Your Daily Fantasy Rx
by Tim Polko
Hiring Art Howe is a strong step towards returning to playoff contention since his track record suggests an ability to convert promising minor league talent into successful major leaguers. Of the Mets' prospect discussions that I've seen, most everyone focuses on the upside of the potentially elite quintet of Jose Reyes, Justin Huber, David Wright, Aaron Heilman, and Scott Kazmir. While all five could develop into stars, only Heilman seems likely to contribute in 2003, and the others could be two or more years from reaching the majors. Most speculation involves Edgardo Alfonzo leaving New York because the Mets don't realize he's their third best player, and likely losing Steve Trachsel, Steve Reed, and Mark Guthrie will leave the pitching staff without much established depth.
Fortunately New York possesses a rather impressive group of sophomores and rookies with bright immediate futures in the majors. John Thomson should continue developing into a very capable #3 starter behind Al Leiter and Pedro Astacio, and Jason Middlebrook looked fantastic towards the end of the year, likely earning strong consideration as the #4 starter. Tyler Walker, Pat Strange, Mike Bacsik, and Heilman should compete for the #5 spot, so I'd like to see New York avoid bringing in any free agents since this team looks at the beginning of a rebuilding cycle. Adding a Glavine or Maddux won't hurt, but their younger pitchers deserve a chance.
Perhaps more importantly, a few of these decent younger starters without great dominance could emerge as excellent relievers. New York already possesses a rather decent group of short relievers in Armando Benitez, Scott Strickland, Dave Weathers, and Jaime Cerda, and while signing a lefty to replace Guthrie is a decent idea, Heath Bell, Jim Serrano, and others like Pat Strange give the Mets several intriguing right-handed long relief options.
The offensive situation is more complicated due to the contracts of Mike Piazza, Roberto Alomar, Mo Vaughn, Rey Ordonez, Jeromy Burnitz, and Roger Cedeno. Steve Phillips' first priority must be dealing Rey Ordonez to anyone, even including a solid pitching prospect if necessary. Then he can use Ordonez's salary to meet Alfonzo's reported demand of $32M/4 year, an extremely reasonable suggestion given his overall offensive production; Alfonzo's fully capable of playing shortstop, and can team with Alomar to provide significant production from the middle infield. Either Ty Wigginton or Marco Scutaro can play third, giving them about average production at the position for minimum salary. While they should try to move Mo Vaughn to the loser of the Jim Thome derby between Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Boston, New York would need to find a replacement, and Vaughn didn't have an awful season. A lineup of Alfonzo, Alomar, Piazza, and Vaughn still offers a lot of potential, and completing the team with Burnitz, Cedeno, Timo Perez, and Wigginton/Scutaro isn't a horrible idea. However I also think Phillips needs to explore moving Burnitz to free payroll for a more significant offensive addition. I've seen rumors involving Cliff Floyd to the Mets for a couple of months, and he'd provide a necessary offensive boost. New York should offer Burnitz and a relief prospect like P.J. Bevis to San Diego for Bubba Trammell and Kevin Jarvis; the Mets can also supply the $3M or so in cash needed to cover the difference in salaries. The Padres need an established offensive bat to match with Klesko and Nevin while their youngsters develop, Trammell offers solid right-handed power in right field, and Jarvis can cover the 5th starter slot for a couple of months, giving the youngsters more time to mature. This scenario leaves the Mets with a lineup of Alfonzo, Alomar, Floyd, Piazza, Vaughn, Trammell, Cedeno or Timo Perez, and Wigginton or Scutaro, which provides much more offense, slightly improved defense, and better balance throughout the order.
While I'm not sure if the Mets will contend for another year or two, they possess both enough depth and sufficient elite prospects to make another strong playoff push while Mike Piazza remains catching. Keeping Alfonzo and Alomar in New York for the next few years is vitally important to this plan, of course the Mets could choose to rebuild around the prospects, willingly moving Piazza to first base and using Alomar and others to secure premiere centerfield and second base prospects. I doubt many people realize that the Mets still hold significant advantages in both personnel and financial resources over nearly every other franchise, and with the proper guidance, this team could post a better record this decade than the Yankees.
Marco Scutaro, 27, 2B-R
Neither Cleveland nor Milwaukee realized Scutaro's upside, so naturally New York promoted him to the majors when he's striking out more often than in any of his other four seasons at AAA. He doesn't possess much power potential, but he owns some speed and normally excellent on-base ability. If he beats out Wigginton for a starting job, he'll give New York a decent offensive player for the bottom of the lineup, although he'll only break double-digits based on a solid batting average.
