Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, and David Wright are the Mets’ three most famous draft picks who went on to have excellent careers with the team. The Mets also drafted a number of accomplished major league players who, for one reason or another, did not actually sign with the team—only to reenter the draft in a future year and sign with another. In light of this week’s draft, we thought it would be fun to look at the ten best players (by fWAR) who fit that description and consider how differently things might have played out had those players managed to reach a contract agreement with the Mets.
10. David DeJesus, 1997
The Mets selected DeJesus, a high school player from New Jersey, in the 43rd round of the 1997 draft. Rather than sign with the team, DeJesus decided to play college ball at Rutgers and reenter the draft in 2000, when the Royals picked him in the fourth round. The outfielder went on to have a productive major league career, hitting .290/.360/.429 (109 wRC+), and averaging nine home runs, 59 RBIs, 74 runs scored, and 3.2 fWAR with the Royals during his six-year peak from 2005 to 2010. The Mets were a winning team for the first four of those years, and missed the playoffs by just a game in two of them. Had the Mets been able to use DeJesus as a fill-in for corner outfielders Cliff Floyd, Shawn Green, and Moises Alou during their periods of injury or inconsistency, could the team have made it a game farther in any of those years?
9. John Tudor, 1975
Tudor was a junior at Georgia Southern University when the Mets selected him in the 21st round of the 1975 draft. After failing to sign with the team, Tudor entered the following year’s draft and signed with the Red Sox. The left-hander had a productive career in Boston, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Los Angeles (briefly). From 1982 to 1988, Tudor pitched to a 3.06 ERA (79 ERA-) and a 3.59 FIP (96 FIP-), while averaging a 13-8 record, 117 strikeouts, and 2.9 fWAR in 205.1 innings per year. The lefty’s best season came in 1985, when he went 21-8 with a 1.93 ERA (55 ERA-), a 2.71 FIP (75 FIP-), and 6.4 fWAR in St. Louis. The Mets won 98 games but missed the playoffs by just three games that year. It’s scary to think how much better those vaunted eighties Mets rotations would have been with Tudor in the middle of them.
8. Darin Erstad, 1992
The Mets drafted Erstad out of high school in the 13th round of the 1992 draft but, like DeJesus, Erstad opted to attend college. The North Dakota native played three years at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln before the Angels drafted and signed him in 1995. Erstad was an excellent defensive outfielder who put up a few good years with the bat, hitting .292/.347/.436 (101 wRC+), and averaging 15 home runs, 75 RBIs, 96 runs scored, 22 stolen bases, and 3.7 fWAR a year for the Angels from 1997 to 2002. The outfielder had a monster year in 2000, when he hit .355/.409/.541 (140 wRC+) with a career-high 25 homers, 100 RBIs, 121 runs scored, 28 stolen bases, and 8.7 fWAR. That kind of production would have been a welcome addition to a Mets team that finished that year three games from a championship. Erstad’s presence in the late nineties and early aughts would also have helped stabilize a fluid Mets outfield that included players like Butch Huskey, Brian McRae, Darryl Hamilton, Jay Payton, Derek Bell, and Timo Perez.
7. Scott Erickson, 1986
Erickson wasn’t a great pitcher, but a valuable one to be sure. In his 15-year major league career, the righty made 30 starts eight different times and threw 200 innings seven times. In fact, during the decade of the nineties, only nine pitchers threw more innings than did Erickson. The starter’s best years were from 1991 to 1998, when he averaged a 13-12 record with a 4.29 ERA (94 ERA-), a 4.10 FIP (92 FIP-), 119 strikeouts, and 3.4 fWAR in 208.2 innings per season for the Twins and Orioles. The Mets, who originally selected the California native out of high school in the 36th round of the 1986 draft, were a bad team for most of those years. Still, they could have benefited from another solid rotation arm on their competitive teams of the late nineties. The Mets were actually the first of three teams to draft Erickson without signing him before he agreed to a contract with the Twins in 1989.
6. Burt Hooton, 1968
Hooton, like Erickson, was a productive pitcher who avoided playing on some brutal Mets teams. The Mets selected Hooten out of a Texas high school in the fifth round of the 1968 draft, after which the right-hander opted for college, reentered the draft in 1971, and signed with the Cubs. After a few strong years in Chicago, Hooton made a name for himself on the great Dodgers teams of the late seventies and early eighties. One of the more underrated pitchers of the seventies, Hooton went 13-11 with a 3.18 ERA (87 ERA-), a 3.24 FIP (88 FIP-), 121 strikeouts, and 3.7 fWAR in 211.2 innings per year, on average, from 1972 to 1981. While he wouldn’t have turned any of the losing Mets teams of that era into playoff contenders, Hooton could have seriously bolstered the competitive Mets teams of the early-to-mid-seventies.
