Mike Nickeas has long been viewed as a major league-caliber player defensively. It was at the plate where the 27-year-old catcher struggled to produce.
Nickeas, originally drafted by the Texas Rangers in the fifth round in 2004, was traded to the Mets for Victor Diaz two years later. He entered this season a career .231 hitter in 1,249 minor league at-bats.
This year has been an entirely different story.
Nickeas went 1-for-2 for Double-A Binghamton at Bowie on Tuesday to lift his season average to .302 with three homers and 27 RBIs. He has more walks (37) than strikeouts (24) in 189 at-bats with the B-Mets.
Nickeas was a late addition to last week’s Eastern League All-Star Game, replacing Nick Evans, who was in the majors at the time. Nickeas’ only other regular-season All-Star selection came in the Northwest League during his first full professional season in 2004, which coincided with being named the best defensive catcher in the Rangers’ organization by Baseball America.
The reason for the hitting surge?
“A couple of things,” Nickeas said. “One is being healthy. My elbow surgery last year really helped me be able to do some things that I wasn’t able to do before physically. I think the main key, though, for me is [Binghamton hitting coach] Luis Natera really taking some time to help me correct some things with my swing that weren’t good. He took the time, which is difficult to do, so I give him a lot of credit. He took a guy that’s kind of an older guy in Double-A and spent time with me. I really appreciate that.”
As for the precise mechanical differences, Nickeas added: “I’m getting my foot down early to see the ball. And I’m trying to come right down on top of the ball as opposed to kind of looping my barrel into a ball. That’s the key for me. If I can get my foot down, I can recognize the pitch and try to drive something with a downward plane into the ball.”
Nickeas went 0-for-2 with a flyout in the All-Star Game last Wednesday. He played two innings at first base, a position he has only dabbled at with the Mets organization, and also caught an inning.
“I’m starting to get a little more comfortable doing it,” Nickeas said about first base.
Nickeas was never supposed to get this much playing time with the B-Mets. Former Tampa Bay Rays catcher Shawn Riggans opened the season as the No. 1 catcher with the Double-A club, but quickly landed on the disabled list with a shoulder injury. Subsequently, catchers Luke Montz and Omir Santos -- both higher than Nickeas on the depth chart -- went down with injuries. Santos has been out since June 22.
“I used to be concerned about stuff like that, whereas now I kind of am like, ‘I know things are going to happen throughout the year,’” Nickeas said. “People do get hurt. People get traded. So I try not to let that bother me anymore. When I get the opportunity to play, I just go after it as best I can.”
As for defense, he’s been considered major league caliber for some time.
“I’ve been told that. I don’t know, because I haven’t been there,” Nickeas said. “From the spring trainings and stuff, I feel very comfortable defensively. The offense is always what I’ve been told has held me back.”
Of course, no one is perfect.
On a throw to second base on a steal attempt with Binghamton this year, pitcher Eric Niesen failed to get out of the way and was hit in the back of the head. Niesen suffered a concussion as the result of the April 23 incident and missed a month.
“It was one of those things where the stars had to align for that to happen and they did,” Nickeas said. “Obviously I felt terrible about it. I was really disappointed he was out for as long as he was. He kind of threw [the pitch] and then ducked, and my heel kind of slipped at home plate.”
Meanwhile, Nickeas has an athletic pedigree. His father Mark, who was born in England but later became a U.S. citizen, played soccer professionally in his native country, as well as in the North American Soccer League for the Vancouver Whitecaps and San Jose Quakes and indoors with the Dallas Sidekicks. Nickeas was born in Vancouver during his father’s career there.
Average: Darrell Ceciliani, Brooklyn, .387; Justin Schafer, Kingsport, .356; Joe Bonfe, Brooklyn, .350; Eric Campbell, Binghamton, .327; Julio Concepcion, GCL Mets, .317; ZeErika McQueen, Kingsport, .316; Luis Hernandez, Buffalo, .312; Aderlin Rodriguez, Kingsport, .306; Javier Rodriguez, Kingsport, .306; Josh Satin, Binghamton, .305.
Homers: Mike Hessman, Buffalo, 18; Nick Evans, Binghamton, 16; Lucas Duda, Buffalo, 16; Mike Jacobs, Buffalo, 15; Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Binghamton, 15.
RBIs: Lucas Duda, Buffalo, 64; Wilmer Flores, St. Lucie, 63; Mike Hessman, Buffalo, 58; Juan Lagares, St. Lucie, 55; Sean Ratliff, Binghamton, 55.
Steals: Cesar Puello, Savannah, 31; Pedro Zapata, Savannah, 26; Juan Lagares, St. Lucie, 25; Emmanuel Garcia, St. Lucie, 18.
ERA: Angel Cuan, Brooklyn, 1.79; Jimmy Fuller, Savannah, 2.06; Yohan Almonte, Brooklyn, 2.37; Mark Cohoon, Binghamton, 2.51; Brandon Moore, St. Lucie, 2.54; Wesley Wrenn, Brooklyn, 3.00; Armando Rodriguez, Savannah, 3.12; Josh Stinson, Binghamton, 3.18; Mitchell Houck, Brooklyn, 3.19; Collin McHugh, Savannah, 3.19.