Ty Wigginton, 25, 3B-R
Wigginton earned his promotion by rapidly developing plate discipline in his second AAA season. He's possessed good power throughout his career, and now he's probably the favorite to start at third base for New York in 2003. As he compiled a very solid .880 OPS while not quite losing his rookie eligibility, consider Wigginton a solid sleeper for Rookie of the Year. He's worth a couple of bucks even as a backup considering the Mets' potential injury problems.
Aaron Heilman, 23, RH Starter
After they selected Heilman out of Notre Dame with the 18th overall pick in 2001, New York let him debut in the Florida State League before moving him quickly up the ladder, letting him split his first full season between the two highest rungs of the Mets' minor league ladder. With a 35:16 K:BB in 49.1 IP over 7 GS with 42 H and 3 HR at Norfolk, Heilman appears practically ready for the majors now. However I'd rather seem him spend the first two months of the year in AAA to finish refining his skills before dominating for the final four months of the season. Heilman may rank first among pitching prospects likely to begin 2003 in the minors due to his combination of tools, skills, health, projectability, and opportunity.
Virgil Chevalier, 29, C/1B/3B/OF-R
Despite good offense and the ability to play every position except middle infield, Chevallier, who turns 29 today, hasn't even managed 35 games at AAA in his 8-year career. Of course he only left Boston prior to 2002, but his excellent plate discipline and overall solid production still appear somewhat surprising. If given a shot in the majors, I'd be shocked if he hurt any fantasy owners, and he'd probably help if he qualified at catcher.
Raul Gonzalez, 28, OF-R
New York acquired him as one of the two PTBNLs in the Estes deal, and he should remain in the majors in 2003 as one of their reserve outfielders. His minor league numbers indicate he possesses excellent plate discipline, and he also owns the power and speed potential that defines a valuable bench player. I wouldn't expect an overly impressive performance from Gonzalez next season, but he offers intriguing upside for a player who'll be available at the end of every draft.
Jason L. Phillips, 26, C-R
He would have spent most of the year in the majors, likely as the starter, in almost any other organization, but with New York he's stuck behind a Hall of Fame starter and a capable backup, and now Justin Huber will start pushing him at AA. Phillips' defensive ability ranks with the best catchers in the minors, and considering he's now developed both decent plate discipline and good power potential, New York must either force Piazza to change positions or deal Phillips to one of the two dozen catcher-needy teams. Keeping both backstops is just ridiculously greedy. He's an excellent roto pick even as a backup, so look to roster him as soon as he finds a stable role in the majors, and bid at least a few bucks if he winds up starting anywhere.
Jose Reyes, 19, SS-R
You might expect the 29 errors in 124 games at shortstop, however the 30:35 BB:K in 288 at-bats at St. Lucie were surprising. A 71% SB success rate is pretty good at this stage of his development, and while the Mets must leave him at AA for another couple of months, he easily ranks with the best prospects in baseball as he's two-to-three years young for his current level. I expect the Mets to rush him slightly to insure he can replace Rey Ordonez beginning next November, so while he won't earn more than a couple bucks during the season, Reyes could break $20 and challenge for the 2004 Rookie of the Year thanks to his great speed.
Oscar Salazar, 24, 2B-R
Salazar still hasn't mastered AA after three seasons, and he appears more likely to mature as a AAAA player than to develop into a productive regular. Detroit claimed him on waivers from Oakland, New York claimed on him waivers from Detroit, and then the Mets successfully DFA'd him, so we really don't know where he'll spend 2003. However he's unlikely to break a .700 OPS if forced to AAA again, so hopefully he can find a stable AA job and concentrate on his hitting while only playing one or two positions.
Esix Snead, 26, OF-S
Heath Bell, 25, RH Reliever
The Mets grabbed Bell as a nondrafted free agent, and after five years in the minors, he owns career skills ratios at 4.0 K:BB, 10.1 K/9, .8 HR/9, and an 8.2 HR/9. He returned to AA to begin this year because he gave up 13 homers in 61.1 AA innings in 2001, however he certainly dispelled any worries the Mets might have harbored. Bell likely needs a few months more in AAA before a post-All-Star call-up, but he deserves a spot on the 40-man roster and should allow the Mets to deal an expensive setup man. Feel free to roster Bell once he's posting good skills in the majors.
Pedro Feliciano, 26, LH Reliever
Feliciano continues to demonstrate solid all-around pitching skills, so I see no reason for him not to spend next year in someone's bullpen. Detroit claimed him off waivers from the Mets in mid-October, but the Tigers already own several solid lefty relievers who need major league time. Wait until Feliciano's established in the majors before considering him for your team.
