A few days ago, Ted Berg suggested that the Mets have done a poor job in the annual amateur draft held each June, and have built their team through free agency. I agree with the latter, but that was an intended strategy. Back in 2004, the Wilpons directed newly hired GM Omar Minaya to “win now”, and all monies and actions flowed toward that goal.
As for the former — stating the Mets didn’t draft well due to budgetary concerns — I have to disagree.
Let’s ignore the fact the Mets have decimated their system via big trades. In recent years, they’ve also been drafting to the so-called slot, which — if it continues — is equally damning for their future. I discuss the slotting system in the video embedded below with MILB.com’s Jonathan Mayo, but briefly: Major League Baseball suggests that, when a highly regarded but likely expensive free agent falls in the draft due to signability issues, no one take him. Of course, only the Yankees, Red Sox and Tigers break the rules, so they’re the only ones that reap the benefits.
Hmm … not sure that the Mets have lost out on anything spectacular by keeping to the slot, as Berg suggests. I don’t mean to pick on Ted, as seemingly everyone in the media has jumped on “the slot” as a buzzword this week.
Let’s take a look at their first-round picks over the past few years, to see if this slot thing holds water.
2004 – Philip Humber
Humber was considered one of the top college pitchers in the draft, and the Mets took him third overall. In fact, it was a tossup among himself, Rice teammates Wade Townsend and Jeff Niemann, Justin Verlander, and Jered Weaver as to who was closest to MLB ready. The Mets passed on Humber’s teammates because both already had arm injuries, Verlander was taken with the choice prior (#2 overall), and there was some concern about Weaver’s California attitude.
The Mets passed up on Philip Hughes and Homer Bailey because they were high schoolers, and the Mets were looking for an arm who could move quickly through the system and help the big league club sooner rather than later. They also passed on Huston Street (40th overall), but at the time no one would have taken Street with the third overall pick. Hindsight being 20/20, the strategy backfired when Humber blew out his elbow. Maybe the Mets should have looked at the overuse of his Rice teammates and expected Humber to break down. Maybe they should have ignored the “win-now” mentality and drafted one of the high schoolers. Maybe they should have gone after one of the better position players, such as third baseman Josh Fields or shortstop Stephen Drew — though both would have been blocked by David Wright and Jose Reyes. Maybe they should have drafted catcher Neil Walker, who has yet to reach MLB. Looking back, Humber was a good choice, and not one based on budget.
2005 – Mike Pelfrey
Pelfrey was considered the most polished college pitcher in the draft, and also the one with the most upside. His 6’7″ frame and 97-MPH fastball were enough to get the scouts foaming at the mouth. There were also multiple scouting reports claiming Pelfrey had a “plus” changeup and curveball that “needed work”, though we’ve yet to see them. Pelf actually “slipped” to the ninth pick overall because of signability concerns. I’ll cite MLB.com:
That he remained available until the ninth selection delighted the Mets, who understood Pelfrey’s availability was tied to the identity — and reputation — of his agent, Scott Boras.
So, while other teams were scared away by Boras, the Mets took a chance and then went deep into their pocket to sign him.
At the time, it was a gutsy move by the Mets, and no one criticized the pick — except those who thought Pelfrey wouldn’t sign, and felt the Mets wasted the pick on someone who would never pitch for the team. Many felt the Mets would take St. John’s closer Craig Hansen, who many thought was MLB-ready. We’re still waiting for him, too.
As it turned out, the Mets passed on Cameron Maybin, Jay Bruce, Jacoby Ellsbury, Matt Garza, and Clay Buchholz, among others. Before you get into a snit over Buchholz, understand he was chosen 42nd overall, from relatively unknown Angelina College — few other teams saw in him what the Red Sox did (or they just got lucky).
2006 – Billy Wagner
The Mets signed Wagner the previous winter, and thus gave up their #1 pick to the Phillies (they chose Kyle Drabek). By the time they chose Kevin Mulvey with the 62nd overall pick, Andrew Miller, Ian Kennedy, Evan Longoria, Max Scherzer, Joba Chamberlain, Tim Lincecum, and many others were long gone. Mulvey was a pretty smart pick — both at the time and looking back now.
