Top 100 Mets #80: Gregg Jefferies

The name Gregg Jefferies remains a stinging reminder to Mets fans that there is no such thing as a "can't miss" prospect.  One of the most hyped prospects in baseball history, Gregg didn't play poorly - he provided the Mets with three solid years - but he never improved, and never began to resemble the type of player he was predicted to be.

We honor Gregg Jefferies as player #80 in our countdown in dual recognition of the hype and fame he carried with him, and the average but disappointing production that he did contribute to the team.

Gregg Jefferies was picked by the Mets in the first round of the 1985 draft.  He made his professional debut that summer, straight out of high school, at short-season Kingsport, and he began with a bang.  In 47 games, Jefferies hit an eye-popping .343.  As a first round pick he was a high profile player, and this performance almost immediately vindicated the Mets' choice as he began popping up on prospect lists. It was only the beginning.

The next two years represented the height of one of the most celebrated minor league careers in prospect history.  Jefferies began 1986 in Columbia, where he had played a month of games the previous year with decent numbers.  He only stayed in Columbia for a month this time around as well.  After hitting .339 with good power in 25 games, Jefferies was judged ready to move onto the next level at age 19.  His hitting actually improved at single-A Lynchburg, to a .354 average, again with strong power; he again improved in a short promotion to Jackson.  He was named the minor league player of the year by Baseball America.

The domination continued in 1987. Jefferies spent the entire year at AA Jackson, and he murdered the ball. Jefferies hit .367 with 48 doubles and 20 homeruns, astonishing numbers at any level. He was again named player of the year by Baseball America.  He continued to walk more than he struck out, a fantastic indicator for a player of his age a truly special skill with his eyes and hands.

Jefferies' 1988 season at Tidewater, likely considered to be a mere tune-up before a permanent call up, provided the only blemish on his minor league resume. Perhaps, in hindsight, it should have tempered expectations slightly.  After absolutely dominating all of his competition in the previous three years, Jefferies slumped in 132 games to quite average production - a .282 average with depressed power numbers.  Those 132 games were quickly forgotten, however, when he was promoted to the majors at the end of the year.  Gathering 109 at-bats with the Mets, Gregg hit .321 with 6 homeruns, creating such a furor that he was named on a number of ballots for NL Rookie of the Year.















































































1989 was the year of expectation for Gregg Jefferies. He was by far the best prospect on the Mets and in the National League, and was by consensus a lock for the Rookie of the Year award.  His minor league statistics were as good as anyone had ever seen, the scouts loved his swing, and he had hit consistently at the major league level.  A minor sour point - nobody was sure if he could stick in the infield defensively - was understandably overlooked.
It is very difficult to exaggerate the amount of hype following Gregg Jefferies at this early point in his career.  Mets fans in the recent past have been treated to top 5 prospects Paul Wilson and Jose Reyes, but neither approached his publicity and expectation. Although it is impossible to quantify, I would suggest that there was only one baseball prospect in the years since Jefferies' debut that was able to match the level of sheer hype attained by Jefferies: Andruw Jones.  In fact, debuting at about the same time, with about the same press, was another uber-prospect named Ken Griffey Jr; we can call them the LeBron and Carmello of their age.

Jefferies certainly did not shrink back from the mammoth expectations.  He was, in short, incredibly arrogant.  The most publicized proof of his attitude was his declaration of his intentions to break Pete Rose's career hits record, a ludicrous idea for a man who had not yet played an entire major league season. The Mets of the late 80s were a good team with strong veteran leadership, and Jefferies' hot shot attitude did not mesh well in the clubhouse.  Gregg never stepped in line the way young players are expected to - for example, he routinely skipped team practices in order to pursue his own idiosyncratic training methods - and his attitude helped exacerbate the Mets' patience with him.

Unfortunately, all of this peripheral news about Jefferies - his minor league career, his potential and ability, his cockiness - represented the height of his career.  That which followed, his actual Mets career, was boring in comparison.  He turned in an acceptable season in 1989, settling into second base and hitting well for his age and position, but he clearly failed to produce the slam-dunk rookie of the year campaign that was universally expected of him.  His batting average, in particular, was surprisingly pedestrian at a mere .258; none of his statistics caught the eye.

Some inconsistency must have been expected in his rookie year, but Jefferies was unable to build upon his modest success in the time following. 
G. Jefferies
Jefferies: His defense at second base prompted a move to third base.
In 1990 he flashed some power, leading the NL with 40 doubles, but again he fell short of what he was thought capable of.  The following year, his numbers were down in nearly every hitting category.  At the same time, his defensive play at second was bad enough that a move to third base became inevitable; he played 40% of his games there in 1991.

The super-talented player's career was stagnating, and a change of scenery seemed the obvious solution.  In the winter of 1991, Jefferies was traded with Kevin McReynolds (another former hot prospect with whom the fans had a love/hate relationship) and Keith Miller to Kansas City in order to bring Brett Saberhagen to New York.  Saberhagen was inconsistent but supremely talented, and, if healthy, promised to contribute far more than Jefferies could at this point of his career.

One can easily argue that the Mets were too impatient with Gregg Jefferies.  Gregg was merely 24 years old when he was traded, still years away from the prime of his career, and he still had the swing that made scouts drool.  There are also indications that the Mets relied too much on him too quickly.  Jefferies hit in the #3 spot for the majority of his final two years at Shea, a responsibility which his production simply did not justify.  Perhaps, if he had been allowed to mature at a more natural pace, the extra patience would have paid off for both the player and the team.  However, when concerns about his sputtering offense were added to questions about defense and attitude problems, the move seemed logical at the time.

Gregg Jefferies eventually cashed in on his abilities away from New York, but his success was extremely short-lived.  1993 and 1994 were his only truly successful major league seasons.  Both were spent with the St. Louis Cardinals, where his batting average finally climbed up to the leader boards, and he made the All-Star team.  But he could never capitalize on these two great years.  Moving to Philadelphia, Gregg continued to hit for good averages but his power began to erode.  He gained weight and his poor range restricted him to first base; injury problems also limited his production.  His recent retirement was no surprise given his career path but provided a reminder of how far he had fallen from his former status; had all gone according to plan, even now one of the greatest prospects since Mickey Mantle would be racking up hall of fame accolades in a Mets uniform.

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