Kirk Nieuwenhuis is a 6-foot-3, 215-pound package of baseball tools who, just nine months ago, was on the cusp of the Major Leagues. A lefty-swinging center fielder whose greatest strength may actually be his lack of weaknesses, Nieuwenhuis was outperforming projections of his talent and well-positioned to force his way to Citi Field by late summer.
Had he made it, the Mets might never have traded for defensive-minded veteran Andres Torres, who is providing a center-field stopgap for at least this season. But they might still have traded or even non-tendered Angel Pagan, giving Nieuwenhuis every opportunity to win the starting job this spring.
Instead, Nieuwenhuis tore the labrum in his left shoulder, missed the final two-thirds of the Minor League season, and slipped back into the murkiness that is the future of center field in Queens. Rather than spend this spring competing for a job, he will report to Florida next week as one of several dozen players in camp with virtually no shot at a big league role -- at least not yet.
"I felt like I was so close to being there, and now I'm kind of in stall mode," Nieuwenhuis said in a telephone interview earlier this week. "It was hard to sit on the couch and watch my teammates play. It was frustrating not being out there, as it is with any injury. But being in the middle of a big year like that, it was a little more frustrating, for sure."
It was perhaps more frustrating for Nieuwenhuis because his foothold within the organization is not necessarily strong. The Mets love his mix of power, speed and hitting ability, but Nieuwenhuis does not excel in any one of those areas -- it is his total package that provides value for the team, the overall product being greater than the sum of its parts.
Given that skill set, and given his perch as an older prospect in a rapidly improving Minor League system, Nieuwenhuis has much to prove in order to become the organization's long-term center-field solution. The farm's primary strength is clearly pitching, led by the right-handed power trio of Zack Wheeler, Matt Harvey and Jeurys Familia. But its secondary strength comes from a glut of outfielders with up-the-middle skills, from Nieuwenhuis to Matt Den Dekker, Cory Vaughn, Cesar Puello, Juan Lagares and 2011 first-round Draft pick Brandon Nimmo.
Not all those players project as future center fielders, but quite a few of them -- Den Dekker and Nimmo, most notably -- do. Den Dekker, in particular, has drawn rave reviews for his defense, which some scouts view as Gold Glove-caliber already. Nimmo boasts speed, power and the highest offensive ceiling of anyone in the organization.
So with so many outfield prospects fighting for footholds behind him, there is some thought that even if Nieuwenhuis wins a starting job soon, he may be nothing more than a placeholder for the talent yet to come. As evidence of that, Nieuwenhuis ranked just 11th on MLB.com's Mets 2012 Prospect Watch, behind Nimmo and Puello.
His job is to shirk that reputation as quickly as he can.
"I am who I am, and I'm not going to try to be somebody I'm not," Nieuwenhuis said. "Being around that kind of competition and that caliber of guys, even in the Minor Leagues, it's a lot of fun just to grow with each other and see each others progress."
Outperforming his projections is hardly impossible. Before his injury last May, Nieuwenhuis was enjoying a breakout season, batting .298 with six home runs, five steals and a .403 on-base percentage, thanks in large part to 32 walks in 53 games. His defense may not be as refined as that of Den Dekker and his raw hitting skills may not be as sharp as those of Nimmo. But because Torres is clearly not the long-term solution in center field, and because Nieuwenhuis is the outfield prospect closest to the big leagues, he should -- at some point over the next six to 12 months -- have the first opportunity to stake his claim to center.
What he does with that status, beginning this spring, will ultimately define his future.
"I'm itching to play again," said Nieuwenhuis, who will report to Port St. Lucie, Fla., more than a week early. "It feels like forever since I've played a game. I'm just super excited to get back into it and get back in the swing of things. I'm more excited for this Spring Training than I've ever been."