Wins: Pat Misch, Buffalo, 9; Dillon Gee, Buffalo, 9; Mark Cohoon, Binghamton, 8.
Saves: Manuel Alvarez, Buffalo, 13; Michael Powers, Savannah, 12; Jose Bierd, St. Lucie, 8.
Strikeouts: Brandon Moore, St. Lucie, 123; Dillon Gee, Buffalo, 110; Mark Cohoon, Binghamton, 95; Mike Antonini, Binghamton, 91.
Slugger Mike Hessman, the active leader in career minor league homers, returned to action with Triple-A Buffalo on Monday after missing six weeks after getting hit on the hand with a pitch. The slugger doubled in his first at-bat to straight-away center, driving the ball off the wall. … Ruben Tejada, who hit .212 in 104 major league at-bats, rejoined the Bisons. The infield is suddenly crowded, with Justin Turner also having been returned to Buffalo after Tuesday’s Mets game in Arizona to clear roster room for the activation of Oliver Perez from the disabled list. … Left-hander Pat Misch tossed a scoreless inning in last Wednesday’s Triple-A All-Star Game at Lehigh Valley, Pa. Misch then was deprived of his 10th win of the season Friday when the Bisons could not hold a lead for him. Misch had departed after six innings with a 9-4 lead against Gwinnett, but the bullpen couldn’t protect it. With his next victory, Misch will become the first Bison to reach double-digits in wins since Jeremy Guthrie went 12-10 in 2005 when Buffalo was affiliated with the Cleveland Indians. … First baseman Mike Jacobs has reached base in 20 straight games. … Reliever Ryota Igarashi has a 4.05 ERA in six Triple-A relief appearances. All the scoring came in one appearance, however, and Jerry Manuel suggested Igarashi could rejoin the Mets this weekend in Los Angeles if the need arises. … Ex-Yankee Brian Bruney has struggled since joining Buffalo. He had a clean inning Monday, but overall has allowed five runs (two earned) on five hits and five walks in five Bisons appearances. … Left-hander Robert Carson, who ranks among the organization’s top pitching prospects, was promoted to Double-A Binghamton after going 7-5 with a 4.17 ERA in 17 appearances (16 starts) with St. Lucie. With Carson joining the B-Mets’ rotation, Niesen moved to the bullpen. Carson, a 14th-round pick in 2007 from Hattiesburg, Miss., allowed four runs in four innings in his Double-A debut, Friday at New Hampshire. … Third baseman Zach Lutz, who had been diagnosed with a stress fracture in a foot, returned to game action in the Gulf Coast League last weekend. As a result, it appears the injury is less severe than the fracture to the other foot Lutz suffered with Brooklyn his first professional season in 2007. That required surgery and cost Lutz the rest of that season. Lutz last played with Binghamton on May 20. He was hitting .262 with eight homers and 17 RBIs in 35 games with the B-Mets before getting shut down. … Nick Evans made his return to the Binghamton lineup Monday after going hitless in two at-bats with the Mets. B-Mets manager Tim Teufel again placed Evans at third base. Evans quickly got back in a groove. He went 2-for-4 with a homer at Bowie in his first game back. That actually was his third straight Eastern League game with a homer. Evans also went deep July 6 and 7 before the call-up. … Right-hander Scott Shaw landed on the B-Mets’ disabled list with a right shoulder strain. … Outfielder Sean Ratliff, a Stanford product, continues to produce since a promotion to Double-A. Ratliff has a .417 average (30-for-72) in July with the B-Mets. … Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who was assigned to the leadoff spot in the B-Mets’ order for much of the season to maximize his at-bats, has moved to No. 3, where he has the opportunity to drive in more runs. Nieuwenhuis, who may have unseated Fernando Martinez as the organization’s top upper-level outfield prospect, is hitting .297 with 15 homers, 53 RBIs and 13 steals in 18 attempts in 81 Double-A games. An Eastern League All-Star, he originally was scheduled to participate in the showcase’s Home Run Derby, but ultimately did not take part. … Reliever Emary Frederick was released. … Brooklyn center fielder Darrell Ceciliani reached base in 24 straight games before having the streak snapped Monday against Lowell. Ceciliani leads the New York-Penn League with a .387 average, two points ahead of Aberdeen’s Kipp Schutz. Ceciliani, a fourth-round pick in 2009, also is tied for the league lead in steals with Lowell’s Felix Sanchez with 13. … Brooklyn’s Cory Vaughn, a third-round pick from San Diego State, leads the league with nine homers. Teammate Rylan Sandoval ranks third in the league with six. … Savannah right-hander John Church’s scoreless streak was snapped at 25 2/3 innings Friday against Greenville.
Adam Rubin’s farm report appears Wednesdays during the season