For Mets' Tejada, experience no prerequisite
Shortstop has held his own as 12th-youngest player in MLB
ATLANTA -- The Mets were off Thursday, but Triple-A Buffalo hosted a game against Lehigh Valley. The Bisons trotted out a team of mostly 20-somethings, as all Triple-A clubs do on a daily basis -- the only remarkable aspect being that, as usual, everyone on the field was older than Ruben Tejada.
Still six months shy of his 23rd birthday, Tejada would be the youngest player on Wally Backman's Triple-A roster right now. Consider that. Of all the prospects at Buffalo, including much-hyped pitchers Matt Harvey and Jeurys Familia, a third-year shortstop with 678 big league plate appearances would be the youngest.
Tejada would be the fourth-youngest active player at Double-A Binghamton, and he'd be sixth youngest at Class A St. Lucie. As it is, he is the youngest player on the Mets by more than two years, though that seems a bit more fathomable. Such is the effect of breaking into the Major Leagues at 20 years old, at a time when most prospects are testing out rookie ball or playing in college.
So when Tejada falls into a bit of a funk as he has over the past week, abandoning his plate discipline to a somewhat damaging extent, no one in the organization seems to fret about it.
"Trust me," third baseman David Wright said. "Ruben's going to be fine."
For the record, Tejada is currently the 12th-youngest player in Major League Baseball, trailing a group that includes young superstars Giancarlo Stanton of the Marlins, Brett Lawrie of the Blue Jays and Jesus Montero of the Mariners. Players who crack the league before the age of 23 are typically there for a reason; Tejada is no exception.
In the shortstop's case, he is here because Jose Reyes left for Miami over the winter and the Mets needed someone to replace him. They could have looked for a veteran middle infielder to plug in, though the free-agent market for such players was dry. The obvious internal option was Tejada, who had already filled in regularly for Reyes during the latter's stints on the disabled list in years past.
And so, Tejada landed the starting shortstop gig, quickly caught fire and, by all measures, outperformed Reyes both offensively and defensively over the first week of the season. But now, with Reyes and the Marlins set to jet to New York for the first of three games at Citi Field on Tuesday, Tejada has fallen into his first funk as a full-time starter.
Tejada is 5-for-25 dating back to April 11, lengthening his swing and abandoning most of his patience at the plate. Manager Terry Collins diagnosed the slump early and insisted on giving Tejada, who packed on seven or eight pounds of muscle over the winter, his first rest during Wednesday's 14-6 loss in the series finale against the Braves. Because of the assumption that Tejada's body may not hold up against the rigors of 162 games, the Mets plan to prevent him from appearing in that many.
"He's got a long season ahead of him," Collins said. "He's played 11 games. He's got a long year ahead, and sporadically, he's going to get some breaks for exactly that reason."
The unfortunate coincidence for Tejada that his funk is coinciding with the return of Reyes, who is generating drive-time radio buzz regarding the Mets' plans to acknowledge him with a scoreboard tribute at Citi Field next week. It is entirely possible that Reyes will outplay Tejada over three games at Citi, because that is precisely what the Marlins paid him $106 million to do. Reyes is a superstar; Tejada is the 12th-youngest player in the league.
And yet, the Mets have made it clear since December that mimicking Reyes is the last thing they want his successor to do. Their skill sets are different. Their speed is different. Their personalities are different.
All the Mets ask is for Tejada to play the type of defense they have come to expect from their shortstop -- by most advanced metrics, Tejada is a better defender than Reyes -- while holding his own at the plate. The Mets watched Tejada reach base 36 percent of the time as a 21-year-old last season, giving them hope that he can be, if not an ideal leadoff man, a positive point in their lineup.
One week-long slump will not prevent him from doing that. Wright remembers his first prolonged downturn as a professional, afflicting him as a 20-year-old in the Florida State League and lasting for much of the summer.
"It was a 24-hour slump where I was going home and just couldn't think of anything but hitting," Wright said. "I was getting to the ballpark at noon. I was wearing myself out in the cages. It was 100 degrees outside and I was taking a million swings."
Contrast that to Tejada, who sat in front of his locker Wednesday in dress pants and a T-shirt, keeping to himself and quietly munching a banana. If the drain of playing every day and batting leadoff in place of the injured Andres Torres is affecting him, Tejada is not showing it.
"You have to keep your head up in this situation," he said. "Even when you're playing really good, sometimes you have bad days. You have to keep learning."
Especially at an age when the learning curve for Mets prospects typically runs through Upstate New York.
"The way he carries himself and the way he plays the game is very impressive," Wright said. "He's mature well beyond his age. He's going to be a good one."