My pal Ted Berg wonders why the Mets didn’t take Jeff Samardzija — a first-round talent who was considered unsignable because most believed he’d be playing football for Notre Dame. As it was, Samardzija slipped to the fifth round and the Cubs gave him a huge sum of money to forgo football. That would have been an interesting, out of the box move, but how do we know Samardzija would have signed with the Mets? I think the Mets were aware that they desperately needed to re-stock their farm system — if they weren’t, there were plenty of critics letting them know — and as a result focused on signability.
Oh, and 2006 was also the year the Mets picked Joe Smith. So far, no one chosen after Smith in that draft has made it to MLB. My opinion? The Mets made the most of a bad situation, which might have been slightly better had they picked Samardzija and paid a king’s ransom. But I have a hard time spelling Samardzija so it’s not a huge loss for me.
2007 -Moises Alou, Eddie Kunz, Nathan Vineyard
Because of their fabulous 2006 record, the Mets wouldn’t have chosen until the 29th pick — but they gave that up when they signed Alou. So, they don’t choose until the 42nd pick, and take a guy they think will be on a Joe Smith-like fast track. It was a good plan, except Kunz took all summer to sign and pitched only 12 innings of pro ball. Vineyard was an intriguing choice, a 6’3″ lefty high schooler who hits 91 MPH on the gun.
Two picks after Kunz, the Rangers took a high schooler named Neil Ramirez and handed an “above-slot” bonus. Maybe the Mets could have taken Ramirez and given him the dough. But again, the Mets didn’t have a true first-round choice, and were perceived to have a very poor minor league system — so it behooved them to take players they knew they could sign with their high picks. I don’t have access to signing bonuses beyond that first round, so don’t know if the Mets missed out on anyone else. What I do know is that Ramirez was the only player available to the Mets who signed “above-slot”.
2008 – Ike Davis, Reese Havens, Bradley Holt
After two years without a true first-round choice, the Mets get two plus a supplemental choice. We won’t know if they keep to slot until the players are actually signed, so it’s moot to include this year’s draft at this time. However, I did want to mention that Davis appears to be a logical choice, as he is an Adam Dunn-like talent who could very well become the Mets’ top first base prospect the day he signs. I don’t know enough about Havens to have an opinion, and Holt looks like another Pelfrey — a tall college pitcher who throws a 96-MPH fastball but has no secondary pitch.
Now that we’ve looked at the first rounders of the past few years, the question is, have the Mets hurt themselves by staying to the slot? I’m not sure, because I don’t have access to signing bonuses on players taken in later rounds — and this is supposedly where the “rich teams” (i.e., Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs) have had an advantage. If the Mets have done as many claim and stayed within the slotting system, maybe they’ve done so because it makes good sense. Generally speaking, these “over slot” bonuses go to high school kids who are thought to have first-round talent, but are also thought to be “unsignable”. Local boy Rick Porcello was an excellent example from 2007 — he was a high schooler who would have been one of the first five picks but slipped to the end of the first round because Scott Boras was his agent. Had the Tigers not taken Porcello, and the Mets had a shot at him by the time they drafted, maybe they would have drafted him and signed him “over slot” — we’ll never know.
We do know that in 2007, the Yankees doled out million-dollar bonuses to high school infielders and later-round picks Bradley Suttle and Carmen Angelini, while the Mets “stuck to the slot”. It’s too early to tell whether those youngsters will replace A-Rod and Jeter, but few scouts saw either as first-round talents. In any case, we can’t compare the Yankees’ actions to the Mets — they may both be in New York, but the Yankees have much deeper pockets. What we can do, however, is consider that while the Mets may be sticking to the “slot” in the June draft, they are also investing heavily in Latin American free agents. Huge signing bonuses were given to Fernando Martinez, Francisco Pena, Wilmer Flores, and others. So what they’re not spending on the draft, they’re spending on free agents — and perhaps they have only one budget for amateur players.
Let’s give the organization another year or two to see how the talent pans out. I’m not convinced the state of the Mets’ farm system is due to staying in the slot.