After already promoting 19 players this season to the parent New York Mets, the 51s could hardly be faulted for falling out of the Pacific Coast League playoff race.
But that’s not the case.
Despite having lost virtually its entire starting nine from Opening Day — including top prospects Zack Wheeler (call-up) and Travis d’Arnaud (broken foot) — Las Vegas remains in contention for its first playoff berth since 2002.
With one game to play before the Triple-A All-Star break, the 51s (48-46) trail the Pacific South Division-leading Tucson Padres (53-44) by 3½ games.
Las Vegas was swept by the Padres, 6-0 and 5-4 in eight innings, on Friday in a doubleheader at Cashman Field. The clubs finish the series tonight.
“I feel good about what we’ve done so far,” first-year 51s manager Wally Backman said. “Our job is to prepare these guys to go to the big leagues and have some success and we’ve done that. In the process, we’ve been able to maintain our winning ways. We’re right there in striking distance.”
In addition to Wheeler — the hard-throwing right-hander who is 3-1 with a 3.54 ERA for the Mets since his June 18 promotion — the 51s have shipped pitchers Carlos Torres, David Aardsma, Collin McHugh (traded to Rockies), Aaron Laffey, Jeurys Familia, Robert Carson, Greg Burke, Josh Edgin and Gonzalez Germen to New York, along with position players Josh Satin, Andrew Brown, Ike Davis, Juan Lagares, Omar Quintanilla, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Zach Lutz, Ruben Tejada and Collin Cowgill (traded to Angels).
“Triple A is the toughest level to coach at because you lose the good ones most of the time,” Backman said. “We lost a lot of offense and our three best starting pitchers (Wheeler, Torres, McHugh), but that shows some depth in our minor league system.
“The pitchers we’ve been able to bring up have done a real good job.”
Jacob deGrom and Rafael Montero, who were promoted to Las Vegas from Double-A Binghamton, and Giancarlo Alvarado, who was signed as a free agent, are among the pitchers who have helped fill the void.
The 51s won their first three games of the season and never have fallen more than three games below .500. A season-best seven-game winning streak lifted Las Vegas to 31-26 on June 4 and a 5-1 stretch ran its record to a season-best 45-39 on July 3.
The team’s downfall has been its bullpen, which has blown 17 of 34 save opportunities.
“They’re not getting it done,” Backman said. “Your bullpen has to do a relatively good job for you to really compete at any level, and that has been our one weakness.”
Torres and Aardsma have pitched well out of the bullpen for New York, with Torres compiling a team-low 0.51 ERA. He’s allowed only one earned run in 17 2/3 innings, struck out 15 and walked two. Aardsma has the second-best ERA (2.16).
Several others have excelled since being called up, especially Satin, a first baseman who has a team-leading .362 average through 21 games for the Mets.
Wilmer Flores is the only Opening Day starter who has spent all season with the 51s. The second baseman, who will represent Las Vegas in the Triple-A All-Star Game on Wednesday at Aces Ballpark in Reno, leads the PCL in RBIs (74) and doubles (33) and is batting .322 with a team-leading 12 homers and 58 runs.
D’Arnaud, a 24-year-old catcher who is the Mets’ top positional prospect, has been out since April 18 with a fractured left foot but is expected to return to action soon.
“I don’t know exactly the timetable for Travis to come back, but I would assume it’s right after the break,” Backman said. “He’s on the field doing full activities now in Florida, catching bullpens and doing all the pregame stuff. He’s doing everything. He’s close.”
D’Arnaud was having a stellar season last year for Las Vegas — when it was Toronto’s top affiliate — when he suffered a season-ending knee injury (torn posterior cruciate ligament) in June sliding into second base.
D’Arnaud had played only 12 games this season before taking a foul ball off his left foot and breaking it. He was batting .250 (9-for-36) with a homer, eight RBIs and 12 runs.
“If he had stayed healthy, I would assume he would’ve more than likely been in the big leagues now,” Backman said. “There’s a lot of upside to this kid. At some point in time, we believe he’ll be a regular catcher in the big leagues and he’ll be a good one.”
A return to form by d’Arnaud would surely bolster the 51s’ playoff hopes, but the bullpen probably still holds the key.
“If they can get the job done more consistently, especially the back end of the bullpen, that will add up to wins for us and hopefully give us a chance to go to the playoffs,” Backman said. “I think we’ve got a real good chance to be in it the rest of the way.”
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at email@example.com or 702-383-0354.