Top 100 Mets: #92 - Jay Payton

For a brief amount of time in the mid-90s Jay Payton was one of the country's best prospects, but a tragically unfair series of injuries set him back years and rendered him almost forgotten.  Payton would eventually overcome his problems to re-establish himself as an important part of the Mets.  We hope that he will be remembered less for his anti-climactic departure than for his one very good season as an unexpectedly important cog in the 2000 World Series team.

Jay Payton spent nearly three years with the Mets, and did enough good to make our countdown as #92.

In 1994, Jay Payton was a high-profile college player, lauded as one of the most polished amateur hitters in the country.  Playing for a famously talented Georgia Tech squad, which also featured Nomar Garciaparra and Jason Varitek, Payton led the nation in RBI as a junior before entering the 1994 draft.  Payton's pure swing and defensive ability in centerfield suggested early comparisons to Kirby Puckett.  The Mets picked him up 29th overall, with a pick earned as compensation from the loss of free agent Sid Fernandez.

Payton signed early enough to play the summer season at single-A Pittsfield. He dominated the league, hitting .365 in 58 games, and was named short season player of the year by Baseball America.  His success continued the following year at double-A Binghamton.  Payton hit .345 and showed much improved power, smacking 14 homeruns.  Payton's performance was so impressive that he was named MVP of the Eastern League despite missing much of the season with a promotion to triple-A Norfolk.  Payton looked like a future batting champion with developing power and plus defense and speed, and ranked among the best prospects in what was probably the strongest minor league system in baseball.

Payton's 1995 stint in Norfolk, however, was the beginning of his fall as a prospect.  His production fell off immediately, but, more importantly, he had his first bout with a single injury to his right elbow that would cost him nearly two entire seasons.  At the end of the year Payton underwent reconstructive surgery to repair his medial collateral ligament. Recuperation from this and a subsequent surgery, to remove bone spurs from the same elbow, sidelined Payton for half of the next year.
 
Payton was cleared to play at Norfolk again in July of 1996 and his performance, perhaps surprisingly, remained strong.  He continued to hit over .300, but a major league call-up was impossible.  The Mets were still cautious about his return, and used Payton as a DH, for fear that the act of throwing would re-aggravate the injury.  The caution couldn't trick fate: Payton tore his MCL again and needed a second round of reconstructive surgery.  Payton would not play a single game the following year in 1997, and after surgeries in three consecutive years on his right elbow, some questioned if he would ever be able to play again.

Payton did return to the field in 1998, but his fortunes hardly improved. That year he lost two months from two separate hamstring injuries; when he did play, his hitting was poor.   A small highlight for the year came with Payton's major league debut during a September call-up.  Very quickly, however, he was again under the knife, this time for arthroscopic surgery on his left shoulder.  Rehab kept him off the field until late into the 1999 season.  When Payton did return, he gave the Mets good news for the first time in four years: he hit.  In 38 games he hit .389 with great power and earned a second cup of coffee.

Year

Team

AVG.

AB

Hits

HR

RBI

R

SB

BB

K

OBP

SLG

1998

Mets

.318

22

7

0

0

2

0

1

4

.348

.364

1999

Mets

.250

8

2

0

1

1

1

0

2

.333

.375

2000

Mets

.291

488

142

17

62

63

5

30

60

.331

.447

2001

Mets

.255

361

92

8

34

44

4

18

52

.298

.371

2002

Mets

.284

275

78

8

31

33

4

21

34

.336

.415



Jay Payton arrived at spring training in 2000 fully healthy for the first time since 1995, and ready to build off of the late success the previous year.  The Mets starting outfield was set, and competition for the bench outfield spots was tight, but Payton entered as the favorite to win a roster spot because of his contractual situation.  Due to the amount of time he had spent on the 40 man roster Payton had exhausted his minor league option years, and a demotion from the 25 man roster would have exposed him to other teams through the waivers process.  As long as he stayed healthy GM Steve Phillips was likely to guarantee him a roster spot.

Payton was given a shot to start almost immediately.  Darryl Hamilton, who was slated to start in centerfield, stumbled out of the gate with injury problems and poor production.  Jay Payton claimed the starting spot in center and never gave it up.  The season was, for Payton, an unqualified success.  He played the entire year without injury, racking up 488 at bats in 149 games.  The few flaws in his game - streaky hitting and uncertain baserunning  - were overshadowed by  his final totals.  Payton finished with a .291 average and 17 homeruns.  In addition, he answered questions about his defense with good range in centerfield.  At the end of the season Payton placed third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.

Payton's second season as a starter, however, did not fare as well, and a number of problems resurfaced or were newly exposed.  After a paucity of fundamental play plagued the Mets in the 2000 World Series, fans were heightened to such flaws in the team's performance.  Despite his success, Payton had already developed a reputation as a streaky hitter, and he exasperated the team's patience with a very poor start.  "The book" on Payton was very easily established his first season as a starter - get him out on breaking pitches low and away - and as pitchers tortured him with breaking stuff in April, it looked like he would be hard pressed to repeat his numbers from the previous year.
 
The following five months were essentially a perfect microcosm of Payton's career.  In the last days of April and first days of May, Payton hit well over .500 to raise his average among the league leaders, all the way up to .345.  Good fortune was fleeting. 
Jay Payton
Jay Payton: Payton's myriad of injuries stunned his development with the Mets.
On May 8 he pulled his hamstring running out a groundball, and was back in his familiar role on the disabled list. The injury lingered, and he stayed on the DL longer than expected, for a full 6 weeks.  When Payton returned, he still seemed hampered from his beat up leg, and his hitting suffered as much as his running and defense.  Payton finished the season with a very poor .255 average and .298 on-base percentage.  His sorry hitting further exposed other concerns about his play.  Payton was developing a reputation as a player with poor fundamentals.  He was, for example, unable to take advantage of his great speed, as evidenced by his atrocious stolen base percentages.  It was still widely suspected that manager Bobby Valentine did not like him as a payer, and as he fell out of favor with the fans, he seemed a dispensable.

Jay Payton survived an off season of trade rumors to begin another Mets season as the starting centerfielder.  A binge in the off season by GM Steve Phillips, however, placed must-play contracts in left and right field, so Payton had to partially share centerfield with Timoniel Perez.  Payton continued to frustrate fans with spacey play, but his hitting production remained fairly steady, an obvious improvement from his poor 2001.

It was neither expected, nor particularly surprising, when Jay Payton was traded to the Colorado Rockies at the 2002 deadline.  On the one hand, Payton had bothered fans and his manager with his play, and seemed to stamp out the idea that he still held batting champion potential; on the other, he had established himself as a valuable player, providing at least average offense and defense out of centerfield.  The trade brought over John Thomson, a sinkerball pitcher who had some rare success in Coors Field, who was not retained at the end of the season.  Like most hitters, Payton has thus far found new life at Coors: after around 200 games, his average sits above .300 and he has hit over 30 homeruns.  He has also been healthier than he ever was at any point in his Mets career.  Whether Payton will be able to maintain such impressive production whenever he leaves Denver remains to be seen.  No matter what, whether fairly or unfairly, his career with the Mets will always be remembered more for what he didn't do than what he did.

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