Friday, January 26, 2007

Mets Top Prospects 30 Years Ago - ADDENDUM

I think it is only fair to point out that the 4 best "prospects" the Mets had in 1977 had already played a little in the majors, thus disqualifying them from the list. Those players were Lee Mazzilli, John Stearns, Bruce Boisclair and Nino Espinosa. Presumably, all would have been listed ahead of Roy Jackson if they were eligible. I also remember Jackson Todd as a well-regarded prospect at that time and I'm not sure why he didn't make the list. Also, in the infamous Tom Seaver deal in 1977, the Mets acquired the Reds' #1 prospect in Steve Henderson, as well as #6, Dan Norman.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Mets Top Ten Prospects - 30 Years Ago

In retrospect, as good as the 1967 crop proved to be, including Seaver, Ryan, Koosman, and Boswell, the 1977 edition of the Mets' prospect list was a pretty good portent of the lean years to come. The list actually produced just one good future major leaguer - Neil Allen. He did a decent job as a reliever, but his greatest value to the Mets was as the key player used to acquire Keith Hernandez. A few of the others made the big leagues, but did little for the Mets. Top hitting prospect Marshall Brant had a cup of coffee in the majors after the Mets let him go, but he basically stalled at AAA. Top pitching prospect Roy Jackson was eventually traded for Bob Bailor, who was later part of the trade for Sid Fernandez. But probably the most fascinating future belonged to Ed Cipot, who became an actor after retiring from baseball, appearing as a New York Knight in The Natural and was later ordained as a Catholic priest !

Here then is the Mets' Top 10 Prospect List for 1977 from "Baseball Scouting Report -1977".

1. Roy Jackson - Will be ready for big league rotation with one more solid year in minors. One of best pitchers in Texas League, needs a year in AAA.
2. Marshall Brant - Big, slow power hitter. Bat may take him far. Needs to make better contact, but has chance for long big league career. Pencil him in as Mets' first baseman of the future.
3. Juan Berenguer - Hard thrower, but still very wild. May develop into big league reliever. Needs work.
4. Butch Benton - High draft pick had poor year defensively, leading Midwest League in errors by a catcher and passed balls. May move to first base, but doesn't hit enough to make it unless his catching skills develop. Still in Mets' plans. Should improve.
5. Ed Cipot - Sweet-swinging lefty hitter, makes better contact than Brant and will eventually battle him for Mets' first base job. Can also play outfield.
6. John Pacella - Shows good stuff, but inconsistent. Might make majors in a couple of years.
7. Neil Allen - Good curve, raw, but good arm and could come fast.
8. Juan Monasterio - Good outfielder. Needs 3 years before he gets his shot at the big leagues. Needs to hit more.
9. Dave Von Ohlen - Raw lefty with potential. Decent stuff. A few years away.
10. Cliff Speck - Not coming along as expected. Just fair in all aspects. May pitch in big leagues, but more likely to top out at AAA.

Mets Memories - The Ones Who Got Away # 1 Paul Blair

In their long history, the Mets have had more than their share of young players who were dealt away and became stars with other teams. Nolan Ryan and Amos Otis are probably the 2 names mentioned most often. And the trading of future MVP's Kevin Mitchell and Jeff Kent were in retrospect, major mistakes, too.

But the very first star the Mets let get away was Paul Blair who became nothing less than the premier centerfielder in the American League for 10 years while the Mets were constantly trying to fill the void. The Mets tried Jim Hickman, Johnny Lewis, Billy Cowan, and Don Bosch among others before landing Tommie Agee to fill the role nicely for a couple of years. Then, the drought began again with the likes of Don Hahn, Dave Schneck, Jim Gosger and Del Unser getting most of the playing time in centerfield while Blair and then Otis were still among the best centerfielders in the game.

Blair had always been a shortstop, until he got into the minor leagues. The Orioles made him a full-time outfielder, and he quickly became the top non-pitching prospect in their organization. The Dodgers refused to sign Blair out of high school, because they thought he was too small to make it the big leagues. He was signed by the Mets originally, for a $2,000 bonus. He played one year for the Mets' Santa Barbara club in the California League in 1962, batting .228 while playing both infield and outfield.

The Mets didn't have many prospects following the 1962 season, so their failure to protect Blair by putting him on the 40-man roster is tough to excuse. Obviously, the Orioles saw something in him that the Mets didn't and drafted him as a first-year player for $8,000 while the Mets were still searching for anyone who could play centerfield.

