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Mets Roll Dice On Injured Prospects

Damaged goods. That's what Robert Malek was; that's what he

is.

The Mets were fully aware of the damage - a tear in the medial lateral

ligament in his elbow - when they spent their second selection in the amateur

draft on the outfielder from Michigan State.

Yet the club opted to focus more on the goods than on the damage and made

Malek the 117th player selected.

Given the Mets' history with that particular malady - the list of Mets

players who have had Tommy John surgery is as long as Jason Isringhausen's

repaired arm - the selection of Malek might seem a tad surprising.

But it was their familiarity with the frequently diagnosed injury that made

them more willing to take a chance. "We've seen a lot of players come back

from it, perform well and have productive careers," assistant general manager

Jim Duquette said. "With all they know about the surgery and the rehab now, we

don't think it's as much of a chance as it used to be. In [Malek's] case, we

didn't think it was a long- term, career-threatening injury."

Malek, a lefthanded hitter who turns 21 next month, already has signed with

the Mets and has been assigned to the Mets' Brooklyn Cyclones affiliate in the

Class A New York-Penn League. Duquette said the plan is to have him play the

outfield - left or right - and serve as the designated hitter through the end

of the season. Then he will undergo the procedure.

"We've been told he can play until tolerance [of pain]," Duquette said.

The Mets had experience with the injury with their three pitching prospects

of 1996 - Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson - and at least 12 other

minor-league players. Jay Payton is their poster boy for the Tommy John

procedure.

Payton twice endured extended interruption to his career to have the

ligament in his right elbow replaced. His rehab from the first surgery, in

1995, may have been too rigorous and may have caused the need for the second

procedure in March 1997. But he has emerged from the second surgery without

residual problems and now throws as well as any centerfielder outside Atlanta.

His first injury occurred relatively early in the 1995 season. He played

through the pain and had the elbow repaired in September.

Within three years - after Isringhausen, Pulsipher and highly regarded

prospect Sean Johnston had the procedure - the Mets began to look at Tommy John

surgery and other operations in a more positive light, as tools rather than

necessary evils.

"I remember a conversation we had with [former club physician Dr. David]

Altchek about the risks and about screening amateurs we had scouted," Duquette

said. "It was just about the time [lefthanded pitching prospect] Jesus

[Sanchez] had his ligament snap. And now it's come to where we have Andy [Dr.

Andrew Rokito, one of Altchek's successors] review medical reports.

"He spends a good deal of time reviewing and advising us. He's steered us

away from a few serious situations."

Without identifying the player, Duquette told of a an amateur player the

Mets scouted before the 2001 draft. "We liked him, but Andy said he had a

chronic knee problem. We didn't take him." Another club did, and according to

Duquette, the player has continued to be troubled by his knee.

The Mets have signed other players who have had problems similar to Malek,

Payton and the others, most prominent among them Jae Seo, who had surgery in

May 1999. He's pitching without elbow pain and with most of his velocity

regained for the Triple-A Norfolk Tides.

Malek hardly seemed troubled by his elbow, Duquette said. He was voted

co-Player of the Year in the Big Ten and was a Louisville Slugger first- team

All-American. He led the conference in total bases, tied for the lead in home

runs, placed second in runs, doubles, RBIs and slugging average, and was third

in batting average and hits.

Still, other clubs may have been scared away because of his elbow. He was

selected in the fourth round. The Mets believe he would have been selected in

the second round if he were sound.

Billy Traber, the since-traded lefthanded pitcher the Mets selected first

in the 2000 draft, had an elbow injury, too. An offer of $1.7 million became a

$400,000 contract because of the injury.

The disparity between what Malek might have received and did receive is

significantly less. But it was money saved on a player general manager Steve

Phillips had to be persuaded to draft. Phillips is a Michigan alumnus. "We had

to twist his arm a little," Duquette said, laughing, "because he's got all that

Wolverine stuff. But he's happy now."

New York Sports