Damaged goods. That's what Robert Malek was; that's what he
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
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
minor-league players. Jay Payton is their poster boy for the Tommy John
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
"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."