Saturday, January 30, 2010

History Repeats Itself

Earlier today I read an article that got me thinking about Gregg Jefferies, and the strange place he holds in Mets lore.

One of the most-hyped minor league prospects in franchise history, my best memory of Jefferies comes from his card in the 1988 Strat-o-Matic baseball set - the first set I ever owned. He split time between second and third base while he got the 109 at-bats the card was built on - a tantalizing hint of what Mets fans hoped the future held for Jefferies.

(Strat nerd alert: here's a picture of Jefferies card for that season. Jefferies was a 45/50 with more than 40 points of hits against lefties and righties. A 3e8 at third base, Jefferies also had a *19 and 19 points of home runs v. lefties. In short, he was a switch-hitting Evan Longoria with speed.)

Suffice it to say, Jefferies never lived up to the promise of that first Strat card. He appeared in parts of five mostly uninspiring seasons in New York, perhaps more notable for the controversy that surrounded him than any on-field achievements.

The controversy was mostly generated within his own clubhouse. Jefferies was hated by a cadre of veteran Mets and there was a perception around the team that the young star was a baby who received preferential treatment because of the potential he had displayed in the minor leagues. Even an ardent Jefferies supporter would have to admit that he did himself no favors with his on-field histrionics - think of a 21-year-old Paul O'Neill without the track record and the aw-shucks attitude off the field.

What really resonated with me was a 1990 story about Jefferies in the New York Times, written during Spring Training before the season began. Jefferies had a terrible start to the 1989 season, earning extra attention from manager Davey Johnson and others in the organization. As it tends to do in such situations, jealousy reared its ugly head in the Mets' clubhouse.

Things got so grim that some of the Mets muttered that Jefferies was hurting the team, even though he hit .289 with 11 home runs in his second-half revival. Randy Myers, who has since been traded to Cincinnati, sniped at him by writing across the lineup card: ''Are we trying?'' And Roger McDowell, after he was traded to Philadelphia last June, taunted Jefferies from the mound during a game in September and touched off a fight.

I find myself struck by the idea of a player having the gall to deface the lineup card to taunt a struggling teammate, one who was clearly talented enough to become a superstar one day. It goes a long way toward explaining why Myers was traded for John Franco after the 1989 season - a trade that I never really understood before today.

I also found myself flashing back to the "Know Your Place Rook" fiasco between Billy Wagner and Lastings Milledge from a few years ago. The Mets chose Jefferies over Myers in 1989 - they chose Wagner over Milledge in 2007. History repeats itself.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Anti-Mets

John Sickels is a must-read for anyone interested in minor league baseball. He knows his stuff, plain and simple, and relies on both the numbers and his eyes when evaluating young talent.

For the past few weeks, Sickels has been grading the Top 20 prospects of every major league team. (His Mets analysis can be found here.) Today's focus was on the Tampa Bay Rays, a farm system with an enviable amount of blue chip prospects despite having already churned out potential superstars like Evan Longoria and David Price over the last two years.

The praise heaped upon the Rays' system is well-deserved, but the kicker was the dig taken at the Mets during Sickels's analysis.

Not just the amazing aggregation of talent at the top, but the way they run the system really impresses me. The Rays can pick good college guys with developed skills. They can pick raw high school guys and turn them into players. They have an effective Latin American operation. They don't push guys too fast: they are particularly conservative with the high school arms, letting them percolate enough at each level. They are the Anti-Mets in that regard, and it really seems to work for them.

Ouch. The Mets have developed a reputation for rushing their top prospects, especially under Tony Bernazard's regime. This strategy has yet to pay any particular dividends, and we may come to find that Daniel Murphy's career was actually derailed by not giving him more time to develop in Double-A or Triple-A last season.

The Mets (and a lot of their fans) seem to think that 200 solid at-bats or 50 good innings in the minor leagues are a sign that a player is ready to jump to the next level. I do not agree. Organized professional baseball exists in the form that it does because most players benefit from playing against at progressively more challenging levels. It's a true test of whether a player can be a successful major leaguer.

I am conservative in my approach to minor leaguers - I like to see a player succeed over the course of a full season in both Double-A and Triple-A before considering him for a spot on the big league roster. That's why Josh Thole belongs in Buffalo next season, not backing up Bengie Molina. Same goes for Jon Niese, Ike Davis and Fernando Martinez. Jenrry Mejia may have an electric arm, but he has made only 10 starts above A ball in his career. It would be a mistake of near-criminal proportions to throw him into the Mets' bullpen next season.

For every Dwight Gooden, who was ready to dominate major league hitters before his 20th birthday, there are 50 players who need to learn and improve their skills across multiple levels before reaching The Show. Patience isn't always popular, but when it comes to minor league prospects, it truly is a virtue.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Thoughts on Dawson and Alomar

The Narrowback and I were unable to get together for semi-annual pints over the Christmas holiday. This was a disappointing development, since I particularly enjoy drinking with the Narrowback. It's been over eight years since we last worked together, but the conversation still flows freely. The older I get, the more of a requirement that becomes for me when considering whether or not to spend time with someone.

Earlier this week, he asked my opinion about Andre Dawson's induction into the Hall of Fame, as well as Roberto Alomar's exclusion. Of course, I gave him my opinion.

Andre Dawson: not a Hall of Famer. I'm stealing the line from someone else, but the place is becoming the Hall of Very Good. Dawson was consistently a good player, but his only superstar year was 1987, because the wind was blowing out at Wrigley. His supporters pull out the 400 HRs/300 steals line. What they don't say is that he only hit over 30 homers three times and only stole over 30 bases three times (never in the same season). And don't give me the "OBP didn't matter back then" stuff. That argument tries to say that players swung at bad pitches in every at-bat because getting a hit was more important then helping your team.

