I wish I could remember the young man’s name. I remember his age, 15. I met him last summer on an Amazin’ Tuesday at Two Boots. Big Mets fan, big fan of the blog, he said. Within a few minutes of introducing himself, he was excitedly explaining to me why the Mets would be in very good shape in a year or two, rattling off the names of the prospects who were all going to come up to the majors and create a stellar lineup and solid rotation behind and around Wright, Reyes, Beltran and Santana.
Sounded good if unlikely to me. Actually, it sounded like something I would have come up with when I was 15 or anytime the Mets were down and I had a copy of The Sporting News handy. The Sporting News was the only vehicle that delivered minor league statistics when I was a kid. All I had known about Tidewater before The Sporting News was it was where Buzz Capra was constantly being sent to and from. With The Sporting News, I could see who we had, who I could look forward to and what I could expect out of them week after week.
This would explain why I, at the age of 12, spent the summer of 1975 fixated on Roy Staiger, our All-Star third baseman of the future. Roy drove in 81 runs at Tidewater in ’75, most on the Tides — most in the International League and two more than Mike Vail. I was fixated on Vail, too, as he batted .342 at Triple-A, another league-leading stat (three points better than the runnerup, a Pirate farmhand named Willie Randolph). And Craig Swan got my attention for going 13-7 with a 2.24 ERA, but Swan had already been a Met in ’73 and ’74, so he wasn’t nearly as interesting to me as Bill Laxton, who was 11-4, 2.49.
All of these were fantastic numbers. By my reckoning, we could count on each of these fellows to be permanent Mets before long, driving in runs, batting .300, winning significantly more than losing. Add them to Seaver, Koosman, Matlack, Kingman, Staub, Millan, Unser…ohmigod, we are going to be so great in 1976!
Of the four Tides whose cause was my own in 1975, Craig Swan came up to stay and had a very nice sub-Seaver career as a Met ace in admittedly very sub-Seaver times. Mike Vail had a late August and September worthy of cult status, not much thereafter. Bill Laxton was traded with Rusty Staub to Detroit that December for Mickey Lolich and Billy Baldwin, thereby renting asunder my dream roster; I began projecting loftily for Baldwin, but Lolich was beyond my power of positive long-term thinking.
Roy Staiger, probably unfairly, remains my default failed Met prospect for all times. His tidy Tideness notwithstanding, Staiger was an unproven commodity in whom I invested my 12-year-old trust. He repaid me by batting .226 and driving in 37 runs in a Met career that spanned 483 plate appearances in parts of three Met seasons. The Mets traded Wayne Garrett to the Expos in 1976 so Staiger could blossom at third base. Instead, he wilted and was replaced by Lenny Randle in 1977. He’d be swapped to the Yankees for Sergio Ferrer. Sergio Ferrer is my default Met reserve who rarely plays and never hits for all times, but that’s another story.
The story with Staiger (who I’m sure would have preferred to have become the third baseman GM Joe McDonald and I hoped he would be) is that you almost never know with prospects. Examining them has become a far more sophisticated science since 1975. Nobody has to wait a week to track their progress, and there’s more to projecting their futures than batting averages and ERAs. Yet I stand by my Staigering: I don’t believe any Met prospect is going to do anything until he does it for the Mets and does it for a while.
The only prospect who interests me is the one who turned out to be the real deal in hindsight. I don’t care how good looking this player or that looks at Single-A, Double-A or in Rookie League. OK, I care a little, but not that much. I’ve been Staigered far more than I’ve been Strawberryed in my fandom. I’ve been promised rotations of Rick Ownbey, Scott Holman and Jeff Bittiger. My outfield right this very minute is supposed to include some combination of Lastings Milledge, Carlos Gomez and Fernando Martinez. (I’m consciously disregarding Ownbey’s and Gomez’s roles in historic trades that brought us Keith Hernandez and Johan Santana, respectively, since they were supposed to be our future stars, not somebody else’s unfortunate misjudgments.)
I’m delighted that the Opening Day roster will include two twenty-year-old phenoms in Jenrry Mejia and Ruben Tejada. It’s not that I automatically worship at the altar of youth the way my blogging partner seems to (until certain youths grow prematurely old and definitively one-dimensional), and it’s not that I was doing as my 15-year-old friend or 12-year-old self was and counting heavily on their development before this spring. I was barely aware of either of them, to be quite honest. I’m barely aware of most Met prospects beyond a handful at any given instance. Yet I’m delighted now.
Part of my enthusiasm is a desire to see some talent on display after retreads filled in for fill-ins across 2009. The greater part is not wanting to indulge the suspense involved in waiting for prospects who are considered on the cusp. There’s a compelling case for not rushing Mejia, but I’m not interested in making it. Not rushing him because why? Because we’ll derail his development? How often do we develop a pitcher? Whether we take our time with some golden arm or challenge a kid to step up, what have we gotten exactly?
Mike Pelfrey is what we’ve gotten — exactly. We’ve developed no other long-term starting pitchers for ourselves in the past decade, no matter at what level we leave them or to what level we elevate them. Mike Pelfrey is still learning after two full seasons in the majors and two partial seasons before that. I’m still not all that impressed by Pelfrey, whose main attributes, I’ve come to believe, are his height and his age. He’s 6′ 7″ and in a year has an excellent chance of being 27. It’s a little early, meanwhile, to come to even preliminary conclusions about 23-year-old Jon Niese (eight big league starts, four awful, three good, one gruesome injury presumably healed). Could have Pelfrey been further along by now with another dozen or so Triple-A starts? Might Niese benefit from three more months in Buffalo?
