The Lesson of Generation K

This question was emailed to me by “Dan B”:

Hey Joe, I keep hearing that we are basing this whole rebuilding phase around 2014 and our pitching prospects. Well, I lived through 1969 and our pitching prospects won us a World Series. I also lived through Generation K. I look at our current prospects and I see our top minor league pitcher is a guy the Giants gave away for two months of Beltran and another guy coming off of Tommy John surgery. Are these prospects really worth completely tearing down our team and rebuilding around or is this just an excuse not to spend money on the team now?

Dan, based on what we know about the Wilpons’ increasing mountain of debt combined with the actions we’ve seen over the last few months — rather than the doublespeak we’ve been fed — it appears that the “rebuilding phase” is likely an excuse not to spend money on the team now.

Personally, I’m not sold on Zack Wheeler just yet. But let’s pretend that I was sold on the idea that Wheeler is all that he’s cracked up to be: that means — as you suggest — the Mets are basing much of their hope on an extremely volatile, highly projectable, and tiny group of young men. All franchises that found success by building from within did so via strength in pitching, so we won’t even go into the dearth of quality position prospects in the Mets organization. Focusing on their pitching prospects, the cream of the crop is headlined by Wheeler, Matt Harvey, and Jeurys Familia, with subtext provided by Bradley Holt, Michael Fulmer, Robert Carson, and Jenrry Mejia. That’s not enough to bank on when you look back to the “top pitching prospects” of years past — such as the “Generation K” example you allude to.

As we learned from “Generation K”, many things can happen on a young pitcher’s road to the big leagues — most significantly the injury risk, but also other factors such as rate of maturity, psyche, making adjustments, etc. And as long as you bring up Gen K, we should consider this: at the time Paul Wilson, Jason Isringhausen, and Bill Pulsipher appeared on that SI cover in 1996, all three were much, much further along in their development than Wheeler, Harvey, et al. Pulsipher and Isringhausen, in fact, had already experienced half a season in MLB, and Wilson reached — and pitched effectively through 10 games — AAA.

Point being: Gen K, at the time, had comparable if not a higher collective ceiling than Wheeler / Harvey / Familia, AND, had already established themselves at a higher level than the Mets’ current triumvirate of young arms — yet, they still did not come close to reaching their potential in Flushing. In other words, counting on a few impressive AA arms is akin to rolling a pair of dice — there are too many variables to consider right now to build plans around them.

If the Mets had, say, 5 or 6 guys at or near the Wheeler / Harvey / Familia talent level, I might be more optimistic; there would be more room for error. Additionally, I’d want to see more prospects like Holt sprinkled at all levels — big arms with potentially high ceilings but who showed flashes but perhaps needed more seasoning, a new pitch, the right coach, etc. To build a team through the farm system, an organization needs both quality and quantity; sheer volume of arms is necessary to begin a successful, long-term run at providing legit MLB pitching to the big club. The Mets aren’t there yet — not even close. If one of Wheeler, Harvey, or Familia goes down with injury this season, it would have a devastating impact on the future outlook. Consider this: any of those three would have been comparable to Andrew Brackman at the same age, and the Yankees just this winter let go the once highly touted, big righthander — and no one even blinked, because the Bronx Bombers had a dozen “Brackmans” in their system at any one time over the past few years; they could absorb the loss.

So, again, I feel strongly that any story spun around the idea that the Mets will be contenders once Wheeler, Harvey, and Familia are “ready” is flawed. I’ll conclude with this: as recently as 2006 / 2007, many, many people believed that when Citi Field opened, the Mets starting outfield would consist of Fernando Martinez, Lastings Milledge, and Carlos Gomez. And those were outfielders, who are less susceptible to having their futures curtailed by arm injuries. I rest my case.

(Note: BloggingMets addressed this subject in a similar fashion a few days ago.)

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.
  1. Mike B December 22, 2011 at 9:17 am
    AH Finally. I have been screaming this for months, its just so frustrating to watch. Its one thing to build a team you think is going to be good and watch them lose, But watching the Mets build this team for this year and the future is giving me anxiety. Its so bad I cant even look.
  2. Craig Roth December 22, 2011 at 11:39 am
    At last? My brother and I have been talking about this for
    a while now and when we read the mets are interested in
    Oaklands pitcher Gonzalez we were very excited! Its
    not everyday you can get a 26 yr old left handed
    starter who is affordable and under control for the next
    four years who has won over 30 games the last two years
    with an era under 4.00! But the mets would have to give up a couple of our great unproven pitching prospects
    to get a pitcher coming into his prime so I guess Sandy doesn’t remember generation K or the nationals Stephen
    Strasburg for that matter? The Nationals seem willing
    to part with some of their great pitching prospects but not
    the Mets! I wouldn’t trade our prospects for a so-so pitcher
    but Gonzalez is not far from being a number one starter if
    he isn’t already and the mets prospects are one, two,
    or maybe more years away so not making this move
    makes no sense unless they want empty seats at
    Citi Field this year? I’m not impressed with Torres as
    our starting center fielder and lead off hitter and for the
    money you spent on Francisco and Rauch you could have signed K- Rod and used Ramerez, Acosta, Beato, and
    Parnell for the 7th and 8th innings and had a real closer
    who has proven he can do it in
  3. Joe December 22, 2011 at 11:55 am
    Generation K fizzed out and the Mets still were contenders for a few years in what was supposed to be their heyday.