Doug Nickle, 28, RH Reliever
Between Nickle's struggles in the majors, his merely adequate command, and his horrible dominance in the minors, I see why he's with his third organization in the last three months. While I still like his upside, there's no reason to roster him until he posts solid skills in the majors.
Jae Seo, 25, RH Starter
Like all the Mets' AAA starting prospects, Seo didn't manage a great strikeout rate at Norfolk, however he did post a great 1.5 BB/9. At least he pitched all but one game at AAA, but Seo no longer seems like a great starting prospect. Of course I'm also concerned because he'd only pitched 187 professional innings over the last four years, so Seo's still building his arm strength. You should probably avoid him until he demonstrates good skills in a consistent role in the majors.
Jim Serrano, 26, RH Reliever
New York acquired both Serrano and Jason Bay from Montreal for Lou Collier in one of the more explicit heists of the year. Serrano deserves a very long look in Spring Training after continuing to display excellent dominance and command while rising up the minor league ladder. He definitely appears able to help teams in need of a good middle reliever, so feel free to roster him as soon as he's earned a regular role.
Pat Strange, 22, RH Starter
He essentially repeated his 2001 season stat line while rising one level in the system. Strange is surprisingly young, but he still needs more development time if New York wants him to start. While not a credible draft pick, he might help if given a midseason promotion after displaying above average AAA stats.
Tyler Walker, 26, RH Starter
I almost listed Walker under double-digit upside but I don't expect he'll receive an extended look in the rotation next year. His dominance is also below desirable levels, so I wouldn't be surprised if he returned to a role nearer to his roots as a college closer. Walker's current upside indicates he deserves to compete for the fifth starter's job or at least remain at AAA for another year, however I see nothing that indicates you need to draft him.
Jeff Duncan, 23, OF-L
New York selected Duncan out of Arizona State in the 7th round in 2000, and he demonstrated solid plate patience and decent speed the last two years without showing any skills that required advancement beyond A-ball. Then he exploded to post some of the strongest averages in baseball this year, however he also missed half the year due to injuries and general sickness, and he's also a couple years old for his leagues. Of course, if he somehow maintains this performance in AA in 2003, he'll rank among the most impressive outfield prospects in the game, and posting a 24:15 BB:K in 102 A+ at-bats is a good sign. I admit Duncan may be the riskiest draft pick I'll advise you to select, and I can't imagine a league where the depth requires reaching down to the end of a prospect list. Nevertheless, Duncan probably will slide onto the very end of my rankings next spring as someone worth watching very closely in the near future.
Justin Huber, 20, C-R
I agree that Huber's a competent defensive catcher with good patience and excellent power potential, however his unimpressive .77 contact rate keeps me from actively promoting him as a good draft pick. Huber should spend most of 2003 in the Florida State League after only seeing 100 at-bats with St. Lucie this year, and by the time he spends two more years mastering the upper levels of the system, New York should have an opening at catcher. While he's currently good trade bait, I don't expect great success from him next season, so unless you're drafting a team for 2006, Huber should rank very low on your list.
David Wright, 19, 3B-R
New York selected Wright with the 38th overall pick of the 2001 draft, and he immediately established himself as one of the better high school hitters. He shows excellent five-tool potential and could man the hot corner in Shea for many years. However he didn't even reach A+ this year, so like Justin Huber, Wright's a good three years from the majors. While I really like his .15 walk rate, a .77 contact rate suggests you can easily wait another year before drafting him, and you shouldn't mind if someone else picks him before you can.
Scott Kazmir, 18, LH Starter
Kazmir owns perhaps more risk and more upside than any other potential draft pick. As a high school lefty, there's no reason to expect him to contribute in the majors before 2008 at the earliest, but he also owns two plus-plus pitches, giving him the opportunity to advance quickly. Only draft him in the deepest of leagues due to the general uncertainty regarding his placement next year, although I wouldn't be shocked to see him dominating in AA by the end of next season.
Ron Acuna, 23, AA Binghamton(EL) OF-R
Steve Bennett, 26, A+ St. Lucie(FSL) RH Reliever
1. Minnesota Twins(M.Cuddyer, M.Restovich, T.Sears, L.Ford, J.Mauer, J.Morneau)
As we're attending the AFL Symposium this weekend, we will be unable to reply to e-mail until later next week. However we will continue posting new columns every day, and I expect to complete these prospect reviews before spending several days discussing news and notes from Arizona.
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