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ELDS Playoff Preview: Binghamton vs. Somerset

September 19, 2023

Bridgewater, New Jersey – Manager Raul Dominguez and the Patriots will officially begin the defense of their Eastern League Championship crown when they meet the Rumble Ponies in the best-of-three ELDS, which opens on Tuesday night at Mirabito Stadium in Binghamton. Dominguez, in his first crack as a full-season manager,

Bridgewater, New Jersey – Manager Raul Dominguez and the Patriots will officially begin the defense of their Eastern League Championship crown when they meet the Rumble Ponies in the best-of-three ELDS, which opens on Tuesday night at Mirabito Stadium in Binghamton.

Dominguez, in his first crack as a full-season manager, saw his Somerset club run roughshod through the league, finishing with the most wins of any Double-A affiliate in baseball – their 84-53 mark was the best in franchise history since joining the affiliated ranks in 2021 and no other team in the EL won more than 75 games. It was a masterclass in dominance from wire to wire and the recipe for success was fairly simple and straight forward, they hit the best and they pitched the best – the proof is in the pudding.

The Patriots lost just three series all regular season long and finished with a remarkable +211 run differential, which is the highest that any MiLB team has posted over the last two years. Under the tutelage of second year Hitting Coach Jake Hirst, the Somerset offense led the league in OPS (.776), HR (197), R (749), BB (650), SB (256), OBP (.346), SLG (.430). They walked 85 more times than the next closest team.

Catcher/first baseman Ben Rice wrapped up regular season play last Sunday with his 20th multi-hit effort in just 48 games at Double-A. Following the promotion of Austin Wells to Triple-A back in July, it was feared that the Patriots would have a massive void in production with his absence. All Rice did from the time of his promotion to Somerset on July 18 to season’s end is lead the EL in HR (16), RBI (48), SLG (.651), OPS (1.054), XBH (30), TB (127) and R (40), while ranking third in batting with .328 mark over that time.

Yankees top-ranked prospect Spencer Jones seems to be heating up at just the right time, riding a three-game multi-hit streak heading into the postseason opener on Tuesday night. The organization’s first round selection in last summer’s draft blasted his 16th homer of the year in Sunday’s season finale at New Hampshire and has now hit three since being promoted to Double-A on August 27. The 6’6”, 235-pound centerfield is long and imposing, but make no mistake about it, he is an elite athlete. In his first full-season, Jones swiped 43 bases and went 8-for-11 in just 17 games with the Patriots.

Ninth ranked prospect Trey Sweeney missed almost the entire month of August due to injury, but since returning from the IL on 9/5, the Yankees 2021 first-rounder slashed .270/.372/.324 with four stolen bases. The slick fielding shortstop is a strong table setter atop manager Raul Dominguez’s lineup and should prove to be pivotal to the Patriots chances of repeating.

As impressive as all of those offensive numbers look for Somerset, they were equally distinguished from the mound. First year Patriots pitching coach Grayson Crawford’s staff led the EL in ERA (3.56), K (1397), WHIP (1.24), and BAA (.214). It’s become a tradition unlike no other – Yankees Double-A affiliates have led the EL in ERA, WHIP and BAA in six of the last seven seasons and have been atop the strikeout leaderboard in five of the last seven seasons.

Right-hander Richard Fitts, the Yankees 12th ranked prospect on MLB Pipeline, rebounded from a nightmare start to his season to finishing as one of the best arms in the EL. In his first season at the Double-A level, the Auburn product had a 6.21 after his first seven starts with just five High-A starts on his resume heading into the season. Some thought perhaps it was an assignment that was too aggressive – it turns out he was the right fit. The Somerset workhorse led the league in W (11), GS (27), IP (152.2), K (163), and WHIP (1.14) – his 3.48 ERA ranked third amongst qualified hurlers. Fitts is scheduled to take the ball in game two for the Patriots on Thursday night when the series shifts home to TD Bank Ballpark.

