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By J.J. Cooper
Baseball America's Top 10 Prospects lists are based on projections of a player's long-term worth after discussions with scouting and player-development personnel. All players who haven't exceeded the major league rookie standards of 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched (without regard to service time) are eligible. Ages are as of April 1, 2004.
When the most successful team in baseball sits a subway ride away, itís never easy to accept that itís time to rebuild. So before the 2003 season began, the Mets tried to erase the nightmare of 2002 with another plunge into free agency.
But neither the signings of Cliff Floyd, Tom Glavine, Rey Sanchez and Mike Stanton, nor the addition of new manager Art Howe did much to turn around the club. The Mets once again were an ill-conceived, underachieving club, and injury problems only made matters worse. New York finished 66-95, 91/2 games behind its 2002 mark and its worst record in a decade.
General manager Steve Phillips finally lost his job on June 12, and was replaced by senior assistant GM/farm director Jim Duquette. Duquette, who didnít have the ďinterimĒ tag removed from his GM title until Oct. 28, immediately realized the Mets werenít going to challenge for a playoff spot. So for the first time in recent history, the franchise focused on building through its farm system.
Righthander Jae Weong Seo and third baseman Ty Wigginton made the Opening Day roster, and catcher/first baseman Jason Phillips came up in May when Mike Piazza got hurt. Shortstop Jose Reyes, the teamís top prospect, had been promoted two days before Phillips was dismissed. After Duquette took over, the Mets gave auditions to righthanders Jeremy Griffiths and Aaron Heilman, second baseman Danny Garcia, and outfielders Jeff Duncan and Prentice Redman.
Duquette also tried to bolster the farm system by dumping veterans for youngsters. Roberto Alomar, Armando Benitez, Jeromy Burnitz, Graeme Lloyd and Sanchez were dispatched for a total of 11 prospects, most notably second baseman Victor Diaz and righthander relievers Kole Strayhorn and Joselo Diaz (from the Dodgers for Burnitz) and lefty reliever Royce Ring (from the White Sox for Alomar).
The Mets donít have as many farmhands who will be ready to contribute in 2004, but their system has more depth than it has had recently. New York has done a nice job with its first-round picks, including righthander Bob Keppel and third baseman David Wright (both 2000), Heilman (2001), lefthander Scott Kazmir (2002) and outfielder Lastings Milledge (2003).
Kazmir, Matt Peterson and Keppel project to front New Yorkís rotation of the future. Milledge, Reyes and Wright could form the top of the lineup. Phillips isnít the only candidate to succeed Piazza behind the plate, as Justin Huber and Mike Jacobs, who emerged with a breakout year at Double-A Binghamton, give the Mets two more offensive-minded catchers. The systemís biggest weakness is in the outfield, though Milledge has exciting upside and that may be the ultimate destination for hard-hitting Craig Brazell.
Mets fans will have to be patient as their club goes through an overhaul. But they do have some young talent to bank on, and just as important, the team has a long-term plan in place rather than playing for only the immediate future.
Top Prospect: Scott Kazmir, LHP
Age: 20 Ht.: 6-0 Wt.: 170 Bats: L Throws: L
Background: Few pitchers created more buzz in 18 innings than Kazmir did at short-season Brooklyn in 2002. He allowed one run and five hits while striking out 34, confirming his status as the livest arm in that year's draft. He averaged two strikeouts an inning in high school and was BA's High School Player of the Year, yet he lasted 15 picks before the Mets took him. He wasn't even the first pitcher drafted out of Houston's Cypress Falls High in 2002, as the Expos took Clint Everts fifth overall. There were mild concerns about Kazmir's size and even more about his signability, though New York was able to sign him for a reasonable $2.15 millionóa club record. The Mets have been very careful with their prized arm, as Kazmir has yet to throw more than seven innings in any game. He averaged 4 1/3 innings per start in 2003 as the Mets held him to a 75-pitch limit for much of the season. He finished it in style, winning the clinching game in the high Class A Florida State League playoffs.
Strengths: Kazmir's 94-96 mph fastball ranks as one of the best in baseball and he throws it with a relatively easy motion. His 81-84 mph slider is also a well above-average pitch, and it has good tilt and a sharp break. It projects to get nastier in the future, because he should throw harder as he fills out. His fastball-slider combination can be unhittable, as Kazmir proved by easily leading minor league starters with 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings. Kazmir also shows a major league changeup at times.
Weaknesses: Kazmir wasn't very economical with his pitches to start the season, as he would often get up 0-2 on batters, then waste several pitches looking for a strikeout. If he's going to be a true No. 1 starter, he'll have to be able to work more efficiently. Some scouts wonder if Kazmir's build will lend itself to the durability needed for a starter, and he had a tender elbow at the start of the season. He must make his changeup more consistent, and his curveball needs a lot of refinement to become a big league pitch. He has to learn to take a little off his curve to differentiate it from his slider. Kazmir can also do a better job controlling the running game. He has a below-average pickoff move and sometimes fails to hold runners close at second base. He has made strides in reducing his leg kick without losing much velocity or control while pitching from the stretch.
The Future: Kazmir is the Mets' most promising pitching prospect since Dwight Gooden, though he's much less likely to go straight from Class A to the majors like Gooden did. While Kazmir finished the season in St. Lucie, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Mets started him off back in high Class A in 2004 to avoid the April chills in the Double-A Eastern League. Wherever he starts the season, expect him to spend most of the year in Binghamton. He could see Shea Stadium at some point in 2005.