Monday, August 29, 2005

The Mets And The Amateur Draft - 1965

In 1965, baseball went to a draft system in which all eligible amateur players were selected in reverse order of record from the previous year - a system that had been used effectively in pro football and the NBA for many years. The idea was to keep bonuses down by preventing bidding wars and at the same time to give the poorer teams a chance to become competitive. The system worked very well until just recently when agents such as Scott Boras established asking prices for their top amateur clients that caused teams that were both talent-poor and money-poor to bypass them in favor of more signable players. But, it's hard to argue with the original premise of the draft when the teams that had the first selections in the first 2 drafts, namely the Kansas City/Oakland A's and New York Mets became competitive and, in the A's case, dominant in the years following the draft. The A's, in fact, could have been a true dynasty, if it wasn't for owner Charles O. Finley deciding to cut back and rebel against high salaries and attempt to trade off practically every key member of his championship teams.

But this blog is not about the Oakland A's, but about the Mets, and this post is specifically about the 1965 draft. With the second pick in the draft, following the A's making the obvious #1 selection in Rick Monday (who became a good major league player, but not as good as a lot of players taken much later in the draft), the Mets made the consensus selection as the number 2 pick in lefty pitcher Les Rohr, a high schooler out of Montana. To say the Mets could have done better would be obvious - Johnny Bench was available, but everyone passed on him at least once and some teams twice - but most of the players drafted right after Rohr turned out to be no better. Ray Fosse was probably the best of the first rounders, but here are some others - Ken Plesha, Rick James (no, not "Super Freak"), Doug Dickerson, Rick Grant, Bill Burbach.

Rohr was a big, strong lefty with a big motion - kind of a lefty Gary Kroll. Armed with a big bonus and not much experience, Rohr was fast-tracked through the minor leagues and came up to the Mets for parts of the 1967, 1968, and 1969 seasons, winning a total of 2 games. Rohr never had a really good season in the minor leagues, either. He had size and stuff, but never learned how to pitch. A bad choice, for sure, but the Mets did get some good ones in subsequent rounds. My next installment looks at the rest of the Mets' 1965 draft and the one future superstar they selected.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Power Hitting Prospects of The Early 1960's

Over 44 years, the Mets have done an abysmal job in developing power hitters in their organization. Of course, there was Darryl Strawberry and David Wright looks like a real good one, too, but that's been about it.

Back in the early '60's, the Mets thought they had some potential sluggers in Ed Kranepool, Ron Swoboda, Greg Goossen and Danny Napoleon.

Of course, just about every Mets fan knows about Kranepool and Swoboda, although younger fans may not know how much they were hyped when they first came up. Although Kranepool lasted for years and years with the Mets and both he and Swoboda were integral parts of the 1969 Miracle Mets, neither ever became the stars they were expected to be, and other than a few prodigious clouts by Swoboda, neither showed signs of the power they were expected to supply. Kranepool's best home run output in a season was 16, while Swoboda hit 19 in his rookie year, but never came close again, once pitchers figured him out.

The lesser known Goossen and Napoleon were also considered major long-ball prospects. Napoleon had one year in the New York Penn League where he either won, or came close to winning the triple crown and was forced onto the major league roster the following year by the same stupid rule that required the Mets to carry Ron Locke, Jim Bethke and Tug McGraw one year after they made their pro debuts. But unlike them, Napoleon was already 23 years old, which probably meant that his big numbers the year before were probably attributable to the fact that he was a 22-year old with college experience playing against 19 and 20-year olds. Had Napoleon been allowed to progress step-by-step through the farm system, who knows if he may have had a better career. But, rushed to the big leagues, other than one big triple that won a game for the Mets, he did little to prove he belonged. He played for awhile in the minor leagues after that cup of coffee, but was rarely mentioned as a prospect again, either with the Mets or the Cardinals, to whom he was subsequently traded in a big package deal. He NEVER hit a homerun in his big league career.

Goossen was a big catcher who had undeniable power and was a pretty good hitter for average, too, at least in the minor leagues. He came out of the Dodgers' organization as a first-year waiver claim. He did well enough in AAA to get a legitimate shot with the Mets, but never seemed to develop the consistency to stay in the lineup. Plus, it was obvious that the Mets had better defensive options at catcher. After hitting the grand total of 2 homeruns during his Mets career, in early 1969, he was sold to the expansion Seattle Pilots, where he had a .300 season, with 10 HR's in 139 at bats, but that was about it for his career.