I don’t know and won’t pretend to. I won’t pretend to know whether Mejia, a starter in the Florida State and Eastern leagues a year ago, can be an effective reliever against the Marlins and Nationals this week. But I’m more interested in finding out what he’ll do in April 2010 than penciling him into some nebulous future that may never arrive. I’m not normally so Live For Today, but the more I watch the Mets, the more I’m convinced there is no tomorrow. There is no ideal Next Year when all the prospects will be ready and healthy are raring to take the National League East by storm.
It never works that way. It just doesn’t. It almost never did. Thus, when somebody impresses the brass as Mejia has this spring, I’m not in the mood to wait for them to really hone their skills — as if it were my call to make, which it’s not, which in turn leaves me free to be intermittently cavalier with the careers of 20-year-olds.
If Mejia is truly the immediate stud the only manager we have thinks he is, then let’s see what he’s got. It’s not unprecedented to start a season with a kid who crashes Spring Training ahead of schedule. We did it with 19-year-old Dwight Gooden in 1984, and it worked. We did it with 23-year-old Tim Leary in 1981, and it was lethally cold. There went Leary’s right elbow. So it doesn’t always work. Sometimes it works for a while, as was the case with 23-year-old Joe Smith in 2007. Sometimes it works eventually, à la the 21-year-old Neil Allen who didn’t succeed as a starter in early 1979 but worked out splendidly as closer by midyear.
If Mejia comes up, throws his electric stuff, retires division rivals, a star will be born. If Mejia comes up, finds his stuff isn’t enough, gets lit up, he can go back down (the weather looks good and we have no dates at Wrigley in April). Either way, I’ll go by what I see, not what somebody’s telling me. Sometimes I read the Mets farm system is barren. Sometimes I read it’s underrated. Sometimes I read breezy assessments based on which way the wind is blowing, as with what Jon Heyman wrote on SI.com last week:
The Mets’ minor-league system looks a lot better now than most realized last year, when so-called experts rated it near the bottom. Those ratings will need to be re-evaluated now that five young Mets looked very good or better this spring.
Which means what exactly? Heyman cites Mejia, Tejada, Niese, Martinez and Ike Davis because they all had good camps. But they were all here last year. Was Heyman shooting down unflattering portrayals of the Met system in 2009 or did he just happen to be passing through Port. St. Lottery when they were all having a good day?
If Mejia is blowing away hitters, Tejada is supplanting Cora (pending the return of Reyes), Davis is soon settling in at first, Niese is progressing with every start and F-Mart is back and throwing to the right base, we’ll have a great system. If none of them truly makes it — and nobody else down there picks up the slack — then it’s not a very good system. Produce players who play well for the Mets…that’s what the Met farm system is for (that and fleecing Whitey Herzog in 1983). Ratings and rankings for the farm system’s sake are immaterial. Until Met minor leaguers become and endure as quality Met major leaguers, it’s all primordial ooze to me.
Speaking of ooze, the Mets fan heart has to ooze empathy for Nelson Figueroa, that rare Met player who’s truly one of us — a Mets fan. Kevin Burkhardt interviewed him the other day within the context of making the Mets Opening Day roster, which seemed quite certain based on his mostly outstanding spring, his out-of-options status and the embarrassment of pitching riches we’re not exactly wallowing in. Figueroa, a professional since 1995 but never once on a big league Opening Day roster, lit up at the possibility, musing about watching Mets openers on TV when he was growing up, even remembering how the Shea P.A. would play “Celebration” to mark a Met win. I never heard a Met sound so enthusiastic about taking his place on the first base foul line as I did Nelson Figueroa.
Now he won’t, having been passed over for, essentially, Fernando Nieve. In the same vein that Figueroa, 36 come May, didn’t do anything to deserve getting cut, Nieve, 27, did nothing but impress last season before a leg injury ended his 2009. Nieve wasn’t so hot this spring (same 4.61 ERA as Figueroa’s but Nelson’s damage mostly came in one bad outing), but he, too, lacked options. Met thinking — oxymoronic as that phrase may strike us — was Fernando was more likely to be nabbed on waivers. Only one long man could survive, and it was Nieve.
As Figueroa figures out his next move, perhaps to Japan, I find myself wondering about him as an alternate-universe Mets fan. What if Nelson from Brooklyn had never signed a pro baseball contract? What if he had remained “just” one of us? I wonder how he’d feel about his favorite team favoring experience over potential at some positions and valuing potential over experience elsewhere. Would Figgy be blogging that it’s a mistake to keep Mejia? To take Catalanotto over Carter? To depend on Jacobs — 32 homers two years ago — instead of Davis for the two to six weeks Murphy’s supposed to be out? Would Figueroa the fan be sentimentally distraught that Figueroa the pitcher got the axe or would he be coldly discerning numbers that indicate we’d gotten the best we were ever going to get from that guy and that it’s time to move on? Or would he say succinctly, “Screw sentimentality, this guy can still pitch”?
Best of luck to real-life Nelson Figueroa…unless he signs with the Phillies, in which case his inner Mets fan will understand that we wish him mostly the worst.