As magical of a season as Somerset has authored to this point, Binghamton has arguably been the hottest team in the league since the start of August, going 27-12 in the final two months of the season. There’s no coincidence that dramatic turnaround happens to run parallel with the timing of the MLB trade deadline, a period in which the Mets pivoted to become sellers and injected an influx of talent into the organization that has completely revamped the Rumble Ponies roster.

These two clubs met 21 times during the regular season and the Patriots had the advantage, going 13-8 in the Double-A installment of the Subway Series. Many of the faces have changed and the team dynamics are significantly different. You throw all of that out the window and what you have now is a hungry and battle tested Patriots unit against a young, prospect-heavy Binghamton team looking to propel their franchise into a new era. Four of the Mets top-five prospects on MLB Pipeline are currently with Binghamton and going a bit deeper, the Ponies play host to 10 of the organizations top-30 prospects.

That talented stable of Mets prospects is highlighted by top-ranked Luisangel Acuna, the brother of MLB All-Star Ronald Acuna of the Braves. The 21-year-old Venezuelan-native was the prized return coming back from Texas in the deal that sent right-hander Max Scherzer to the Rangers. Acuna is speedy and dynamic and can wreck a game in the blink of an eye. In his first full season at Double-A, Acuna has slashed .294/.359/.410 with 57 stolen bases in 67 attempts.

Shortly after the Mets sent Scherzer packing, they decided to deal Justin Verlander back to Houston for a prospect package that included the organization’s newly minted second ranked prospect in outfielder Drew Gilbert. The Astros 2022 first-round draft selection has been one of the most prolific hitters in baseball since coming over to the Mets – in 35 games with Bingo, the University of Tennessee product has slashed .325/.423/.561 with six homers and 21 RBI.

The Mets had two first round draft selections last summer and they used those to select catcher Kevin Parada and infielder Jett Williams, respectively. Just over a year later, both players earned promotions to Double-A just in time for a playoff push. At just 19-years-old, Williams ascended through three different levels of pro-ball in his first season out of high school in 2023. The Mets third-ranked prospect only has a week of Double-A experience under his belt, but his emerging power (13 homers) and speed (42 stolen bases) are something that Somerset will have to account for in this series. Just three picks before Williams, the Mets selected Parada 11th overall out of Georgia Tech and he has risen as quickly as they had projected. The organization’s fifth ranked prospect also flew past three levels of the system this season and in just 14 games with the Ponies, the 22-year-old backstop has already blasted three homers and driven home 11.

Manager Reid Brignac will hand the ball to right-hander Christian Scott in Tuesday’s opener to combat Blane Abeyta for Somerset. Scott has made 12 starts for Binghamton and the Mets 12th-ranked prospect has held Eastern League opposition to a .198 batting average while fanning 77 batters in 62 innings. Workhorse Dominic Hamel, who made 25 starts for Binghamton this year, will take the ball in Bridgewater on Thursday night opposite Fitts after striking out 160 batters in 124 innings in his first season at Double-A. Right-hander Blade Tidwell is regarded as the Mets top-pitching prospect and the 2022 second-round draft selection, who fanned 159 batters in 116 innings in his first pro-season, will oppose Yoendrys Gomez if a game three on Friday is necessary in Somerset.

Series Probable Pitching Matchups:

Tue RHP Blane Abeyta (8-8, 5.67 ERA) vs. Christian Scott (5-4, 2.57 ERA)

Thu RHP Dom Hamel (8-6, 3.85 ERA) vs. RHP Richard Fitts (11-5, 3.48 ERA)

Fri* RHP Blade Tidwell (11-6, 3.57 ERA) vs. RHP Yoendrys Gomez (0-3, 3.58 ERA)

*If Necessary

Matt Kardos | SomersetPatriots.com Beat Writer

Matt Kardos has covered the Yankees minor league system for over a decade and will spend his 11th season on the beat covering the Patriots for SomersetPatriots.com. Throughout his career, Matt has contributed to MLB.com, YES Network and Pinstriped Prospects. When he’s not at the ballpark, Matt enjoys traveling with his wife Kimberly, watching Jets football and collecting sports cards.