Roberto Alomar: A Hall of Famer, but its no outrage that he wasn't a first ballot pick. Done as an effective player at Age 34, Alomar's credentials rest on an 11-season peak from 1991 to 2001. His first three years were only average to slightly above-average, and his last three years were dismal. He was a dominant player in between though, for just long enough to be considered with the immortals.

More importantly, though, when are more people going to realize that Tim Raines belongs in the Hall of Fame?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Getting Excited Again

I can't help it.

I know that the Mets have a mountain to climb before they can legitimately become a championship-caliber team. The pitching is still in shambles, the bottom of the order is a black hole and the front office hasn't gotten any more intelligent with the dawn of a new decade.

But I'm starting to get excited again.

The Jason Bay signing was a good first step. I think the average annual value was too high, but the Mets can afford to drop $2 million a year extra on a player if that's what it takes to convince him to play in the shadow of the Yankees.

The naysayers will tell you that Bay will age badly, that his defense will be atrocious and that he won't be able to conquer the National League's version of the Green Monster. I do not see it.

I love reading Tim Marchman's work and I respect his opinion, but I think he is dead wrong on Bay. (C'mon, Tim, ZIPS projections cannot be taken seriously - any player over 30 seems to have an automatic "statistical decline" factor embedded in its formula.) Time will tell, but I think that Bay will do fine as a clean-up hitter for the next four-plus years.

Today's analysis of the Mets' farm system from John Sickels was a hopeful sign that things are getting better on that front as well. Now look, no one will ever confuse New York's minor-league stable with that of the Texas Rangers, which boasts several different blue-chippers who can be All-Stars in 2010.

But the Mets have three players - Jenrry Mejia, Wilmer Flores and Fernando Martinez - who Sickels rates as potential stars. Each needs at least one more year of seasoning - don't rush Mejia next season!! - but after several years of lacking suitable minor league options, help may finally be on the way. The depth is still wanting, but it's going to require a philosophical change in the front office before Adam Wogan can develop a farm system as promising as any in baseball.

There is still a lot more to do. The Mets need to sign two starters (one of which should be Ben Sheets or Erik Bedard). They need to sign every minor-league free agent reliever imaginable and throw them into a competition for three or four spots in the 2010 bullpen. Someone needs to catch - and it shouldn't be Josh Thole or Bengie Molina. They need to pawn Luis Castillo off on someone and sign Orlando Hudson to play second base.

As constructed, the New York Mets are no better than an 85-win team in 2010. Frankly, I think that is a kind estimate. But Bay is the first step in the right direction. I absolutely hate the idea of building the rest of this team through free agency, but the Mets are in a unique position to sign two or three quality players without guaranteeing more than two years to any of them.

If they can get Sheets and Hudson ... and if they can resist over-committing to Molina ... and if they don't rush their best prospects ... maybe, just maybe ...

Monday, January 4, 2010

Joe Morgan

One of my favorite players growing up was Joe Morgan, the Hall of Fame second baseman who reinvented himself as a curmudgeonly baseball announcer after his playing days were over. My affinity for Morgan was forged almost exclusively from an appearance on The Baseball Bunch in 1983, one season before he would retire from the game.

Morgan went into the Hall of Fame in 1990, garnering nearly 82 percent of the vote. To me, Morgan is an "inner-circle" Hall of Famer - a player who was so good that he was elected the first year he was placed on the ballot.

That’s why I so surprised to find that, except for a six-year period from 1972 to 1977, Joe Morgan was not a particularly good offensive player.

Morgan’s peak – a six-year period during which the Reds won two World Series and X National League pennants – set the tone for the legacy by which he is still remembered today. To say that Morgan was merely the best player in baseball during that time is an understatement. (The great Joe Posnanski has more about Morgan’s mid-1970s dominance here.)

However, Morgan actually played in parts of 22 seasons, beginning in 1963 and ending in 1984. The first part of his career was spent in Houston, where he broke in at the age of 19. Morgan’s first full season was in 1965 when, at the age of 21, he began a string of three straight seasons with an OPS+ of 130 or higher. Stardom beckoned, but something went wrong in 1968, where what I presume was an injury kept him out of action for all but 10 games that year.

Morgan seemed to stagnate in the three seasons that followed, putting up a seasonal OPS+ of 109, 113 and 116. He was an above-average player each year, but he was not fulfilling the promise that his Age 21 to 23 seasons suggested.

That changed when Morgan was traded to the Reds in 1972, and began his six-year run of excellence that Posnanski can speak to better than I can. Morgan’s decline began in 1978, his second-to-last season with Cincinnati, with a .250 batting average and a 105 OPS+ that signaled
his best days were behind him. Except for a brief rejuvenation in 1982 with San Francisco, Morgan never again approached the lofty heights of his first six years in Cincinnati (or even his three best years in Houston).

In all, Joe Morgan was an incredible baseball player for 6 years – and a slightly above average player for the 0ther 16 seasons he played.

Slash Stats
Morgan (1972-77): .301/.429/.495
Morgan (1963-71; 1978-84): .256/.373/.392

Morgan (6 seasons): 167 2B, 26 3B, 130 HR, 359 SB, 709 BB
Morgan (16 seasons): 282 2B, 70 3B, 138HR, 330 SB, 1,156 BB