The U Files # 65: The Prospect Portfolio

The Mets built an exciting, competitive team under Steve Phillips that was a not a team to be taken lightly in 1999 and 2000. Unfortunately, the same means that produced that end led to the downfall of the organization. To reach those heights again, but without the looming danger of a collapse, the Mets appear to have put more of a premium on developing the cream of the farm into productive Mets, and the team has enough talent to make the plan work.

Over the last few years, the Mets have rebuilt a farm depleted largely through some of the trades instrumental in creating those great Mets teams of 1999-2000 (the Piazza and Leiter trades in particular). Since then, the team has rebuilt the farm, overcoming stumbles like the trade that sent Alex Escobar and Bill Traber (now in for Tommy John surgery) to the Clevelend Indians for Roberto Alomar, and the unfortunate death of Brian Cole in an automobile accident (He'd have otherwise been our top outfield prospect at the moment). Currently the Mets farm has been ranked # 10 in baseball by Baseball America (a rating that includes Kazuo Matsui as a prospect.). The farm has already graduated Jose Reyes, who was a top 5 prospect in baseball at this time last year.

Here I will unveil my top 10 Mets prospects, discuss each of these in turn, and lastly mention some of the notable prospects in the lower levels that could be mentioned on future lists. I will ask the reader to indulge me in accepting one particular ranking: Aaron Heilman has enough time in MLB to disqualify him for rookie status in 2004, however not nearly enough time to have proven himself for better or worse. The matter of a handful of innings that separates the ML time of Heilman and Jeremy Griffiths (still mentioned on more widely known prospect lists) should not be a deciding factor, as Heilman has always had higher prospect status than Griffiths.

The List:

1) Kazuo Matsui, ss, Japan
2) David Wright, 3b, class A St. Lucie
3) Scott Kazmir, LHP, class A St. Lucie
4) Aaron Heilman, RHP, class AAA Norfolk
5) Justin Huber, C, class AA Binghamton
6) Matt Peterson, RHP, class A St. Lucie
7) Lastings Milledge, OF, class A Kingsport
8) Victor Diaz, 2b, class AA Binghamton
9) Craig Brazell, 1b, class AAA Norfolk
10) Aaron Baldiris, 3b, class A Brooklyn

Matsui, a major free agent signing by the Mets in December, was known as the best all-around player in Japan at the time he was signed, after the previous defections of Ichiro (who doesn't need the name) Suzuki, and Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui. The 28 year old switch hitting shortstop stands 5'10 and weighs 183 lbs on Earth at sea level. Matsui won three Japanese Gold Gloves for his fielding at shortstop, and was a leading offensive player to boot. Matsui leaves the Nippon league with career marks of .309/.361/.486 BA/OBP/SLG. Over the last four years he has hit .314/.373/.556. He has averaged 41 doubles and 34 home runs over the last two years. A projection for Matsui that falls in line with the adjustment seen in Ichiro and Godzilla calls for a line around .385/.340/.450 in MLB – which would make him one of the better hitting shortstops in the league. The Mets plan to use Matsui in the leadoff spot.

David Wright, a 21 year old standing 6 feet even and tipping the scales at 195 lbs, could make an argument for being the best third base prospect currently in the minor leagues. If it's not Wright, it's the Braves' power hitting Andy Marte, but either way the two occupy a class a step above the rest of the field at the hot corner. Wright has not dazzled with his batting average, but hits with enough extra-base power that he should never worry about hitting below .270 in the big show. His peripheral stats on the other hand, are incandescent. Playing a year below age level, Wright led the Florida State league in doubles with 39, and in walks with 72 – all in 466 AB. His 15 home runs were not an inconsiderable sum in so many AB. All in all Wright mashed over 40 percent of his hits for extra bases and drew a walk in 13 percent of his plate appearances. He struck out 98 times, but shows a low double play rate typical of strikeout hitters. His k/bb ratio is nothing to be concerned about. Wright is known as an excellent fielder and has averaged 20 steals the past two seasons at an 80% rate through smarts more than speed.

Scott Kazmir, the fireballing lefty from Houston, fell to the # 15 pick in the draft due largely to signability concerns. Alas, he accepted a surprising $2.15 million, and left the Mets with cause to laugh. Opposing hitters certainly haven't been laughing. As a 19 year old who earned a mid-season promotion to high A St. Lucie, the 6'1, 185 lb pitcher blew the ball past older hitters with impunity. He struck out 145 batters in a combined 109.1 IP, walking 44. His 6 home runs allowed was not the lowest in the minors, but is equivalent to a rate few pitchers in MLB can better (save Pedro Martinez' amazing 7 in a full season last year). Statistically there is little cause for alarm; the walk rate of 3.6 per 9 frames is close to average and that was the worst area of his game. The one thing that's given pause is the low inning total. It's partly due to the fact that, after the well-known debacle that was "generation K", the Mets are being extremely cautious with Kazmir. Unlike the ill fated trio a decade earlier who were allowed to pitch until their arms fell off (and they did), Kazmir has been held to extremely stringent pitch counts. It's also a factor that Kazmir has tended toward high pitch counts; the Mets will undoubtedly seek to work with Kazmir on efficiency. Either way, Kazmir has not shown the ability to last past the fourth inning on a consistent basis. Kazmir will be held to gradually loosening pitch restrictions as he moves along.

