Sunday, June 17, 2007

Great Mets' Trades of The Past - Hernandez for Allen and Ownbey

As it becomes apparent that the Mets, as currently constituted, will not run away with the NL East this year, Mets' fans are all anxiously anticipating this year's upcoming deals feeling certain that Omar Minaya will plunge into the trade market. Of course, Mets history has given us many more bad trades than good, but let's look on the positive side, beginning with one of the best trades ever made by the Mets, in this case GM Frank Cashen, certainly the best Mets' GM to this point.

The Keith Hernandez trade of June 15, 1983 is explained in detail in one of the finest baseball books I have ever read, White Rat - A Life In Baseball by Whitey Herzog and Kevin Horrigan. As Cardinals' manager/GM, Herzog made some outstanding deals and a couple of real clinkers. Even worse than the Hernandez deal is an earlier one that may rank as one of the worst trades ever - Ted Simmons, Pete Vuckovich, and Rollie Fingers for Sixto Lezcano, Lary Sorensen, Dave LaPoint, and David Green (then considered the best prospect in the game). But back to the Hernandez deal.

As the 1983 season went on, Herzog felt that Keith Hernandez was dogging it. Herzog said he knew nothing of Keith's drug use, but he couldn't believe how lazy Keith was becoming. He wasn't running out ground balls and he seemed to be spending most of his time before games smoking cigarettes and doing crossword puzzles. Other players were complaining to Herzog about Keith's lack of hustle, and Whitey's coaches told him that even though the club was in first place, Hernandez was "poisoning" the whole team. Herzog also thought the Cardinals needed pitching and felt that Hernandez still had excellent trade value and that Hernandez' salary demands for his next contract were going to be far out of line with his value to the team. The Cardinals also had a red-hot minor league hitter in Andy Van Slyke who deserved a chance in the big leagues. So, Herzog decided that moving George Hendrick to first base and Van Slyke to the Cardinals' outfield and dealing Hernandez for pitching help was the way to go.

When Lonnie Smith came forward admitting to a cocaine habit and possibly insinuating that he was not the only member of the team doing drugs, some suspicion arose concerning Hernandez. The Cardinals began shopping Keith, but there were few interested parties. All the other team were scared of his contract and there was a definite buzz of drug rumors. Only Frank Cashen of the Mets showed any interest. The deal was to be Neil Allen who the Cardinals were going to turn into a starter, and the Mets' most promising young pitcher, Rick Ownbey, in exchange for Hernandez. When Cashen agreed, that was it.

Hernandez' initial reaction to going to the Mets was negative and he was pretty sure he would opt out and become a free agent, but the Mets' young talent and Hernandez' quick adjustment to New York City changed his mind, and Keith put his drug problems behind him and became an integral part of a Mets' team that won a World Championship and probably should have won a couple more. Allen faded quickly and Ownbey surprisingly never made it at all, making this one of those one-sided deals the Mets were famous for, only this time it was in their favor.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Taking A Closer Look At Some Past Mets' #1 Draft Choices

Now, that I've completed my review of all of the Mets' #1 amateur draft choices, I thought I'd take a closer look at a few of them. It would be nice if I could see a pattern or general philosophy, but there clearly is none. Some of this lack of pattern can be attributed to the fact that the organization, like most others has gone through many changes, not only as far as General Manager, but also Scouting Director, Regional Scouting Directors, and of course, individual scouts.

In past entries, I've already commented extensively about Rohr, Chilcott, Matlack, and Foli. For purposes of evaluating the choices, I looked at the next few picks to see if the Mets "could have done better". This assumes, probably incorrectly, unless the Mets had the Number 1 pick, that those players who followed the Mets' choices were on the radar. So, it's easy to say that Rich Puig was a poor choice when the next selection was Jim Rice. It would be hard to fathom that the Mets gave equal attention to Puig and Rice and ultimately decided Puig was going to be the better player. It's much more likely that they never saw Rice or saw him on a bad day.

But there's more to it than that. Evaluating a player is extremely difficult for many reasons. Since there are literally thousands of possible draft choices, even if a team has an unlimited scouting budget and the best scouts in the business, it would be impossible to see every player in every game. This is obvious and yet is a pretty good explanation why the draft will always be something of a crapshoot. You could see a player on his best or worst days, a player can be pitched around or even intentionally walked when your scouts are trying to evaluate him. There are just so many other factors not even including the possibility of future injury, which primarily affects pitchers.

