Mets catching coordinator Bob Natal observed Josh Thole absorbing information like a sponge during spring training.
Thole, the 23-year-old catcher who hit .321 in 17 games with the Mets after a September call-up last season, certainly had no shortage of mentors in big-league camp offering knowledge. The Mets even purposely had Thole locker next to Henry Blanco so that Thole would be able to regularly converse with the 12-year major-league veteran.
New York Mets
“I was fortunate enough to play against him in Venezuela, although I never really got to know him,” Thole said. “Even from Day 1 when I got here, I would always start the conversation, and then he would just take off and go with it. It helped so much -- from the mental part of catching to little things with my throwing.”
Thole is ticketed for Triple-A Buffalo to open the 2010 season, and the Mets hoped to pair him there with ex-Phillie Chris Coste, so the rookie could continue to get instruction from a teammate as the season progressed. However, Coste was claimed off waivers by the Washington Nationals on Monday, after the Mets began the process of sending Coste to the minors.
“He would have been a good guy to learn from. No question about it,” Thole said. “In spring training he was another guy I was always trying to pick his brain. The guy has been in baseball forever. It’s definitely good for him, though, I guess.”
Thole’s first major-league hit came against Jason Marquis during a 2-for-5 performance in his debut on Sept. 3 at Colorado. After the major-league season, Thole then finished second in the Venezuelan Winter League with a .381 average.
A career .291 minor-league hitter, and considering his recent success at the highest levels, Thole insisted he’s not disappointed heading back to the farm.
“No, because I know the things I need to work on,” Thole said. “It’s going be a good thing for me. I’m just really getting myself to really hone everything so there are no question marks anymore. If I can go to Buffalo and show that I can catch every day with no question marks, then I think I’ll be fine.”
Thole did throw out a respectable 26 of 86 runners (30.2 percent) with Double-A Binghamton last season, but he’s clearly a work-in-progress behind the plate. Drafted in the 13th round in 2005 out of Breese (Ill.) Mater Dei High School as a catcher, he primarily played first base as a professional until moving back behind the plate in May 2008 at Class A St. Lucie. While Thole has made strides defensively, his arm angle still has a tendency to drop and scouts say he doesn’t have a strong arm.
“My ball runs a little bit, but I feel like I’m throwing guys out right now,” Thole said. “I’m not too concerned about that.
“You always hope to be an everyday catcher in the big leagues, obviously,” he continued, alluding to his upside. “But whatever role they want to put me in, I’m fine with it. I just know how I have to balance it out if I’m going to be an everyday catcher. I have to know how to take my workload. And if I’m going to be a backup, I know that every single day I have to be catching bullpens and getting my work in.”
Regardless, Thole can hit. While playing for St. Lucie, his skipper at the time, Tim Teufel, advised Thole to have a two-strike approach at the plate no matter the count. Thole makes a conscious effort to choke up on the bat and has a knack for finding holes, even if he hasn’t displayed much home-run power. He has eight homers in 1,375 professional at-bats.
“Hey, if it happens, it happens,” Thole said about developing longball power. “But, I always say, if I give myself a chance to hit .300 every year, I’ll take that any day of the week.”
Organization leaders (2009)
Average: Josh Thole, Binghamton, .328; Richard Lucas, Brooklyn, .318; Jesus Feliciano, Buffalo, .311; Julio Concepcion, Gulf Coast, .306; Ike Davis, Binghamton, .298; Luis Rivera, Brooklyn, .297; Jordany Valdespin, Brooklyn, .296; Cesar Puello, Kingsport, .296; D.J. Wabick, Binghamton, .296; Ronald Harris, Brooklyn, .292.
Homers: Ike Davis, Binghamton, 20; Brahiam Maldonado, St. Lucie, 18; Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Binghamton, 17; Carlos Guzman, Binghamton, 16; Sean Ratliff, St. Lucie, 15; Reese Havens, St. Lucie, 14; Nick Evans, Buffalo, 13; Jeff Flagg, Kingsport, 13; Chip Ambres, Buffalo, 12; Zach Lutz, St. Lucie, 11.
RBI: Sean Ratliff, St. Lucie, 74; Brahiam Maldonado, St. Lucie, 73; Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Binghamton, 73; Ike Davis, Binghamton, 71; Carlos Guzman, Binghamton, 67; Joshua Satin, Savannah, 65; Zach Lutz, St. Lucie, 64; Jeff Flagg, Kingsport, 62; Chip Ambres, Buffalo, 58; D.J. Wabick, Binghamton, 55.
Steals: Randoll Santana, Dominican Summer, 47; Gilbert Gomez, Dominican Summer, 35; Eudy Pina, Dominican Summer, 27; Yucarybert De La Cruz, Dominican Summer, 26; Emmanuel Garcia, Binghamton, 19; Marcus Guillen, Dominican Summer, 19; Ruben Tejada, Binghamton, 19; Greg Veloz, St. Lucie, 18; Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Binghamton, 17.
ERA: Brandon Moore, Brooklyn, 2.09; Mark Cohoon, Brooklyn, 2.15; Jeffrey Kaplan, St. Lucie, 2.45; Jeurys Familia, Savannah, 2.69; Collin McHugh, Brooklyn, 2.76; James Fuller, Brooklyn, 2.76; Eric Beaulac, Savannah, 2.95; Robert Carson, Savannah, 3.21; Chris Schwinden, Brooklyn, 3.34; Lachlan Hodge, Gulf Coast, 3.35.
