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

Draft-Day Double Vision

Out in Milwaukee, the Mets played a baseball game that was quietly unsettling for a good chunk of the evening: Curtis Granderson [1] led off with a home run and the Mets kept piling up base runners against a wild, ineffective Jimmy Nelson [2], but — in recent Metsian fashion — the protagonists failed to deliver the big inning that constantly seemed to be developing. At the seven-inning stretch it felt like it should be 8-0 Mets, but the lead was actually a skinny 2-0, which the Brewers promptly cut in half when old pal Kirk Nieuwenhuis [3] came scampering home from second on a Hernan Perez [4] ball that nearly drilled a hole in Neil Walker [5].

It looked for all the world like one of those games that quietly becomes a 3-2 loss while your attention wanders, but Kevin Plawecki [6] threw out Perez trying to steal second (huh?) and then chipped in a two-run single in the eighth for some much-needed insurance. I dozed off at that point and woke to find Steve Gelbs chatting with Granderson. Granderson is philosophical and imperturbable most evenings, so I had to shake away the cobwebs to make sure Gelbs wasn’t asking something like, “Curtis, after a game like this do you ever ask yourself if the only sane response to a malign universe is nihilism?” Nope, they were chatting amiably about working on stuff and teammates, so I knew the Mets had won [7].

During the game, the booth and Twitter brought in other Mets-related dispatches: tonight was draft night, and the Mets signed a pair of Long Island kids [8]: Boston College’s Justin Dunn (19th overall pick), who hails from Freeport; and UConn’s Anthony Kay (31st pick, as compensation for the Nats inking Daniel Murphy [9]), a Stony Brook resident who went to Ward Melville, alma mater of Steven Matz [10]. (Ward Melville’s also the high school I would have attended if we hadn’t decamped for Florida after ninth grade, not that anyone reading this should care.)

The baseball draft’s an odd thing — only the most devoted slice of the most devoted pay it more than cursory attention, because in all likelihood it will be two or three years before any of the new names push their way into our consciousness as potentially imminent Mets and three or four years before they appear on a big-league roster. And even then that’s an if — a lot can go wrong, from scouting errors to injuries and simple bad luck, to derail even a top pick.

Earlier this week our pals at Amazin’ Avenue posted a quiz [11] asking how many of the Mets’ then-63 first-round picks you could name. I got 31 and was pretty pleased with myself, all in all. The list includes a handful of stars: Jon Matlack [12], Darryl Strawberry [13], Dwight Gooden [14], David Wright [15] and Matt Harvey [16] are the standouts. Beneath them you’ll find some useful players (Tim Foli [17], Lee Mazzilli [18], Wally Backman [19], Hubie Brooks [20], Gregg Jefferies [21], Preston Wilson [22], Bobby Jones [23]), guys who had marginal careers (Randy Sterling [24], Rich Puig [25], Billy Beane [26], Shawn Abner [27], Philip Humber [28]), guys you’ve never heard of (George Ambrow, Richard Bengston, Cliff Speck [29], Tom Thurberg), and guys you’ve heard of but for the wrong reasons (the unfairly infamous Steve Chilcott, Kirk Presley, Ryan Jaroncyk).

Two first-round picks from the Alderson regime have become full-fledged Mets: Plawecki (2012’s 35th overall pick) and Michael Conforto [30] (the 10th pick in 2014). Alderson’s initial first-round pick, 2011’s Brandon Nimmo [31], is hitting well at Las Vegas and has been bandied about as a callup; another pick from that year, Michael Fulmer [32], is doing well as a Tigers rookie. 2012 pick Gavin Cecchini [33] is at Las Vegas, while Dominic Smith [34], chosen in 2013, is at Binghamton.

Over the next few days we’ll register the names of draftees from later rounds, looking over their capsule biographies and mini-scouting reports and then promptly forgetting them. A few of these young players will matter to us one day, becoming useful Mets. The crop will perhaps even yield a starting player or two. But most of the lower-drafted guys won’t matter at all. Joe Sheehan’s newsletter — which you should absolutely subscribe to [35] if you want to be a smarter fan — made the point today that we don’t really understand the role of most minor-league players. We think of them as apprentices, competing for a handful of big-league prizes, but that’s not true. As Sheehan notes, a bit cruelly but accurately, “they’re not apprentices; they’re extras. They’re the guys walking in the background on a city street while two characters argue. The last 30 rounds of the draft are an open call to find people willing to provide a realistic atmosphere for the stars to practice their craft.”

That role isn’t destiny: extras do occasionally become leading men in either profession. Mike Piazza [36] may be the most famous vanity pick in baseball history, rising from the 62nd round (and the 1,390th overall pick) to a date with Cooperstown. But top picks such as Dunn and Kay will get every opportunity to prove themselves and make the people who selected and paid them look smart; the guys chosen as New York-Penn League roster-fillers will have to convince a very long list of people that they were wrong in order to claw their way to a couple of days in the Show.

For now, though, we can dream of Justin Dunn trying to conquer his nerves on the Citi Field mound one day in 2020. We can imagine an older Steven Matz kidding newly arrived Anthony Kay about needing to drive in four in his debut. And we can hope that there’s some 2016 34th-round pick waiting to craft a tale that will remind us to believe in ourselves and never, ever give up. Being realistic about draft day doesn’t require us to be cynical about it. For now, all is possibility — and imagination is free.