Still, you can look at any first round draft pick and say "what were the expectations" ? In 1996, the Mets used their first round pick on Jason Tyner, a college outfielder with minimal power, good speed, solid defense, a fair arm, and the ability to hit for average. Eleven years later, Tyner is a spare outfielder with his third major league team, who depending on whether his bloop hits fall in or his line drives are caught might hit .320 or .220 in any given season. Now, his career has no doubt been more succesful than at last half of the Mets' other first round picks. The problem is that no major league team is going to make a commitment to playing Tyner on a regular basis, because he has zero power and his other tools are not so overwhelmingly impressive. You would always expect to find someone who can do a better overall job. Best case scenario for Tyner, I suppose, would have been developing into a Brett Butler clone. Solid major league player, but worth a first round pick ? I don't think so.

Two years later, the Mets selected a raw high school outfielder named Robert Stratton. He had tremendous power, but throughout his minor league career never hit for a good enough average to rate a major league chance. The Mets actually traded Stratton away as a young player, only to reacquire him before the next season started. Several other organizations took a chance on Stratton after the Mets gave up on him. I have never seen him play, and I cannot find him on any current minor league roster, so I don't know if he's playing in an independent league, in Asia, or has retired. It would appear that uniquely among all Mets' first picks, Stratton was selected solely on the basis of his power. What was his ceiling ? Dave Kingman ? Adam Dunn ?

Another interesting Mets' selection was Al Shirley in 1991. Al was a tools guy -speed, power, arm, but Al struck out way too much and although he'd display his tools at time, he never really learned to hit. He hung around in the minors, getting as high as AA in 1998, but for eight years, he had "potential" that was never fulfilled.

So there are 3 examples - three very different ballplayers, all of whom could be classified as disappointments. You could ask could the Mets have done better and then find someone chosen a few picks later that turned out a whole lot better, but I don't think that really provides an explanation. Fans can only guess why a certain player was taken. Only those who worked for the Mets at the time can answer the question. But obviously, anyone who was chosen first had some glowing scouting reports, and except in rare cases, I tend to doubt that whoever made the ultimate decision had actually seen the player in action.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Amateur Draft Hits And Misses - Part 3

1996 - Robert Stratton. A big, strong powerful hitter who spent lots of years in the minors hitting the long ball and doing little else. Surprisingly, never earned a big league shot. Eric Milton and Gil Meche were taken several picks later.

1997 - Geoff Goetz. Sixth pick. Mediocre minor league pitcher, dealt to Florida. Later first round picks included Michael Cuddyer, Jon Garland, and most notably Lance Berkman who was passed up by 15 teams.

1998 - Jason Tyner. Still in the big leagues after all these years, so maybe not such a bad pick after all. C.C. Sabathia was chosen one pick before, but no one taken soon after Tyner has come close to achieving his level of success.

1999 - The Mets had no first round pick. Their second pick was pitcher Neal Musser.

2000 - Billy Traber. Sent to Cleveland as part of the Roberto Alomar deal. Has battled arm trouble off and on, even since before signing. No obvious "better" picks were available.

2001- Aaron Heilman. Again, considered something of a reach, and then, a bust, Aaron has turned it around with good work out of the pen. So, in retrospect, this was quite a good choice, although Jeremy Bonderman went eight picks later.

2002 - Scott Kazmir. The Mets were fortunate that he fell to them. But, alas, he was dealt for Victor Zambrano. Good choice, bad trade.

2003 - Lastings Milledge. I am still convinced that Lastings will be a star in the major leagues. Whether with the Mets, or elsewhere, we shall see. It will take a few years before we can say whether this pick and the next two were great, ok, or awful.

2004 - Philip Humber. Has already undergone Tommy John surgery and appears to be making a nice comeback. Of course, how good he'll turn out to be is still unknown. It's interesting to note that #1 pick Matt Bush, by the Padres looks to be a bust, while several of the other first-rounders would appear to be top prospects.

2005 - Mike Pelfrey. It's too early to pass final judgement, but frankly, I haven't liked what I've seen. He's already reached the big leagues as have 3 other pitchers taken later in the first round. At this time, it's too early to tell how good or bad this selection was. It's just that the reports on Pelfrey were so good, that when I finally saw him pitch, I was very disappointed, because I don't see a future ace.

2006- Again, no first round pick. Kevin Mulvey at #62 was the Mets' earliest choice. Mulvey appears to be making good progress at AA.

In retrospect, the Mets' draft history has a few notable mistakes, and a few excellent selections. Although we bemoan picks like Chilcott, Thurberg, Presley, Jaroncyk, and several others, every team has a similar history of mistakes. It is interesting to note that some of the choices that were criticized at the time for being made for reasons beyond talent, such as "local boy" Mazzilli or "Mookie's son" Preston Wilson actually turned out to be among the best ones.