Blair went on to have an excellent career. While his hitting was never his strong suit, in 1969, Blair hit .276 with 26 HR's and 76 RBI. Oddly, the exact HR and RBI totals that Tommie Agee put up for the Mets, and with a better average than Agee. And of course, Blair had a much longer and more consistent career than Agee. So, letting Blair go was a mistake of major proportions. Especially when you figure that if the Mets had kept Blair, there would have been no reason to make deals for Cowan, Bosch, or Agee. So, the Mets could have used what trading chips they had for help in other areas.

When you talk about the ones that got away, no doubt Nolan Ryan will head that list, but Blair should be right behind him.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Mets Memories 1964 - Ron Hunt, Pete Rose and Bobby Klaus

In the 1963 NL Rookie Of The Year voting, the top two were both second basemen - Pete Rose of the Reds and Ron Hunt with the Mets. Neither had been expected to even make it to the big leagues that season. Rose had just finished a great season in the minors, but it was at Class A Macon. Hunt was a conditional purchase from the Braves after a good season in the Texas League. Going into the 1963 season, veteran Don Blasingame was the incumbent for the Reds and Larry Burright, who had just come over from the Dodgers was expected to win the Mets' 2B job.

In 1964, Hunt surpassed Rose (very temporarily) when he was voted as starter on the NL All-Star team which was played at Shea Stadium. Hunt had an outstanding year, finishing the season at .303, and being named the second baseman on the post-season Sporting News All-Star team as well. Hunt and Rose remain forever linked for another less-remembered reason. Despite their great rookie years, both were briefly supplanted by Bobby Klaus.

Klaus had been the All-Star second baseman in the Pacific Coast League and certainly seemed ready for the majors, but the Reds weren't yet prepared to move Pete Rose to another position. Klaus had a reputation as a great defensive second baseman and a decent hitter. Rose began the 1964 season struggling to get his average above .220. So the Reds gave Bobby Klaus a brief shot at the job. But on June 27th and 28th, Rose had 8 hits in 9 at bats, raising his average from .214 to .240 and although he did go back into a slump for a while, it was clear that the Reds were sticking with Rose.

Meanwhile, Klaus still seemed like a pretty good prospect. Now, the Mets of 1964 certainly needed a lot of help. But if there was one spot that seemed to be in good hands, it was surely second base. Yet less than 2 weeks after Ron Hunt started the All Star game, the Mets purchased Bobby Klaus from the Reds, immediately installed him at second base, and moved Hunt (who had played some third base in the minors) over to third. I'm not sure how Hunt took this, but to Met fans it seemed like a pretty stupid move at the time. The experiment lasted about a week, at which time, Hunt moved back to second and Klaus moved to third. Even though he hit around .220, pretty bad no matter how good his defense may have been, Klaus hung around for another season and filled in when Ron Hunt suffered through an injury-filled season in 1965, but was eventually dealt away when Hunt returned. Bobby Klaus had a fairly brief and undistinguished major league career, but in one season he was given a shot to replace both Pete Rose, who of course, went on to become baseball's all-time hit leader, and Ron Hunt, the Mets' all star second baseman and their best and most popular player of that era.

Was this a case of scouting reports being given more credence than on-field performance ? Did the Mets really think that Hunt's future was at third base ? Was Hunt really a much worse fielder than I remember ? If anyone can recall more about this move, please leave a comment.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Mets Memories - 1964

In 1964, their third year of existence, the Mets moved from the dilapidated old Polo Grounds to brand new Shea Stadium in Flushing Meadows. This was especially good news for me, because while getting to the Polo Grounds meant taking a bus and 2 subway lines, Shea Stadium was either a long walk or an easy bus ride down 108th Street for me.

I went to a lot of games that year, most notably the Father's Day doubleheader against the Phillies who looked pennant-bound at the time, where Jim Bunning pitched a perfect game in the opener and then, almost equally surprising to me, 18-year old Rick Wise beat the Mets in the second game. And then there was the all-star game, the only one I've ever attended, where the Phillies' Johnny Callison won the game with a 9th inning home run. Also significant about that game was that the Mets' Ron Hunt was the starting second baseman, the first Met to legitimately make the all-star team. And if you think it was a hometown vote, Hunt was also the all-star 2nd baseman on the 1964 post-season team as chosen by the Sporting News.

