Playing in Vegas has pros, cons for Mets
Hitters thrive at Cashman Field, but pitchers can also prove their worth
LAS VEGAS -- After most games here at Cashman Field, Wally Backman sits in his office, fills out some paperwork and ties up loose ends. Backman, the Mets' Triple-A Las Vegas manager, had just completed that process late one night last year when he wandered out to his car and struggled to comprehend what he was seeing.
"The [thermometer] out there in the parking lot said 106 -- at midnight," Backman said.
Things were noticeably more pleasant Saturday afternoon when the Mets took on the Cubs in a Spring Training exhibition, as the sun shone brightly and temperatures hovered in the high 60s. Still, with nearly a dozen Las Vegas 51s players and alumni on the traveling roster, the Mets were keenly aware of the dilemma that Las Vegas creates for them on an annual basis.
Altitude, heat, dry air and an oddly-shaped ballpark make for one of the springiest launching pads in professional baseball. A rock-hard infield and stiff winds make traditional statistics unreliable. A three-hour time difference creates logistical challenges when the Mets find themselves in urgent need of reinforcements.
But over the past year, the organization has learned to cope with its adopted Triple-A home. Forced to house their top affiliate in Las Vegas due to a sheer lack of other options -- general manager Sandy Alderson once likened the situation to losing a game of "Old Maid" -- the Mets have accepted their situation, if not entirely embraced it.
After all, as Mets manager Terry Collins noted, "There are bandboxes in the big leagues, too."
Just not quite like this. The 51s and their opponents combined to average more than 10 runs per game last summer, which was actually rather unremarkable in this setting. On Saturday, the Mets scored thrice off Cubs starter Tsuyoshi Wada before recording their second out of the game. Chicago first baseman Anthony Rizzo hit a homer that appeared to land in Utah. It was in that type of inflated environment that the organization attempted to evaluate top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler last summer, and in which they will judge Rafael Montero and Noah Syndergaard later this year.
The concern is that once Vegas deals those pitchers and others a heavy dose of adversity, they will start nibbling at the strike zone, pitching non-aggressively -- doing, in other words, the opposite of what allowed them to reach Triple-A in the first place. But Alderson and Collins both suggested that Cashman Park can offer good challenges for developing pitchers.
"I wouldn't go as far as to say we want them to [have to pitch in Las Vegas], but it's not necessarily a bad thing," Alderson said. "If somebody does well here, it's particularly reassuring."
That's because so much can deter a pitcher at Cashman Park. Though the center-field wall stands 433 feet away from home plate and the entire outfield fence is 20 feet high, it's just 328 feet out to left and 323 to right. That, combined with the altitude and dry, hot summer air, make home runs common.
Once temperatures really soar, the infield grows so hard that seemingly routine ground balls often shoot through for hits. The combination of all that, Backman said, can cause pitchers to shy away from contact.
"You learn a lot from pitching here," Backman said. "You find out who's got it and who doesn't, who can really compete and how they handle success -- and how they handle [it] when they don't have success here is important. You find out what the makeup of the player is."
The Mets found out with Wheeler last year and will do so quickly with Syndergaard this summer, one way or the other. And they may have to repeat that process more in years to come. Though their agreement with the 51s runs only through this year, there appears to be no obvious way for them to move closer to home anytime soon. Most likely, the Mets will re-up their agreement for another two years.
If that happens, they will hope for continued improvements to this 31-year-old stadium -- the 51s recently acquired a new groundskeeper, who is drawing rave reviews -- and continued objectiveness in evaluating their prospects.
Some problems will always remain in this desert environment, but others are avoidable. The home dugout, for example, lies beneath the playing surface down the first-base line, making it a dangerous place for a foul ball to carom.
But perhaps even that can be a blessing.
"If you get hit when it's 117 degrees right here," Backman quipped, "you get to go into the air conditioning."