For teams with a strong scouting department and a good plan, the draft is the ticket to competitiveness, and perhaps excellence at the major league level. For teams that place poor bets, the draft places them in a perpetual disadvantage which requires them to overpay for average or better talent on the free agent market. This article will consider some potential draft day strategies, examine the strengths and weaknesses of this year's talent crop, and take a quick look at some options available to the Mets when they make their selection.
Smart organizations study draft history and enter the draft with a clear plan they trust will, over time, result in the acquisition of a large number of players capable of playing well at the major league level. There are almost as many approaches as there are teams. The A's and the Yankees have a high preference for low-risk picks and primarily select polished college players with strong track records of success. The Padres focus on hitting and will not blink at drafting, say, one third baseman after another if they believe the player can ultimately produce in the big leagues. The Braves always seem to take high school players and are particularly disposed toward high school pitchers with power arms.
In recent years, the Mets have drafted pitcher after pitcher (31 of last year's 50 picks were pitchers), as Steve Phillips believes that the price for major league pitching is exorbitant. Indeed, with a good portion of the Mets' 2002 staff up for free agency after the season, replacing at least one or more of them with quality youngsters from the farm is an appealing scenario.
But is it a realistic scenario? Maybe not. Pitcher development is notoriously unpredictable. For one thing, injuries among pitchers are rampant, as Met fans who remember the names Paul Wilson, Jason Isringhausen, and Bill Pulsipher will understand. Secondly, pitching is as much an art as a science, and it's extremely difficult if not impossible to predict which hard-throwing amateur will eventually gain command of his curveball, develop a quality changeup, or learn how to locate pitches in the zone. That track record for high school pitchers is especially poor. From 1991 through 1995, teams selected 24 high school pitchers in the first round of which only 7 have had enjoyed notable major league careers - and that's if you include Shawn Estes, Jeff D'amico, Scott Elarton, and Jaret Wright. The overwhelming majority make no significant contribution at the big league level. They are the poorest of bets, so I hope the Mets will stay away from that group on Tuesday.
While I'm at all not arguing against the drafting of pitchers– it obviously takes a lot of arms to fill a staff – I do question the wisdom of expending the majority of picks on such an unpredictable commodity. My hope is that the Mets will adjust their drafting strategy this year and beyond to achieve a better balance between hitters and pitchers, and will particularly look to college hitters in the early rounds moreso than they have lately. I think the lack of good hitting prospects in the organization supports the need to select more polished position players. In recent years, the team has little choice but to sign aging players at top dollar since the farm is unable to provide any hitters to capably fill spots. Of course, you can't draft what isn't there…
Unfortunately for the Mets, this year's draftable talent is very thin in regard to college position players. By most accounts it also lacks the elite tier of amateurs that was taken at the top of last year's draft. There is no prospect on the level of a Mark Prior, Mark Teixeira, or perhaps even a Joe Maurer. However, most scouts think that left-handed pitchers and good hitting infielders are well represented, particularly among the high schoolers. Overall, this is a very fluid draft, which is to say that it is hard to slot players 1 through 15 or so. There is little team to team consensus over who should be picked where.
In a fluid draft, signability tends to become a major issue, as teams try to save money by drafting someone they believe will be willing to sign for less than another player they may have rated a little higher – I'll call this the Boras Factor. Indeed, the Boras Factor may provide the Mets with their best opportunities to extract quality players from this year's draft. Good players may fall into their lap due to the reluctance of other teams to meet excessive bonus demands. Of course, this only benefits the Mets if they are willing to pay top dollar, which hasn't always been the case in the past (see Tyner, Jason). Money should not be an issue for the Mets, because they are one of the biggest revenue-generating teams in the league, they will not have to pay bonuses to 2nd and 3rd round picks as they forfeited those picks for the privilege of signing Roger Cedeno and David Weathers, and they have not expended any of their budget on signing draft and follow players (basically, these are high school players drafted but not signed by then team in the previous draft that played for a junior college this year).
