The Mets, the draft and waiting for the payoff
In his first amateur draft for the Mets in 1980, general manager Frank Cashen used the No. 1 overall pick on a high school corner outfielder with potential star tools -- Darryl Strawberry.
In his first amateur draft for the Mets in 2011, general manager Sandy Alderson used the No. 13 overall pick on a high school corner outfielder with potential star tools -- Brandon Nimmo.
Strawberry made Cashen look clever. Can Nimmo do the same for Alderson?
That is not to say Nimmo is the next Strawberry, but it's a question that may soon begin to generate the start of an answer years from now.
Sometimes waiting pays off, something worth remembering by those judging Alderson for drafting young position players who need time to develop. Once Strawberry debuted with the Mets in 1983, it was clear that his minor league development time had been worth the wait.
Three to four years of seasoning for high school players isn't that long for teenagers to mature on the baseball field.
SInce 1980, there have been 16 high school players drafted No. 1 overall. That list includes Strawberry, Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Alex Rodriguez, Josh Hamilton, Adrian Gonzalez and Joe Mauer. Of the 14 No. 1 picks out of high school from 1980-2011, only Brien Taylor, Matt Bush and Tim Beckham didn't debut in the majors within three years. Bush and Taylor never even made it to the bigs.
And there's a difference between the high school players drafted No. 1 and the ones that aren't.
With free agency looming, the Mets have roster holes to fill. They will choose between doing so through their strong minor league system they've built or via established, outside players. Both routes have risks. Minor league prospects are as likely to wash out as they are to pan out. Free agents often require costly commitments.
"We're not necessarily looking for quick fixes," Mets' vice president for player development and scouting Paul DePodesta said after drafting Nimmo in June 2011. "We hopefully plan on being here for a while and really trying to do this right. We're not going to take a guy just because he might be the quickest mover to the big leagues."
It's certainly no certainty that Nimmo and others will turn into major-leaguers. According to a report by Business Insider that looked at data from 2000-12, less than 15 percent of players drafted in the first and second round make it to major leagues within three years. It jumps to 30 percent within four years and more than 55 percent within five years. Many first-round players never even make it to the big leagues.
But not every pick has to emerge as a star for a drafting strategy to be considered successful. And it takes several years after each draft to fully know how such a strategy will benefit a franchise.
The Mets are in this position now with long-term projects who are just starting to flourish.
When Alderson drafted Nimmo, he passed on players such as Marlins ace Jose Fernandez (14th overall), Athletics pitcher Sonny Gray (18th), Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong (22nd) and Giants second baseman Joe Panik (29th). Each of those four players has reached the majors and played crucial roles for their respective teams. Fernandez was the only one of them to be drafted out of high school. Wong (Hawaii) and Panik (St. John's) played against each other in the National League Championship Series, with Panik's Giants reaching the World Series against Kansas City.
Nimmo celebrated a title at the end of his season -- the Eastern League championship with the Double-A Binghamton Mets. Midway through 2014, he was promoted to Double-A, and if his development path holds steady, projections have Nimmo reaching the majors sometime in 2016 or 2017.
Alderson, who took over for Omar Minaya as Mets GM in October 2010, appears to be executing a draft strategy that focuses on organizational areas of need rather than looking for a quick major-league patch for Mets teams that haven't really been contenders.
With a deep pitching reserve at the time Nimmo was drafted in 2011, including Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Rafael Montero, Jon Niese and Dillon Gee, there was less of a need for pitchers Fernandez or Gray. With Daniel Murphy and Ruben Tejada as options at second base, Wong or Panik seemed like less of a need. (The Mets later acquired second base prospect Dilson Herrera in a 2013 trade with Pittsburgh for Marlon Byrd). What the Mets did need was help in the outfield, at shortstop and with power bats.
Alderson picked high school shortstop Gavin Cecchini 12th overall in 2012, letting go of the chance to take Cardinals righthander Michael Wacha or Blue Jays righthander Marcus Stroman, both of whom were drafted out of college and are current major leaguers. Cecchini split 2014 between Class-A Savannah and Class-A Advanced St. Lucie. He's projected to reach the majors in 2016 or 2017.
In 2013, Alderson selected slugging high school first baseman Dominic Smith with the 11th overall pick. In doing so, Alderson passed on Cardinals lefthander Marco Gonzales, who was drafted out of Gonzaga and was in the St. Louis bullpen this postseason. Smith spent all of 2014 with Savannah. He's unlikely to reach the majors before 2017.
Leftfielder Michael Conforto was taken by the Mets at No. 10 overall in 2014. Conforto was drafted out of Oregon State, but he still ended his first pro season with the Brooklyn Cyclones of the Class-A short season New York-Penn League. Brandon Finnegan, a college lefthander picked 17th overall by Kansas City, is getting important outs for the World Series-bound Royals in the postseason.
Cashen's resume and the Strawberry example
When Cashen selected Strawberry in 1980, he passed on players who might reach the majors more quickly in favor of a high-upside position player.
Lefthanded high school pitcher Ken Dayley went to the Braves with the third pick. He reached the majors in May 1982 and went on to post a 3.64 ERA in 385 games. Glenn Wilson, a Texas high school rightfielder, was selected by the Tigers with the 18th pick. He debuted in April 1982 and batted .265 with 98 home runs during a 10-year career. Terry Francona, a first baseman/outfielder from the University of Arizona, was drafted by the Expos with the 22nd pick. Francona, with a career .300 OBP, is better remembered for managing the Red Sox to two World Series titles.