5. Matt Williams, 1983
Williams, a 27th-round high school draftee from Nevada, chose college over the Mets in 1983. Three years later, the Giants drafted and signed Williams in the first round, and the third baseman went on to a prodigious career in San Francisco. During the decade of the nineties, Williams hit .278/.326/.508 (118 wRC+), and averaged 30 home runs, 96 RBIs, 77 runs scored, and 4.0 fWAR per year, while providing excellent defense that resulted in four Gold Gloves. The Mets had strong third basemen in Howard Johnson and Robin Ventura during the franchise’s winning years in the nineties, so Williams may not have been a huge difference maker on those teams. Still, being the 10th-most prolific home run hitter of the decade would have certainly put Williams among the best offensive players in Mets history.
4. Ron Cey, 1966
Cey and Williams were similar players: third basemen with big power and good gloves early in their careers. The Mets drafted Cey out of high school in Washington in the 19th round of the 1966 draft. After opting for college, Cey was drafted and signed by the Dodgers two years later and became a mainstay in LA’s lineup for a decade. From 1973 to 1982, the third baseman hit .264/.359/.446 (127 wRC+), and averaged 23 homers, 84 RBIs, 71 runs scored, and 5.0 fWAR per year. Like Hooton, Cey didn’t miss a whole lot of competitive Mets baseball, but could have provided the winning Mets teams of the early-to-mid-seventies some offensive firepower.
3. John Olerud, 1986
A familiar face to Mets fans, Olerud first caught the team’s interest in 1986. That year, the Mets selected the Washington native out of high school in the 27th round of the draft. Olerud opted for college, however, and signed with the Blue Jays three years later. One of the more underrated players in baseball history, the first baseman hit .305/.411/.484 (137 wRC+), while averaging 18 home runs, 86 RBIs, 82 runs scored, and 4.6 fWAR per year for the Blue Jays, Mets, and Mariners from 1992 to 2002.
Olerud complemented his excellent offense with historically good defense at first base, ranking fourth all time in TZ at the position and winning three Gold Gloves. The first of Olerud’s two best seasons—1993, when he hit .363/.473/.599 (179 wRC+) with 8.1 fWAR—and the rest of his early success came when the Mets were not a good team. Fortunately, the Mets brought Olerud to Queens for the 1997 to 1999 seasons, when they were quite good. The middle of those three seasons was Olerud’s best in New York, as the first baseman hit an outstanding .354/.447/.551 (167 wRC+) with 8.1 fWAR. In the end, Olerud’s decision to forego the Mets in favor of college and the Blue Jays worked out for him: Not only did he win two championships in Toronto, but he then went on to have a great three years and experience a 1999 playoff run in New York.
2. Rafael Palmeiro, 1982
Palmeiro was Olerud’s contemporary at first base and one of the game’s premier offensive players for over a decade. The Mets originally selected Palmeiro in the eighth round of the 1982 draft. Rather than sign with New York, however, Palmeiro pursued a college career at Mississippi State and was later drafted by the Cubs in the first round in 1985. After starting his career in Chicago, Palmeiro made his name in Texas and Baltimore, where he hit .292/.377/.538 (135 wRC+), and averaged 35 home runs, 109 RBIs, 97 runs scored, and 4.6 fWAR a year from 1990 to 2003. His 569 home runs and 1,835 RBIs both rank in the top 20 of all time, and the first baseman is one of 30 members of the 3,000-hit club. Had it not been for a failed PED test late in his career, Palmeiro would have almost certainly been a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The Mets got strong play at first base from the likes of Keith Hernandez, Dave Magadan, John Olerud, and even Todd Zeile during the team’s winning seasons that overlapped with Palmeiro’s career. That said, none of those players had Palmeiro’s offensive firepower, and it’s interesting to think how differently Mets history from the late eighties to potentially the early aughts would have played out with a generational talent like Palmeiro.
1. Roger Clemens, 1981
Clemens had a long and contentious history with the Mets, from their battles in the 1986 World Series to Clemens’s feud with Mike Piazza in 2000. What many don’t realize is how close Clemens came to actually pitching for the Mets. In 1981, the team selected Clemens in the 12th round of the draft out of San Jacinto College. As the story goes, Clemens wanted $25,000, but the Mets were only willing to commit $15,000, so the righty transferred to the University of Texas and played two more years of college ball there. The Red Sox drafted and signed him in the first round in 1983, and Clemens went on to become one of the best pitchers in major league history. The seven-time Cy Young Award winner amassed 354 wins and 4,672 strikeouts while pitching to a 3.12 ERA (70 ERA-) and a 3.09 FIP (71 FIP-) over a 24-year career. Although PED allegations tarnished some of that career, Clemens was a superstar by the mid-eighties, and there’s no question that his presence would have altered the course of Mets history.