Prospecting for Gold: A Look at the Hitters

Just two years ago the Met farm system appeared empty. While die-hard fans held out hope that Alex Escobar or Billy Traber would develop into frontline big leaguers, there was little beyond those two that inspired confidence. The Mets were derided by prospect gurus for their lousy farm system, and rightly so.

The good news is that several players have since emerged as top prospects, and with Jose Reyes, Aaron Heilman, Scott Kazmir, Justin Huber, and David Wright in the fold, the Mets now boast a Top 5 that's about as good as any in the game. The trouble starts after that, though, as the depth behind those jewels, while somewhat improved, is still too thin. Further, this situation will be difficult to change any time soon, as the Mets have forfeited 2nd and 3rd round draft picks in both the 2002 and 2003 amateur draft.

In this article, I'll take a look at the hitters in the system. When evaluating hitting prospects, the chief factors I consider are the player's age and level (e.g., a 20-year old holding his own at AAA is a great prospect while a 24-year old excelling in A ball is more a suspect); his control of the strike zone as measured by K:BB and BB:AB (at bats) ratios; the percentage of hits that are extra-base hits (XBH%); and the player's on-base percentage (OBP), slugging average (SLG), and OPS (OBP + SLG) relative to the league average. I'll discuss players that I believe are good prospects, are likely to make appearances at Shea Stadium in the near future, and/or are guys that have received some hype.

Everyone reading this article already knows about Jose Reyes, the 19-year wunderkind shortstop that ranks among the best prospects in the game. Rather than waste your time by detailing why he's such a good prospect, I'll instead take the opportunity to dispel a couple of popular notions about him.

· Myth No. 1: Jose Reyes is a slap-hitting table setter. No, he isn't. One of the interesting things I found while examining Jose's 2002 season is that his power hitting ability seems to be ahead of his on-base ability. At St. Lucie, Reyes' SLG was almost 26% higher than league average while his OBP was about 9% than average. In Binghamton, his SLG was 6% higher than average while his OBP was a shade under the league average. His XBH in both leagues was about 33%, which is very promising for such a young player. A player's power can grow tremendously throughout his 20s, and at his age, there is plenty of growth potential left. I believe his profile may ultimately suit him to bat 3rd (but only if he improves his inconsistent BB:AB rates) or 5th in the order, rather than1st or 2nd as most assume.

· Myth No. 2: Jose Reyes is ready for the big leagues right now. I don't see it. Indeed, I don't think it would be unreasonable to have him open the season at AA. His K:BB ratio took a major step back with his promotion to AA last year, ballooning to 2.6 from the 1.2 he posted at St. Lucie. That's a sign that he hasn't gained control of the strike zone in AA, yet, and he would likely be eaten up by big leaguers more poised to take advantage of that weakness. Before promoting him to the big league club, the Mets should allow him the time to consolidate his skills. He's a great prospect, but he's a very young man, and I think 2004 would be a wiser choice for his major league debut than 2003.

Justin Huber is on track to take over the catching duties from Piazza in 2005 or 2006. Simply put, the man can hit. He had an OBP over .400 and an OPS about 27% above the South Atlantic league average in Low A Cap City, and maintained an OPS 11% above league average upon his promotion to St. Lucie. These are outstanding numbers for a 20-year old catcher. Some warning signs are that he tired as the season went along, and his power numbers correspondingly nose-dived. Also, he was hit by 29 pitches, which puts him at increased risk for injury, and his throwing does not impress some scouts. He has plenty of time to work on these issues, though, and should be considered one of the top 30-40 prospects in the game.

David Wright is third among the organization's great trio of position player prospects. He looks like a young Scott Rolen-type. At age 19, he made a very successful jump from the Appalachian League in 2001 to full season ball in 2002, with an OPS 11% better than league average, and his defense earns praise from most observers. I wish his patience would rub off on other hitters in the system, as he had an outstanding BB:AB ration of .15. He demonstrated further control of the strike zone with a fine 1.5 K:BB ratio (the league average was 2.2). This bodes very well for his future. He'll need to demonstrate more power as he moves up the ladder, but most believe he projects to be a guy who can hit 25 HRs a year. Don't be fooled by the raw numbers at St. Lucie this year, as the Florida State League dampens offense. He'll do just fine, and it wouldn't surprise me if he made an appearance in Binghamton before the year was through, despite the team's normally conservative approach. Watch him. Jason Phillips gets too little notice. By all accounts, he's a good defensive catcher, and he hits enough to start for somebody in the big leagues. His OPS was about 10% better than the International League average, largely due to his penchant for extra-base hits (36 in just 323 ABs). Before we get too carried away by those numbers, remember he played last season at age 25, so we're probably not talking about a future star. He could be traded as he's stuck between the present (Piazza) and the future (Huber). This is the guy that I'd choose to be Piazza's backup over Vance Wilson.

Danny Garcia had a fine season in the Florida State League just one year after being a 5th round pick. His OBP was 13% better than the league average and 36% of his hits were for extra bases (the FSL average was 29%). Not bad at all for a 22-year old middle infielder. Once he leaves the soggy Florida State League, we may discover he has a little more pop than his 4 HRs might indicate. While he doesn't have the tools for stardom, he just may end up being a respectable major league second baseman.