When choice #15 of the first round rolls around on Tuesday, here are some of the players the Mets may consider:
College Pitchers – The Mets have taken college pitchers in the 1st round in each of the past two drafts (Aaron Heilman in 2001 and Billy Traber in 2000), and there should be reasonably good selections available when they pick this year. Bobby Brownlie (RHP, Rutgers) was considered the consensus top pick in the draft before he struggled a bit during his junior season. When healthy, he has excellent velocity and outstanding command of a quality curveball. He seems to have dropped a bit due to a bicep problem that has scared some teams off and due to the Boras Factor. Jeff Francis (LHP, U. of British Columbia) is a tall, projectable lefty with good polish and strong tailing action on his fastball. He needs to work on his breaking pitches but there is solid potential here. Joe Saunders (LHP, Virginia Tech) is another polished lefty, but lacks the upside of some other top college pitchers that may be available. He'll come fast, but is he better than a # 3/4? Luke Hagerty (LHP, Ball State) is tall (listed at 6-7) and left-handed, and that pretty much sums up why he's considered a 1st rounder. His fastball sits at around 90 mph, his breaking pitch is inconsistent, and he will need a few years to develop arm strength since he hasn't pitched much until this season. Baseball America, sadly, has linked him to the Mets. Pass. Joe Blanton (RHP, Kentucky) has a good sinking fastball and a terrific curve that leads to a lot of strikeouts (133 in 100 IP). He's also inconsistent and gets hit very hard when he leaves the ball up in the zone. Intriguing potential, but a relatively risky bet for a college pitcher.
College Hitters – The weakest category of this draft. There's reasonably good depth to this group, but few strong 1st round choices. Jeff Baker (3B, Clemson) has light-tower power, is reasonably disciplined, and has the ability to play a very strong third base. He also has a very long swing that scouts fear may not translate well to wood – indeed, he has not hit well with wood bats while playing for Team USA. He's considered a top 10 talent but may be available due to the Boras Factor. Russ Adams (ss/2b/CF, UNC) is a favorite of mine. He will probably play 2B in the bigs. Russ is a very speedy player (45 steals this year) with tremendous plate discipline (51 BBs in 230 ABs). He won't hit a ton of homers, but has gap power and some room to fill out. He wins high marks for his defensive skills. I think he could ably fill a need position for the Mets. Drew Meyer (SS, South Carolina) is much loved by the scouts, though I'm not 100 percent sold on him as a worthy pick at #15. Lots of tools including some power potential, though that hasn't translated to many homers in college play. Scouts like his arm for SS, but are unsure about his hands. Nick Swisher (1b/OF, Ohio State) is a very productive college player with a disciplined approach to hitting. While most seem to view him as an early 2nd rounder, I'm including him since the Mets reportedly have some interest. He's played a lot of 1b in college but can handle an outfield corner. He's a good athlete with pop and patience. A relatively safe choice, but does he have the ability to excel at positions that demand big offensive production?
High School Pitchers – Given the horrible track record of first round high school pitchers, I pray every year that the Mets will look past this group. It may be hard to do that this year due to the availability of some intriguing talent. Clint Everts (RHP, Texas) appeals to scouts because of an effortless throwing motion, good velocity, and one of the best curves in the draft. He's also a good enough athlete to be rated as a shortstop. Baseball America reports that the Mets really like him. He's the teammate of LHP Scott Kazmir, who'll likely be taken among the top 5 picks. Jason Neighborall (RHP, North Carolina) has what many consider to be Nolan Ryan potential. He may the throw harder than anyone in the draft, high school or college, and has been clocked as high as 98 mph. But that's not all – he has a curveball that some compare favorably to Josh Beckett's. Despite all of this, he's considered a 50-50 proposition to be a first round pick because of back problems, uncertain command, and the Boras Factor (he says he wants a $7 million bonus). How lucky do you feel, Steve? Zach Greinke (RHP, Florida) has advanced command of three pitches, and his fastball sits comfortably in the low-mid 90s. How polished is he? His strikeout to walk ratio is 118 to 8. It doesn't get better than that. Cole Hamels (LHP, California) is a talented lefty whose injury history scares some teams (he broke his arm a couple of years ago). Like Greinke, he's extremely polished for a HS pitcher and has command of three good pitches. His curve is very sharp and scouts rave about his changeup. Could be taken before the Mets pick.
