To even the casual observer, it would appear that building a productive farm system in baseball is undertaken with the same predictive science and art as trying to pick the winning lottery ticket before scratching off the numbers. Lack of talent, career altering injuries, failure to translate potential, bad luck — the rise to the big leagues, never mind achieving stardom, is statistically akin to a crap shoot.
The Yankees went nearly 30 years before drafting a starting pitcher in the first round who ever pitched an inning for them in the majors. Then again, going all the way back to buying or trading for established players from their major league ‘farm team’, the Kansas City A’s, to unchecked free agent spending since, the Yankees prefer to gamble their money on major league proven talent.
The top ten Mets 1st round draft picks of all time is embarrassingly thin and uninspiring after Gooden, Strawberry, Matlack, and Wright. Not sure how much more damming odds have to be, but the mention of the name Tim Foli (photo right) in any team’s top ten best draft picks of all time should forever provide a cautionary guidepost for Mets fans when the predictability of drafts and the potential of high ceiling prospects is discussed. The Mets 1st round blunders include the infamous Steve Chilcott (Reggie Jackson went next), Billy Beane, Kirk Presley, and more recently, Lastings Milledge, who didn’t last very long at all.
Conversely, every player in America that showed any promise was drafted before teams finally picked Don Mattingly and Mike Piazza, who were given zero chance of reaching the big show, never mind having great careers. In Piazza’s case, it was a favor to his godfather, Tommy Lasorda. I guess none of the scouts thought Ted Williams, who rightly predicted stardom for Piazza when he was only in high school, knew anything about hitting baseballs.
Here’s the intractable beauty of baseball, though. All sports, for that matter. Fans are hardly deterred by cold, hard, logical facts and data that may form counter points to the unbridled optimism they unilaterally bestow on the next crop of top prospects coming out of their team’s farm system. Wild emotion rules the day when it comes to high ceiling, untested, unproven prospects. Yes, one imagines, even for Steve Chilcott in his day. But for every Pete Rose or Bob Gibson, there are a thousand Gregg Jefferies, a million Bill Pulsiphers. Ten bad games pitched in the big leagues, or a hundred lousy at bats, and the anointed are quickly dethroned, and a fresh group of untested royalty take their places. See how the applause meter has already begun to impatiently drift to the wrong side with Flores and d’Arnaud.
Rarely are the baseball gods as merciful as they were for the Mets in 1967. Not six years into their existence, after a run of historic failure, the Mets had Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Nolan Ryan, Jon Matlack, Tug McGraw, Ed Figueroa and Gary Gentry under team control, either in the majors or minors. Two of them would, of course, make the Hall Of Fame, and the rest had strong major league careers (not always with the Mets). In 1969, the majority of this group would help the Mets stun the baseball world, and forever stamp the word ‘miracle’ into their collective lexicon. Have the tides again turned in 2014? This year the Mets have Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Noah Syndergaard, Rafael Montero, Jenrry Mejia, & Jeurys Familia under team control in the majors or minors. Sound familiar? Even the most pessimistic amongst Mets fans much concede that the comparisons are far more than wishful thinking. The Mets have stockpiled an incredibly exciting group of young pitching, that is poised to change the fortunes of the franchise — perhaps for the next decade.
Which is not to say that this group of talented young Mets will all succeed and be as productive in the major leagues like their 1967 predecessors. That now appears to be as statistically improbable as all of them failing. Unfortunately, trading one or more away for proven talent mitigates none of the risk, as it didn’t in the ill-advised Nolan Ryan trade. But here’s the thing: if only two or three of these prospects produce as expected, well, we know how it turned out in 1969.
In ten years or so, will Mets fans lament the collective failures of this group, like we did the Generation K trio in the 1990′s? Or will 1967 repeat itself in 2014, as some of these players continue to ascend to varying degrees of greatness, eventually becoming the foundation for another World Championship team?