Minor League Report: The Final Five

Minor League Report: The Final Five

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- St. Patrick's Day still is quite visible in the rear view mirror, tax day looms and the water cooler talk involves UCLA, Carolina and Duke. And so it was quite appropriate Thursday morning when two players at the Mets' Minor League complex paused to peruse the brackets that had been posted on the door to a conference room.

These brackets, though, lead to a Final Five, a championship -- hardly national -- being decided each day before the Mets campers begin their workout routine. Call it Morning Madness and don't expect a Coach K, a Hoya or any hoopster to be involved. Though the competition is exclusively one-on-one, this is baseball: Straight, down-the-middle ball. Well, actually, "up-the-middle" ball.

The objective is for a batter to hit the baseball straightaway and on a line as if the pitcher's cap were the target. That's if there were a pitcher. In this batting cage competition, a coach kneels 15 feet from the batter at a 45-degree angle and flips "pitches" underhanded.

"The idea is to hit it right through the box," said Tom McCraw, the former White Sox first baseman and now a Minor League hitting coach with Mets. "Up, down, either side doesn't count. Just hit it hard and straightaway."

Each participant gets three sets of 10 pitches in a playoff against another player. Five groups of players -- hence the Final Five -- are involved: those likely to be assigned to the roster of the Triple-A New Orleans affiliates, probable members of the Double-A Binghamton Mets, the Class A St. Lucie Mets, the lower Class A Savannah Sand Gnats and those players who are likely to be assigned to extended Spring Training camp.

On this morning, Raul Reyes and Mike Parker emerge as the finalists in the Savannah bracket. Matt Bouchard and David Wabick survived the St. Lucie semis.

Lamar Johnson, another former White Sox first baseman, is the Mets' Minor League hitting coordinator. He created the competition -- called "soft-touch through the middle" by St. Lucie manager Tim Teufel -- this year as a means of accomplishing several objectives.

"It gets the kids loose and energized early, before we start the drills," he said. "You want them thinking 'up the middle,' and this give them a chance to work on it and enjoy what they're doing. Plus, it gets them competing.

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"But look how much they all enjoy it. It gets them talking and knowing each other better."

Players gather and react to each swing. Before Parker opposed Reyes, the competition was hyped by coach George Greer, who directs the competitors to the center cage.

"It's like Wimbledon," Greer said. "It was just your parents and friends watching before, now it's center court. Everyone watches."

"Look how the kids love it," New Orleans manager Ken Oberkfell says. "It gives them a chance to show off in a good way. It's a good thing for them. Even in the morning, we get adrenalin flowing."

Hungry to learn: Bobby Floyd, in his 23rd season with Mets, likes what he sees in Richard Lucas, a 19-year-old third baseman from Jacksonville, Fla.

"He makes an effort to become a better players every day," Floyd says. "And he loves to compete. You have to appreciate that.

"He's got good hands and range, and we're working with him on his footwork so he can get more out of his arm. He'll have an average to better-than-average arm. But what you like most about him is his attitude. 'I want to learn.'"

What they're saying: "Usually there's one or two kids who stand out. But this year, it's hard to single out anyone. We've got a lot of younger kids who can really play. There's a lot of talent here this year." -- McCraw, on the Mets youngest talent

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.