s game against Hickory, when Flores went 0-for-5. Still, Flores was given respect in his final plate appearance that day. With runners on the corners, two out and Savannah tied in the bottom of the ninth, Hickory pitcher Josh Lueke fell behind Flores, 2-0, then issued an intentional walk to load the bases. Jeff Flagg followed with a game-winning RBI single to center. That wasn’t the first time Flores was intentionally walked in a scenario like that, as Savannah manager Pedro Lopez can attest. As a 16-year-old with Kingsport two years ago, the same scenario unfolded with a late intentional walk to Flores as Lopez watched from the dugout. … Outfielder Fernando Martinez (.254, 1 HR, 7 RBIs in 59 at-bats) is sidelined at Buffalo with what’s labeled mid-back soreness. The top outfield prospect has averaged 78 games a season as a professional because of assorted injuries. … Ruben Tejada had three two-hit games in a four-game span through Saturday that lifted his Triple-A average to .233. Tejada has nearly exclusively played shortstop with the Bisons, although he did start one weekend game at second base. … Infielder Andy Green, who opened the season on the DL with a hamstring injury, started strongly after joining Triple-A Buffalo with a 3-for-4 International League season debut Thursday. Green has appeared at second base and shortstop. He also manned third base when Mike Hessman was ejected Friday at Pawtucket and Mike Cervenak moved from third base to first base. … Mike Jacobs went 3-for-6 with a homer, double and two RBIs on Sunday in his Bisons debut despite being inactive for the week before arriving. It marked Jacobs’ first Triple-A game since 2004, when he was a Mets catching prospect at Norfolk. … Right-hander Dillon Gee has emerged as the best candidate for a call-up if the Mets need rotation help. Gee was roughed up for the first time Tuesday night, when Durham tagged him for five runs in 4 2/3 innings, including a homer by Chris Richard. Entering the outing, Gee had allowed two runs in 18 innings over his first three starts while attacking the strike zone. … Right-hander John Lujan, a Rule 5 pick from the Chicago White Sox in the minor league phase in December, continued to impress after a promotion from Binghamton to Buffalo. The stadium gun in Pawtucket clocked Lujan at 98 mph Saturday when he picked up a save in his Bisons debut, although scouts had him ranging between 94-96 mph. Lujan picked up his second save Tuesday night. … Bobby Parnell was given a leave of absence to deal with a family matter. … Ex-Minnesota Twins outfielder Jason Pridie has a hit in 13 of his last 15 games with Buffalo and led off seven games in an 11-game span with a hit. … Binghamton left-hander Eric Niesen was placed on the disabled list with concussion symptoms. Niesen was struck on the back on the head by catcher Mike Nickeas on a rushed throw to second base trying to catch a base stealer. First baseman Nick Evans also landed on the DL at Binghamton with an oblique injury, prompting the promotion to the B-Mets of outfielder Seth Williams, a 40th-round pick in 2008 from the University of North Carolina. … Mike Pelfrey’s warm-up music before starts has strong ties to Double-A pitching coach Mark Brewer. The song, “Shake Me,” is performed by the band Taddy Porter. The lead singer: Andy Brewer, the son of the B-Mets’ pitching coach. Andy Brewer worked in the visitors’ clubhouse in Binghamton in ’06. … Right-hander Brad Holt, a supplemental first-round pick in ’08, made his first appearance this season on Saturday, when he tossed two innings with Binghamton. Holt, who has an above-average curveball and is working on the feel for his changeup, opened the season inactive because of wrist soreness. … Former Rays catcher Shawn Riggans, who has been sidelined since April 10 with a shoulder injury, expects to be activated within days. … Mike Antonini had the longest outing by a B-Met this season when he tossed seven innings in a 2-0 loss Tuesday. Until then, right-hander Scott Shaw had that honor. Shaw tossed 6 2/3 innings against New Hampshire on Sunday. Shaw, a 13th-round pick in ’08 from the University of Illinois, won his third straight start since allowing eight runs (seven earned) in 2 1/3 innings against Akron in his season opener. … The least-experienced member of the Mets’ relief corps is assigned a candy-filled Hannah Montana backpack to bring to the bullpen each game. That practice is being mimicked at Binghamton. Josh Stinson, the youngest member of the relief corps, is assigned the Double-A version -- a purple “Princess” backpack. … Left-handed closer Roydrick Merritt has been asked to perform longer appearances this season. He’s already had three relief outings of 2 1/3 innings or longer, including Sunday’s work against New Hampshire, when Merritt picked up the save while recording seven outs and allowing only one hit. … Right fielder D.J. Wabick, who opened the season 0-for-12, extended his hitting streak to seven games Tuesday and had lifted his average to .234. … Luis Hernandez is sidelined with a groin injury, allowing Jose Coronado to move back to shortstop with the B-Mets. … Aussie first baseman Stefan Welch was 8-for-14 with six RBIs in a four-game stretch through Monday with St. Lucie. His solo homer Sunday in the ninth pulled St. Lucie within a run, allowing teammate Richard Lucas to tie the game one batter later on a longball. Welch also had a strong showing with St. Lucie late last season (.278, 5 HR, 37 RBIs in 216 at-bats) after getting promoted from Savannah when Ike Davis moved to Binghamton. … St. Lucie closer Manuel Alvarez is off to a torrid start. The 24-year-old right-hander had two wins and six saves and has yet to allow a run in nine appearances, spanning 12 1/3 innings. Alvarez has a 2.8-to-1 groundout to flyout ratio and possesses a 90-92 mph fastball. … Third baseman Jefry Marte is off to a slow start upon returning from a left-hamstring strain. He’s 3-for-27 with Savannah. … Jimmy Fuller continues to pitch strongly for the Sand Gnats. A 21st-round pick in 2008, Fuller (3-1, 1.26 ERA) has twice tossed eight innings this season. … Buffalo has a pair of SNY-televised games this week: Thursday at 6 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m.
Adam Rubin’s farm report appears Wednesdays during the season