Heilman, for all the ballyhooed struggles he went through in 65 IP of ML time, left two things undoubted. One, he has the size to withstand the rigors of extended innings at 6'5, 220 lbs. Two, he has the physical stuff to get ML hitters out; even whilest posting an ERA of 6.75, Heilman struck out 51 batters in 65.1 IP – a rate higher than the league average. In the minors, Heilman displayed solid control and the ability to limit HR against him. Supposing he regains some idea of how to get the ball where he wants it, there is still every possibility Heilman can evolve into a pitcher who consistently pitches 200+ innings of above average ball.Mbr<
Justin Huber was left off several highly considered Top prospect listings over concerns that he may move to first base – where his offense would be less impressive. Perhaps the word has not yet fully hit the target that Huber is not 6'5 as was originally reported, but 6'2 (a size not too big to catch) and 190 lbs. It would be in the Mets best interests to keep Huber at catcher to maximize his value – and there seems to be little reason to consider otherwise knowing the true facts. Huber again impressed, this time at class A St. Lucie and earned a mid season call-up to class AA Binghamton, where he held his own against older competition. Between the two levels, he hit 28 doubles and 15 home runs – most of it at St. Lucie where he slugged .514. He is able to consistently raise his OBP through his love of getting hit – Huber took one for the team on 16 occasions last year. Huber does not impress with the glove, but should make a fine offensive catcher in the tradition of Mike Lieberthal (the power hitting version).

Matt Peterson remains the RHP with the highest ceiling that's closest to MLB. Peterson dominated at St. Lucie, striking out 73 in 84.0 IP, walking 24 (2.57 per 9 IP) and allowing just two home runs. He held his own at class AA Binghamton against older hitters before being sent back down to bolster the St. Lucie Mets for the FSL playoffs, where he dominated. Peterson has the size, a mid 90's fastball complimented with a plus curveball, and has the ability to become a front-end starting pitcher if he can retain the advances he made in his control and with some refinement of a changeup. If he doesn't reach his full potential, he still has a good chance of being a superb # 3 starter.

Lastings Milledge has too little minor league experience to evaluate him fully as a prospect. He is listed here simply based on the physical gifts he has displayed. The 6'1, 180 lb outfielder has every "tool" he needs; it remains to be seen if he has the ability to translate his tools into performance. Milledge has the speed and range to play center field. He has the ability to get the bat on the ball, though some have questioned his ability to hit the breaking ball. Depending on whom you ask, his game is raw, or shows refinement for one who is but 18 years of age. He has the ability to hit the ball with authority, whether he will show home run power or more gap oriented power is yet unclear. He fell to the Mets with the # 12 pick in the most recent draft out of Lakewood Ranch H.S. in Palmetto, Fla.

Victor Diaz was acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the mid season trade of Jeromy Burnitz. As a pure hitting talent, he is unmatched by any in the Mets system however he is the most defensively challenged prospect on this list. Diaz has shown the ability to hit for very high average, posting hit rates of 35 percent at some stops and averaging .318 for his minor league career to date. As a 21 year old in AA, Diaz hit .291 in 316 AB for Jacksonville (LAD class AA affiliate) and .354 in 175 AB for Binghamton. He hit a combined 31 doubles and 16 home runs.

Brazell is the position prospect closest to MLB on this list, and was the only notable player to play at class AAA in 2003. Brazell hit well enough at class AA Binghamton to earn a late season call to Norfolk. In 432 AB at Binghamton, he hit .292 with 23 doubles and 17 home runs. He has the ability to become the "300/30 HR" guy a team wants out of it's first baseman, however there is cause for serious concern. Brazell struck out 97 times in less than 500 AB, walking but 23 times.

Baldiris is a young clone of Edgardo Alfonzo signed out of Venezuela in 2002. Playing for low-A Capitol City until a callup to Brooklyn, the 6-2, 170 lb third baseman displayed Fonzie's characteristic patience. He hit .313, drawing 51 free passes in 393 AB for Cap City and posting an OBP of .396. His power potential remains undeveloped, as he slugged .427. He has room to add muscle mass to his frame and if he starts to show legitimate extra base pop, Balderis will quickly gain note among prospect reviewers. He is still but 20 years of age.

Beyond these, the Mets systems is remarkable mostly for depth in quality RHP, but weak elsewhere. Names to keep an eye on include Yusmeiro Petit, who struck out a batter an inning in limited time in the low minors, and control artist Miguel Pinango.

The Mets have a great number of possible relief pitchers with live fastballs. Royce Ring was acquired in the trade of Roberto Alomar and could merit ranking if he were not discounted as a relief pitcher. The lefthander has a good mindset and throws in the low 90's. Orber Moreno is ready for a spot in the Mets bullpen now, if there were room. The pitcher, a former top prospect in the Kansas City Royals' system having recovered from arm injury, throws a variety of fastballs in the low 90's. Tyler Yates was acquired in the trade of David Justice to the Oakland Athletics, and throws the ball regularly in the upper 90's. He has little desire to test his ability to reach 100 MPH since throwing a pitch of such intensity, on which he threw out his elbow. He has the potential to either start or pitch in relief. Beyond these, there is a second former Dodger farmhand named Diaz (this one Joselo), and Kole Strayhorn.

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