Amateur Draft Hits And Misses - Part 2

Continuing my look at Mets' #1 selections year-by-year :

1980 - Darryl Strawberry. #1 pick in draft. Apparently, there was some thought given to taking Darnell Coles or Billy Beane, but in the end, the Mets went with the consensus and selected Strawberry, and it turned out to be the right move.

1981 - Terry Blocker. This was a fascinating draft, full of prospects. The Mets eventually wound up with several of the other first rounders including Ron Darling, Keven McReynolds, and Daryl Boston, all chosen AFTER the Mets took Blocker, as well as Dick Schofield who was taken one pick before Blocker. Terry was a speedy guy who never fulilled his potential.

1982 - Dwight Gooden. With the #5 selection, the Mets definitely got the gem of this draft. Surprisingly, Gooden was considered a bit of a reach by many observers as he was projected to go around the middle of the round.

1983 - The Mets had 3 first round picks and they turned out to be Eddie Williams, Stan Jefferson, and Calvin Schiraldi. There were a lot of highly touted players in the first round, and almost all of them turned out disappointing. Roger Clemens was the #19 selection by Boston, one slot before the Mets took Jefferson. Since the Mets had previously drafted Clemens out of high school, we can only wonder if they would have picked him again if the Red Sox had passed him up.

1984 - Shawn Abner. First choice in the draft. Rumor had it that the Mets were all set to pick Mark McGwire, but wanted a firm commitment that he would sign. When they didn't get it, they went for Abner and McGwire lasted another 9 picks. Imagine the late '80's, early '90's Mets with Clemens and McGwire! Or would they have traded them both to get Kevin McReynolds, as they did with Abner, who never really made it ?

1985 - Gregg Jefferies. Considering this was a late first round pick, it was remarkable in that Jefferies seemed to be player of the year every year throughout his minor league career. About his career with the Mets and beyond, it is a fascinating story which I won't go into here.

1986 - Lee May Jr. A huge disappointment almost from the time he began his minor league career. There weren't many better picks later in the first round. It's interesting to note that the last pick of the second round was Todd Zeile, who soon became the #1 prospect in all of baseball. Before he was chosen, the Mets had already made their second selection, Fritz Polka!

1987 - Chris Donnels. Turned out to be a fringe big leaguer. Craig Biggio had gone 2 picks earlier and Pete Harnisch went a couple later.

1988 - Dave Proctor. A pitcher. Never came close to the big leagues. Later first rounders included Rico Brogna, Ed Sprague, and Brian Jordan.

1989 - Alan Zinter. A catcher when drafted, he was switched to first base and later traded for Rico Brogna. Finally surfaced in the majors 13 years after the Mets drafted him, but not for long. Mo Vaughn was selected just before Zinter, and Chuck Knoblauch right after him.

1990 - Jeromy Burnitz. Considered a reach at the time, but actually a pretty good pick, although his best major league years were the ones he didn't spend with the Mets. Mike Mussina went 2 picks later.

1991 - Al Shirley. One of only 2 of the top 20 picks that year who never made the big leagues. A toolsy outfielder who struck out way too much. Players chosen soon after him included Benji Gil, Allan Watson, and Aaron Sele.

1992 - Preston Wilson. Outstanding choice with #9 pick in draft. Derek Jeter was taken 3 slots earlier, and Johnny Damon 26 picks later, but otherwise no one else in the first round was a better choice. Wilson was, of course, sent to Florida in te Mike Piazza trade.

1993 - Kirk Presley. Pitcher who seemed to have arm trouble from the minute he signed (if not before). Later first round picks included Billy Wagner, Derrek Lee, and Torii Hunter. But Presley did get a few columns written about him being Elvis' cousin, despite never pitching effectively anywhere once he signed.

1994 - Paul Wilson. #1 pick in the entire draft. Expected to be great, despite starting minor league career 0-7. Has come back to show occasional flashes of solid big league pitching between serious injuries. Traded to Tampa Bay before re-surfacing with some success with the Reds. The next pick, by Oakland was Ben Grieve, and everyone expected him to be great, too. Funny how this draft turned out. In retrospect, #12 selection Nomar Garciaparra, who was shunned by 11 teams because he was considered a defensive shortstop who couldn't hit, quickly became the best player to come out of what was considered a strong draft.

