On December 12, 2000, David Wright was eight days from turning 18, and, though no one would know it for seven months, he had just become a member of the team he grew up rooting for.
The Mets, then married to an archaic belief in spending moderately large sums of money to field competitive teams, had just lost a bidding war for the services of team ace Mike Hampton. The organization had acquired Hampton the year before in a trade, knowing it was going to be costly to retain his services beyond 2000. This proved accurate: Hampton infamously picked the Colorado Rockies over the Mets, citing the impressive schools in the Denver area as his primary motivation. That statement elicited groans from all in attendance and made Hampton a villain to Mets fans for years to come. It shouldn’t have; Hampton had only 2.6 bWAR left in the tank, and the Mets, as per the terms of the old Collective Bargaining Agreement, received two compensation picks in the following summer’s amateur draft—picks number 18 and 38. Number 38 was used to draft Wright.
Of course, you could also argue that the sequence of events that resulted in Wright getting drafted dates back even further, perhaps back to May 22, 1998. The Mets, desperate for a catcher to replace the likes of Tim Spehr, Rick Wilkins, and Alberto Castillo while Todd Hundley rehabbed from Tommy John surgery, traded for Hall of Famer Mike Piazza. This acquisition and the subsequent signing of Piazza to a long-term deal made Hundley expendable, and he was traded, along with the immortal Arnie Gooch, in a three-way trade that netted the team Armando Benitez and Roger Cedeno, the latter of whom became a co-centerpiece in the trade for Hampton before the 2000 season.
Likewise, you could trace Wright through Hundley back to the July 27, 1980 signing of minor league free agent Terry Leach, a full two years before Wright was born. Or you could trace Wright back through the Gooch, as Ben Lindbergh did, all the way back to June 6, 1967, when the team drafted future Rookie of the Year and three-time All-Star Jon Matlack. Butterfly wings and hurricanes.
Wright grew up in the Norfolk, Virginia, area a Mets fan thanks to the longtime presence of the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate, the Tides. Far from a traditional baseball hotbed, the area produced a staggering number of first-round talents between 1997 and 2005, including Michael Cuddyer (ninth overall in 1997), Wright (38th in 2001), Melvin Upton, Jr. (second overall in 2002), Justin Upton (first overall in 2004), Bill Bray (13th overall in 2004) and Ryan Zimmerman (fourth overall in 2005), not to mention other players such as Mark Reynolds and Josh Rupe. While the two pitchers were not big successes, it is amazing how successful the position players were. Cuddyer and Zimmerman are two-time All-Stars, Justin Upton has four All-Star appearances, and although Melvin Upton and Reynolds have never been All-Stars, they have been long-time solid regulars, with the former earning nearly $90 million in his career and the latter hitting nearly 300 home runs to date.
That talent windfall came courtesy of two Amateur Athletic Union programs that were largely the brainchild of Marvin “Towny” Townsend, a former minor leaguer in the Red Sox organization and coach at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk. Using the same brand of logic that led Patches O’Houlihan to proclaim that if you could dodge traffic you could dodge a ball, Townsend reasoned that hitters who were trained to hit the plastic lids of coffee cans and Cool Whip containers would prove much more adept at hitting the comparatively larger baseballs. Townsend aggressively scouted and recruited elementary school students and would spend hours upon hours flipping these plastic lids at them from all angles to hit. Wright would later remark that he never thought twice about this; not knowing any better, he just assumed that this was how everyone learned to hit. It was not.
What was interesting about these Norfolk-area success stories was what they all shared in common at the time of their signing: exceptionally quick bats with fantastic hand-eye coordination and advanced feels for hitting. Cuddyer, Wright, the Uptons, and Zimmerman were almost unanimously considered the most refined hitters in their age groups of their respective draft classes. The players would later credit Townsend’s techniques. After Cuddyer lept to the top ten of the 1997 draft, Townsend’s pupils began to draw a lot of attention from the scouting community, which certainly benefited David Wright.
In retrospect, it seems incredible that 37 players were drafted before Wright’s name was called on draft day in 2001. In one way, it was kind of incredible at the time also, but in a completely different way, it was exactly what was expected. Paradoxes abound in the Rule 4 draft; they’re so at home, they’ve left a permanent imprint on the couch, so deep you can’t sit without sinking in.