Another interesting 2nd baseman is Marcos Scutaro, a man who could probably hold down a starting job in the big leagues, as we speak. His OPS was about 16% better than the International League average in 2002, and this is despite posting, for him, a poor BB:AB ratio (.08, where it had been quite high the prior two years). He's a great example of what Baseball Prospectus calls freely available talent, as he can be obtained for a song (the Mets got him on waivers) and could outperform some current starting major league 2nd basemen. At 27, though, he's more of a plug-in than a prospect, and he's likely about as good as he's gonna get. Could be a valuable reserve in 2003.

As I write this article, it appears that the Mets will open the 2003 season with Ty Wigginton at 3rd base. Hmmm. While I'd like to believe his solid showing with the big club last year was emblematic of his ability, I think it was more likely an aberration based on a limited sample of at bats. There's little in his AAA performance last year to suggest that he'll be anything special as a hitter, and his defense has been shaky. His AAA OPS was about 9% above league average, but that seems to be primarily due to an unusually good (for him) batting average, as his XBH was only 30%. I think we're really gonna miss Alfonzo, as Wigginton seems best suited to be a bench player.

Craig Brazell keeps trying to prove me wrong, and it's starting to make me mad. A guy with such horrible control of the strike zone (a K:BB of 6 in St. Lucie and a shockingly bad 28 in AA) shouldn't be as successful as he's been over the past two seasons. Power is his calling card, as his SLG was almost 26% higher than league average during his stays both at St. Lucie and at Binghamton in 2002. His XBH%'s were also strong. However, his abysmal BB:AB ratios (.03 in St. Lucie and less than .01 in Binghamton) make him, I think, a poor bet for success. If everything works out for him, I don't think he'll be anything better than a Rico Brogna-type in the big leagues, and that may be optimistic.

At age 22, Prentice Redman put himself back on the prospect radar screen last season with a good performance at AA Binghamton. A fine athlete, he stole 43 bases in 51 attempts and finished with an OPS about 8% over average. His BB:AB rate was a solid .12, and his XBH was 35%. Before getting too excited about him, we should remember than Binghamton is a good hitter's park and he hasn't demonstrated much power in the past. Also, as a corner OF, his offense needs to be excellent rather than merely good to warrant consideration as a frontline prospect. If he can repeat his success in AAA in 2003, I think we can pencil him in as a 4th OF at the big league level in the relatively near future.

Jeff Duncan's 2002 season has earned him the right to fail, at least. Plagued by injuries throughout his career, he was older than the opposition he faced. But he showed outstanding on-base skills and an ability to swipe bases. In 150 ABs in low-A Cap City, he sported a .393 OBP (43% above league average) and stole 15 bases in 18 attempts. The trend continued in 102 High A St. Lucie ABs, as he posted an eye-popping .472 (!) OBP (including a stupendous .24 BB:AB ratio) while stealing 10 bases in 11 attempts. However, 23 is old for A-level ball, and his strong 2002 performance was accomplished in a relatively small amount of at bats. Also, his stint at Cap City was the first time he demonstrated any power whatsoever. We should see how he performs against upper-level competition before anointing him as our future leadoff hitter. Given the dearth of talent among the team's upper-level outfielders though, he deserves the chance to show what he can do.

I'm probably about 10% less enthusiastic about Alhaji Turay than most. He's believed to possess solid power potential and hit .327 for the Brooklyn Cyclones last year. At age 19, he has plenty of time to develop. His OPS was 29% better than league average. However, his strike zone control is poor, as evidenced by a 4.4 K:BB ratio in shortseason ball last year, and, for all his power potential, he's hit only 5 HRs in over 300 professional at bats. The Mets sent him home before the season ended in 2002 due to a lack of professionalism, and an occurrence like that makes me wonder if he realizes how much work he has ahead of him to make it in professional baseball. Still, he's almost certainly the most interesting OF prospect in the system.

I'm not Angel Pagan's biggest booster, though he is frequently mentioned as a prospect. Right now, he's little more than a speedy slap hitter that has failed to demonstrate sufficient plate discipline (a BB:AB of .07 and 2.7 K:BB ratio in Cap City) or power (an XBH of 16%) to merit consideration as a strong prospect, in my view.

Briefly noted: I think it's unwise to make too much of a young man's first couple of hundred professional at bats, so I'll just mention the names of some notable position players from shortseason ball. Jamar Hill was selected in the 2001 draft and signed as a draft and follow prior to June of 2002. The young OF performed very well in Kingsport, showing a good BB:AB rate (.11) and good power (an XBH% 33% better than league average). I like this one. Michigan State outfielder Bobby Malek was a 4th round draft pick in '02 after a great college career. He performed abysmally in Brooklyn, though that was likely due to a balky elbow that ultimately required surgery…at least, I hope that was the reason. Blake Whealey posted an OPS 33% better than league average at Brooklyn in 2002, with an outstanding XBH of 46%. Great stuff for an infielder, though he doesn't seem to be much of an infielder. We'll see if his numbers hold up in full season ball. Some other names to keep in mind include 3B Aaron Baldiris who played well despite a power-sapping shoulder injury, converted 2B Joe Jiannetti, and OF Roberto Solano, who has big-time power potential to go along with big-time plate discipline issues. Also, while he signed too late to make his professional debut, many scouts are high on young Canadian 3B Shawn Bowman.

This article is a free example of the type of content you would be getting when you sign up for the NYMfansonly.com premium access, on this site and other TheInsiders.com web sites. Dan Troy is a Met fan and prospect geek currently exiled in Davis, CA. Questions or comments unrelated to the superior quality of East Coast pizza and bagels are welcomed at dantroy@hotmail.com.



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