As we approach the 2003 season, the Mets may have more major league caliber arms in their system than they've had in years.
Three in particular stand out: Aaron Heilman, Scott Kazmir, and Matthew Peterson. Indeed, it's widely anticipated that Heilman will join the rotation at some point in 2003 if not right out of spring training. While other pitchers in the system probably do not have the talent to make the same impact as the top 3, there are many arms in the system that could develop into serviceable big leaguers or be used as bait in a deadline deal.
This article will examine the progress and potential of the pitchers in the system, primarily by examining the pitcher's age and level, K:BB ratios, K rates (per 9 IPs), BB rates (per 9IPs), HR rates (per 9IPs) against league averages. I'll concentrate mostly on starting pitchers, as usually the most talented pitching prospects are developed as starters rather than relievers, regardless of their ultimate role in the big leagues. I'll note at the outset that pitchers are less predictable than hitters. They are more likely to suffer a career altering injury than are position players, and their development is much more complicated. Always consider scouting reports along side the performance of a player, particularly a pitcher. I'll discuss the Big 3 prospects first, and then work my way down the system from the upper levels to the short season teams.
It's all systems go for Aaron Heilman. The two-time 1st round draft pick from Notre Dame had little trouble with upper level hitters in his first full pro season. His performance at AA Binghamton was especially impressive, as he struck out a little more than a batter per inning and had a stellar K:BB ratio of 3.46 (a striking 73% better than league average). His key ratios at AAA Norfolk were closer to league average, but he only pitched 49 innings there. He strikes batters out, he has good control, and he keeps the ball in the ballpark, so what more could we want? He's battling with Jason Middlebrook and Mike Bacsik for the 5th starter position with the Mets, and I think he'd do a respectable job from day one in that role. The Mets will probably leave him in Norfolk at first to work on his split-finger fastball, but the real reason may be to delay starting the clock on his eligibility for arbitration and free agency. He'll claim his spot in the rotation by June or July and be a solid starter for years.
Somebody forgot to tell Scott Kazmir that he wasn't pitching to high school hitters, anymore. While I'm normally hesitant to say too much about a guy with only 18 innings of short season ball under his belt, the kind of dominance shown by the 2002 1st rounder was simply too jaw dropping to dismiss as a fluke. In those 18 New York-Penn League innings, Kazmir's ERA was a microscopic 0.50. He struck out a stunning 34 batters while walking only 7, and allowed only 5 hits. That's good for a K rate of 17 per 9 IP (226% better than league average) and a K:BB ratio that was 214% above league average. Is that any way to show respect for one's elders? At age 18, he already possesses a devastating fastball and slider, a strong curve, and, reportedly, his changeup is also becoming a plus pitch. Simply put, Scott Kazmir has the talent to be one of the most dominant pitchers in the big leagues.
Before we get too excited, though, we should remember that it's a long way from Brooklyn's Keyspan Park to Shea Stadium - metaphorically speaking, of course - and that young pitchers are highly susceptible to injury. There is some concern that's Scott's relatively slight frame may have trouble withstanding the strain that his remarkable arm speed creates. I hope that the Mets will remain cautious with his development and his workload. While he'll have no trouble with A-ball hitters, the Mets should probably not promote him too quickly, and they should keep him on a strict pitch count. Fatigue leads to poor pitching mechanics, and poor pitching mechanics lead to injuries. At this age, Scott should be pulled from games an inning too early rather than an inning too late. Indeed, putting him in the bullpen for a while could be a good developmental strategy. The good news is that the Mets seem to have done a relatively good job of keeping young pitchers healthy since the organization helped turn Generation K into Generation Torn Labrum. Fortunately, Dallas Green isn't around to kill the goose that will lay golden goose eggs on the scoreboard.
Including Matthew Peterson among the Big 3 is probably a bit of a disservice to the other two prospects, but he is a very talented pitcher that showed great promise at times in 2002. At age 20, Peterson used his plus fastball, big curve, and developing changeup to strike out an average of 10 batters for every 9 IP - 33% better than the Sally League average. At 2.5, his K:BB ratio was also strong for a young pitcher (13% better than average). He started slowly last season, but was one of the league's most dominating pitchers from June to August. There are reasons to be cautious, though. He walked nearly 4 batters per 9 IP, which was 17% worse than league average, and he surrendered more HRs (13), wild pitches (9), and hit batters (8) than you'd like to see in a top prospect. Basically, he needs to improve his command and consistency. That's not terribly unusual, though, for a 20-year old. He has probably the 2nd highest upside in the system, and I expect Matt to perform well in the pitcher friendly Florida State League.
