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September 20, 2019

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Players to watch: Zack Wheeler back with Mets’ affiliate in Las Vegas



New York Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler pitches in the fifth inning in the second baseball game of a doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves, June 18, 2013, in Atlanta.

The Las Vegas 51s begin their final year at Cashman Field tonight by hosting the El Paso Chihuahuas in the 2018 season opener. They'll move to a new stadium in Summerlin next season.

Not only is it the team’s final season at the stadium they’ve called home for the last 35 years, but it’s also the last season under contract to be the Triple-A affiliate for the New York Mets.

Here are five 51s players to watch this season at Cashman Field.

Dominic Smith

Fans wanting to see the hard-hitting first baseman will have to attend a game early in the season, as Smith is unlikely to remain with the 51s for long. Last year in 114 games with Las Vegas, Smith crushed 16 home runs with a .330 average and .519 slugging percentage.

He was called up to the Mets, where he had nine homers and 26 runs batted in over the final 49 games. New York brought in veteran first baseman Adrian Gonzalez this off season, and Smith was set to compete with him for the spot during spring training.

But Smith pulled his quadricep in the first spring training and has spent the time since rehabbing. He’s with Las Vegas on a rehabilitation assignment.

“Hopefully you’ll see him opening day for five or six innings,” 51s manager Tony DeFrancesco said. “I’m sure he will be able to help the (Mets). He’s a power hitting first baseman so you can’t go wrong.”

Smith transformed his body in the offseason, dropping from 250 pounds at the end of last season to 215 pounds entering camp.

“It was a lot of hard work,” Smith said. “I was on a mission. I have a lot of goals that I want to accomplish so you make choices towards those goals. It was pretty easy when it was all said and done.”

Already a very skilled defensive first baseman, Smith says his game will improve in all aspects with his new fitness level.

“I’m a totally different player than I was last year,” he said. “I feel like it’s going to help everything. It will help my speed, my power, my defense and my durability. I’m just excited to see what this new body can do for me.”

Zack Wheeler

Wheeler isn’t thrilled to be back in Triple-A after a few seasons in the big leagues, but after struggling through injuries and a lackluster spring, he has to prove himself before returning to the Mets.

“It’s unfortunate the way the game is sometimes,” DeFrancesco said. “He hasn’t pitched a lot because he’s had some injuries over the last couple years. He’s healthy and I think right now he just needs to get consistent work behind the mound every five days and his stuff will take care of its stuff.”

Wheeler posted a 3-7 record in 17 starts for New York last season with a 5.21 earned run average. In his five outings this spring, Wheeler gave up nine earned runs in 10 innings of work.

But many feel he has the arm talent to dominate, and that’s what DeFrancesco said he is hoping to get out of him.

Corey Oswalt

Another exciting pitcher to watch is the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Oswalt.

The 24-year-old right-hander led the way for the Binghamton Rumble Ponies in Double-A last season, going 12-5 in 24 appearances with an outstanding 2.28 ERA.

“I heard a lot about him last year,” DeFrancesco said. “I know he was the big horse of the Double-A team. The first year of Triple-A guys are trying to find out if they can survive in this league and if they have major league stuff.”

Oswalt struck out 119 batters in 134.1 innings for Binghamton while only walking 40.

“Right now I’m just trying to be consistent with all of my pitches,” Oswalt said. “I did a pretty good job of that last year with a four-pitch mix. I just need to work in and out and attack guys right now.”

Despite his size, Oswalt doesn’t overpower batters, but instead beats them with breaking balls.

“I can throw them in any count when I need to,” Oswalt said. “Last year I tweaked the grip on my curve ball and it really helped me. That was my out pitch last year.”

Luis Guillorme

The 51s once again have a top prospect at shortstop in Luis Guillorme, who is making his Triple-A debut. Last season, it was prospect Amed Rosario, who is the currently the Mets shortstop.

“I’m really excited,” Guillorme said. “It’s about time we started playing baseball again.”

The 23-year-old batted .283 for Binghamton last year in Double-A, and knocked in 43 RBIs. He also walked 72 times and scored 70 runs.

“I’ve mostly worked on my offense, and being more consistent with the swing and trying to drive balls more often,” Guillorme said. “I’m a guy that gets on base. That’s really my job. I’m the table setter and the guy that becomes RBIs.”

Gavin Cecchini

Here’s a familiar face for fans that frequented 51s games last season.

With 121 hits in 2017, Cecchini has the second most hits of any returning player for the 51s (behind only Smith).

The second baseman batted .267 and hit six home runs in 110 games for Las Vegas last year. He also moved up and played in 32 games for the Mets, batting .208 with one home run and seven RBIs.