High School Hitters – The Mets haven't taken a high school hitter with their first round choice since selecting Rob Stratton in 1996. Stratton, of course, currently cools down fans in Norfolk with his massive swings and frequent misses. In 1995, the Mets selected high school shortstop Ryan Jaroncyk. He quit baseball about a year later. The Mets don't seem to have forgotten. There are some truly tantalizing talents available this year that will likely be gone before the Mets pick, including BJ Upton, Jeremy Hermida, and Scott Moore. John Mayberry, Jr. (1b/3b, Missouri) is the son of that John Mayberry, so a lot of scouts like the genes. He's a lefty hitter who is big, strong and is credited with a solid approach at the plate, though some wonder if his bat speed is all it could be. Matt Whitney (3b, Florida) is a big right handed hitting 3b with some power potential. Some scouts question his bat speed and his trigger, which would seem to make him a questionable selection in the first round. Pass. Denard Span (CF, Florida) is my secret fear. He's a speedy slap hitter type that can cover a lot of ground in the OF, but I wonder if he's a better athlete than he is a baseball player. I keep hoping the Mets will pass, but they do seem to have a weakness for stereotypical leadoff types (Cedeno, Tyner, Angel Pagan). Hopefully, some other organization will teach him how to fake bunt on every third pitch. Jeff Francouer (CF, Georgia) impresses scouts with his athleticism (he's also a highly regarded wide receiver) and his Dale Murphy-like frame. Jeff is not a very advanced hitter at this stage and is more a projection than some of the more natural hitters likely to be taken in the first round. The Mets haven't had much luck developing guys like this. Jeff Clement (C, Iowa) is a guy I really like, though he seems to be slipping out of the first round. With his balanced left-handed swing, he is a threat to break the all-time high school records for career homeruns and walks. The fact that he's a catcher would serve to make his offense all the more valuable, though some scouts question whether he can remain behind the plate long-term. Since he can hit more than enough to survive a move to 3rd, 1st, or the OF, I wouldn't worry too much about his defense. Remember the name.
With the 15th pick of the first round, the New York Mets select Bobby Brownlie. The Mets benefit from the Boras Factor and continue their trend of drafting college pitching in the first round. Assuming his injury is nothing more than bicep tendonitis, Brownlie would be a very good choice, in my opinion. When 100 percent healthy, he has better velocity and command than Aaron Heilman, and he should move through the system quickly. He has the ability to be a # 1/2 starter in the big leagues.
In later rounds, I hope the Mets will focus on college hitters, and some names I'd be happy to hear include Kevin Howard (3b, Miami), Larry Broadway (1b, Duke), Bobby Kingsbury (CF, Fordham), Michael Johnson (1b, Clemson), Val Majewski, (1b/OF, Rutgers), Mark Kiger (2b/SS, Florida), Pat Osborn (3b, Florida), Jon Slack (OF, Texas Tech) Bobby Malek (OF, Michigan State), and Mark Schramek (3b, Texas-San Antonio). Another intriguing development could arise if teams ignore Jason Neighborall, assuming they can't sign him. Would the Mets be willing to pony up the bonus money to keep him away from Georgia Tech? If so, we can thank the Boras Factor for what would have been a pretty good draft day considering the Mets have only one of the first 116 selections.
Dan Troy is a Met fan currently exiled in Sacramento, CA. Feel free to e-mail any questions or comments (firstname.lastname@example.org).