Wins: Jeurys Familia, Savannah, 10; Chris Schwinden, St. Lucie, 10; Kyle Allen, Savannah, 9; Mark Cohoon, Brooklyn, 9; Tobi Stoner, Buffalo, 9; Robert Carson, Savannah, 8; Collin McHugh, Brooklyn, 8; Scott Shaw, St. Lucie, 8; Mike Antonini, Binghamton, 7; Eric Brown, Binghamton, 7.
Saves: Rhiner Cruz, Savannah, 22; Michael Power, Brooklyn, 17; Roy Merritt, Binghamton, 14; Elmer Dessens, Buffalo, 11; Connor Robertson, Buffalo, 11; Manuel Alvarez, St. Lucie, 9; Josh Stinson, St. Lucie, 8; Carlos Vasquez, Dominican Summer, 7.
Strikeouts: Eric Niesen, Binghamton, 134; Eric Beaulac, Savannah, 133; Scott Shaw, St. Lucie, 118; Kyle Allen, Savannah, 111; Jeurys Familia, Savannah, 109; Nelson Figueroa, Buffalo, 94; Chris Schwinden, Savannah, 94; Angel Calero, St. Lucie, 93; Mike Antonini, Binghamton, 92; Robert Carson, Savannah, 90.
Eddie Kunz, the Mets’ top pick in the 2007 draft (42nd overall), will work as a starting pitcher this season for the first time since high school. Kunz served as closer for Oregon State when it won a second straight national championship, but Mets officials believe he will become a more complete pitcher and not just rely on his sinker in a starting role. Kunz, who turns 24 on April 8, went 4-5 with a 5.02 ERA in 40 relief appearances with Triple-A Buffalo last season. The intention is for him to return to relief in a major-league capacity. He’ll open this season at Class A St. Lucie or Double-A Binghamton to ease him into the role at a lower level of competition. … Reese Havens’ conversion from shortstop to second base under the tutelage of Teufel at Binghamton will have to wait. Havens, selected four slots after Ike Davis in the first round in 2008, suffered injuries to both oblique muscles during camp. Havens first was exposed to second base during the Arizona Fall League, when he hit .368 in 10 games. … Fernando Martinez primarily will play the corner outfield positions at Buffalo, but GM Omar Minaya indicated Martinez also will be exposed to some center field with the Bisons. Martinez hit .383 with three homers and 11 RBI in 47 Grapefruit League at-bats after earning MVP honors in the Caribbean Series with champion Escogido, which was managed by Triple-A skipper Ken Oberkfell. … The Mets claimed right-hander Manny Acosta off waivers from Atlanta and optioned him to Buffalo. Acosta, 28, was 5-7 with a 3.55 ERA and three saves in 103 relief appearances for the Braves from 2007-09. … Reliever Henry Owens, who was traded with Matt Lindstrom to the Marlins on Nov. 20, 2006 for left-handers Jason Vargas and Adam Bostick, returned to the organization after a spring-training tryout. Owens will remain behind in Port St. Lucie when minor-league teams break camp, however, because of shoulder soreness. Owens, incidentally, is engaged to the daughter of Double-A pitching coach Mark Brewer. … Steve Matz will be treated conservatively in his first full professional season. Matz, the team’s top pick (72nd overall) in 2009 out of Ward Melville High School on Long Island, threw his first bullpen session on Sunday. The 18-year-old southpaw likely won’t see game action until the Gulf Coast League opens in June. … Shortstop Wilmer Flores, the organization’s No. 2-ranked prospect behind Jenrry Mejia, will open the season repeating at Class A Savannah. Flores, 18, hit .264 with three homers and 36 RBI in 488 at-bats for the Sand Gnats last season. … While the expectation is left-hander Eric Niesen will open the season in Binghamton’s rotation, team officials say they haven’t committed to that decision. Niesen projects as a reliever in the big leagues, and could be used in that role soon in the minors to get ready. Still, new minor-league field coordinator Terry Collins pitchers need multi-inning outings while developing, even in relief. So Niesen won’t be a situational southpaw any time soon. … Catcher Shawn Riggans, who received a World Series championship ring with the Rays in 2008, is slated to open the season with Binghamton to ensure playing time, while Omir Santos and Thole are assigned to Buffalo. Riggans, 29, has a career .202 average with seven homers and 28 RBI in 188 at-bats with Tampa Bay from 2006-09. He was limited to seven games with the Rays last season because of shoulder and elbow issues. … Right-hander John Holdzkom, who did not pitch last season because of injury, has dropped 50-60 pounds over the past two years. The 2006 third-round pick spent time two offseasons ago working at the Duke Diet & Fitness Center. … Notable releases from minor-league camp include eight-year major-league veteran Jolbert Cabrera, first baseman Val Pascucci, catcher Rafael Arroyo, and outfielders Caleb Stewart and Josh Petersen. … Four staples in Savannah’s 2009 rotation are moving en masse to the St. Lucie rotation -- Kyle Allen (9-6, 3.45 ERA in ’09), Eric Beaulac (7-7, 2.95), Robert Carson (8-10, 3.21) and Jeurys Familia (10-6, 2.69). Familia was registering 97-98 mph and showing command with his fastball in camp.
Adam Rubin’s minor-league report will appear Wednesdays during the season beginning April 14.