Strawberry, who made his major-league debut on May 6, 1983, hit 335 home runs in 17 seasons with the Mets, Dodgers, Giants and Yankees. He helped win four World Series with the Mets and Yankees, won the 1983 National League Rookie of the Year award and two Silver Sluggers, was picked to eight All-Star teams and finished in the top-10 of NL MVP voting four times.
Consider some of Cashen's first round selections after taking Strawberry in 1980:
1981 -- OF Terry Blocker
Blocker, the No. 4 pick, went on to hit .205 with two home runs in 110 games. The Mets passed on outfielder Kevin McReynolds and righthander Ron Darling, though they rectified both mistakes, acquiring the two players later via trades.
1982 -- P Dwight Gooden
Infielder Spike Owen, the sixth overall pick, reached the majors quicker than No. 5 pick Gooden, but there's no argument who turned out to be the better player. Owen hit .246 with 59 home runs in 13 seasons. Gooden had a 3.51 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 2,293 strikeouts in 16 seasons. He won the NL Rookie of the Year award in 1984 and NL Cy Young in 1985. The four-time All-Star received NL MVP consideration three times, won a Silver Slugger, helped three teams to World Series titles and tossed a no-hitter in 1996.
1983 -- 3B Eddie Williams
Williams hit .252 with 39 home runs in 395 career games. Still available at that No. 4 pick? Roger Clemens.
1984 -- OF Shawn Abner
Abner batted .227 with 11 home runs in 392 games. Picked after Abner was drafted first overall were Mark McGwire, shortstop Jay Bell and pitchers Scott Bankhead, Terry Mulholland and Norm Charlton. Abner later was used in the trade for Darling.
That's two stars and three duds among Cashen's first five drafts. Those two stars, however, helped propel the Mets to a World Series title in 1986.
In between Cashen and Alderson
Other Mets GMs weren't so fortunate.
Gerry Hunsicker succeeded Cashen for two seasons and took high school position players in the first round: Al Shirley at No. 18 in 1991 and Preston Wilson at No. 9 in 1992. Shirley never made the majors and Wilson was a Met for only a few weeks before he was traded as part of the deal for Mike Piazza in 1998. Wilson did, however, go on to play 10 seasons in the majors, batting .264 with 124 stolen bases and 189 home runs.
Al Harazin presided over the 1993 selection of high school righthander Kirk Presley at No. 8. Presley never made the majors, but several players drafted later in the first round did, including closer Billy Wagner, first baseman Derrek Lee, righthander Chris Carpenter, outfielder Torii Hunter and catcher Jason Varitek.
Joe McIlvane was in charge for the selection of first overall pick Paul Wilson in 1994. Wilson started 26 games in his Mets career, which made him more productive than McIlvane's other first-round picks, none of whom reached the majors: high school shortstop Ryan Jaroncyk (No. 18, 1995), high school outfielder Rob Stratton (13, 1996) and high school lefthander Geoff Goetz (6, 1997).
Most of Steve Phillips' first picks turned into at least serviceable major leaguers -- though not always in a Mets uniform. Billy Traber (No. 16 in 2000) and Scott Kazmir (15, 2002) never pitched a big-league game for New York. Jason Tyner (21, 1998) got into 13 games, and Lastings Milledge (12, 2003) appeared in 115 for the Mets. Only Aaron Heilman (18, 2001) was a significant contributor for the Mets, pitching in 305 games in six seasons.
The Mets had to give up their 1999 first-round pick as compensation for signing free agent Robin Ventura.
Jim Duquette's lone draft as Mets GM was a bust. He took college righthander Philip Humber at No. 3 in 2004, bypassing second baseman Neil Walker, designated hitter Billy Butler, shortstop Stephen Drew and pitchers Homer Bailey, Jered Weaver, Glen Perkins, Phil Hughes, Gio Gonzalez and Huston Street.
Omar Minaya oversaw six drafts, though the Mets didn't have a first-round pick in 2006 because they signed Billy Wagner and in 2009 because they signed Francisco Rodriguez. Minaya took a college player as his first selection in the other four drafts. Righthander Mike Pelfrey, selected ninth in 2005, had a 4.36 ERA and 1.45 WHIP in seven seasons with the Mets. But centerfielders Andrew McCutchen, Colby Rasmus and Jacoby Ellsbury, pitchers Matt Garza and Clay Buchholz and rightfielder Jay Bruce were available when the Mets picked Pelfrey.
Righthander Eddie Kunz, selected at No. 42 in 2007, appeared in only four games. Six picks later, the Cubs took then-catcher Josh Donaldson, now a star third baseman with the A's.
First baseman Ike Davis was taken with the No. 18 pick in 2008 and hit 68 home runs in five seasons with the Mets. Pitchers Andrew Cashner, Jake Odorizzi, Lance Lynn and Wade Miley were still available when Davis was taken, but Davis did provide the Mets solid value during his tenure in Flushing and netted them a pair of prospects when he was traded to the Pirates in 2014.
Minaya wasn't around to see his best pick blossom. Harvey was drafted in June 2010, five months before the Mets made the switch from Minaya to Alderson.
Alderson had his contract extended through the 2017 season, so it's fair to assume he will be around when Nimmo, Cecchini, Smith and Conforto are projected to be ready to make the majors. Will they bloom or bust?