With Major League Baseball’s Rule 4 draft rapidly approaching, I figured it would be a good time to look at some recent draft history with regard to the Mets. For those who do not know, I love the amateur draft. I think it’s the most interesting intellectual challenge in sports, an endeavor so complicated that most write it off as a crapshoot. I don’t think it is—it’s more like juggling seven water balloons while holding a needle between your thumb and forefinger: theoretically possible but you’re more likely to give up before you ever even glimpse proficiency.
As it is, I spend far, far, far more time watching amateur baseball than professional these days. I can count the number of Mets games I’ve seen in 2015 on two hands. And yet I’m barely any better at identifying future stars than when I started doing this eight years ago. I’ve learned some things; I know more about baseball than I’ve ever known before, but figuring out the melange of skills and characteristics that create good professional ballplayers is a recipe that escapes me year in and year out. I don’t think I’m alone.
The Mets do not have a first-round pick in this year’s draft; they lost their first-round pick as a penalty for signing Michael Cuddyer in free agency. Figuring out the first round is the easiest part of the draft. Most first rounders these days at least make the majors—sometimes owing more to reputation than merit—but once you get past that, the success rates drop precipitously. A lot falls on Tommy Tanous, the Mets’ scouting director, and this year he’s playing with a handicap; his first selection will come with 52 players already off the board. Let’s see how he, and his three predecessors, have fared in roughly the same spot:
The Russ Bove Era
After taking Mike Pelfrey in the first round of the 2005 draft, the Mets didn’t have a second-round selection due to their signing of Pedro Martinez. The Red Sox selected Jon Egan with their pick. Egan was an odd guy; he was a prep catcher who at one point was being considered a first-round talent thanks to promising defense and plus raw power, but he was bordering on being too big for the position at 6-foot-4, and his long arms meant he could be beat on inside fastballs. Poor conditioning as a senior caused him to fall here, some scouts questioning his desire. He took a $625,000 bonus, and thanked the Red Sox by almost immediately getting arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated and possession of cocaine. After showing something on the Gulf in 2006, Egan struggled mightily with contact in full-season ball in 2007 and abruptly retired shortly before the 2008 season. A disaster of a pick.
The Rudy Terrassas Era
2006: Kevin Mulvey, RHP, Villanova University
The Mets didn’t have a first-round selection in 2006—compensation given up for signing Billy Wagner—so the Mets needed to make the second-rounder count. The Mets took Mulvey, another guy who probably figured to go a little earlier in the draft than he did, and signed him to a $585,000 bonus. Mulvey was a little light in the stuff department, throwing just 91-94 with a four-pitch mix. His breaking stuff was average at best, while his changeup was consistently a 60 pitch for me, as Mulvey threw it with both deception and movement. He had good control, but I worried that he’d been just a little too hittable at Villanova, a school that faced so-so competition, and that his fastball didn’t have enough movement. He projected as a number four starter.
The Mets were very aggressive with Mulvey and immediately sent him to Double-A, but he pitched well, throwing strikes and keeping the ball in the park. He built enough value so that he became a key part of the Johan Santana trade that offseason, and he pitched reasonably well in Triple-A in 2008. He made his big league debut the following season and got shelled, as he would with Arizona later that season when he was traded for Jon Rauch. Arizona sent him to the Pacific Coast League, which is not a good place for pitchers who don’t miss bats, and he earned his release in the spring of 2012. The Mets signed him to a minor league deal and sent him to Binghamton, but he retired that May.
All told, and this shows you how difficult drafting is after the first round, Mulvey was a successful pick. He played well enough to become a valuable trade chip and did make the big leagues, though his ceiling turned out to be more of a Triple-A arm than a fourth starter.
2007: Scott Moviel, RHP, St. Edward H.S. (OH)
Moviel, who signed for $414,000 after being awarded to the Mets as compensation for the loss of Roberto Hernandez, was a tall, lanky prep arm, and he was all projection. He was towering at 6-foot-10 and athletic—he also played basketball. However, for all that size, he barely brushed 93 with his fastball, and his breaking ball was decidedly soft. He didn’t throw a changeup. For a big man, his mechanics really weren’t too bad, though he was prone to losing them every so often, which isn’t surprising from a prep beanpole.