Of those 37 players, 14 never reached the majors, nine more accumulated less than 1.0 bWAR, and all but five (Joe Mauer, Mark Teixeira, Mark Prior, Gavin Floyd, and Noah Lowry) finished with less than 10.0 bWAR. And yet, evaluators couldn’t spew enough praise about David Wright. It was clear he was a scout’s favorite. Many called him the best high school bat in the draft, and somehow 27 different teams (including the Mets) passed on Wright at least once. Signability should not have been a strong deterrent—though he was committed to Georgia Tech to replace Teixeira at third base, he was considered signable before the 50th pick and ultimately signed for $1.5 million.
Evaluators are curious animals. At the bottom of the draft, they become self-promoters, each claiming their finds are the ones worth buying low on. When little’s on the line, no one’s at risk of losing their jobs. But at the top of the draft, where it really matters, they start hedging their bets, prone to self-doubt. They talk to their peers and discover they don’t all share the same opinion. Consensus forms, which is the brontosaurus of evaluation: large and difficult for predators to take down, but lacking sharp teeth to sink into and render flesh. It has its advantages and disadvantages—it filters bias, good and bad.
Scouts will tell you that Wright was one hell of a hitter in high school. The obvious point of comparison was Cuddyer, who was drafted four years and 29 picks earlier, and most of them felt Wright was the superior hitter, with a smoother stroke and a really quick bat that produced tons of hard contact. He had significant raw power, particularly to his pull side. They absolutely loved his approach and felt his pitch recognition skills were top-notch relative to his age. He understood the strike zone.
Scouts were also charmed by Wright’s defense. Though there were refinements still to be made, Wright was a nimble and instinctive third baseman with smooth actions. His skill at charging bunts was apparent even then. His arm was not a cannon, but it was strong enough to make the throws he needed to make. The general feeling was that he was shoe-in to become an average defender at the position with the upside of a Gold Glover if more than the expected went according to plan. On the basepaths, he wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination a speed demon, but he was clearly attentive, intelligent, aggressive.
But Wright’s most endearing feature was not his bat or his glove but his attitude and enthusiasm for the game. It’s easy dismiss the psychological component as irrelevent or vague or undeterminable, but when charting a young man’s future, it’s important to have as strong an opinion as possible on his work ethic, self-confidence, and ability to work with superiors and peers alike. Young prospects will be challenged for the first times in their lives and will not have their old friends and family close at hand. Wright was more or less seen as an 80 makeup guy on the scouting scale; his work ethic and zeal were near legendary.
This same package of skills sent Cuddyer, Zimmerman, and the Uptons to the top 10 of their draft classes. So why the relative coolness towards Wright? Though far from a poor athlete, Wright did not have enough lateral speed to place him in the middle infield, and he also lacked the prototypical size of a corner infielder. Standing just six feet and 190 pounds, Wright didn’t have the long limbs to provide easy extension on his swing, suggesting that he might lack prower projection on pitches away. There was a genuine concern that Wright might be a tweener, possessing not enough speed for the defense-heavy side of the defensive spectrum and not enough pop to fit on the bat-heavy side, especially in 2001, when lineups regularly featured the likes of Troy Glaus, Chipper Jones, Tony Batista, Aramis Ramirez, Vinny Castilla, Phil Nevin, and Scott Rolen at the hot corner. Plus power wasn’t just a luxury; it was practically a requirement. And should he ever need to move to first base as he got older? Forget it. Baseball America wrote in their draft profile of Wright that if he were just a little taller, he’d go in the top 10 picks.
Of course, this concern was silly. What this ignored was Wright’s already-present ability to drive the ball to all fields and very significant pull-side power. In fact, scouts had witnessed Wright hit a 400-plus-foot homer to dead center at the AAU championship in 1999. In addition to that, while many third basemen did have 30-homer power, there were other good ones who didn’t, like Jeff Cirillo, Joe Randa, and Corey Koskie. You could make up for power shortfalls in other ways. As I said, consensus is tough to conquer, and the industry consensus was that third basemen had to be six-two or taller, and Wright was too short, despite the fact that most scouts, if pressed, would have bet on Wright to exceed expectations. As I said, silly, but these things happen. It’s why Mike Trout gets picked 25th despite nobody having a criticism about his game without similarly shaky foundations.