Next, I'll look at how the Mets did in the very first free-agent draft, 1965.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Pitching Prospects of The Past - Dillon, Bearnarth, and Gardner

Steve Dillon was a little lefthander drafted out of the Yankee organization who never accomplished much on either the Major or Minor League level. He was with the Mets as a drafted player who had to stay up or be sent back to his original team. I can't say I remember him pitching in any games, although he undoubtedly did.

Larry Bearnarth was a relatively high-profile signee out of St. John's. A big, solidly built righthander who didn't have overwhelming stuff, but who was almost ready for the majors when he signed. If I recall correctly, the Mets sent him to AAA where he had a record of something like 2-13 and a high ERA. Seemed like he wasn't ready, but he quickly became the "ace" of the Mets bullpen over the next three years. Whether Bearnarth would have even reached the big leagues for a cup of coffee weith another organization is questionable. But as early Mets prospects go, he was one of the more successful ones.

Richard "Rob" Gardner was a lefty drafted out of the Twins organization who got a shot at both starting and relieving for the Mets in 1965 and 1966. He had some great games, but they were few and far between. He was traded away to the Cubs for the more experienced lefty, Bob Hendley, who had some bright moments for the Mets. Interestingly, Gardner eventually wound up with the Yankees and had a good season for them in 1972, but then faded.

Next, a look at some early Mets' hitting prospects who didn't quite live up to their hype like Danny Napoleon and Greg Goossen.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Pitching Prospects of the '60's - Before The Amateur Draft Part 2

Anytime the early Mets acquired a pitcher under the age of 30 from another team, he could have been considered a prospect, since they were hungry for any dose of young blood they could find. Three young pitchers who got good shots with the Mets were Tom Parsons, Darrell Sutherland, and Gary Kroll.

Parsons had proven himself in Triple-A with the Pirates organization, but the Pirates of the early '60's had a solid veteran pitching staff headed by Vern Law, Bob Friend, Al McBean, and Bob Veale with Elroy Face in the bullpen. A couple of other promising young pitchers out of the Pirate chain had to go elsewhere to get their shot at the big leagues - Al Jackson with the Mets, and Tom Cheney with Washington. Parsons was tall and thin and didn't throw too hard. He was about average in every way and had a woeful record with the Mets. Something like 2-12. The Mets eventually traded him for a young catcher with Houston who was being blocked from the #1 catching spot by the far more productive and equally young John Bateman. That catcher was Jerry Grote and this was probably the best trade the Mets made to that point. Parsons did nothing for Houston, and Grote, of course, was one of the sparkplugs for the Mets over the next few years, a great handler of pitchers, top-notch defensive catcher and a clutch hitter.

Darrell Sutherland was another stringbean, who somehow wound up with the Mets' AAA team in Buffalo, out of the Phillies organization, and had a terrific record there, something like 10-1. So, as prospects go, this suddenly made him a very hot one. But when the Mets brought him up, he was very ordinary, and thus, a big disappointment. He faded away, eventually being drafted by the Indians, but his major league career was pretty much over.

Gary Kroll came over from the Phillies in the Frank Thomas deal and had carried the "potential" tag for a few years already. The Phillies, of course, were trying to win a pennant in 1964 and badly needed Thomas. At the time, if I remember correctly, they were very reluctant to give up Kroll, who looked like a future star. Kroll was a big righthander with a long windup, some deception, a nice fastball, and a wicked curve. He looked like he could be an ace. He just had to put it all together. He had a couple of decent outings with the Mets, but always seemed to run out of gas fairly quickly. He was sent to Houston after a couple of seasons with the Mets, a huge disappointment.

Next, a few of the other young pitchers who played for the Mets before 1965 like Steve Dillon and Larry Bearnarth.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Pitching Prospects of the '60's - Before The Amateur Draft

Before baseball had a free agent draft and before the Mets produced a bumper crop of talented young pitchers like Seaver, Koosman, Ryan, and Gentry, the Mets had their share of legitimate pitching prospects who didn't quite fulfill their potential, chiefly because of injuries. Here's a look at 4 of the most prominent.