1995 - Ryan Jaroncyk. A perfectly awful pick, who quit baseball when he revealed that he hated the game, and was only playing to please his father. He later tried a comeback with the Dodgers' organization (at his father's urging?), but didn't last long there. The next pick in the draft was Juan LeBron and the Mets later traded Joe Randa for him. He never made it, either. Carlos Beltran was taken by Kansas City in the second round, one pick after the Mets took Brett Herbison.

Next up, 1996 - 2006

Amateur Draft Hits And Misses Through The Years

The Mets don't get to pick until the 42nd selection in this week's annual entry draft, which, incidentally will be televised for the first time. For the next few days, I'll review the Mets' first choices through the years.

1965 - Les Rohr. Never developed. Best minor league year was 1969 in the Texas League. By then, the Mets already had a talented young pitching staff and Rohr was already out of the picture. Ray Fosse was available, but overall there weren't many good first round picks.

1966 - Steve Chilcott. Passed up Reggie Jackson. Enough said.

1967 - Jon Matlack. Excellent choice with fourth pick in draft as he turned out considerably better than the three players taken before him.

1968 - Tim Foli. Became a decent major league player, but not what you'd expect from an overall number one. Thurman Munson, Bobby Valentine and Greg Luzinski were available.

1969 - Randy Sterling. Had a cup of coffee with the Mets, but never really dominated in the Minors. Another bad year for the draft. Next choice was Alan Bannister by the Angels who was projected as a power-hitting shortstop, but wound up as a utility man. Don Gullett, chosen 10 picks later was the gem, especially with his quick rise to the big leagues.

1970 - George Ambrow. A high school ss who never signed, went to USC and was an 18th round pick by the Angels 4 years later. Obviously, his stock had fallen considerably and didn't figure to have helped even if he had signed. World Champs had low pick that year. No one chosen in the second round turned out very well, so Mets get a bye here.

1971 - Rich Puig. Awful pick considering the next selection was Jim Rice. Previous pick was Frank Tanana. The rest of that year's first round was terrible.

1972 - Rich Bengston. Another poor pick. Another bad first round overall. The likes of Chet Lemon, Jamie Quirk, and (current Mets' coach) Jerry Manuel were chosen later in the first round, but really no one to be upset about.

1973 - Lee Mazzilli. An outstanding choice with the 14th overall selection. John Stearns, Dave Winfield, and Robin Yount were taken early in the first round, but there were a bunch of never-to-be's chosen between Winfield and Mazzilli, and a lot of bad choices after Maz, so even if Mazzilli didn't turn out to be a superstar, this was a great pick. And don't forget Mazzilli eventually turned into Ron Darling and Howard Johnson.

1974 - Cliff Speck. Righthanded pitcher who labored in the minors for a long, long time. Willie Wilson was chosen with the next pick, and Rick Sutcliffe a few picks later, so the Mets could have done better.

1975 - Butch Benton. He never made it, but this was another downer draft. The best of the first round choices were probably Rick Cerone, Clint Hurdle and Dale Berra.

1976 - Tom Thurberg. Who ??? Not a great first round, although future major leaguers like Bruce Hurst, Mike Scioscia, Leon Durham, and Pat Tabler were all taken later in the first round, so the Mets could have fared better.

1977 - Wally Backman. Took him awhile to develop, but it's hard to fault this selection, as there were a bunch of guys taken before him who never amounted to much.

1978 - Hubie Brooks. Very solid selection with #3 choice in draft. Was close to major league ready when chosen. Had some pretty good years with the Mets before going to Montreal in the Gary Carter deal. Had a decent career. Kirk Gibson was taken 9 picks later, but hard to fault this selection.

1979 - Tim Leary. Second overall pick looked like he was going to be a great one. Leary made the Mets in 1981, only to be injured in his first start on a cold April day at Wrigley Field, then missed all of 1982 with an injured nerve. He moved to Milwaukee in a six-player, four-team trade in 1985 and was 12-12 for the Brewers in 1986 before being traded to Los Angeles with Tim Crews for slugger Greg Brock. Leary started and lost Game Six of the 1988 LCS for the Dodgers, but he pitched well out of the bullpen in the World Series. After the season he received the NL Comeback Player of the Year Award. He was traded to the Reds in mid-1989.

So, among the Mets' 15 first-round picks, there were some real good ones, some terrible ones, and some okay, but could have done better types. Not quite as bad as I would have thought. Of course, Chilcott over Jackson was the worst choice ever and Puig over Rice was a close second.

Tomorrow -the next 15 years, starting with Darryl Strawberry in 1980.