- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

Fernandomania Curtailed

It’s scary that as fans, any team’s fans, we get hooked on new players and young players and changes of direction and we’re sure we’re going to benefit — if it’s March — this year or — if it’s September — next year. Yet we just don’t know. It’s the ultimate blind trust.

Theoretically, the future has never been more foreseeably agreeable for the Mets. If the three young pitchers who now seem to have assured themselves of rotation slots each succeed, our 2007 fortunes would figure to do no worse than shadow our 2006 accomplishments. That trio could easily go quartet by April 2008. The outfield would be rehabilitated next, with two of three fast-rising kids patrolling corners currently occupied by short-term elders. Not as publicized but just as tantalizing this spring is an eventual first base candidate who got some good swings in before being sent down. Thus, in a blink, we could be swimming in a plethora of prime: Maine, Pelfrey, Perez, Humber, Gomez, Martinez, Milledge, Carp joining Reyes, Wright and Beltran. Throw in two or three strategically signed free agents by our nonpenurious ownership and we’re looking at a nucleus that rivals our not-so-wild dreams from the crest of 1988. If you’re inclined to take it a step further, there’s the TV network and the new ballpark and the vast resources contemporary sports success seems to yield in staggering amounts every time you turn around. The foundation for this organization shapes up as solid as the accumulated brickage that will define Citi Field.

And you know what it all guarantees for our Mets and our Mets-related happiness? Absolutely nothing. It never did and it never will. Per the in-sickness-and-in-health vows each of us took when we betrothed ourselves to our team, the reality that everything’s a year-in, year-out crapshoot shouldn’t matter one little bit.

But it’s something to keep in mind.
—“Nothing to Foresee Here [1],” Faith and Fear in Flushing, March 18, 2007

I’ve never been simultaneously more right and more wrong as I was in the above four paragraphs I wrote nearly five years ago. The future, as judged by me, was so bright we’d have to wear shades…yet it could just as easily turn very dark very fast, I advised. We more or less know what happened from there.

I believed both scenarios as I attempted to cobble them together into a coherent worldview. The Mets looked messy [2] in the middle of March 2007, which I tried to forget in the face of the prevailing reality of our burgeoning dynasty. It was just Spring Training, for gosh sake. The fact that the Mets were losing meaningless exhibition games was supposed to be meaningless. It probably was. On the other hand, here was all this unproven youthful talent poised to attach itself to the established youthful talent that had taken the National League by storm in 2006. Set against a tableau of progressive Met ownership and management, it was all going to combine into delightful hurricane-force ascendancy for years to come.

So wrong. Yet so right in that deep down I didn’t really trust what I was trying to convince myself (and anybody who was reading) of that weekend. Oh, I thought the franchise was in good hands but I had a hard time being sure that the stream of promise on display at St. Lucie was really going to amount to anything when the large contracts of the imported veterans ran their course. And if you couldn’t believe the Mets knew what they were doing in the wake of 2006, when could you believe in them and what could you believe in?

Basically, my problem — or perhaps my reluctant strength — as a baseball fan is I don’t really and truly believe in prospects, or more precisely, I only believe in them as far as I can throw their accomplishments onto paper. And if they have enough accomplishments to print out, they’re really not prospects anymore anyway.

Wright, 24, and Reyes, 23, had proven themselves by March 2007. Beltran, 29, had proven himself in other uniforms long before. Those other guys I listed? They were all supposed to be what was going to make the Mets formidable and then some well beyond that spring. In one sense or another, they were all coming. That’s what makes a good team great. Sure, acquiring the likes of Delgado, Lo Duca and Wagner solidified the Mets so they were able to make their successful run through the regular season in 2006, but it was going to be a self-regenerating organization that would keep the music playing [3]. The Mets were going to stay good and get better because of John Maine, Mike Pelfrey, Oliver Perez, Philip Humber, Carlos Gomez, Fernando Martinez, Lastings Milledge and Mike Carp, to name eight. None of them was older than 25 in the spring of 2007. None except Perez had spent as much as a full season in the big leagues through 2006. All of them gave us reason to believe they’d be Met stalwarts before long.

Five years later, only one of them, Pelfrey, remains, and save for a couple of season-fragments, he’s been more stall and wart than stalwart.

They’re all different cases and each had his own story, maybe even his own concentrated period of Met competence. Hard to remember now, for example, that Maine and Perez were actually solid major league starters for all of 2007. Milledge had a few big hits that season as he competed with Gomez and Shawn Green for playing time. As grudgingly noted, Pelf was big for a while in 2008 and again in 2010. Far from Flushing, speedy Gomez keeps alighting with playoff teams, while Humber (White Sox) and Carp (Mariners) have found themselves, a little, in the American League.

