MMN Exclusive: Mets Versatile Prospect, Michael Paez

By Joseph Hill

February 8, 2019 No comments

mets

Michael Paez/Photo by Ed Delany

With their fourth-round selection in the 2016 draft, the New York Mets selected infielder Michael Paez out of Coastal Carolina University. Paez was a shortstop at Coastal Carolina, where he helped lead his team to a College World Series victory in 2016. Paez is best known for his walk-off single against LSU, the number eight seed in that tournament, which advanced his team to the Series.

Standing at just 5’8″, 175 lbs, Paez has always been one of the smallest guys on every baseball field he’s played on. Therefore, there’s always been a shadow of doubt cast around him, but through his career, he’s shown resilience and put in the work to prove the doubters wrong and further advance along his impressive baseball journey.

The Miami, Florida native went undrafted out of high school, and doubts about his size caused local colleges to shy away from offering him any scholarships. He ended up at Coastal Carolina University, where he set out to make a name for himself on the baseball diamond without caring about how tall he was. He proved he belonged by holding his own as a freshman, but really took off his sophomore year, hitting .326/.436/.526. He followed that with a .279/.370/.519 line as a junior which culminated in the College World Series championship.

His impressive hitting prompted the Mets to draft him after his junior year in 2016. The fourth-round draft pick started his professional career for the Short-Season A Brooklyn Cyclones, where he initially struggled, hitting just .190/.270/.285. Nonetheless, he still earned a promotion to Columbia in 2017, where he looked much more like the hitter he was at Coastal Carolina, batting .290/.376/.509. This impressive breakout earned him another promotion to the St. Lucie Mets, where he took another small step back as he couldn’t quite adjust to the higher level of play.

The Mets allowed Paez to play the entire 2018 season for St. Lucie, where he struggled in the early part of the year but took off in the second half to finish with a solid .744 OPS.

One thing Paez has improved in throughout his minor league career has been his versatility. In college, his main position was at shortstop, but the Mets have had him playing a lot of second and third base in addition to shortstop. This past season, he played almost exclusively as the St. Lucie Mets’ third baseman, largely due to the presence of top prospect Andres Gimenez at short. Paez has responded well to these decisions, taking advantage of his newfound versatility and making it a valuable asset.

This offseason, Paez has even been working with St. Lucie manager Chad Kreuter on becoming a catcher. It remains to be seen how long this experiment will last, but regardless, Paez has shown to be extremely versatile and will play wherever the team wants him. This season, Paez will hopefully take the next step up to play for the Binghamton Rumble Ponies and see if he can replicate the success he’s shown at the lower levels, and if he can continue his strong second half of 2018 into 2019.

I had the privilege of speaking with Michael recently and asked him a few questions.

MMN: Hey, thanks for taking the time to speak to me today.

Paez: Oh, no problem.

MMN: Yeah, so what have you been doing this offseason to prepare for the season?

Paez: So this offseason, I was just working on being more consistent I guess, with my swing and being more versatile around the infield mainly, and then I got a call about a month and a half to two months ago, at this point, that I’m gonna be working behind the plate more often now. So I’ve just been working with Chad Kreuter, which is my coach in High-A, and for about three days of the week, I’ve been driving to Port St. Lucie from Miami to train with him. That’s pretty much what I’ve been doing leading up to today.

MMN: Alright, cool. So I’ve heard about how you’ve been working with St. Lucie manager Chad Kreuter on becoming a catcher. How has your relationship with him helped you make this transition?

Paez: Relationship with him like as a player-coach type?

MMN: Yeah.

Paez: I played in St. Lucie, my first full season, for half the year and his son actually has some roots in Miami — he played for the high school here. Chad actually was in the area where I lived, so we had a lot of things in common to start. Then I played with him all of last year as well, so I’ve played with him for a year and a half now.

He’s like a huge player-coach. You know, he has fifteen years in the big leagues, so you just get a guy that, being around, he’s been through everything that we want to go through, so he’s helped me dearly especially when I was struggling in High-A to get my swing back. And then the coordinators, and Ryan Ellis too. He’s just like — you know, [being able to lean] on him, and especially because he [was a catcher] for fifteen years, he was a good person to already have on my corner to help me out through everything.