Dennis Musgraves was a College All-American when the Mets signed him to a considerable bonus. He was fast-tracked through AA Williamsport, AAA Jacksonville, and the big club in one season. In his only shot at the big leagues, Dennis posted a remarkable 0.56 ERA in 16 innings which gave hope that he would be the first true pitching star to come through the organization and the #1 starter that every team needs. What happened ? Well, in one start, he hurt his arm, needed 2 elbow surgeries and never got back to the bigs.

Dick Selma was a smallish righthander, brimming with confidence, and possessor of a fastball that Tom Seaver remembers admiring in high school in Fresno. Selma had a great year in the California League for Salinas and got a few shots with the Mets between trips to the minors. He had some outstanding efforts, but never established consistency, and the Mets let him go in the 1969 expansion draft where he was picked by the Padres. He wound up with the Cubs as a bullpen ace for a while, but never really achieved his potential.

Dick Rusteck is a name few Mets fans under 40 probably know at all. When he came up to the Mets, he hadn't been ballyhooed as much as some other prospects, but he'd been dominant in the International League and deserved a shot. If I recall correctly, he was brilliant in his first start (maybe even a shutout ?) then never won another game. What happened ? I don't remember at all.

Grover Powell actually predated all of the above, yet my recollections of him are minimal. I do remember having his 1964 Topps baseball card. He pitched for the Mets in '63 which might have made him the very first real Mets pitching prospect. Powell shut out the Phillies in his first major league start on 8/20/63. Then in his next start a week later at Forbes Field, he was hit in the face by a line drive off the bat of Donn Clendenon. That started his injury woes; Powell never won another game in the majors.

Next, I'll look at some of the highly touted young pitchers the early Mets acquired from other organizations - Darrell Sutherland, Gary Kroll, and Tom Parsons.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Pitching Prospects - Past and Present

With Philip Humber's recent "Tommy John" surgery, another prime pitching prospect now faces a questionable future. This led me to recall some of the Mets' other top pitching prospects who fell far short of expectations. Of course, developing pitching has been the Mets' strength throughout their history with the likes of Seaver, Koosman, Ryan, Matlack and Gooden coming up through the system But there have been many other highly touted young arms who stalled somewhere along the line, whether in Rookie ball like Kirk Presley or in the big leagues like Les Rohr.

Going back to the pre-amateur draft era, there was a strange rule in the Major Leagues for a couple of years that required teams to keep FIRST-YEAR minor league players on the Major league 25-man roster all of the following year or risk losing them through a first-year $8,000 player draft or on "first-year waivers" for the same price. Expansion teams like the Mets and Houston loaded up with their own teenage prospects (Rusty Staub, John Bateman, Ed Kranepool, Ron Swoboda) as well as those they drafted as first-year players (Jimmy Wynn by Houston from Cincinnati, Jerry Hinsley by the Mets from Pittsburgh). In 1964 and 1965, 3 teenage pitchers with no more than rookie league experience were brought to the big leagues and became the Mets' first crop of organization-developed young pitchers. The 3 were Jim Bethke, a righthander, and 2 lefties, Ron Locke and Tug McGraw. First-year draftee Jerry Hinsley from the Pirates also was touted as a "great" prospect who was kept around all season. All were in need of more experience (a lot more) but the Mets didn't want to lose them, and besides, the team clearly needed a dose of young talent.

Of the four, Locke was probably considered most ready to help at the big league level. He had a dominant season in the New York-Penn league and showed poise rare for a youngster. Hinsley was viewed as a future star. McGraw was an engaging lefty who was signed as an afterthought (the Mets were more interested in his older brother, Hank, a catcher who never quite made it), but had pitched extremely well in the Florida Rookie League. Bethke was probably the best of the bunch for the Mets that year, but didn't project as anything more than a middle reliever.

McGraw emerged as a genuine star, both with the Mets and beyond, and became one of the most dominant and popular relievers of the era. The other three seemed to just disappear, although I recall Hinsley having a pretty good year in AA ball and trying to make the big league team again, unsuccessfully, a few years later. Locke and Bethke returned to the minors after their required big-league shot, and I don't even remember their names even coming up again in the Mets' plans.

Next, I'll look at Dennis Musgraves, one of the Mets' most highly regarded prospects before the amateur draft, and Les Rohr, their very first number one draft pick and the consensus best pitching prospect in the nation in 1965.