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Highly ranked pitcher, catcher may give 51s powerful tandem

While Washington Nationals phenoms Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper form the most potent young pitcher-hitter tandem in the majors, the 51s feature arguably the top one-two punch in the minors in New York Mets prospects Zack Wheeler and Travis d’Arnaud.

Ranked by mlb.com as two of baseball’s top eight prospects, Wheeler (No. 8) is a hard-throwing right-hander who has been compared to Strasburg, and d’Arnaud (No. 6) is a catcher who excels on defense and can hit for average and power.

The electric battery will lead Triple-A Las Vegas into its 31st season opener today at the Sacramento River Cats and promises to light up the Pacific Coast League for the short time they are expected to be here.

“These guys are short stays here, as long as they can stay healthy, because their stuff plays (in the majors),” 51s manager Wally Backman said. “Zack is a guy that will probably be in the big leagues in June sometime, and Travis is the same way.”

Projected to be the future faces of the franchise, Wheeler, 22, and d’Arnaud, 24, might have started the season with the Mets if not for a business decision by New York — which can delay the two’s free agency by a year by keeping them in the minors for the first 20 days of the season.

Likewise, the Mets can most likely delay the duo’s first year of arbitration eligibility by a year by waiting until mid-June to promote them to the majors.

Backman, a member of the 1986 Mets title team, said the comparisons made between Strasburg and Wheeler, who throws 98 mph, are legitimate.

“He’s an overpowering pitcher,” Backman said. “He’s going to overpower a lot of hitters, especially at this level, and at the major league level once he gets there. He can get mean out there on the mound. It’s a good quality. He’s not passive in anyway. He’s a competitor, and he wants to win.”

The 6-foot-4-inch Wheeler, the sixth overall pick of the San Francisco Giants in 2009, was acquired by the Mets in the 2011 trade for Carlos Beltran and has been ranked New York’s top prospect the past two seasons.

The Georgia native went a combined 12-8 with a 3.26 ERA for Double-A Binghamton and Triple-A Buffalo last season, with 148 strikeouts in 149 innings, and said he’s comfortable with great expectations.

“Some guys might think it’s a lot of pressure, but I’m a nice, relaxed, laid-back guy, so it really doesn’t bother me too much,” he said.

On the mound, Wheeler is anything but laidback.

“I’m a guy who goes after the hitters,” he said. “I’m not really afraid — whatever the name is on the back — I like to come inside. I just like to pitch.”

And d’Arnaud likes to catch him.

“He has a really freakishly fast fastball,” he said. “He has such an easy motion, and the ball just explodes out of his hand.

“He has a really good curveball and slider, and his changeup has improved tremendously.”

If d’Arnaud’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he played for Las Vegas last year when it was the Blue Jays’ affiliate.

Toronto’s top prospect the past two years, he hit .333 with 16 home runs and 52 RBIs in 67 games for the 51s before suffering a season-ending torn knee ligament while trying to break up a double play.

Back to full strength, d’Arnaud was one of the Mets’ leading hitters in spring training, batting .343 (12-for-35) in 16 games.

Entering his seventh pro season, d’Arnaud twice has been traded for Cy Young Award winners — from Philadelphia to Toronto in 2009 for Roy Halladay and from Toronto to New York after last season for R.A. Dickey.

“It’s an honor to be considered for such great pitchers, but I haven’t done anything in the majors yet, so I’ve just got to keep working hard and hopefully one day I’ll get there and become a great player,” he said.

As for pitching at Cashman Field in the hitter-friendly PCL, Wheeler and Backman said they aren’t concerned about his confidence — and ERA — taking a hit. Las Vegas’ home opener is April 12 against Colorado Springs.

“Averages are inflated (in the PCL), and pitchers’ ERAs are inflated,” Backman said. “Zack is a mature enough young kid that he understands … people are going to mishit balls off of Zack because he throws 98 and they’re going to be home runs.

“It’s going to be our job to evaluate that and pass that along to the front office in New York.”

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

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