MMN: Cool, so do you think this could potentially be a long-term position change?

Paez: I don’t know, I believe so. Everything that I’ve heard, it gets kind of — for me and my career, I feel like it will be a good change for me. But I believe if I could prove that I could catch, have good catching ability, and keep striving and making, I guess, strides forward hitting-wise, I mean I feel like that could be a permanent position for me.

But I want to leave it more of like the breeze to play the entire infield. I could play catcher, I could play the whole infield, and I could play outfield as well because I played outfield in college as well, center field. So I mean I could play all the positions, really, only except first base.

MMN: Right, so you’ve been known to be very versatile. Do you have a preference as to which position you’d like to play?

Paez: In college, all throughout college and my high school career, I was a shortstop. That’s where home is. However, last year like two days before the season started, I found out I was gonna play third base mostly. That was like a huge shock for me, but I actually learned to like that position a lot. I did have, I think around like 20 errors, but it was like a huge growth for me. Like, I just got so much more comfortable throughout the time I was there where there was a stretch where I was making every play that was coming at me and I was making outs and feeling comfortable with it.

So third base I actually like a lot, but I mean now I’m kind of focusing on catching. I can’t really worry about field positions anymore since I’ve tried a little bit longer I’ve actually progressed, I feel like, pretty rapidly behind the plate. But I’d have to say, shortstop.

MMN: Alright, so now to talk more about your hitting, how would you describe your approach at the plate?

Paez: My approach is always to do damage. So when I say that I mean I’m always hunting the fastball. I feel like if you’re ready to hit the fastball you could hit any pitch that’s coming at you. You get slider, changeup, it’s because you already have your foot down ready to hit the fastball. Especially nowadays when pitchers are throwing 95-plus every night, you gotta be ready.

So approach-wise, that’s what I’m going up to the plate thinking. And then if a guy [throws a] changeup, curveball, or whatever the pitch is, I’m gonna capitalize on it. Let’s say I’m ready for a fastball, I mean I don’t take anything off on the outside, I don’t swing out of my shoes, especially as I don’t really try to think — I just won’t swing hard. Before [I believed I needed to] swing hard [to hit] the ball hard.

MMN: So you won the College World Series in 2016, and you had the walk-off hit to beat the eight-seed LSU to get your team there. What was that experience like?

Paez: That was a really special year for me. I feel like that’s something that’s hard to be a pack especially that year and the camaraderie of the team. That, and the LSU game especially, my teammates definitely picked me up there. I know I’m having a good game when I hit it — I’m the hero of the game. But going into that last at-bat, it was my fifth at-bat of the game, and I was 0-4 with three strikeouts going into my last at-bat — no one really [remembers] that, everybody just knows the hit.

So, as I said, it was my last at-bat and Anthony Marks had the stolen base so everyone kind of remembers before I got the hit, he came up to me and told me, “I’m gonna get on base here, I don’t know how, but I’m gonna steal second base and then you’re gonna bring me in.” And he literally told me this before I went up to the plate, right before the inning started.

And I was like “Alright! Do it!” He’s like “Don’t worry about your at-bats, because you know I’m gonna cap it right here, remember.” And sure enough, he got on base, he stole second base, and I hit a chopper right over third base in order to get on. It was really, really surreal.

MMN: How has your experience been with such a great program in Coastal Carolina? Do you feel it prepared you for the rigors of pro ball?

Paez: I feel like it’s gotten me definitely ready when it comes to a grueling season. We at Coastal, we definitely worked our tail off every day. We had a small workout at 6 AM, practice from 2 PM to 6 or 7 PM, like working, you know, perfecting everything. We believed that polishing every single — if it’s a ground ball, if it’s your swing, anything —  I mean everything was under a microscope.

I feel like when you go to pro ball, you think, like a lot of kids struggle to adjust to the “you’re always being watched.” It could be scouts in the stands, it could be obviously your own managers. It could be your department, like the coordinators or whatever. So I feel like that kind of got me ready to, like, not be nervous in the big moments and not to be, you know, feel timid when you have eyes on you. I feel that was huge to come here from a big program like Coastal and how the coaches were there. That’s what I feel got me ready for pro ball.