1964 may have been Hunt's best year wih the Mets, but it was a really disappointing one for the team. They won only 53 games, 2 more than the year before despite adding proven major leaguers like George Altman and Jack Fisher, getting a solid .300 year out of Joe Christopher, and fielding much more of a set lineup than they ever had before.

Two names, since lost to history, stand out in my mind in conjunction with the disappointment of 1964: Bill Haas and Bobby Klaus. Next post will discuss Klaus. Here's the story on Haas.

Following the 1963 season, the National League, realizing how badly they had treated the Mets and Houston in the original expansion draft, decided to hold a "special draft" where once again each of the established teams could protect a set number of players in their organization and all the rest were subject to selection by the Mets and Houston.

The buzz leading up to the draft was that there weren't a whole lot of good players to take, but there was one gem that both the Mets and Colt .45's/Astros (I'm not sure exactly when the name change occurred, so I'll keep calling them Houston) couldn't wait to get their hands on. After the Mets won the coin toss and got to pick first, Houston reportedly offered all of their other picks in exchange for the right to pick first. The Mets stood their ground and made the pick - Bill Haas.

And who was Bill Haas ? Well, he was a first baseman in the Dodger organization, who had hit over .300 with power at both the A and AA levels in 1963 and was considered a future star. There was even some speculation that Haas would start the 1964 season for the Mets at first base. But Haas never made the majors, hit in the low .200's in AAA ball for the Mets, hit around .250 with middling power in AAA the following year and was soon out of baseball. Not the first failed prospect for the Mets, nor the last, but other than seeing his face on a Topps rookie card, I never saw or heard about Haas again.

And the rest of that special draft ? Houston took Claude Raymond, the Mets took Jack Fisher and that was it. In retrospect, Haas may not have been regarded as a can't miss prospect after all, but the point was that he was indeed a prospect with "star potential" whereas most of the other available players were proven mediocrities. Raymond was a decent major league relief pitcher, both before and after he was picked by Houston and Fisher was a competent starter. But both second division teams were looking for a future star and Haas was considered the one player who just might be it. Of course, he wasn't. Not even close.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Early Years - How The Braves Helped The Mets

Those early Mets teams were awful, of course, but they would have been even worse if not for Milwaukee Braves GM John McHale who regularly sent his team's excess talent to the Mets, both young and old, usually in return for cash considerations or players of minimal value. Not every one worked out, but those who did certainly made a difference. Here are some examples of players who came over to the Mets from the Braves between 1962 and 1965 :

1. Frank Thomas - Shortly after the expansion draft, the Braves sent Thomas to the Mets for cash and a PTBNL (Gus Bell). Thomas was the Mets' first and only true power hitter in the early years, clubbing 34 HR's in 1962.

2. Ron Hunt - Sold to the Mets after hitting over .300 in the Texas League in 1962, Hunt became the Mets' best player in 1963 and their first legitimate all-star in 1964. More about Hunt in a future post.

3. Carl Willey - A once highly regarded pitching prospect who was sold to the Mets before the 1963 season. He was probably the Mets' best pitcher that year, with a 9-14 record and 3.10 ERA and figured to be a mainstay of the rotation for a few more years. Unfortunately, Willey broke his jaw when he was hit by a line drive off the bat of Gates Brown in a spring training game in 1964, and that was basically it for his career.

4. Roy McMillan - The veteran shortstop was traded to the Mets during the 1964 season for Jay Hook. Although McMillan batted just .214 that year, he provided a good glove, valuable steadying influence, and significant upgrade from the likes of Al Moran. Mc Millan was later named manager of the Mets.

5. Warren Spahn - the greatest Braves' pitcher of all time was sold to the Mets prior to the 1965 season. He was considered the #1 starter for the Mets when the season began and also served as pitching coach. It didn't turn out well for the Mets (see my previous post on Spahn), but the move illustrated once again that the Braves turned to the Mets first whenever they wanted to move a player.

6. Dennis Ribant - He was the #1 pitcher at AAA Denver when the Braves sent him to the Mets in August of 1964 for veteran Frank Lary. The following year, Ribant became the Mets' first starting pitcher to post a winning record and Lary was sent back to the Mets before the 1965 season began.

7. Hawk Taylor - A one-time $100,000 bonus baby who never made it with the Braves, he was sold to the Mets before the 1964 season. He didn't do that much for the Mets, but he was given the chance at both catcher and outfield.

8. Amado Samuel - In retrospect, not a big name at all, but this shortstop was considered a very hot prospect out of the Dominican Republic in the early '60's with the Braves. He was sold to the Mets after the 1963 season and got a shot at the shortstop job, but didn't cut it.

