Defense comes naturally for Mets' den Dekker
Outfielder's glove helped him reach Majors, and bat could catch up soon
NEW YORK -- Matt den Dekker never felt the pop, only the pain. Hunched over and clutching his right wrist, he assumed it was broken, but he clung to the slim chance it wasn't. The agony lasted through his return to the Tradition Field clubhouse, then to the hospital, where den Dekker's fears were affirmed.
After turning heads and building promise with sterling defensive plays through Spring Training, den Dekker's first big league camp came to a crashing halt on a warning track in Port St. Lucie, Fla., when he attempted another. What earned him so much attention is what led to a disappointing injury on March 24.
"Just kind of frustrated and disappointed it had to happen right at the end," den Dekker said. "I realized that you have to deal with it and you have to move on."
After a slow rehab process, den Dekker did move on. He returned to the field and earned a promotion to the Major Leagues on Aug. 27 after 53 games with Triple-A Las Vegas. The Mets hope they can write den Dekker into their future plans, believing his bat will eventually become as valuable an asset as his glove. His play in center field, though, doesn't need improvement.
The native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has played the outfield since middle school, long before working his way onto the radar of professional scouts with his speed, the innate ability to read the ball off the bat, the quick first step.
Gregg Mucerino saw it the first time he joined Rich Hofman's coaching staff at Westminster Academy Christian School in Fort Lauderdale for den Dekker's junior season. The "long and skinny" kid made spectacular plays look routine.
"His contribution defensively, he made plays that were highlight-reel stuff constantly," Mucerino said. "It was the norm for him."
Runners also never wanted to test den Dekker's left arm. Aside from patrolling the outfield, den Dekker also pitched for Westminster. The more innings he threw, the stronger his arm became. It developed into a weapon in center field.
All through high school, den Dekker played with his cousin, Kevin Chapman. Of the two, Chapman was the better pitcher and had a bright future on the mound. The left-hander beat his cousin to the Major Leagues by about three weeks when the Astros promoted him on Aug. 8.
For years, the competitive cousins pushed each other to succeed and both excelled. But it was clear den Dekker would maximize his potential in the outfield.
Former University of Florida coach Ross Jones recruited Chapman, but Mucerino told him he should also take his cousin. Mucerino praised den Dekker as a solid left-handed bat, with speed on the bases and a spectacular glove in center field. Jones agreed and brought both players to UF.
It turned out to be a critical decision for both sides.
As a sophomore, den Dekker hit .333 with eight homers and 48 RBIs. That season was Kevin O'Sullivan's first as the Gators' head coach, and he immediately spotted the ability in his center fielder.
"He just looked the part. He was a physical athlete that can really defend," O'Sullivan said. "His swing -- it was a solid swing to begin with. I think he continued to improve vs. left-handed pitching, but you could tell early on the physical ability was certainly there."
As he developed into his 6-foot-1 frame, den Dekker opened the eyes of Major League teams. The Pirates drafted him in the 16th round of the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, but den Dekker didn't sign. den Dekker said he felt he could still improve. He wasn't satisfied with his junior season, when he hit .296 with five home runs and 37 RBIs.
So den Dekker returned to Florida for his senior year and was soon thrust into the national spotlight.
In the 2010 College World Series against UCLA, den Dekker made a catch that earned him a spot on the list of top 10 plays on "SportsCenter" on ESPN. As soon as the ball came off the bat, he turned around and sprinted toward the center-field wall. As the ball began falling, den Dekker started sliding as he crossed onto the warning track, and somehow made the grab with his back to home plate.
"I've been blessed with speed, and I guess instincts in the outfield," den Dekker said. "I guess it's just something that comes natural. I try to get a good read and just go get the ball."
At the time of the play, den Dekker had already been drafted by the Mets earlier in the month. His glove remained stellar through his climb to the Majors, but his bat was a step behind.
One trend Mets manager Terry Collins has mentioned is den Dekker's tendency to improve offensively his second year at a particular level. In 2011, den Dekker played hit .235 in 72 games for Double-A Binghamton. Through 58 games at the same level in 2012, he hit .340.
Then in 2012, den Dekker hit .220 in 77 games with Triple-A Buffalo. Once he returned to the Triple-A level after his wrist injury this season, den Dekker hit .296 in 53 games. He's only hitting .233 in 16 games since being called up, but the Mets are anticipating that career trend of his to continue in the Major Leagues.
"Matt's going to be a good player. The more he plays, the more comfortable he's going to be," Collins said. "The one thing we've got to get him to do is obviously handle left-handed pitching. If he can do that, he's going to be a real good player."
But den Dekker has competition for a spot on the Mets' roster next season. While den Dekker was still in the Minor Leagues this season, Juan Lagares emerged as a stud center fielder for the Mets. The promotion of den Dekker gave the club two. The Mets have to figure out who their center fielder of the future will be, and that's why these late September games are so important.
They're a collective audition for den Dekker. One his brilliant glove helped him reach, and one a hot bat could help him win.
"We're not in contention for the playoffs," den Dekker said, "but all these games are really meaningful, because I want to have a job next year, and I want to be here to help them contribute next year."
Chris Iseman is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.