Winning From Within

"Responsibility is a unique concept. You may share it with others, but your portion is not diminished. You may delegate it, but it is still with you. You may disclaim it, but you cannot divest yourself of it" - Admiral Hyman Rickover, USN.

Every Mets team that has enjoyed sustained success over the past 42 years has been built with a core of homegrown players. Last season, Ty Wigginton, Jae Wong Seo and Jason Phillips became the first of a growing wave of young men that are hoping to shape the future of the Amazins. This coming year, several of the Mets' top prospects are expected to spend the bulk of the year at Double-A Binghamton, and a new skipper will be handed the responsibility for molding them; Ken Oberkfell.

While Oberkfell's new job will have far less level of a burden when compared to the late Admiral Rickover's - he isn't being asked to create a fleet of nuclear submarines - he is being asked to help bring along the future of a franchise that is banking heavily on the continued development of its young players.

Many of the B-Mets will be quite familiar with their skipper, as several of them have spent the last two seasons getting promoted along with him. In 2002, Oberkfell managed the Single-A Capital City Bombers to a division championship, and last season, the former big leaguer was at the helm for the Single-A St. Lucie Mets' successful run to the Florida State League title.

Oberkfell isn't any stranger to success. He spent 14 years in the majors with St. Louis, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Houston and California from 1978-92, earning a World Series ring with the Cardinals in 1982.

His managerial career in New York's farm system hasn't been much different, and it's translated into his third straight promotion.

"I'm grateful for the opportunity," Oberkfell said. "This is a great group of kids, and I'm glad we'll be together again this season."

The former third baseman succeeds former Met All-Star catcher John Stearns, who takes over Triple-A Norfolk after leading the B-Mets to a 63-78 finish last season.

Oberkfell has spent seven years managing at the Single A level for both the Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies, and is grateful to be given a chance to mentor the growing list of high caliber minor league players in the Mets' system.

In past seasons, many Mets prospects haven't gotten the opportunity to play together as a cohesive unit.

But after the Single-A Brooklyn Cyclones managed to win a share of the New York Penn League title in the 2001 season, much of that core group has been kept together, as the organization has made a concerted effort to build a winning tradition of players throughout the system.

"Sure, its a big factor," Oberkfell said. "Winning - even at the lower levels of the minor leagues - is an extra benefit to a young player. The fact that this particular group keeps (winning) as they progress is even more impressive."

Though there are several players in the system that have generated excitement among Mets fans, three of the club's most impressive will be making the ever-important transition to Double-AA; third baseman David Wright, and pitchers Matt Peterson and Scott Kazmir.

Wright, a 21-year-old converted shortstop, is the organization's best all-around prospect since Edgardo Alfonzo.

It will be Oberkfell's second season managing Wright - an avid Mets fan as a youngster - who was the Sterling Award winner at St. Lucie, after hitting .270 with 15 homers, 75 RBIs and 19 stolen bases.

"David is a heckuva prospect." Oberkfell said. "He is an improving hitter, a superb fielder and has a tremendous work ethic."

Wright is equally receptive to his skipper, who he'll be playing with for the third straight season in '04.

"It's an honor to be labeled as a prospect by a great former player like (Oberkfell)." Wright said. "He's always treated me with respect and has created a family atmosphere (on his teams) that makes playing the game that much more enjoyable."

Wright says playing in each of his team's respective postseason for the past two seasons - especially winning the FSL title with St. Lucie in 2003 - has been a key component to his development.

"It's special, especially (this past season)" said Wright. "It's an unbelievable experience and one that I'll always treasure and cherish."

Like Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling and other highly touted Mets pitching prospects of years past, the right-handed Peterson and the southpaw Kazmir have been targeted early in their formative years as potential stars.

So far, while Oberkfell allows that both need plenty of seasoning, neither has disappointed him.

"They're both so mature." Oberkfell said. "I've had them both before, and I'm excited to have them again this season. They know exactly how to go about their business on the mound."

Kazmir, New York's first round pick in 2002, is no stranger to Mets fans, as he worked out at Shea Stadium in a Mets uniform shortly after signing his first pro contract later that summer.

The 6-1 lefty had a short, but dazzling stint for Brooklyn, and continued that effort for Capital City (4-4, 2.36 ERA in 18 starts) and St. Lucie (1-2, 3.27 ERA) last season. Despite being held back in his first two seasons - his pitch count in each start was rarely above the 60-pitch limit - Kazmir is averaging 12 strikeouts per nine innings over his first 30 starts in pro ball.

"Scott has electric stuff," Oberkfell said. "The thing that has him ahead of everyone else is his overpowering fastball, which, along with his slider, change-up and curve, are all pitches that will get better."

"He needs more seasoning, but when he's ready, he'll be an impressive big leaguer."

Just 19 years old, Kazmir showed tremendous poise by tossing 5 1-3 innings of one hit, shutout ball in the championship clinching game for St. Lucie.

"Winning a championship, even in the minors, is incredible," Kazmir said. "Just unbelievable."

Unlike Kazmir, Peterson's rise to the top of the organizational pitching prospect heap has been more of a progressive rise.

Peterson, a second-round pick in 2000, went 9-2 with a 1.71 ERA as St. Lucie last season, striking out 73 batters in 84 innings and going 2-0 with a 0.64 ERA in two postseason starts to help the team in the FSL crown.

"I've had Matt for two years, and he's always had the physical makeup to be successful," Oberkfell said. "But the biggest difference in Matt last season was his maturity."

Oberkfell said Peterson getting a chance to pitch at Binghamton last year - the right-hander started six games for the B-Mets in two different stints, going 1-2 with a 3.45 ERA - was a big boost to Peterson's confidence.

"In the playoffs for us, Matt was fearless," Oberkfell said. "He just wanted the ball, went out there and did it."

"He can just flat-out pitch"

Peterson, who was Brooklyn's 2001 opening day starter in their first-ever game at KeySpan Park, is a big proponent of the big club's efforts in building "winners from within."

"It's true, we've done it," Peterson said. "(Our group) has made the playoffs for the past three years. We've come together as a team, like brothers, and everyone has supported each other."

"I hope we can do it again this season."

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