9. Dave Eilers - He was the best relief pitcher in the minor leagues in 1965 when he was sold to the Mets. His impact was minimal, but he did stick around for a couple of years before going to Houston.

10. Gary Kolb - he came to the Mets in a trade for Jesse Gonder and was given a shot at the centerfield job. He was later dealt to the Pirates along with Ribant for Don Bosch and Don Cardwell.

After a while, it got to the point where I would check the Sporting News for the Braves' minor league stats as well as the Mets' when I was looking for potential Mets' prospects.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Mets Memories - Ron Swoboda

To most younger Mets fans with a sense of history, Ron Swoboda will always be remembered for his great catch and clutch hits that helped the Mets win the 1969 World Series against Baltimore. But for those of us who remember when he first came up in spring training of 1964, Swoboda represented great hope. Prodigious power, loaded with potential, hard working, bursting with charisma, and yet in need of a lot of experience.

Signed to a $30,000 bonus contract out of the University of Maryland, Swoboda first attracted manager Stengel's attention by hitting some monumental home runs in intra-squad games in spring training in 1964. "Suhboda hits the ball over buildings", Stengel said and was further (likely mis-)quoted as saying that the young slugger could be to the Mets what Mickey Mantle was to the Yankees. Of course, this was rather unrealistic, because aside from his power, Swoboda had none of the skills that Mantle possessed. But it didn't seem improbable that Swoboda could become say, another Ralph Kiner, good for 40 or more home runs and 100 rbi's a season, even if his defense was barely acceptable.

Swoboda, as a 19-year old with no professional experience, started his pro career at AAA Buffalo in 1964 and was later sent down to AA Williamsport. His numbers weren't spectacular, but a combined 17 home runs and 72 rbi's at the minors' highest levels for someone so green was impressive. Back then, for some reason I never understood, after a player had spent his first year in the minor leagues, the major league team had to carry him on their 25-man roster the following season, or risk losing him to amother organization that could send him out. This rule accounted for the major league status of such otherwise unqualified Mets players as Ron Locke, Jim Bethke, and Danny Napoleon, among others. Occasionally, there was a player who had to be carried under this rule who proved he was ready for the big leagues. Tony Conigliaro was perhaps the best example of this. Larry Dierker was another.

Anyway, the point is, that the Mets knew that Swoboda would be part of the big club in 1965 even though his fielding was still brutal and his judgment of the strike zone, on defense and on the base paths could have all benefited from further minor league seasoning.

And so it was, in 1965, Swoboda, playing a full season with the Mets, although batting just .228, hit 19 home runs, many of them prodigious shots into the left field parking lot. If Swoboda, who appeared to be a truly dedicated player could improve his defense and learn the pitchers around the league, the possibility of stardom was definitely there. Worst case scenario it seemed would be a shaky rightfielder who'd still be good for 25 homeruns and 80 + rbi's and couldn't the Mets build around someone like that ?

For whatever reason (but likely the pitchers around the league adjusted to him a lot better than he adjusted to them), Swoboda never even approached the 19 homeruns he hit as a rookie. In his second season, he hit just 8. Then, he'd hit between 9 and 13 a year. And although he worked hard to improve his defense, he was always capable of breaking your heart. I still remember crying myself to sleep the night Swoboda muffed a flyball against the Cardinals with 2 outs in the ninth inning, causing 3 runs to score, and turning a sure win into a crushing defeat.

In 1969, of course, things sort of came together for Swoboda, leading to his memorable performance in the World Series. His regular season numbers were nothing special, 9 homeruns and a .235 average, but he did have some big games, notably aginst Steve Carlton, and of course, he was an instrumental piece of the Miracle.

Swoboda played one more season with the Mets before the organization gave up on him, sending him to the Expos even-up for Don Hahn, who was no more than a defensive replacement type. Mets fans half-expected Ron's career to blossom after he was dealt away, but instead, Swoboda played sparingly without doing much of anything. In the end, his career numbers were sadly disappointing.

But there was 1969, and for that, Met fans will always be grateful. Shortly after his active career concluded, Swoboda surfaced as a sports anchor on CBS Channel 2 in New York. He was very raw at the time and didn't last long, but he's since moved to New Orleans where he's been a popular on-air sports personality for many years. With the Mets' AAA club now relocated in New Orleans, Swoboda who serves as color commentator for Zephyrs games resumes his association with the Mets and that's nice to hear.