    I don’t know what is going to happen three years from now. I didn’t know what was going to happen after 2006, including that after twice failing on the final day, the team would have years of ineptitude mixed in with a few months of enjoyable ball playing. But, we shall see.

  4. Bill V December 22, 2011 at 12:11 pm
    Harvey and Fullmer have the most upside in the Mets Future and I agree to pkg a couple of the rest and maybe even include (god forbid) a Duda or even Captain Kirk for a pitcher like Gio who you can build around.
  5. Bill December 22, 2011 at 12:49 pm
    But if you trade away all your best prospects to get a core to “build around”, there is nothing to build WITH. Nobody – not a new owner, nobody – is going to spend enough money to effectively rebuild this team in a couple of years. It is going to require rebuilding the farm system, drafting well, and getting lucky. We just had an MVP-type season from Reyes, but it got us nowhere. Two superstars don’t make a successful team – remember Texas when they had A-Rod, at the time the best player in the game?

    To balance this article, remember that pleasant surprises also come out of the farm system – Joe’s analysis assumes that practically everybody disappoints. Murphy can hit better than people thought he would, Ike Davis is all around better than he was projected to be, etc. I expect that a lot of MLB pitchers are outperforming their minor league expectations right now. Remember where Greg Maddux was drafted…

  6. Glenn December 22, 2011 at 1:12 pm
    Unless you are the Yankees where you can buy up everyone else’s players, there is only ONE way to build a team: through development. The “Go out and trade all of your young players and buy up FA’s” is what Omar did. Will that build you a contender? Yes it will, but it will not build you a SUSTAINABLE contender.

    It’s like a team that’s trailing by 2 pts late in the fourth quarter looking at a 55 yd FG. It doesn’t matter that the odds are against them. They have only two choices, kick the FG or lose. That’s it. Alderson is not stupid. He knows that prospects often wash out. But for a franchise that has limited funds, which is EVERY franchise save the Yankees, the Mets must develop and develop and develop. Think of the great teams the past 25 yrs. the Braves, the Sox, the Rays, the Phillies. All of them developed great players and ONLY when they were close did they make smart trades and then go out and sign that final FA. I’m not saying that Wheeler et al will definitely be great. Who knows? but there is no alternative given the Mets payroll constraints. None. You want to call the Wilpon bad owners. Fine, but they aren’t cheap. They had one of the highest payrolls in baseball and it didn’t work. Stupid is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. the Mets cannot buy a championship, they must build it. It will take time and there will be disappointment. The Rays sucked for a decade before getting it right. the Philles sucked forever before getting it right. the Mets will be medicore before getting there. Many players must be drafted, many prospects will fail, many non prospects will surprise us.

    At some point some of you need to grow up. What’s done is done. The Mets have bad contracts and not enough talents. they need to purge the former and acquire the latter and only time will accomplish both. I’m a true fan so I will wait. Braves fans have been where we are, Phillies fans have too and back then both their owners were seen as clowns and jerks until the winning started happening. Even Steinbrenner was regarded as a fool in the 80’s and early 90’s when the Mets owned the city (under the Wilpons I might add).

    I just read an article about irate Giant fans. One yr removed from a WS and those fans are pissed off. Yankee fans are angry because Cashman didn’t buy up Wilson or trade for King Felix. 27 WSC and they’re angry. People need to relax a little.It’s gotten out of hand when we have legions of arm chair GM who couldn’t win at baseball mogul screaming like idiots because their teams wasn’t dumb enough to spend 250mil on Pujols. A little patience is require here. The Mets are rebuilding. Live with it or leave because there is no alternative

    • Joe Janish December 22, 2011 at 11:10 pm
      But, while the Yankees were “buying up” everyone, they were also building a very strong farm system stocked full of arms and position players. And contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t because of giving bonuses “over slot” — which has been so overblown it makes me ill. The Yankees — despite having one of the last picks of every round — have been able to draft well, develop well, and produce both blue-chip and high-level prospects, all while spending more than anyone else on payroll and going to the postseason every year.
  7. Rich December 22, 2011 at 1:18 pm
    I don’t think the Mets are counting on all four (Mejia has as high of a ceiling as the others) being aces at the major league level…rather I think Sandy realizes he doesn’t have the pieces to build a winner right now, so he is looking at 2014, when you have 1-2 of these pitchers hopefully making it, along with the payroll flexibility to add around them. I figure our pitching staff by then will probably be something like Free Agent-Prospect-Niese-Prospect-Gee.