But collectively, they never did a damn thing to advance the cause we thought we were onto on the cusp of 2007, and to date, nobody has done less in the major leagues than the young fellow we were led to believe might do more than any of them, Fernando Martinez.

Which will happen. Prospects don’t always pan out. Hell, they mostly don’t pan out, and not just Met prospects. Simple math says they can’t. There are 750 jobs available on MLB rosters from Opening Day until September 1. Every one of them is filled by somebody who at some point was a prospect. Relatively few of them are manned by players who can be or have been considered stars. The minors, on the other hand, are lousy with guys who aren’t going to shine at the top level of their profession. Odds are set tabbing this guy or that as a pick to click. One of those guys was Fernando Martinez. He was going to be a star. So we kept an eye on him.

We never saw much when exposed to him. Amid myriad injuries [4], Martinez came up for a while in 2009 and reappeared briefly in 2010 and 2011. With little exception, he didn’t hit, he didn’t get on base, he displayed almost no power, he showed little outfield instinct and very early on he didn’t run out a popup that was dropped [5] and thus was out when he should have been safe. F-Mart was 20 at the time, and it was my desire to see his F-pas as a misjudgment born of inexperience…but those things are usually manifested by kids playing too hard, not hard enough, so it was probably mostly a very bad warning sign as regarded Fernando Martinez’s reportedly high ceiling.

The Mets’ leading outfield prospect from 2007 never became a Mets star and, as of now, he is no longer a Mets prospect or a shimmering possibility on anybody’s horizon. The Mets have waived him and the Astros have picked him up [6] as a low-risk proposition. He’s 23, which is real-life young and not baseball-old by any means. But he’s also played six professional seasons, none of them full or fully healthy. By the hard-bitten standards of the sport, he’s been a bust.

I’m sure he feels worse about it than we do.

I suppose I’m disappointed Fernando Martinez isn’t a staple of the Mets lineup the way he was projected to be when he was signed out of the Dominican at the age of 16. I’m sorry in a general sense that things haven’t worked out for some kid I’ve never met, and I’m sorry in a Met sense that my team eternally gropes for some semblance of outfield stability. Yet “disappointed” may not quite describe my reaction to a big-deal prospect fizzling. Reyes and Wright notwithstanding, I just don’t expect Mets prospects, save for the ones whose potential looms as extremely loud and incredibly close, to pay off. I’m rarely at the Strawberry 1983 or Davis 2010 level of anticipation, probably because almost everybody in between was, in the vernacular, a bust, and I not so deep down know prospect letdowns are the norm, not the exception. Milledge 2006 might have been the last time I was truly chuffed at a prospect’s callup. Lastings’s failure to last as a Met — see him this summer as a Yakult Swallow [7] — probably frayed my final anticipatory instinct where hotshot Met minor leaguers were concerned.

Guys will still come up and succeed and it will be satisfying when it happens. I knew next to nothing about Ruben Tejada when he arrived and I fell in love almost instantly. I maintained no ceiling for Bobby Parnell, so it’s been no skin off my nose from a proprietary sense that he hasn’t come close to reaching it. Fernando Martinez was going to be a big deal, but Tatis the retread was a far more impactful Fernando for the Mets and Teddy the utilityman was a more useful Martinez to the Mets. It would have been swell had it worked out differently. Overall, however, I’m resigned to “they’ll get here if they get here and maybe something good will happen but probably not” as opposed to “check out these numbers from the Arizona Fall League!” Doesn’t mean I don’t want to see Mets prospects get every chance to succeed. It just means I’ll be surprised the next time one succeeds in a big way.

I understand the impulse to game the farm system; to adopt a prospect early on and decide he will be The One; to imagine having a handle on how things will shake out circa Opening Day 2015; to know in advance the outline of the next chapter before a word of it is written. I just don’t share in that impulse, despite my team so badly needing a future in light of its ongoing lack of a present.

I get the fan obsession with figuring out who’s going to be big next. I just don’t believe there’s much percentage in it, thus I don’t get wrapped up in a Fernando Martinez or whoever’s the next version of him. But I do get it even if I don’t share in it.

Maybe it’s like what Roger Sterling expressed to Don Draper in the “Three Sundays” episode of Mad Men. “Don’t you love the chase?” Roger asked Don after an opportunity to grab a grand advertising account went by the boards. “Sometimes it doesn’t work out; those are the stakes. But when it does work out, it’s like having that first cigarette: your head gets all dizzy, your heart pounds, your knees go weak. Remember that? Old business is just old business.”

So is the Met prospect who never becomes a Met star, actually.