For a recent interview with Swoboda, check this out :

Thursday, January 04, 2007

What's The Catch ? The Mets' Strange History With Catchers

In December, the Mets lost their best catching prospect when Jesus Flores, inexplicably left off the 40-man roster was selected by Washington. Sure, he may be offered back to the Mets, but more likely the Nats will carry him as a bullpen catcher and who knows just what he may become. Whether this turns out to be a major gaffe, or a meaningless blip in the scheme of things, it was just one more chapter in the unusual history the Mets have had with the catching position.

In their 45 year history, the Mets' farm system has been able to produce just one solid major league catcher - Todd Hundley. Jody Davis, a Mets' farm system product had some good years with the Cubs, but never played an inning with the Mets. What other catchers did the Mets' farm system contribute to the big club ? Well, there was Ron Hodges, Alex Trevino, Duffy Dyer, Ed Hearn, Ronn Reynolds, Vance Wilson, Barry Lyons, Jason Phillips, Mike Fitzgerald, Johnny Stephenson. Some contributors there, but mostly as backups.

Several times the Mets made catchers their top pick in the amateur draft. Steve Chilcott, Butch Benton, and John Gibbons were all colossal disapppointments. Yet, despite this failure of the farm system, catching has been one of the Mets' most solid positions through the years, thanks to a series of excellent trades. And probably the best trade the Mets ever made involved giving up a catcher produced by their system. So, it is a rather unusual history.

Look at the trades the Mets made to acquire their regular catchers :

In 1965, the Mets traded rhp Tom Parsons for Jerry Grote, who was the Mets' regular catcher for the next 11 years. When it was clear that farm system products Ron Hodges, Jay Kleven, and Luis Rosado weren't capable replacements for Grote,
John Stearns came along with Del Unser and Mac Scarce from the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for Tug McGraw, Don Hahn and Dave Schneck on December 3, 1974. Sure, McGraw was missed, but Stearns filled the Mets' catching spot for 6 years.

While farm system product Mike Fitzgerald served as the Mets' #1 catcher in 1984, he was packaged along with Hubie Brooks and Floyd Youmans to obtain the great Gary Carter. After Ed Hearn surfaced as a backup in 1986, the Mets used him in possibly their best trade ever to get David Cone. After Carter's tenure, the likes of Barry Lyons (farm system product), Mackey Sasser and Rick Cerone held down the position until the one and only solid catcher the system would ever produce, Todd Hundley, was ready to step in. Hundley did a great job for several years before he was injured and the Mets' deal for Mike Piazza (for Preston Wilson, Geoff Goetz, and Ed Yarnall) made Hundley superfluous.

The Mets were able to trade Hundley in a 3-team deal for Armando Benitez and Roger Cedeno, two players who in retrospect were hated by most Mets' fans, although each had a couple of solid seasons while Hundley never panned out for the Dodgers. When Piazza's contract ran out, the Mets wisely dealt for Paul Lo Duca, continuing their tradition of solid deals for catchers.

As of today, there isn't a single catcher in the Mets' farm system who is regarded as having major league potential with the bat. So, who'll be the next in line ?

Monday, January 01, 2007

Mets' All-Time Homegrown All Star Team

There have been many all-time Met teams listed in the past, but most of those include a few players such as Keith Hernandez, Howard Johnson, and Mike Piazza who were acquired in trades. So here's an all-time 25-player Mets team made up strictly of players who came up through the Mets' organization. It doesn't include players nurtured in the Mets' organization who enjoyed their best years elsewhere, such as Nolan Ryan. I was surprised how tough it was to fill out the roster. Was Ron Hodges really the second best catcher ever developed in the Mets' system in 45 years ?(Well, Jody Davis was certainly better, but that was after he left the Mets' organization.)

Starting Pitchers - Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden, Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack, Bobby Jones, Craig Swan
Bullpen - Tug McGraw, Roger McDowell, Doug Sisk, Aaron Heilman, Randy Myers
Catchers- Todd Hundley, Ron Hodges

Infield - Ed Kranepool, Edgardo Alfonzo, Bud Harrelson, David Wright, John Milner, Jose Reyes, Hubie Brooks

Outfield - Darryl Strawberry, Cleon Jones, Mookie Wilson, Len Dykstra, Lee Mazzilli

I found it most interesting that although the bullpen has been one of the great strengths of every good Mets' team, almost all of the team's best relievers came in trades or as free-agent signees.