We don't hear as much about Jae Seo as we used to, and I wonder if things aren't a little too quiet. He's never quite fully regained the stuff he had before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 1999, but anyone with a K:BB ratio of 3.95 (86% better than the International League average) in AAA merits consideration. In his age 25 season, Jae's K rates were ordinary and he gave up a few too many gopher balls, but he showed strong improvement in those areas as the season progressed - a rebound coinciding with his decision to stop fasting on days he started. He most likely projects as a swing man or #4/5 starter in the big leagues, but a guy with this kind of command has some chance of turning into Rick Reed. That's assuming, of course, that he remembers to eat his Wheaties…
I'm less optimistic about Patrick Strange than most Met fans. Pat's specialty is a sinking fastball that gains velocity as the game goes on, and he shows a pretty good feel for a changeup. His failure to develop a quality breaking pitch, though, has hampered his performance. With a K rate 7% below league average and a K:BB ratio 14% below average in 2002, Pat would seem headed for another season at AAA. The best thing he has going for him is his age, as he'll be just 22 this season. I think his future is likely to be in the bullpen. He recently underwent surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow.
Like Seo, Jeremy Griffiths' performance greatly improved as the 2002 season progressed. Over his final 11 starts, he struck out almost a batter per inning and had a phenomenal K:BB ratio of 12.5. Despite the slow start, the 24-year old ended up with a K rate 10% better than the Eastern League average for the season, and had a K:BB ratio that was 17% better than average. Apparently, the key to his turnaround was an improvement in his mechanics, which allowed him to get better velocity and location on his fastball. The positive 2nd half carried over to the Arizona Fall League. He could be a late bloomer, though scouts seem underwhelmed by his stuff. Let's see what he does in AAA.
Phil Seibel was imported to the Mets from Les Expos early in 2002. He looked like just another lefty soft-tosser with a sad K rate until he integrated a big curveball into his arsenal during the season. This led to a dramatic turnaround in his success, and he actually ended up the season with a league average K rate. He has good control, but he'll need to do a better job of keeping the ball in the park (his HR rate was 28% above average) if he hopes to scratch out a big league career.
I originally considered Bob Keppel to have been a key 2002 disappointment, but I'm more optimistic after a closer look at his performance. Certainly, a K rate of 6.45 per 9 IP (6% below league average) isn't what you'd like to see from a top prospect, but at just age 20, Bob was fairly young for the Florida State League. He also seems to have a pretty good idea of what he's doing, as his BB rate was a stellar 2.55 per 9 IP and his K:BB ratio was nearly 29% above league average - a very good sign. Keppel has good size and could yet develop more velocity to go with his mature repertoire and solid command. He's a 2003 breakout candidate.
Neal Musser has shown solid pitchability when he's appeared on the mound, but has missed the bulk of two of the past 3 seasons to injury. Strong control and a plus changeup are his calling cards, though he may not have enough pure stuff to be a frontline starter. He pitched very well in 2001, and could make it to AA in 2003 if he can stay off the DL and build up his arm strength.
Lenny DiNardo probably ranks as the system's biggest disappointment for 2002. A mature 3rd rounder from Stetson who had dominated for Team USA, it was believed that he would have little trouble with the lower levels. Instead, his poor control (nearly 5 BBs per 9 IP) stranded him in the Sally League. Apparently, overuse during his amateur days have put a strain on his arm. On the bright side, his K rates were very strong (21% above the league average), and he could move quickly if he regains arm strength and the confidence to locate the ball in the strike zone. Since he's 23, the Mets should challenge him with a AA promotion if he performs well in St. Lucie.
Kevin Deaton showed great movement on his fastball while striking out over 10 per 9 IP for Brooklyn last year, and he posted a K:BB ratio (5.16) that was a Kazmirific 227% above the NYP league average. He needs to gain better consistency with his curveball and changeup, but both are promising pitches. He's a huge guy (260 lbs.) that needs to increase his stamina, but, at age 21, he has time to develop in all phases of his game. Very promising.
Quick hits: David Mattox garnered some attention with strong K rates in the Sally league, though his control left something to be desired (his BB rate was 22% below average). His K rate plunged to 6 per 9 IP in 51 Florida State League innings, so time may be running out on him. Rightly or wrongly, scouts just don't seem impressed with Ross Peeples' stuff. His Sally league K:BB ratio was an outstanding 3.92 (77% better than average), though, and he keeps the ball in the park (only 3 HRs in 115 IP). He'll be 23 this season, so he needs to pick up the pace. The finesse lefty should get a shot a High A in 2003. At first glance, Jason Weintraub's high ERA (5.91) and moderate K rates (9% below the Appy League average) wouldn't seem to provide much in the way of hope, but the 19-year old has projectable size and a K:BB ratio that was 34% better than average. As his BIP average (basically, his batting avg. against excluding events like HRs, Ks, BBs, HBPs, etc.) was much higher than that of his teammates (.373 as compared to .329), I'm betting his poor results were a fluke and that he'll make a better impression in 2003. Adam Elliott made an impressive debut in the Appy League after being drafted in the 6th round. He showed fine control (2.95 BBs per 9 IP) and advanced command for a player just out of high school (his K:BB ratio was 34% better than average). The Mets saw enough in him to promote him before the year was out. He's one to watch. Miguel Pinango was yet another impressive youngster to earn some notice on the Brooklyn staff. His great control allowed him to post a K:BB ratio (4.57) that was 100% better than league average, despite pitching at the tender age of 19. His K rate was below average, but he knows how to pitch, and that's a start.
Dan Troy is a Met fan currently exiled in Davis, CA. E-mail him at email@example.com to explain why he's supposed to miss East Coast winters.
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