    I also think that the Mets have a little more depth with pitching prospects than you give them credit for…don’t forget, the team thought this year’s draft was particularly deep with pitchers and the team took 5 in the first 5 rounds, 4 of them college pitchers that could be MLB ready to contribute in some way in 2014.

    • Kranepool December 22, 2011 at 2:50 pm
      While Joe J. is right that prospects are just that–a specualtive bet on the future–and even the best pitching prospects can be one pitch away from blowing out their eblow or shoulder. But I agree with Rich: the bet is not that all 4 of Wheeler, Familia, Hrvey and Meija will turn into studs, it’s that any 2 of them cold become legitimate #2 starters and from the core of a solid rotation. Not Seaver and Koosman, who could carry a mediocre lioneup, but maybe Darling and Ojeda. At this point, what else do the Mets have to hope for. Even a new, well-funder owner cannot build a roster consisting mostly of free agents. Those days are gone. Revenue sharing, long-term signings of top young talent by even samll ro mid market teams, fierce bidding among the big market teams, all mean the chance to build your team in an offseason or two is a pipe dream. Not to mention that most of the long-term signings look good for 2 or 3 years and are payroll drags for the last 3 or 4. So, even the Yankees build their roster through a cominbation of developed (or traded) prospects and FAs. If we don’t hope for the most promising of those in the Mets’ pipeline to succeed, what else is left?
    • Joe Janish December 22, 2011 at 11:16 pm
      Re: more depth than I give them credit for — Gaby Hernandez. Kole Strayhorn. Evan MacLane. Deolis Guerra. Yusmeiro Petit. Ryan Cullen. Kevin Deaton. Bobby Keppel. Need I go on?
  8. Mike B December 22, 2011 at 4:10 pm
    I cant take people on here sticking up for the Wilpons, why do the fans have to pay for thier poor judgement with money? In anything in sports I have learned that honesty is the best policy ex Andy Petite vs Roger Clemens steriod use. Come out and tell us your broke and wait 3 years and we are coming back stronger then ever and I am with you. Lie to me and tell me that your building a franchise in NYC on the hopes of prospect we are not going to see for 3 years I am going to be pissed and alienated.

    Yes building a team entirely on FA is as silly like some of you say, but its just as silly to build around prospects that are 3 years away. I am sick of hearing about the Rays, The Rays cant get anyone to go to thier ballpark so they have their own problems.

    You want me to wait 3 years while you play AAAA talent? Why dont you get rid of the 25 $ parking and 8 dollar hot dogs. You wouldnt go see a movie that ran out of money and didnt shoot the end would you well maybe I am a fair weather fan but I am not paying to see a incomplete team.

    • Joe Janish December 22, 2011 at 11:18 pm
      The worst part of the story: three years from now the Mets will not even be scratching the surface of a rebuilding plan. This thing is going to take 5-7 years minimum.
    • Glenn December 23, 2011 at 2:02 pm
      Why do you people assume that Wilpon selling the team will lead to a better owner? You all forget that in the early 90’s the Mets were almost sold for $400 mil to James Dolan, the same James Dolan who until recently ran the Knicks into the ground. the same James Dolan whose Knicks have won less championships than Wilpon’s Mets (1 to none).
  9. Rob December 22, 2011 at 5:13 pm
    For what it’s worth…the Mets will probably finish in last place for the next three or four years, thereby ensuring high first round draft picks. That’s how they’ll restock their farm system and save money at the same time. Just think…all those years of last place finishes will be great for the future. We won’t go to the games, of course…and we probably won’t watch them on television…but we’ll be ensured of one of the best farm systems in baseball. Maybe one of the earlier posters was right when he joked that the Mets were going to fold the major league team and build one of the best minor league teams for meaningful games in August.

    Gosh I hope the Wilpons sell this team soon and move on. Otherwise, it’s going to be a desert in NY.

    • Joe Janish December 22, 2011 at 11:21 pm
      Agreed. And I am SOOOOOO pumped about 2025!!!!
    • Dan B December 23, 2011 at 12:11 pm
      I agree, while we finish in last for the next four years with nobody to watch (can’t wait for the “trade Ike Davis” talk after we trade David Wright), we will stock pile high draft picks because this is a strategy that has work so well for the Pirates. I am sure it has nothing to do with player development and all to do with draft order.
  10. DaveSchneck December 22, 2011 at 11:06 pm
    We are not “rebuilding”. We’re not “giving up” on 2012. We are fielding a “competitive” team that will be “fun to watch”. Our product will match the NYC ticket prices. In fact, we just countered the Nats acquisition with one of our own, Rob Johnson. We’re not putting all our eggs in the next gen K kids.