51s become Triple-A affiliate for Mets

As cities that never sleep, Las Vegas and New York are two of the world’s most exciting destinations. But when it comes to Triple-A baseball, they’re not so sexy.

In fact, in this year’s Triple-A affiliate shuffle, the Las Vegas 51s and New York Mets were the proverbial last two kids picked on the playground.

With no other option than to join forces, they agreed Monday to a new two-year player development contract.

With the Toronto Blue Jays – the 51s’ parent club the past four years – long expected to forge an alliance with the Buffalo (N.Y.) Bisons – the Mets’ top affiliate the last four seasons – Las Vegas and New York were the last Triple-A-big league pair left with a partner.

“We are excited to have the Mets here. I’m sure there are a lot of transplants in Las Vegas that will appreciate having a New York affiliate here,” 51s general manager Chuck Johnson said.

The Mets are the fourth big-league affiliation for Las Vegas’ Triple-A franchise, which partnered with the San Diego Padres from 1983 to 2000 and the Los Angeles Dodgers from 2001 to 2008.

Las Vegas went 79-64 this season – its best record since 2002 and fourth-best in franchise history – and promoted 20 players to the Blue Jays, who nevertheless wanted to move closer to home.

Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos said Sunday the club’s decision to bolt for Buffalo came down “to geography, more than anything else,” and 51s GM Johnson agreed.

“It’s purely nothing but the location,” Johnson said. “An opportunity pops up where Buffalo wants a new affiliate and Toronto is only 100 miles away.”

While Buffalo is only 400 miles from the Mets’ home in Flushing, N.Y., the Bisons reportedly were unhappy with their performance and attendance as New York’s affiliate. Buffalo went 67-76 this season, and attendance at Coca-Cola Field hit a 25-year low of 515,000.

“I don’t know if anything went really wrong,” said Paul DePodesta, the Mets’ vice president of player development and scouting. “They have a good fit there, with Canada being right over the water from the city.”

Las Vegas is New York’s fourth Triple-A affiliate and second in the Pacific Coast League. The Mets partnered with Norfolk, Va. (as Tidewater) from 1969 to 2006 and New Orleans (PCL) in 2007 and 2008.

“The Mets have been in the PCL before – not quite this far out West – but I think it will be good. There are a lot of direct flights to New York from Las Vegas,” said DePodesta, who lives in San Diego.

As for his thoughts on leaving the pitcher-friendly International League for the hitter-friendly PCL and Cashman Field, DePodesta chuckled.

“It adds a little flavor to our development system,” he said. “We play at a lot of pitcher-friendly parks throughout our system … It will be a challenge for us and our fans not to get too distracted by some of the statistics and focus on the development of the player.

“On the other hand, our hitters might have a field day.”

Pitching is the strength of the Mets’ farm system, led by right-handed starter Zack Wheeler, New York’s No. 1 prospect. Wheeler went a combined 12-8 with a 3.26 ERA this season for Buffalo and Double-A Binghamton.

Stevens Baseball Group, which owns the 51s, is having discussions with prospective buyers for the team, which probably won’t attract a West Coast affiliation without a new park in Las Vegas.

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0354.

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