And those are the ones that bug you when you evaluate players. I couldn’t have been more wrong about Trevor Story, a guy I hated in 2011 and wrote off due to jittery infield actions and a swing that was a four-miles-long dirt road. Great player, and I completely whiffed, and that does not bother me an iota. But I really loved Corey Seager and let the fact that the rest of the world was worried that he was too big for shortstop push him down a few slots on my list in 2012. That drives me nuts. And I bet a lot of folks were driven nuts because they slated Wright as a guy who should go between 30 and 50 instead of the top ten grade they really wanted to give him.
Wright’s minor league career got off to a fast start: the Mets immediately sent him to Kingsport, where he batted .300/.391/.458 with four homers and nine steals in ten attempts. After the season, Baseball America named Wright the Mets’ fifth-best prospect behind 18th overall pick Aaron Heilman, Jose Reyes, Pat Strange, and Jae-Weong Seo, and just ahead of Japanese import Satoru Komiyama. They also named him the ninth-best prospect in the Appalachian League. Current Phillies scouting director Johnny Almaraz noted Wright’s “tremendous instincts at third base” and “very good approach at the plate, especially with pitch recognition,” while the publication itself suggested Wright could hit for power and average down the road.
The Mets promoted Wright to the South Atlantic League, sending him to Capital City for 2002. After a slow start—he hit .235 in April—Wright rebounded a little to share the team lead in home runs with Justin Huber (11), while demonstrating great plate discipline, smart baserunning, and very good defense at third. While the batting line of .266/.367/.401 might not have looked like much, they were outstanding numbers for a 19 year old getting his first taste of full-season ball. After the season, Baseball America named Wright the fourth-best prospect in the organization (behind Reyes, Scott Kazmir, and Heilman), tenth-best in the SAL, and 75th-best in baseball. Again, Wright’s maturity and makeup were impressing people, with coach Tony Tijerina calling him a “19-year-old kid going on 30.”
Although there were plenty of encouraging signs in Wright’s performance to this point, especially once you considered his age, it wasn’t until late in 2003 that the light turned on for Wright, and his bat exploded. In the end, it was something more obvious than anyone would have figured.
Wright finished the season at St. Lucie hitting .270/.369/.459 with 15 home runs, 39 doubles, and 19 steals, a nice season for anyone in the Florida State League. But two months before the end of the season, the Mets were shocked Wright wasn’t setting the league on fire. His average was sitting in the .240’s, but what was dumbfounding was how he was doing it: he was batting more than a hundred points better on the road than at home. Manager Ken Oberkfell and some other members of the Mets brass called Wright into the office and asked him why he thought that might be. He hadn’t the foggiest. They asked him if his routine was different on the road. A little, he conceded. Further investigation revealed Wright was taking four or five hours of batting practice before every home game; it was shocking he could move his arms at game time. The Mets told him to quit it. He did, and he batted .323 the rest of the way. The Mets sent him to the AFL after the season, and he continued his strong hitting. His power was coming along nicely, he was still drawing rave reviews for his approach, defense, and baserunning, and the Mets were learning exactly what kind of worker this David Wright kid was. He was primed for a breakout.
Baseball America moved Wright up their top prospects list all the way to 21st in baseball, second on the Mets (after Kazmir), and tenth in a strong FSL. ESPN’s John Sickels, long a strong supporter of Wright’s, named him the ninth-best position player prospect in the game after placing him 26th before the season. The only apparent flaw in his game was a lack of success against right-handed pitching, but, overall, Wright was looking like a blue-chipper.
The following season, the Mets started Wright in Double-A. Wright absolutely dominated, batting .363/.467/.619, and the Mets promoted him at mid-season. He needed just 31 more games of seasoning at Norfolk—in a way, it was a shame he didn’t get more time to play for his his hometown, but I don’t think he much minded—before he was promoted to the big leagues. He hit .293/.332/.525 in his rookie season and would continue playing like a Hall of Famer for the next 10 years. He appeared in three postseasons and one World Series, and I maintain he was robbed of an MVP in 2007. The most successful position player the Mets have ever drafted, and it’s a shame that spinal stenosis has robbed his fans from seeing his career to its completion. But what they’ve seen has been plenty memorable.