In the end, the Mets were counting on him to throw harder and develop a breaking pitch, but injuries and the fact that he just couldn’t do either of those two things prevented his evolution into a major-league-caliber starter. The Mets released him following the 2011 season after Moviel struggled at St. Lucie for the third straight year. He went to the Frontier League in 2012, then retired.
2007: Brant Rustich, RHP, University of California, Los Angeles
Rustich, the Mets’ second second-round selection, was a senior sign for $373,000 out of UCLA, where he’d had a disappointing career pitching out of their bullpen. Rustich was tall at 6-foot-6 and had a live arm, so some teams felt he could start, but, in all honesty, they were talking about a guy who’d be pitching his first pro season at 23 after spending his previous four seasons as a downright poor college reliever. He just didn’t have time to develop.
And he didn’t develop. He still threw 95 with a slider that could flash plus and a decent changeup, but his command never improved, and thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition where your ribs compress on arteries, potentially causing blood clots, took a toll. He retired after the 2011 season.
2008: Javier Rodriguez, OF, Puerto Rico Baseball Academy
Rodriguez was not one of my favorite players in the 2008 draft, the first I covered. There is a myth that the Mets reached for Rodriguez because he could have been had cheaply, but he did sign for $585,000, which was roughly slot, and Baseball America did give him a high third-round grade, which is not significantly different than selecting a guy in the middle of the second. While I wasn’t enthused with him, it was not a laughable pick. Rodriguez was a toolsy outfielder who lacked that one tool that made your jaw drop. He was a tall, lean kid with an athletic build, power projection, and above average speed.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t going to keep that speed if he added muscle, and his instincts in the outfield drew poor grades from scouts. So in the end, he projected as a right fielder with the possibility of 20-homer power. But his contact skills weren’t great, and he could get overly pull-happy in his approach. After two poor seasons on the Gulf, he flashed his potential in Kingsport in 2010 before getting cut following a mediocre season at Brooklyn and Savannah in 2011. I thought it was a little early to give up on him, but clearly Sandy Alderson’s regime had less invested in him than Omar Minaya’s did.
2009: Steven Matz, LHP, Ward Melville H.S. (NY)
The gem of the second-round picks, I liked Matz a lot; he would have been perhaps my top target with my third-round choice had he fallen that far. As it was, there were a couple of guys I liked better in the second, but Matz probably has more promise than any of them at this point. Matz had plenty of arm strength coming out of high school, routinely throwing in the low-90s and touching 95 here and there. The hope was that as he developed, he’d sit more consistently in the mid-90s. The curve flashed plus for me, and he was also throwing a slider that I felt was below average. He didn’t use a change very much, but scouts reported that he had a feel for it.
Mechanics were the most worrisome thing for Matz: his eventually needing Tommy John surgery surprised absolutely nobody, and he had more arm recoil than any pitcher I watched in 2009. I called him a medium injury risk but admitted I loved the arm. After signing for $895,000—he was previously demanding $1 million—he is now the Mets’ top pitching prospect after recovering from his arm troubles.
The Mets’ second-round pick again went to the Red Sox, this time for their signing of Jason Bay. The Sox took Brandon Workman, a right-handed starting pitcher out of the University of Texas who many figured would go in the first round. I thought he was a relatively safe bet to evolve into an innings-eating workhorse, showing consistent low-90s velocity and a four-pitch mix. I remember being particularly impressed with his cutter, which had some nice, late bite to it. His curve was also a solid offering, but the changeup needed a lot of work.
Mechanically, I was worried about him and thought Tommy John could be in his future—he’s currently sidelined with an elbow injury—but he was a great value at this point in the draft. After signing for $800,000, he’s clearly a big league starter, though he hasn’t pitched well in his two seasons in the majors. Now 26, he needs to get healthy and assert himself as a big league pitcher.