The U Files Case #15: The Precious Prospects

The Mets have made it painfully clear that theirs is a "win-now" philosophy, often with painful results. Such an approach often bodes poorly for the fate of a farm system. Indeed, the Mets traded prospects that include A.J. Burnett, Preston Wilson, and Alex Escobar in deals for Mike Piazza, Al Leiter, and Roberto Alomar. The first two trades were vital to the run the Mets made in 1999-2000.

Now that the Mets have exhausted their recent go at it, it's time to set our sights on the next era of Mets baseball.

Two fortuitous signings and a fit of good drafting have resurrected the Mets minor leagues to the point that it's now an average farm system. Five players lead the charge, namely pitchers Aaron Heilman and Scott Kazmir, shortstop Jose Reyes, catcher Justin Huber, and third baseman David Wright.

None of the hitters project to massive power; indeed none of the prospects besides Kazmir is a world-crushing talent. However, the Mets have the immense good fortune to possess prospects of high positional value. Shortstop and catcher are two of the positions where it is most difficult to field a good hitter. Further, the Mets will have the benefit of good production at below market value at these positions for several years. With the money spared thus, it should not be difficult for any general manager worth his salt to fill in the corner positions with good hitters. If the Mets play their cards right, they can cash in on a golden opportunity to boast a strong offensive club. For the same reason, the Mets should be loath to trade Huber and Reyes.

These prospects counter their lack of immense talent with their lack of glaring weaknesses. All three position players have their head in the right place. All have good plate discipline, particularly Wright. Each of the batters has posted prodigious numbers of extra base hits, some of which will become home runs. All are at least average defensively. Reyes is a defensive standout at a critical defensive position; also he has excellent speed and loves to use it. Wright, while not graced with the gift of speed, is an excellent base runner and an able base stealer. Heilman, should he only become the least he projects to be, will still eat innings. As for Kazmir, nobody would care if he had any weaknesses. He is one of the few with the talent to be a truly dominating pitcher.

With the exception of Scott Kazmir (a high school pitcher), none of these prospects carry a particularly high degree of risk. A good batting eye bodes well for the future of a position prospect, and none of the hitters has posted an alarming strikeout to walk ratio. Reyes experienced a sharp drop in walks and an increase in strikeouts upon his mid-season promotion to AA, however this can be attributed to trouble adjusting to a higher level. He had posted a strikeout to walk ratio of 35 to 30 in A-St. Lucie. The prior year, he displayed excellent discipline in drawing 20 walks in 132 AB. Heilman already displays a degree of control unusual in young power pitchers. Also, he has limited the number of home runs he has allowed. His 132-44 (3.00) strikeout to walk ratio is quite promising.

2002 first round pick Kazmir automatically carries a degree of risk, as his arm is still young. The Mets will have to take care in bringing him along. There is no major weakness in his pitching game. For a power pitcher, he too has exhibited remarkable control. His strikeout rates and strikeout to walk ratios have been otherworldly. He pitched but 18 innings in his first professional season, but they were some of the best innings ever pitched. He walked 7 in those 18 innings; of those 7, four came in his first appearance and can be attributed to nerves. He struck out 34 batters in posting a cozy 17 strikeout rate per nine innings. He did not allow a home run. He allowed but 5 hits. His ERA was 0.50.

Jose Reyes was signed out of the Dominican Republic in spring of 2000, in the best free agent signing by the Mets since that of Mike Piazza. He's been the youngest player in every league he's played in, and has still posted excellent numbers. I've already brought up his good batting eye. While he has not demonstrated great home run power, he's hit enough doubles and triples in the gaps that he should have no trouble popping some out once he puts on some weight. In 563 AB combined between A-St. Lucie and AA- Binghamton in 2002, Reyes slugged 8 home runs, 26 doubles and 19 triples. NYFansonly prospect guru Calvin Young has reported that Reyes has learned to hit the curveball in the air. He stole a combined 58 bases in 82 tries, a success rate of 71%.

Justin Huber signed as an international free agent in July 2000. He had only 159 AB in 2001, but posted an On Base Percentage of .415 and slugged .528. In his first full season in 2002, he posted an OBP of .408 in 330 AB at A- Cap City and an OBP of .370 in 100 AB at A- St. Lucie. In each case, his OBP was at least 100 points higher than his batting average, partly because he was hit by a pitch 29 times. He drew 56 walks in 430 AB, striking out 99 times. He hit a combined 14 home runs and 24 doubles. His defense is raw, but the tools are there. He has a good arm, and blocks pitches in the dirt and home plate well. As he stands 6-5, he should be able to add quite a bit of weight.

David Wright was drafted in the supplemental round between the first and second rounds in 2001. The lifelong Mets fan is a very advanced hitter, demonstrating an exceptional eye and able to make adjustments and drive the ball to all fields. He drew 76 walks in 496 AB, though he struck out 114 times. This led him to an OBP of .367, excellent considering his .266 average. He slugged 30 doubles, 2 triples, and 11 home runs. Though possessed of average speed, he stole 21 bases in 26 attempts, succeeding 81% of the time. Defensively, he moves well and has a good arm. His on base and slugging percentages will get a boost as his batting average increases.

Aaron Heilman was drafted in the first round of the 2001 draft. A polished pitcher out of Notre Dame, he has a strong 6-2, 220 lb frame. In 96.2 innings at AA- Binghamton, he struck out 96 batters and walked 28. His ERA at AA of 3.82 is higher than it should be considering his good peripheral numbers. His numbers declined when he was promoted to AAA Norfolk. His one weakness at this point is a lack of a good secondary pitch - a changeup. He won't replicate the success he had at AA until he develops this pitch.

All these players project to be above average at their position. Reyes, Huber, and Wright should post high OBP, and good power numbers. All should hit many doubles, Reyes adding an ungodly sum of triples. Wright and Huber have a good shot to hit 25-30 home runs once they grow into themselves. All will play good defense. Reyes and Wright will steal bases. Heilman will pitch to a low 3 ERA if he develops a changeup, or a high 3 ERA otherwise. Kazmir can be one of the best pitchers in baseball. Surrounded with corner outfielders that can actually hit and a first baseman weighing less than 280 lbs, that's not bad at all for the core of a team. All we can hope for is that the Mets aren't as burdened with bad contracts when these kids are ready as they are now.

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