MMN: So something seemed to click for you near the end of June last season when you hit .299 from then on. Can you talk about any adjustments you made at the plate over those final few months of the season?

Paez: So I remember the exact at-bat and the exact day perfectly of when it clicked for me. And it was actually the middle of the first half, I was actually hitting really well in that time too. I’d just been getting caught a little bit but overall my swing felt good, it just translated more in the second half.

So it was one day Ryan Ellis, who is our hitting coordinator now, he reviewed and watched the film, and he noticed I was doing something with my bat; that it was tilting forward too much. So he wanted it to be flatter behind me, and I was like, “Fine, let’s give it a chance, I’ll take it into BP.” I did it like three times in BP and, like, he went straight into the game and he told me like “If you want to try it now, you don’t have to, it’s the game, I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable.” And like, I’m just gonna do it.

And that game, it was against the Phillies, my other team then, I went 2-4 with a home run, and the home run was a grand slam. And from then on, that was what clicked. So it was more of a timing mechanism with my bat tilting back rather than forward. And from there, I took off. I was on time for fastballs, I was hitting breaking balls. I was playing all the time, so I feel like that’s what slowed the train for me. I could owe a lot to Ryan Ellis for it.

MMN: So as a relatively smaller athlete, do you kind of look up to the Jose Altuves of the world, and how have you been able to succeed despite the challenges of being smaller than many of your opponents?

Paez: I guess I do idolize the smaller players, like being “Altuve” guys, because it really is incredible what they can do at their size and stature and whatever. But at the same time, I don’t really go into the field knowing I’m the smallest guy on the field. I feel like the way I play the game, I play like I’m 6’2″.

I don’t really want that chip on my shoulder, that I’m the smallest kid. I kind of just want to go out there and play my game. And if people are saying “Oh this kid’s small, and he’s playing really good and great,” at the same time I just want them to think that I’m just a really good baseball player, and that’s it.

Not like “Oh you’re a really good baseball player for his size.” Yeah, that’s how I kind of play it, I feel like I play bigger than I am. And that’s why I take off on my swings, my power, even though I’m 5’7″, 5’8″, I feel like my power numbers in my career, that I’m not the typical 5’7″, 5’8″ player, I guess.

MMN: Alright, so while growing up, did you idolize any MLB players or teams?

Paez: I was definitely, growing up in Miami, a Marlins fan. And definitely one of my favorite players growing up was Hanley Ramirez. He was very young, he was the Marlins’ first baseman, and he just like took them on by storm when he came up. Then he got a little older, I got older, and didn’t really focus on a team, it just became more like watching players.

My favorite player now is Altuve by far. Everything he does, like I fit with his size, as we talked about, but at the same time, like that dude, defensively [and offensively], is one of the best, and he can steal bases like that, you know, like he could do everything in the game. So I think for me, I think that’s the guy that definitely a lot of guys could look up to no matter what size you are, you know?

MMN: Yeah, so who’s the toughest pitcher you’ve had to face while in the minor leagues?

Paez: I would have to say it would be my own teammate at the time, and one of my best friends, Justin Dunn. I had to face him in a Spring Training game, and he definitely, when it comes to stuff and his mound presence, he’s definitely one of the hardest at-bats I’ve ever had in my young career. So I would have to say, Justin Dunn.

MMN: Last question. What are some of your main goals for the 2019 season?

Paez: My main goal is to for one, prove that I could catch at the professional level — at a high level — and just showing versatility at a high level. I don’t want to be an average infielder, an average outfielder, an average catcher. I want to be a guy that can plug in and know that position is locked in and you don’t have to worry about it.

Hitting-wise, I just want to be more consistent. As you’ve probably seen in my career, I’ve had a lot of high and low seasons. I made a lot of strides forward last year with my season, but I just want to keep taking those steps forward and to be more consistent with my swing, not hit those highs and lows, and stay more even-keeled with what my approach is. And not having to deviate from it if I’m struggling.

MMN: Awesome, so thanks again for your time and good luck this season.

Paez: Yeah! Thank you, I appreciate it.